Not to take up arms again represents a major shift in tactics, and one to which political leaders both in Kashmir and in New Delhi may struggle to produce an adequate response, writes Parvaiz Bukhari.
The summer of 2010 witnessed a convulsion in the world’s most militarized zone, the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, an unprecedented and deadly civil unrest that is beginning to change a few things on the ground. The vast state intelligence establishment, backbone of the region’s government, almost lost its grip over a rebelling population.
Little known and relatively anonymous resistance activists emerged, organizing an unarmed agitation more fierce than the armed rebellion against Indian rule two decades earlier. And apparently aware of the post 9/11 world, young Kashmiris, children of the conflict, made stones and rocks a weapon of choice against government armed forces, side-stepping the tag of a terrorist movement linked with Pakistan. The unrest represents a conscious transition to an unarmed mass movement, one that poses a moral challenge to New Delhi’s military domination over the region.
Almost every day since mid-June protesters and bystanders have been killed in firing by government forces on irate groups of stone-throwing people during massive demonstrations for the region’s separation from India.
The large-scale protests were widespread across the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. By the end of October, 111 residents, mostly youth, were killed in the Intifada-like uprising in which angry protesters fearlessly pitched themselves against armed police and federal paramilitary soldiers. The moral equation changed perceptibly in favor of the agitating people, before the overbearing security establishment cracked down with stringent shoot on sight curfew to lay siege around populated areas.
This summer’s cycle of protests and killings was seen to be triggered by a staged gun battle by Indian army soldiers in the mountainous Machil area near the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. In May this year a rare police probe found that the army had gunned down three civilians, claiming they were armed militants who had “crossed over” from Pakistan. It enraged the Kashmiri people but reasons behind the civil unrest had been accumulating since much earlier.
Ever since the partition in 1947 Kashmir has been a site of simmering tensions, alternating with outbreaks of violence. But for the last two decades now, India has maintained the presence of an estimated 7,00,000 troops in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region with a population of about 10 million bordering India, Pakistan and China. Hundreds of armed forces’ camps dot the region keeping a close watch on its residents.
Most of these troops were brought in to fight a Pakistan-backed armed rebellion by Kashmiri Muslims in 1990. Citizens deeply resent the overwhelming presence of soldiers amongst them, and their camps in the neighborhoods. They feel violated by the impunity soldiers enjoy under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
This law allows the soldiers to search houses at will without warrants, to detain residents and to destroy buildings including houses suspected of harboring rebels. Under the AFSPA soldiers accused of crimes like rape and killing civilians in their custody cannot be prosecuted in civil courts unless the federal government in New Delhi specifically permits it.
Militarisation of the region was politically cemented in 1994 with a unanimous resolution by the Indian parliament declaring Kashmir an “integral part” of the country. Kashmir’s special status within the union, which had been guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, had been slowly eroding for decades. Kashmir had enjoyed a significant degree of self-rule until the early 1950s, when only foreign affairs, defence and communications were subject to Indian domain control. The Indian military campaign against a few thousand insurgents has since left about 70,000 people, mostly civilians, dead.
By the year 2002 the popular armed rebellion was largely crushed, but public support for Kashmir’s independence from India appears to have deepened over the years. The government claims 500 to 700 armed rebels remain in the fighting, confined to the forested areas of the region, but the concentration of the troops across the region remains for most part unchanged. However, it is not these armed militants who are leading the most recent protests against the Indian government.
The largely defeated armed insurgency and sustained crackdown by the Indian counterinsurgency campaign has gradually produced a transition to a less violent mode of mass rebellion in the last few years. It fed on the two-decade-long local memory of arbitrary detention of residents by troops, widespread torture and harassment. Hundreds of graveyards for the victims of conflict across the territory became shrines to the loss and the “Kashmir cause”. The pent up bitterness and a sense of being completely dominated was waiting to explode.
In mid-2008, protests erupted over a government decision to grant 100 acres of land to a Hindu shrine of Shri Amarnath in the Kashmir Himalayas. Many Muslim Kashmiris perceived the land deal as an attempt to effect a demographic change in the Muslim-majority region. Thousands of people took to the streets of the provincial capital Srinagar and other towns in protests spearheaded by separatist leaders demanding that New Delhi negotiate a settlement of the six-decade-old dispute with Pakistan and them on board.
Defying a curfew, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched towards the heavily militarised frontier west of Srinagar in an attempt to cross over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Government forces finally fired at the procession before it could reach the border, killing several people, including senior resistance leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a former militant commander and a key leader of the hardline All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), the main separatist alliance in the disputed state.
By the time that summer uprising was defused and a siege laid around Srinagar and other towns of Kashmir, around 60 protesters in total had been killed. Significantly, the armed rebels remained tactically silent during the period.
New Delhi’s earlier claims of “normalcy” returning to Kashmir went up in thin air in the face of the massive demonstrations for Azadi. The situation called for a non-military response.
The Indian government planned to respond to the unrest by staging a fresh round of elections. Many senior activist leaders, including the hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, moderate Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and former armed rebel commander Yasin Malik of the JKLF, were arrested as the polls for the region’s new government were announced in October 2008.
Buoyed by renewed mass support to their campaign against Indian rule, the resistance camp had appealed for a total boycott of the elections, called by New Delhi against the advice of pro-India Kashmiri political parties, which feared very low participation. To facilitate campaigning for votes and ensure security during polling, several thousand more paramilitary troops were brought in.
During their lackluster election campaign, the politicians sought votes for day-to-day governance. They repeatedly told people in small gatherings and through media that the election had nothing to do with the dispute over Kashmir or the territory’s future that has been at the center of animosity between nuclear arch rivals India and Pakistan.
Political Operation by Intelligence Establishment
Hundreds of resistance activists and prominent protesters were meticulously identified by field intelligence operatives from video footage and photographs of demonstrations. They were arrested under the Public Safety Act (PSA) which allows the authorities to detain anyone, presumed to be acting against the interests of the state for up to two years without legal recourse. The field was cleared for the pro-India politicians and groups.
The vast and robust Indian intelligence apparatus in Kashmir worked overtime to ensure a good voter turnout where little was expected. Besides nominees from the pro-India Kashmiri political parties, more than a thousand candidates suddenly jumped into the fray for 87 seats.
They were fielded by regional parties from mainland India who had no cadres to talk of in Kashmir. Many were also independents, some of whom later revealed that they were backed by government agencies and promised money for bringing out friends and relatives to vote.
Under militarised and winter conditions, polling was held in seven phases over six weeks for what turned out to be a “watershed election” that registered turnout of 60 per cent. A huge number of first time voters, educated young men and women, who while acutely aware of post 9/11 realities and clearly uneasy with the violence around them had perhaps hoped that a new emerging India would deliver justice this time over. But politicians in New Delhi and the Indian mainstream media described the turnout as a “victory for Indian democracy” in Kashmir and a “defeat of separatism”.
The resistance leaders were “humbled” while people in general felt angered and foxed at their vote being interpreted once again as a referendum endorsing Indian rule. Many first time voters tasted their first “betrayal”.
In January 2009, the elections brought the UK-born Omar Abdullah to the centre stage as the region’s youngest ever chief minister at the age of 39. Lauded by the Indian media, he promised an era of reconciliation, gradual demilitarisation and repeal of the contentious AFSPA, as well as restricting the use of the widely resented PSA. Many Kashmiri voters sulked under the media euphoria.
Although the results of the elections sidelined the discourse of separatism for several months, trouble returned in May 2009 after two young women were found dead in disputed circumstances in Shopian, a district with a heavy military presence to the south of Srinagar. The victims’ families alleged that the women had been abducted, raped and murdered by men in uniform.
Several botched up investigations into the incident triggered unrest once again. The state’s intelligence chief was changed for “misleading” the government and four police officers were arrested and charged with dereliction of duty and destruction of evidence in the case.
Shopian remained under a 47-day protest shutdown. An autopsy report confirmed that the women had been raped, and a government-appointed, one-man enquiry commission alleged that four police officers were involved in destroying evidence.
Officials said privately to Jane’s that in this process, newly elected chief minister Abdullah lost some support, particularly from within the frontline counter-insurgency paramilitary units which were engaged in the fight against armed militants.
The separatist resistance campaign found new energy with the youth grown up during the two-decade-long conflict joining protests. The resistance leaders were establishing connections with this new generation of Kashmiris.
Alarmed, it forced the government to call India’s premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for a fresh probe into the Shopian deaths.
The new investigation, conducted on the victims’ bodies exhumed four months after their death, concluded that they had died due to drowning in a local stream. Not many in Kashmir believed the findings, but the CBI filed cases against the doctors who had conducted the previous probes into the deaths as well as lawyers who were fighting the original case in the court. They were charged with inciting violence in the aftermath of the Shopian deaths.
While Kashmiris were debating the “institutional denial” of justice in the Shopian case, an incident in which Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers in January 2010 killed a schoolboy in Srinagar sparked yet more protest. Witnesses said the soldiers opened fire on a group of boys without provocation; making it the sixth death of a civilian within a month that local residents blamed on government forces. Abdullah ordered a probe into the death, saying: “Incidents of unprovoked and innocent killings will not be tolerated.” However, the protests meant a curfew was extended in Srinigar for several days and dozens of activists arrested setting the tone for the coming summer.
Summer Unrest 2010
In April, major protests erupted again, this time in response to the killing of three men by the Indian army in Machil, near the heavily militarised LoC. The army said it had killed three rebels trying to cross into Indian-controlled Kashmir from the Pakistani side of the border. However, local residents demanded an inquiry into the claims, saying three local men had disappeared from the village of Nadihal three days before the supposed firefight.
Police exhumed the bodies and confirmed that the men had been local civilians. Farooq Ahmed, a senior police officer, said: “They were innocent citizens killed in a fake gun battle.”
The incident sparked protests involving thousands of local residents. Two army officers were removed from duty pending inquiry into the killings, amid accusations from local residents that the men had been killed so that the troops could win rewards and promotions awarded for neutralising militants.
Protests over the deaths spread across parts of the Kashmir valley, reaching Srinagar, fuelled by existing anger over the January killing. However, during the protest across the valley, a student whom local residents said had not been part of the protests was killed by a tear gas shell fired by police officers. The death sent much of the Kashmir valley into a renewed cycle of intense protests and deaths that continued throughout the summer.
Abdullah later blamed the fresh violence on the deaths in Machil and called for restraint in the use of the AFSPA, saying the army was acting as “judge, jury and hangman”. He said: “There is absence of transparency, as a result of which people have lost faith in the system.” However, each killing triggered more protests, often co-ordinated through text messages and over the internet, and led by youths throwing stones at everything that symbolised state authority, most visibly men in uniform and their armoured vehicles.
Many separatist resistance leaders and activists were soon jailed. However, one man who was released earlier in June after 22 months in jail went underground. Masarat Alam, a 39-year-old Christian missionary school educated resistance activist and member of separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference started channelizing the anti-India groundswell by issuing weekly protest calendars. He urged people to join ‘freedom rallies’ that protests in Kashmir most often morph into. An activist for right of self determination since his student days in the late 1980s, Alam had been jailed many times.
The fiery young man quickly deployed a political resistance idiom that connected him with the protesting youth and the students energizing the street. Alam’s rotating protest calendars copied the First Palestinian Intifada dedicating each day of protests and shutdowns to specific demands and different forms of protest against “Indian military occupation” of Kashmir.
Encouraged by the ascendant public response, the emerging separatist leader triggered a ‘Quit Kashmir Campaign’ calling for demilitarisation and an end to Indian rule of the disputed region. A charismatic orator, Alam appealed to the ‘conscience’ of the Indian troops deployed in the region and asked people to reproduce his memorandum and deliver copies to military commanders in the hundreds of camps dotting the entire region.
A video recording of the appeal and its text was sent to media outlets in Srinagar. The authorities through an executive order barred the press from reporting the contents of Alam’s powerful appeal. However, he kept the pressure up from the underground and started issuing statements calling for social boycott of Kashmiri police officers and bureaucrats for being “collaborators” of the “Indian occupation”.
Alam’s clear appeals resonated among the people, particularly youth and students. Local leaders and activists that no one knew about began emerging from neighborhoods in cities, towns and villages all across Kashmir and kept organizing demonstrations in strict adherence to the ‘protest calendars’. The authorities responded with stringent curfew and occasional lethal force.
As the toll of civilian causalities mounted so did general anger. Protesters, sometimes in their tens of thousands, defied curfew and in a number of instances targeted government buildings including railway stations. Houses of a few local police officials were also set on fire. The situation stretched the massive security grid to its maximum.
At the peak of the unrest, before Alam’s re-arrest in September the government brought in several hundred members of the federal Rapid Action Force (RAF), specially trained in riot control, to augment efforts directed at calming the situation.
Collapse of Intelligence Grid
The sudden and significantly changed ground scenario choked space for field intelligence operatives who worked for the police, the military and the paramilitary forces in the region operating their own separate intelligence gathering networks. Initially, the unrest turned into a contest between the protesting masses and the police on the frontline aided by federal paramilitaries. Since a majority in the police force is composed of local Kashmiris, the clearly drawn lines made the mobility of its field intelligence staff very risky.
Over the last two decades, like the federal and military intelligence agencies the region’s own Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police had focused on countering armed militants and had developed into a frontline cutting edge capability for anti-militancy operations. This massive intelligence gathering network had penetrated so deep into the social structure that it was easily possible to get information about activities of armed militants. The premium had been on the actionable and quick intelligence on armed rebels and their networks.
The department’s Special Branch (SB) and Counter Intelligence (CI) wings, specially designed to monitor separatist politicians and continually interrogate their plans, failed to anticipate and assess the unfolding summer unrest.
“Often, the intelligence we get is not worth the paper it is printed on, and that’s a charitable way of putting it,” Abdullah told India Today magazine in an interview published on 8 October. He said: “Most of the reports are simply accounts of what has happened and there are no assessments of what is likely to happen. The presumption that Kashmir is simply crawling with intelligence operatives is ridiculous.”
He added: “You cannot create a network of credible information and analysis overnight. In the last 20-odd years of militancy, our intelligence system has deteriorated. I am making a huge effort to overhaul the CID structure.”
Indeed, as anti-India protests spiraled across the region, police and CID operatives became its first targets. Protesters began attacking paramilitary camps with stones and other mis
siles, as well as police stations that also housed intelligence units. The onslaught demoralised the field operatives and all but restricted them to their fortified offices.
A field officer told Jane’s : “It became impossible for us to be seen on the ground. We risked being lynched by the mobs. We started talking to media outlets even for basic information about the scale and spread of protests.”
Another intelligence official told Jane’s that the state’s intelligence grid had collapsed in the face of spreading unrest. Field operatives, both officials and civilian recruits who had over the years become known to the residents as part of various intelligence networks, became virtually useless.
Officials also said that, over the years, a certain amount of complacency had set in with the arrival of sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment. The easy availability of information from tapped mobile telephone conversations “dampened the cultivation of human intelligence”. They said this outcome had resulted in a lot of civilian sources being abandoned.
Another intelligence official speaking to Jane’s on condition of anonymity, said: “Some of these sources were seen participating in and leading protests at many places to save themselves from public wrath.”
The intelligence apparatus, with its access to human intelligence restricted, is now also faced with activists using social media such as Facebook and YouTube to mobilise within Kashmir and to communicate with the outside world. The CID has started a crackdown on such activity, with one student detained by police officers after they found out he had posted a list of police officials on his Facebook page, calling them “traitors”.
In Shopian, three people including a bank executive had been arrested in connection with their Facebook activity, as of mid-October.
Over the past 20 years, the intelligence apparatus had configured itself to deal with the traditional media and with well-known separatist leaders such as Geelani, Malik and Mirwaiz. Now it is pitched against a diffuse leadership, many figures being well-travelled, university-educated and able to bypass these traditional focuses for dispersing information. These numerous new neighbourhood leaders often have no past police record and no history of political mobilisation. The government has found it hard to crack down on these activists in the absence of a substantial political response from New Delhi.
New Delhi’s Response
On 7 July, New Delhi tried to address the situation by allowing the army to be deployed in Srinagar and across rural Kashmir for crowd control. This decision, taken for the first time in 19 years, received heavy criticism from much of Indian civil society, and sections of the political establishment expressed disappointment at the government’s failure to respond politically. Indian army chief General VK Singh had already warned of the need to “handle things politically”. He emphasised that militarily, the security situation was already under firm control and told The Times of India in July: “I feel there is a great requirement for political initiatives.”
In late September, New Delhi sent a 39-member delegation of parliamentarians on a two-day visit to Kashmir to help draft a political response. Most of the senior separatist leaders, who were under strict curfew, declined formal invitations to meet the group, but several members of the delegations visited the separatist leaders’ residences, appealing to them to help restore calm in the region.
During one such encounter on 20 September, Geelani, who had been placed under house arrest, presented five preconditions for official dialogue, including the demand that government forces stop firing on anti-government protesters. Other demands included a formal acknowledgement by the government that Kashmir was under international dispute, the release of all political prisoners, the announcement of a demilitarisation schedule and an investigation into all civilian killings by government forces since 1989. Mirwaiz further demanded that India and Pakistan constitute parliamentary committees for negotiating a final settlement of the “Kashmir dispute” and to include the Kashmiri separatist leadership. Malik also reiterated his demand that separatists be made a part of the Kashmir-specific element of the more general Indo-Pakistani dialogue process.
One aspect all of them made clear was that they would not be able to influence the agitating population unless significant political concessions were formally offered. Their position signified the single biggest change the summer unrest had wrought: the separatist old guard no longer has absolute control over the Kashmiri civilian population. Much of the unrest had been orchestrated by little-known leaders who may not even fully trust the old resistance leadership any more.
Apparently aware of the new realities, the leaders appear to have refrained from public disagreements, instead urging demonstrators to remain peaceful during protests and giving clear signals that Pakistan was not in control of the Kashmiri resistance.
This gave the protesters a new impetus and a sense of ownership that has led to much greater participation in the protests from students and professionals, including lawyers, doctors and teachers.
Recent protests in Iran, Thailand, Tibet and Myanmar seem to have given rise to a feeling in Kashmir that public opinion in the West can be influenced by non-violent protests and the intelligent use of new media.
New Delhi has so far only fanned the smoke away but may have left the fire simmering on. Meanwhile, an eight-point political package presented by the government in New Delhi on 25 September was greeted with disappointment in Kashmir. Among the initiatives announced were the appointment of a group of mediators to hold ‘sustained dialogue’ with Kashmiris, the release of several hundred people detained for stone-throwing and a reduction in the number of security forces stationed in the valley.
The plan also allows for the review of areas designated as ‘disturbed’, a move which could result in the application of the AFSPA to parts of Kashmir being rescinded. Grants will also be awarded to the families of those killed during the summer’s unrest. Geelani rejected the initiative, terming it “eye wash”, while other separatist leaders responded to parts of the package.
The parliamentary group’s effort could therefore be seen as a lost opportunity for New Delhi to engage with the new activism in Kashmir. The armed rebellion of 1990 had similarly resulted in the central government sending a group of prominent lawmakers to Kashmir. The response then was a major military campaign, parts of which are still in place, fighting remnants of that insurgency. Governing the restive region has since remained a function of security control achieved through militarisation. This time around, such a forceful and securitised option seems counterproductive.
The Kashmir issue has caught attention of western capitals once again as hesitation in attempts by India and Pakistan to make progress on Kashmir remains. In 2004, during Gen Pervez Musharaf’s regime Pakistan had come close to seal a Kashmir deal with India.
Statements emanating from Washington have also encouraged the Kashmir Street.
Ahead of a visit by United States President Barack Obama to India in November, separatists in Kashmir increased the pressure. If the past three years are any indication, this summer’s large-scale mobilisation could intensify in 2011, as the stand-off continues between protesters in Kashmir and New Delhi.
The new generation of separatist leaders seems to have made a conscious decision not to take up arms again even as they push for the same objectives as the armed rebels; a move to retain a moral supremacy over ‘Indian occupation’. This represents a major shift in tactics, and one to which political leaders both in Kashmir and in New Delhi may struggle to produce an adequate response.
The government is unlikely to meet the protesters’ demands in full, not least as it may feel that such a move would hand effective power in the region to the APHC. As such, the most likely outcome in the short term, especially given Alam’s arrest and the return to a tentative peace, is an intensified attempt at dialogue, in a bid to keep the temperature low and the streets calm in the coming months.
(A version of this article appeared in the Dec 2010 issue of the Jane’s Intelligence Review)