Kashmir is again on edge. This time the eruption is not owing to the death of a civilian, but because of the killing of a commander of Hizbul Mujahideen and Kashmir militancy’s poster boy, Burhan Wani. The reaction to Wani’s death was first overwhelming — an estimated two lakh people showed up for his funeral procession — and then violent.
Perhaps the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti, once known for her soft-separatism, were caught unawares by the public feeling. Now, almost four days into the unrest, 32 people are dead — 30 of them at the hands of the police. Some analysts, including former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, fear that Burhan Wani may well have proved to be more dangerous dead than alive.
The current situation in Kashmir is not normal. In the last 26 years of conflict that began with the armed rebellion against the Indian state, this is the first time that deaths are taking place purely after the people demonstrated anger against the killing of a militant commander. To attribute this to Wani’s popularity alone is to miss the larger picture.
Over the past eight years, Kashmir has seen an uprising that has been equated with Arab Spring and the Intifida. The trigger was the Amarnath land row in 2008. When the then Governor SK Sinha allotted a chunk of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), it sent a feeling of insecurity among the predominantly-Muslim Kashmiris, who had already been fighting a battle against progressive political disempowerment.
Anxieties about losing ownership of Kashmir fuelled protests that were among the largest in Kashmir’s history and these resulted in scores of deaths.
The Amarnath land row divided Kashmir and Jammu along communal lines, and anti-India sentiment became stronger. Peoples’ record participation in assembly elections that followed in December 2008 also brought another reality to the fore — people wanted to take part in elections alongside joining the chorus to call for a political resolution of the Kashmir issue. There was relative peace for two years before unrest reared its head again. When three civilians were killed in a fake encounter by the Army in a remote part of Kupwara district, there were protests. In Srinagar, a young student and protester Tufail Mattu was killed on June 11, 2010 and Kashmir was again in flames.
The anti-India movement faced security forces and 130 died. The wounds were deep and even though order was restored after months, the scars remained and the anti-India sentiment did not fade away.
Again in 2014, Kashmiris returned to polling booths. Their anger at the government was evident as they rejected Omar Abdullah, who had been the chief minister. However, while Abdullah’s Jammu & Kashmir National Conference was unequivocally dismissed, the mandate was deeply fractured. To seal the communal divide between the two regions, a new combination, termed as “meeting of North and South Police” by former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was concocted with PDP and BJP joining hands. Kashmir had not voted for BJP to come into power and PDP joining hands with a party seen as anti-Muslim and anti-Kashmir further contributed to the frustration of an average Kashmiri.
The hanging of Afzal Guru, a convict in 2001 parliament attack, had previously fuelled this feeling of disenchantment. Guru was reportedly at the lowest number on the death row, but was picked up apparently by Congress to stop Narendra Modi from reaching Delhi (though that did not happen). To Kashmiris, Guru’s hanging was a signal that New Delhi could do anything without caring for Kashmiri emotions. The door to militancy had been open for decades, but now it seemed inviting for the increasingly alienated Kashmiri youth.
Kashmiri boys have been part of the militancy of the post-1990s, which flourished under the command of foreigners, but their participation was low. Coupled with the new wave of intolerance across India, feelings of insecurity crowded the Kashmiri youth. It didn’t help that employment opportunities were few and violence was a far more accessible option. When educated youth turned to militancy, a new standard was set in a path that had for years been untrodden because the efforts had been made to secure a peaceful resolution to the political issue. This new militancy changed the dynamic in Kashmir. People started attending the funerals of slain militants in large numbers, thus, claiming the local boys who had been killed as militants as Kashmir’s own. Locals also rallied behind foreigners.
When Abu Qasim, a Pakistani commander of Lashkar-e-Taiba, was killed in early 2016, his funeral was attended by over 30,000 people.
All Kashmiris might not have participated in active militancy, but there has been a groundswell of support that suggests a new chapter in Kashmir’s story. It’s reminiscent of what happened in the early 1990s when a large number of Kashmiri youth took up the gun and were sheltered in every home.
From 2003 to 2008, when India and Pakistan were involved in a productive peace process and New Delhi opened up channels of dialogue with separatists in Kashmir, there were many who wholeheartedly supported these processes. They seemed to be steps towards a solution. But after 2008 and particularly after the Mumbai attacks that year (known as 26/11), that process was derailed. There is not only complete absence of political engagement, but also a denial — “there is no issue called Kashmir” for many sitting in Delhi. Instead, newly-created concepts like “Sainik Colonies” and separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits are thrust on the state, spiking the average Kashmiri’s insecurity.
It’s in this context that the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing must be seen. It was an outpouring of the pent-up disappointment and anger that has been fermenting for almost a decade now. Burhan represented a brand new generation of Kashmiris — a modern, educated and tech-savvy militant who did not hide behind a mask or alias.
Even police officers admit that Burhan became an inspiration for some, though not many. He redefined militancy in Kashmir and brought back its indigenous colour. Earlier, militancy in Kashmir was dominated by foreigners. Now it is local. Pakistan may be the biggest promoter of violence in Kashmir, but the way tens of thousands of people have rallied behind a militant commander — leading to deaths of three dozen more in the aftermath — this is the new reality in Kashmir.