India is losing Kashmir

Top LeT Commander Abu Qasim Killed In Kashmir
SRINAGAR, – OCTOBER 29: Kashmiri villagers carry the body of top Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Abu Qasim during his funeral procession on October 29, 2015 in Bugam district Kulgam some 75 km from Srinagar, Kashmir. Police on Thursday claimed that the most wanted LeT Commander Abu Qasim was killed during an encounter in Khandaypora area of Kulgam district, south Kashmir. (Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Kashmir has been simmering in decades of conflict since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The violence reached its peak in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the Pakistan-backed Kashmiri insurgency was at its strongest. By the early 2000s, however, the violence seemed to have abated, and there was hope for a peaceful settlement of the issue. But now, optimism for such a peaceful settlement is dwindling. As Kashmir has seen a resurgence in violence, public support for the insurgency also seems to be increasing. India is losing whatever support it had among the general Kashmiri public, and this trend will continue unless it brings about a radical change in its Kashmir policy.

Following the 1947 partition, the political status of the formerly independent princely state of Kashmir was left largely contested by both Pakistan and India, which led to the establishment of the Line of Control (LoC), dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan after a U.N.-backed ceasefire. However, there were aspirations for political independence among some Kashmiris. By the late 1980s, such aspirations had taken the shape of an armed revolt, backed by Pakistan, against Indian rule in Kashmir. India responded with a massive crackdown on the militants, deploying over half a million soldiers in Kashmir, often leading to grave human rights violations.

The violence of the late 1980s and 1990s, which claimed thousands of lives, began to recede at the beginning of the new millennium, as people gained faith in the dialogue process. In the following decade, militancy-related causalities decreased significantly from 4,507 in 2001 to 377 in 2009. A major factor that contributed to the decline in the violence was the endorsement of the dialogue process by India’s then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which led to the historic Lahore Declaration in 1999, in which both India and Pakistan committed to the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. The repeated efforts of the Vajpayee government to bring the pro-separatist Hurriyat political party and even the Hizbul Mijahideen militant group to the table for talks led to a ceasefire. The option of autonomy within the ambit of the Indian constitution offered by Vajpayee further fed the optimism for a peaceful settlement with India. This political shift resulted in a relative calm over the ensuing years, with tourism and business in Kashmir flourishing.

However, a civilian uprising in 2010 and India’s brutal response signaled a shift in the political climate. In the subsequent years, there has been a new surge in Kashmiri youth taking up arms against the Indian establishment. Most of these young people are educated and come from well-off families in Kashmir. These youths – who are mostly joining Hizbul Mujahideen – are garnering huge support from the general population, and are increasingly attracting more and more peers to join their ranks. The face of this new insurgency has been Burhan Muzaffar Wani, a young, social media-savvy militant who openly poses for pictures with automatic assault rifles in hand and shares them on Facebook, drawing a huge number of sympathetic comments. He has since released audio and video messages inviting other young Kashmiris to join the insurgency and fight the Indian establishment. During a 2011 gunfight in Pulwama in southern Kashmir, locals threw stones and bricks at Indian soldiers in a bid to help a trapped militant escape the cordon. This has become commonplace to the point where security forces have sought to implement Section 144 of India’s criminal procedure code, which prohibits the gathering of people around an “encounter site” within a radius of 1.2 miles. On Feb. 21, local civilians were seen defying these restrictions when they marched towards such an encounter site in the southern town of Pampore, again hurling stones at the security personnel.

In October of last year, Abu Qasim, a top commander of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba – believed to be responsible for several attacks on the Indian Army including the 2013 Hyderpora ambush – was killed. A sea of people attended his funeral procession. Authorities confirmed that militants also attended the funeral and fired a three-volley salute to honor his death. As if this were not enough, people from the villages of Khandaypora and Bugam clashed with each other over “the honor” of burying his body in their respective villages. Then, in November, an armed conflict between militants and the Indian Army broke out in the Manigah forests of Kupwara in Indian-administered Kashmir, lasting 27 days, killing two Indian soldiers, and leaving six others injured. The General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the Indian Army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps stated that the militants were getting supplies from the locals in the area. In yet another incident, nearly 25,000 people attended the funeral procession of Shariq Ahmad Bhat, a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group, who was killed in Pulwama district on Jan. 20 of this year. Militants were seen firing their AK-47 rifles in salute. The growing participation of locals in insurgency-related events suggests resurgent support for militancy in Kashmir, which has set alarm bells ringing in the Indian security establishment. The renewed support is so strong that even the president of the Kashmir High Court Bar Association, Mian Abdul Qayoom, recently indicated his support for the insurgency, saying, “We can also use [the] gun as a last resort, and it is no offence under [the] U.N. Charter.”

During a November 2014 visit to Kashmir, discussions with locals revealed that Kashmiris point to the Indian government’s policies for the resurgence in violence. Many were of the opinion that India has not been honest in resolving the political problem of Kashmir. “India asked us to give up arms and come to the table, and we did it. What happened next? Nothing,” said one Kashmiri. “When the situation in Kashmir was bad during the ‘90s, India repeatedly said that dialogue is the way forward to the Kashmir problem and not violence. And now that India has strengthened its hold here, they say there is no political problem at all,” said another.

People usually point to civilian uprisings in 2008, 2009, and 2010 as the major turning points. Local disgruntlement towards India intensified among the general public after hundreds of civilian youths were killed during these protests. India could have done some damage control by punishing the cops involved in shooting at the unarmed protesters and by following the recommendations of a government-appointed panel. Instead, the government chose to disregard the recommendations and continued to insist that Kashmir was an “internal issue.” India’s policies of curbing political space for Kashmiris by keeping the massively popular Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Shabir Shah and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq under constant and repeated detention has further  damaged its reputation with the local population. In September 2015, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had invited Geelani to its annual meeting of foreign ministers in New York – India responded by suspending his passport for four weeks out of concerns that he would have raised the Kashmir issue.

India has repeatedly used the Public Safety Act (PSA) – deemed “a lawless law” by Amnesty International – to detain Kashmiri political leaders like Masrat Alam, who, on Dec. 31, 2015, was arrested for the 31st  time under the law. The detention came immediately after Alam’s release from jail following a High Court order overturning his earlier detention under the same law. In 2015 alone, 634 people, of whom 231 were students and 17 were minors, were arrested for anti-India demonstrations in Kashmir. The demolition of the offices of the Kashmir University Students Union, the imposition of a ban on student politics, and the repeated clampdown on internet and mobile SMS services have alienated Kashmiri youths in particular.

While the Vajpayee government welcomed any opportunities for dialogue – even allowing separatist Hurriyat leaders to hold talks with Pakistan – the current Modi government has taken a different approach. Modi has prohibited the Hurriyat leaders from meeting with Pakistani officials, citing the prohibition as a pre-condition for talks with Pakistan. This resulted in the cancellation of a meeting between the national security advisers of the two countries after Pakistan rejected the pre-condition. To many Kashmiris, India’s insistence on this pre-condition seemed to embody an effort to deny them a voice in the dispute. The repeated calls by various civil society and human rights groups for the repeal of draconian laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) – which gives sweeping impunity to the armed forces of India operating in Kashmir – have been met with a cold shoulder, as the Indian army has staunchly opposed any attempts to repeal it.

These kinds of reprehensible policies that the Indian establishment says are important to maintain peace in Kashmir have produced a disaffected Kashmiri population. And although it may appear to have strengthened its hold, India is losing popular support in Kashmir by sticking to its policy of focusing solely on economic development while maintaining the security status quo. In a vivid illustration of the problem, just a day after Indian Prime Minister Modi visited Kashmir last November and unveiled a $12 billion economic development package for the state, a 22-year-old Kashmiri man, Gowhar Nazir Dar, was killed by the Central Reserve Police Force. The resulting demonstrations carried on for days, with protesters across Kashmir combining to outnumber the attendees of the rally where Modi spoke.

At a time when the Islamic State is threatening to expand into Kashmir ­– even though it has found no buyers there for its message, thus far – there still remains a chance that the angry and agitated people who turn out in huge numbers at militant funerals could fall prey to its propaganda in order to fight the Indian establishment. For India to end this long quagmire of armed conflict with Kashmiris, it must shift away from its current policy and allow political space for Kashmiris. It should repeal its draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Public Safety Act and punish soldiers involved in human rights violations. And, finally, India should work with Kashmiris and Pakistan alike to reach a viable solution so that peace may prevail. But until India realizes the damage it has done, the streets of Kashmir will reverberate with chants in support of its supposed martyrs, much like they did during the funeral procession of Abu Qasim.

This article was Published in Foreign Policy on May 5, 2016

India is Losing Kashmir


Unidentified Gunmen of Kashmir

File Photo

There is a killing on the streets of Kashmir and it is highly likely that the blame goes to this nefarious “unidentified gun man”. The term “unidentified gun men” has now become a part of our day to day lives, with people like me, who have grown-up listening to this term right from our childhood. It is so that this “cult” is everywhere, in every sphere of Kashmir life, capable of committing murders, day-in and day-out, while maintaining its anonymity even though it walks among us unmasked. The emergence of this term “unidentified gunmen” (in context to killings in Kashmir) came with the emergence of armed struggle against the Indian rule in 1989. During early and late 90’s when the militancy as well as the Indian counter-attack to it were at peak, this “unidentified gunmen” was attributed to numerous killings on both parts of the political and ideological divide. This phenomenon of unidentified gunmen has caused a kind of psychosis in the brains of Kashmiri people which instills a fear of being continuously under somebody’s watch; following you like your shadow and could pull out a gun in a market place or in a park and shoot at you.

I remember during late 90’s, when I was a young boy and for the first time came to know about a killing by the so-called “Na maloom Bandook Bardaar” (unidentified gunmen) in downtown Srinagar. I was so terrified by the fact that they could kill anyone; anytime; anywhere and easily disappear without leaving any clue whatsoever for police to trace them. For days I refused to go to toilet alone, such was the fear and I can only pity the kids of Kashmir going through this fear now. In the evenings, I would pray to grow up soon and think of strategies to catch this “Na maloom Bandook bardaar” which had created paranoia among the people. I would imagine how grateful and relieved the people of Kashmir would be when these unidentified gunmen would be caught and punished. However, little did I know that the people who are supposed to hunt them down were not going to do that, not because they are not capable of doing so, but because it serves their interests or the interests of their bosses and could well be in secret friendship with these killers. What else explains the inability of the authorities to unmask these perpetrators for more than two decades?

A place like Kashmir which is marred by political strife for decades becomes a sanctuary for proxy agencies, fielded by powerful people, which cover their ulterior motives and present a more virtuous face. Here political parties use proxy agencies to execute crimes against their rivals to score points, while claiming to be the victims. And, in-between this political drama, the common Kashmiri has been facing the burnt. There is an unprecedented network of agencies and agents working in Kashmir and we hardly know which agency is doing what behind the scenes. In a scintillating piece of investigative journalism, (The Eerie NGO Phenomenon in Kashmir) Parvaiz Bukhari, a noted Kashmiri journalist, revealed that “there are nearly 16,000 NGOs, most of which are unregistered, working in Kashmir and many of which have affiliations with powerful people in Intelligence Bureau and political parties.” In 2013, General V.K. Singh (retd.), the Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, admitted to The Hindu Newspaper that “Technical Services Division (TSD) which he set up as the Army Chief, worked with politicians and some pro-India NGOs to blunt anti-India propaganda of separatists” and further revealed that “money had been paid by Army to NGOs like J&K Humanitarian Services Organization (JKHSO) and Yes Kashmir”. He also attributed the 2011 Panchayat elections and a sudden end to the 2010 stone- throwing protests as two major achievements of the role played by NGOs.

In wake of the recent statement made by Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar trying to justify the use of proxy agencies to neutralize the state targets, many in Kashmir believe that these unidentified gunmen who have recently been on a killing spree, particularly in Sopore town, a hot bed of anti-India and separatist activities, could be acting for the state. After all, the state has such a huge nexus of intelligence agents in the garb of NGOs and other humanitarian agencies which on ground have churned collaborators, pitted a brother against a brother, a neighbor on a neighbor and a phenomenon of “Na Maloom Bandook Bardaar (unidentified gunmen)”.

A version of this article appeared in Greater Kashmir on June 23, 2015.

How cheap is Kashmir Blood

Funeral procession of Suhail Sofi in Srinagar, Kashmir
Funeral procession of Suhail Sofi in Srinagar, Kashmir

I am enraged. And, I am sure there are thousands of Kashmiri youth as enraged as me, for another of our youth has been killed while protesting the killing of another one. This is a vicious cycle where “if one from your people is killed in cold blood, you are expected to shut-up and move on, and if you choose to protest you might as well be killed” and the cycle can go on as long as you have the audacity to protest. It can go on and grow to figures like 68 in 2008 and 120 in 2010.

The latest incident began when the news of an encounter in Tral area of Kashmir broke. Soon the Indian media with their ritualistic “melodrama style journalism” praised their soldiers for their bravery. It was announced that a “terrorist’ has been shot dead in the Tral encounter. However, the bigotry and lies that the Indian media perpetuate came crumbling down when it was ascertained that the killed person was in fact a civilian, Khalid Wani, a Master’s student of Economics who happens to be the elder brother of Burhan Wani, a militant commander in Tral. Soon the J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed called Tral encounter unfortunate and like usual promised an investigation. Meanwhile, the Indian media kept flashing the army’s point of view claiming that Khalid Wani was an “over the ground worker” of militants and was hit by bullets from army when Khalid and three others were meeting a militant in Kamala forests of Tral. The hypocrisy and bias of Indian media and their so-called “kashmir experts” was to the extend that none among them questioned the absence of bullet holes in the body of Khalid Wani. Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, father of Khalid Wani is reported to say “I looked at his body from head to toe, I couldn’t find a single bullet hole. All his teeth were broken and even his skull. He was tortured to death and this was a fake encounter”. Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, Javid Mujtaba Gilani, while demanding some time said “the cause of the death of Khalid Wani will be ascertained with the post-mortem reports”.

Demanding time to ascertain facts has been a very exhausted policy applied by the government in Kashmir. It serves the purpose to calm the flares down and at the same time keeps people in a limbo for facts. The investigations and the facts soon become a matter of past. As the revelations about the Tral encounter  unfolded, pointing to a custodial killing and an attempt to stage a fake encounter, there was a surge of anger among people who saw this as a vivid example of another killing by torture in custody and the high handedness of the Indian troops who are encouraged to kill without having to fear for consequences, thanks to the laws that provide them sweeping impunity.

Kashmiri youth see the space around them narrowing causing a claustrophobic sensation from where we want to liberate ourselves. We see the reductionist Indian media personnel calling us mis-guided youth who have no education, no jobs and hence protest on the streets of Kashmir. When a few Kashmiri people unfurled the Pakistani Flags in Srinagar upon the arrival of SAS Geelani, it was in defiance to the Indian state and in the pent-up of the anger caused by the killing of Khalid Wani. It was in response to the hypocrisy and bigotry of the Indian narrative of the events surrounding Khalid’s death and Masrat Alam’s release few weeks back.

The protests after Masrat Alam’s arrest were in spontaneity to vent the anger that had build-up due to the death of Khalid. So to speak, Protests in Kashmir mean every chance of police shooting at you and the Kashmiri people whose narrative has been so grossly distorted and reduced to “trouble making mischievous youth” by Indian media stand every chance in the line of fire to beat the Indian narrative and its establishment in Kashmir in small battles on ground where a rock hurled at an Indian policeman is an act of defiance and out of desperation for want of justice. It itches the Government establishment and its forces in the heart and often drives them into killing the protesters.

In the protests after the arrest of Masrat Alam, the police killed another boy of class 10 in Narbal area of Budgam district. It has been reported that Suhail Sofi, 15 years, was first detained briefly by the Police and then asked to run before being shot in the back at point-blank. The Assistant sub inspector and the constable involved in the killing have been arrested and a case of murder registered against them. Meanwhile, the Indian Journalists with verified tweeter accounts reduced the killing to this.







A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on 21 April, 2015