As the four districts are trying to get a semblance of routine after losing 77 youth in 2016 unrest, amid frequent interventions in bloody encounters, the region is going to polls early April. Masood Hussain talked to the electoral stakeholders to understand how they see the crisis of pain and despair
TV journalist Nazir Masoodi had to rediscover the fourteenth-century Shaivite mystic Lalleshwari to tell the story of Halima, the pained mother of Amir Nazir, a 15-year-old boy who fell to police bullets, at the time when an encounter was going on in Padgampora.
“Padgampora has always fascinated me on account of being the abode of Kashmir’s 14th-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, lovingly called Lal Ded. Tas Padgampor che Lallay – yem gale Amrit chow (Lalla of Padgampora, who drank the nectar of Immortality): lines from a famous poem describe her connection with Padgamora,” Masoodi wrote in his NDTV blog. “After Amir’s tragic death, I wondered why Halima offered milk to her dead son, her face stoic. Was she giving him the Amrit? Didn’t she know that Lalla drank that Amrit long ago?”
As thousands had gathered to bid adieu to little Amir, it was news photographer Javed Dar, who clicked a shot (see cover) that is now being termed to a symbolic miniature of what is happening across Kashmir, more specifically in the south. It was Burhan Fayaz, a youngster who also studied in the same state-run school in Begum Bagh where Amir was enrolled. This snapshot, showing little Burhan in pain, is being seen as a defining image of the tragedy that Kashmir is passing through.
Behind Burhan’s poignant image and the heartbreaking public suckling of dead Amir by Halima lies a Himalayan tragedy that south Kashmir is confronted with. Amir was part of the local youngsters who tried intervening in an encounter between militants and the army. The “stray” bullet that hit Amir was termed to be “targeted” one by the family because it came within days after Army chief Bipin Rawat’s statement: “If they (stone pelters) do not relent and keep on creating hurdles in our operations, we will have to take tough action.”
Selfie-enthusiast and already on Facebook, Amir belonged to a new generation of Kashmir that knows no fear. Brought up under the shadow of the gun in Kashmir’s terrible AFSPA era, they frequently challenge death. Having seen khaki and olive green so routinely that it has become a part of their life, they do not feel even an iota of fear unlike the generation that preceded them. Graduated in street control in 2008, 2010 and more recently in 2016 summer, they are now opening up rare fronts for the counter-insurgent forces once the latter get into gun battles.
In the last four months, the security grid witnessed scores of instances in which they had to manage two-fronts at the same time: gun-battle on the front side and stone pelting in the rare of operation. Last month, in a village near Bejbehara, angry youth actually breached the cordon and got into the theatre of clash.
“In various cases, we had to withdraw and call off operations,” one police officer said. “When there are apprehensions that a situation can turn nasty and cause loss of life, the only option is to say that this is not the last day.” The security grid has a feeling that south Kashmir gave birth to the trend and is simmering and smouldering in hate and anger.
The bigger question is why, all of a sudden, south Kashmir is exhibiting itself differently from the rest of the Vale, a trend that set in after homegrown iconic rebel Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter. In subsequent days, the region lost 76 youth in police and paramilitary action as the reaction looked closer to civil disobedience than a typical unrest. This trend could manifest in many ways as the countdown for the Lok Sabha bye-elections has started.
Of three berths in Lok Sabha, Kashmir has two vacant: Central Kashmir seat is unrepresented after Tariq Hameed Karra resigned at the peak of summer unrest, and south Kashmir seat fell vacant after Ms Mehbooba Mufti succeeded her father early 2015. Both the seats are slated to go to polls in April.
So why is south Kashmir so angry, so much in pain and despair that a whole section of youth have ended up exhibiting almost suicidal tendencies? For the Azaadi camp, it is a clear indication that the youth does not want to compromise with the status quo and want tehreek to reach its logical conclusion. Limited to their homes with most of their second and third line in jails, separatist connectivity with the people is restricted to cell phone and press statements.
The pro-India unionist parties are not much different, despite being secured and free to interact. “Although I managed to stay put in a flat in Dak Bungalow here (during unrest), most of the MLAs had migrated to safer areas and are still frightened to get back to their constituencies,” NC lawmaker Altaf Kaloo said. “The fact is that people really hate us and space has shrunken for us hugely.”
At the peak of unrest, Pulwama lawmaker Mohammad Khalil Bandh was seriously injured when his vehicle turned turtle while fleeing from a village where people, during wee hours, were protesting against nocturnal police raids on the road. He remained admitted in an Army Hospital for almost three months and is now using a walking stick.
With the bye-election announced already, after being deferred once, the situation is compelling them to go back to the people and seek votes. There are various political parties in fray but the real contest is between Ghulam Ahmad Mir, the Congress’s state president, who is a joint candidate of Congress and NC, and Tasaduq Mufti, the lone son of Mufti Sayeed, who has finally joined politics. So how do they explain the smouldering south Kashmir?
Mir sees the crisis as an outcome of “politics discredited”. All India parties like Congress, Mir said, were not a choice for Kashmir traditionally as they were supportive of NC, a regional force. “They found PDP a natural alternative to NC that had done the accession and activities by father and daughter took the expectation level so high that the party got a high sincere vote,” Mir said. “People felt frustrated when they allied with RSS but there was a feeling of respite when Mehbooba too over. But when she surrendered before Modi, things went astray and we reached a stage when there was only hate and alienation.”
The Congressman with a bumpy relationship with PDP (he was a minister under Mufti) sees the daughter much more responsible than the father. He says that firstly, she had assigned herself the role of solving Kashmir issue and failed to take even the first step. Secondly, she had promised to fight communal forces but ended up having them as allies. Thirdly, she had stated to offer better governance but has converted the government into a “clan rehabilitation centre”. “She empowered the defeated lot because they belonged to her tribe and it hurt the people,” Mir said. “Now she got her brother inducted into politics as a perfect case of political SRO 43.”
Tasaduq is an acclaimed cinematographer who is pitted against Mir. “I feel to a certain extent it is the same problem everywhere – lack of avenues and possibilities,” Mufti Jr said. “I think that place was worst affected in terms of emotions as it was a kind of the epicentre of what happened. These questions and complexities need holistic approach and understanding, definitive solutions.” He does not see the entire region fluid. “To an extent, we do have pockets of little-disturbed spaces everywhere in the valley in one way or another,” he added.
While Mir and Mufti are the mascots of the turf war that unionists are fighting in a dangerously drifted turf, they are not the lone stakeholders. Many others sharing the same concerns because it affects their collective and joint stakeholding.
Yousuf Tarigami, the fourth time Marxist lawmaker from conservative Kulgam, shares a bit of Mir’s assessment. “Expectations were hugely roused and resulted in a massive mandate,” the vocal communist said. “They allied with BJP, surrendered their agenda and it was basic to the disappointment and disillusionment and this desperation pushed youth to a stage where they resort to self-harm.” He sees south Kashmir as “politically sensitive”.
A seasoned politician, Tarigami sees the “ruthless expression of state” as the key compounding factor. “Harsh high-handedness is inbuilt in our system and this ruthless expression of the state has impacted negatively the entire Kashmir,” comrade Tarigami said. “Burhan Wani was not the only individual whom this system created using highhandedness as the state policy.”
“Kashmir was finding it very difficult to reconcile with events like Babri Masjid demolition but that was a place far off from Kashmir,” says NC lawmaker Abdul Majid Larmi. “But how can Kashmir reconcile with the reality that after 25 years of living in Sidhra, 19 houses belonging to Kashmiri Muslims were demolished in Jammu with Mehbooba Mufti in the chair?”
“What is so wrong in saying that Kashmir is a dispute and needs resolution?” Larmi asked. “When I say it, I am a lawmaker and when a minor kid says the same thing on road, he needs to be sent to Kot Balwal.” Larmi insisted he has 20 cases of PSAs in his constituency and most of them are “innocents”. Police state, Larmi said, is a key factor. “In Qaimoh, a boy was being raided almost every week and was forced to become a militant. Now the family has three militants,” Larmi said. “This is all being done by the police that enjoys unbridled powers and immunity.”
The region has countless stories in which the police chase actually led youth to react and invest time, resources and their lives in renewed rebellion. Most of the militants who were killed or are active right now were active in the 2008 and 2010 summer unrest, the twin milestone events that, many believe, were a serious effort of taking tehreek from violence to non-violence. But the situation in policing remained unchanged and most of them came on police radar. Cases were registered against them and they went to jail which marked the beginning of their education on Kashmir as a conflict spot. Gradually, some of them finally landed up in rebelling against the system they had personal grouse against.
The stardom of Burhan owed much to his “humiliation” by police than by conviction, initially. The teenager bunked the school and went into the neighbouring woods and resurrected militancy without the support of Pakistan and apparently with no clear resources. Part of his reputation was because he created a successful militant module, to the surprise of both India and Pakistan, using battle fatigue and the internet, without hiding either his face or his ideas.
Once established, Burhan became the refuge of all those youth who felt hurt by the systemic working. Youth framed in botched-up investigations beelined the periphery of Tral jungles. They started joining him and it included a policeman who wanted to be a ‘good cop’ but was allegedly humiliated by his own colleague in the police station! The situation has reached a level that a ‘rebel”, who got killed very recently, had gotten funds from his parents to purchase his prized possession – an AK 47.
Keen watchers insist that as these youngsters reached an iconic status within the space they existed, youth started competing with each other to get in. A Congressman said that during the summer of 2016 when the youth was limited to their homes and Azaadi was in full display from TV screens to the streets, his own grandson was shouting slogans for freedom. “No classroom can do what 2016 did in pushing sentiment to the new generation,” he admitted.
Given the limitations of space within the nascent teenage rebel camp – for lack of resource and weapons, not everybody is welcome. A general belief on south Kashmir streets is that a “waiting list” exists there too. Those finding no space started sympathising with them. And this sympathy is key to understanding the “suicidal tendency” that is usually on display every time a crack force of soldiers and cops moves for a “kill”.
Academicians and the civil society sees this transformation from a slightly different angle. Prof. Gull M Wani, who teaches political science at the University of Kashmir, says that there are “pockets” that are exhibiting differently and not entire south. “There is no single explanation to deconstruct the current state in Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama,” Wani said. “These areas have unique electoral and political history and have witnessed various collisions in perceptions among people and politics.”
Firstly, Wani said, despair is the outcome of the disillusionment with ruling PDP that was supported by entire anti-NC camp but “crossed the ideological limits”.
Secondly, he sees high literacy level and economically sound belts actually sending more youth to rebel and resist.
Thirdly, he sees a clear leadership deficit with the people in politics not coming even closer to towering personalities like Kochaks, Handoo and others. “But to understand the real tremors, there is a requirement of a major study,” Wani insisted. “That only can help us understand organisation and mobilisation.”
Prof A G Mir, an erstwhile English teacher in the local college and now a member of the civil society, says recurrence of events keeps the region in perpetual focus as situations escalate on geometric progression. “Everybody knows that Kashmir is an unsettled problem and people from diverse backgrounds for different reasons are taking refuge into it,” Prof Mir said. “Conversion of agriculture land has added to the unemployment and there are not many avenues and this situation is exploited by vested interest in a system that lacks accountability.” At the same time, however, Mir said the new generation has ingrained “hate India” as part of its belief set-up and is seemingly uncompromising. “In reaction, the state is harsh and that creates tragedies,” Mir said. “A boy who was offering drinking water to the processions in summer 2016 is now in jail. Why?”
Early March when Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti invited a gathering of youth to her Gupkar residence, she had to face certain uncomfortable questions. “I want to ask you Mehbooba Mufti,” one angry young girl actually shouted at her, the girl’s finger pointing towards her, “How can you use pellets and gorge eyes of the youth who supported you a year ago?”
Her party is facing the music as a number of youth who are cooling their heels in jails have strong PDP connections. There were at least three militants, who were killed recently, who were the party’s cardholders, and one of them was actually an election agent. A number of youth who were killed in 2016 summer were very supportive of the PDP at one point of time. Even media reported Akhran Nowpora’s Rasikh Bhat, from whose home PDP operated for Devsar.
Given the fact that PDP owes its existence to south Kashmir, it is very important to see how it sees the transformation at home turf. But eliciting a response to the situation is very hard. A vast section is keen to stay non-committal. Another section reacts cautiously taking the strict official line. “It is fact that there have been certain limitations in reaching out to the youth for which we actually we did get time,” Peer Mansoor, said. “But now we have started outreach plans. Chief Minister has already started distributing scooties and after the elections are over, you will see youth engagement at a large scale.”
A third section is keen to react but is keen to stay anonymous. “The fact of the matter is that our people feel insulted and humiliated,” one leader said. “The tragedy is that we fund pellets and PAVA shells liberally and not the youth engagement plans as employment schemes remain unmoved.” He sees the crisis starting from alienation for reasons of governance or engagement and then gradually matures into a conviction for the “cause” either in jails or within the peer group.
The leader said that he talked to three families, who were earlier supportive of PDP, but lost their wards in 2016, with jobs. “I was shocked to listen to the response: they said Thank You and dropped the phone.” He said the party failed to follow up the engagement that had started quite early. “How many of our MLAs are willing to go to their constituencies and talk to people?” the leader said. “Individuals who walked over the graves of their sons and came to our support in elections did not do it for the jobs or support.”
Waheed Parra, who is the party’s only interface with youth, admits the crisis. “Kashmir is facing a peculiar problem: you have 18 plus population making a government and then the population below 18 threatening its very existence,” Parra said. “This is the result of giving charge of 65% population of below 18 years to the Station House Officer.”
“We engaged youth and then denied them any sort of empowerment,” Parra said. “As the youth see dignity in death, it essentially means that we have failed in offering them any dignity in life.” He said that the police’s failure in evolving something out of the box is key to preventing dehumanisation of youth which is crucial to the crisis. “There has to be a process and a clear plan for re-humanising the society that does not exclude police.”
Everyone agrees that if not violent, the elections would be a very low poll. “Even if we win, for us, it is not going to be a victory because people are still licking their wounds as we are still trying to get them to the polling booths,” said Parra. “The real loss is the political process that had a successful start.”