Season of Discontent

Unrest in Kashmir reveals the failures of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party

Three people were killed on 12 April after security forces fired on protestors demonstrating against the alleged molestation of a girl by a soldier. tauseef mustafa / afp / getty images
01 June, 2016

On 12 April, word spread in Kashmir that a soldier of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles battalion had molested a 16-year-old girl outside a public toilet in Handwara, a town in the north of the valley. The news sparked protests in the town, and the army fired at agitators, killing a middle-aged woman and two young men, one of whom was a promising cricketer.

Mehbooba Mufti, of the Peoples Democratic Party, or PDP, who had been sworn in as the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir around a week earlier, struggled to contain the crisis. She had faced turbulence as soon as she came to power, when Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar clashed over questions of national loyalty. A local newspaper headline the day after the Handwara killings reflected Kashmiris’ grim resignation towards those who rule the state: “Army opens kill account for Mehbooba’s government.”

The government placed Handwara under curfew for a week after the killings, blocking internet services and barring journalists—except for a select few—from the town. But protests raged on. Demonstrators raised slogans against India, ripped an Indian flag off its pole, pelted police and paramilitary personnel with stones, and burnt down an army bunker. Soon after, Mufti, on her first visit to Delhi as chief minister, met the union defence minister, Manohar Parrikar. “He assured me that a probe will be initiated and the culprits will be punished,” she said. “At the same time the family”—of the protestors who were killed—“will be compensated. Such incidents should not happen in the future.” Another protestor was killed in firing that same day, and yet another two days later.

The killings were a reminder that real power in Kashmir lay not with the state’s elected government, but with the security forces. And the continuing unrest suggests that despite the promises the PDP made before coming to power last year—that it would restore democracy and end human-rights abuses—there is little it can do to effect real change in the lives of the valley’s youth, who comprise the bulk of protestors.

Kashmir’s younger generation has grown increasingly disenchanted since the end of the 2000s, when protests over a number of issues, such as the transfer of land to the Shree Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008 and the Shopian rape and murder case in 2009, kept the state at a boil. The year 2010 was particularly brutal. That June, a teenage boy, Tufail Mattoo, died after he was hit by a tear gas shell fired at protestors. His killing further escalated unrest, as well as violence by security forces, leading to more than 120 deaths.

The ensuing years did not see casualties on such a large scale. But the cycle of protests and killings continued, and resentment against the valley’s militarisation simmered among the youth, accompanied by the rise of what many have described as a “new wave” of militancy. According to Hilar Mir, the editor of the daily Kashmir Reader, this new militancy is driven by a generation of young people who are “pious,” “politically aware” and affected by a “religious awakening.”

Even seasoned Kashmir-watchers have found it difficult to explain the character of this new militancy. “A lot of those boys are from fairly good families, upper-middle class, qualified engineers, so why are they getting into this?” AS Dulat, who was the Kashmir advisor to the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wondered in an exchange with journalists in July last year.

I heard one answer to this question from a resident of the town of Tral, whom I met while he was picknicking with his family in the forests of Shikargarh. “If somebody has everything, then why would they become part of the movement?” he said. “For jihad, for jannat”—for holy war, for paradise. I asked if the number of active militants wasn’t too small to have an effect—according to army and police estimates, there are between 150 and 200 militants in the valley, in contrast to the thousands there were in the 1990s, when militancy first sprouted. “In the early wars of Islam, Muslims used to be less in number but they always won,” he said. “How would you”—as a non-Muslim, he meant—“understand that?”

“Whenever politics is weak, Islam becomes stronger,” Muzaffar Ahmad Wani told me in Tral. Muzaffar, a school principal, is the father of the most prominent face of the new militancy: Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the young, social-media savvy commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in south Kashmir. Two police constables from Srinagar I met at Banihal tunnel, which connects the valley to the rest of India, told me more about Burhan’s larger-than-life legend. “He is a computer engineer,” one said. (In fact, Burhan studied till the tenth standard, after which he joined the militancy.) “He moves around with jammers, jamming the wireless networks of police and the army. That’s why it’s difficult to catch him.”

Burhan was born in 1996, when the first wave of militancy, which began in 1989, was ebbing. “Burhan was never swayed by the anti-India campaign going on here,” Muzaffar told me. But, he said, in 2010, when Burhan was a student of the tenth standard, he was harassed by the Special Operations Group, an anti-militancy police force, while on an errand with his brother Khalid and a friend. “They broke his thumb,” Muzaffar said. Six months later, Burhan disappeared into the thick pine forests of Tral. He soon became the south-Kashmir commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, and recruited several young men from the area and elsewhere. The government has since offered a reward of Rs 10 lakh for information on his whereabouts.

Burhan is the only youth icon in the valley today. There are no leaders who represent a more peaceful and credible politics that young people can trust and emulate. My search for young leaders led me to Waheed-ur-Rehman Para: a young man from the town of Pulawama in south Kashmir, who, since May 2014, has been the youth president of the PDP. In 2015, at the age of 25, he became the party’s youngest spokesperson, and the political advisor to the then chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. When I tried to set up meetings with Sayeed and Mehbooba last year while reporting for a profile of the former, many people told me Para could get me an appointment.

In local political circles, it is widely believed that Para has the support of the central government. He has a house in the posh, high-security area of Gupkar Road, which is associated with senior members of the Indian establishment and the Intelligence Bureau. When I met the mild-mannered, affable Para, he presented himself as a figure of opposition to Burhan. But he admitted that the influence of separatism was strong among youth. “Sixty-five percent of Kashmir is made up of youth, and it is a separatist constituency,” he said.

Separatist groups have lashed out at Para for his close ties to the Indian security and political establishments. In one statement, Showkat Bakhshi, the vice chairperson of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a separatist group, asked Para to “bear in mind” that the people of Kashmir “know how a Congressman’s son was adopted by Indian home ministry and how he was nourished and patronised by ex-army generals like VK Singh and Ata Muhammad Hasnain.” He added that they also “know how he was sent for higher education outside India and then installed in PDP where he has risen to higher ranks with the support of Indian agencies.” Bakhshi continued: “People also know how, in 2010, when whole Kashmir was burning, this man was assigned the job of glamourising Indian democracy and spreading venom against Kashmiris in Indian schools and colleges by Indian home ministry.” The separatist leader also accused Para of influencing the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Pulawama, where Para studied, to “pressurise students to participate in army workshops at Badamibagh Cantonment.” A former lecturer at the university confirmed to me that Para carried substantial influence with the army.

His bond with the centre was also evident when, in October 2012, he brought Kapil Sibal, then the union minister for human resources and development, to Pulawama, to be the chief guest for a function at an educational institute run by Para’s family. Para was even featured on the cover of a defence magazine, Force, in April 2014. Para’s position strongly reinforced what I learnt about the PDP during my reporting. From speaking to politicians, former militants, journalists, bureaucrats and ordinary Kashmiris, it was clear that though the party spoke a pro-people language, it was, in fact, a creation of the Indian state, as a kind of shill to help the centre contain and control the anti-India impulses of Kashmiris.

But even amid this smoke-and-mirrors politics, the PDP’s recent alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party has proved difficult for the party to carry forward convincingly. Even its most loyal members, such as Para, struggle to defend moves such as the revival of a state-wide beef ban soon after Sayeed came to power. When I spoke to Para in September, after an interview on the ban, he voiced his resentment. “What Geelani said for 60 years has been proved right—that it is a Hindu court, the court that hanged Afzal Guru,” he said, referring to the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s criticism of the 2013 hanging of Guru, convicted in the 2001 parliament attack case. Moves such as the beef ban interfered in Kashmiris’ religion and way of life, he added. “How can they say I have to be in a certain way to be an Indian? I used to be a proud Indian. Now the idea is lost. It is now being proved that Geelani is right, Burhan is right.”

That even a politician widely believed to have been nurtured by the centre found it hard to back the union government was telling of just how deep discontent in the state runs. Para even laid the blame for the new wave of militancy on the continued occupation of the valley by security forces. “Earlier the army came because there was militancy,” he said. “But now the militancy is coming because there is army.”

A recent idea that has particularly stoked Kashmiri anger is the central government’s proposal to establish colonies in the valley for retired soldiers. The BJP member of parliament Tarun Vijay said that setting up the colonies would be “like planting saffron in Kashmir.” The move, according to him, would bring the “fragrance of Indianness and principal mainstream of patriotic India to valley to overcome the smell of stone pelting and guns.”

Though the chief minister shot down the suggestion, the BJP’s proposal still raised Kashmiris’ hackles. “The BJP’s anti-Muslim posturing and Modi’s anti-Muslim credentials scare people,” Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of international law and human rights in the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar, told me last year. “India is getting more and more radicalised. How can it expect Kashmir to remain secular?”

Though Kashmiri politics has long been characterised by trickery and misdirection, the current dispensation has brought seething conflicts into the open. “The BJP wants to rule by force, not deception,” Khurram Parvez, a leading human-rights activist, told me. “For all these years, we couldn’t unmask the Indian state’s real face. They sold India with the image of Gandhi. Now all Kashmiris—Gujjars, Pahadis, et cetera—are getting united against India. Saffronisation of India is helping Kashmir.”