In October 2010, a 15-year old class 10 student, Burhan Wani, suddenly disappears from his home at Sharifabad, a nondescript village in the remote Tral area of Kashmir one fine day. This happens after he and his brother Khalid were intercepted and thrashed by the Indian security forces when they were on their way to some place. Earlier that year in summer major protests were held throughout Kashmir amidst enormous clampdowns by the government forces. About 117 people were killed in Police firing and many more injured. Numerous arrests were made, many of them random and vindictive in nature. There were allegations of the police exacting money from the families of the arrested youth, threatening of slapping the Public Safety Act upon them unless they paid huge sums in bribes. In many cases the youth were allegedly released only to be arrested again.
Five years later, in 2015, Wani makes a dramatic appearance on the social media, posting pictures and self-recorded YouTube videos. Posing in army fatigues, sometimes with a bunch of friends and peers of more or less his age, mostly from the same area as him, the young man becomes a heart-throb for many young Kashmiri boys. These are children of conflict, born and raised in and after the 1990’s, vulnerable to influences from radical forces and ready to be used as cannon fodder by Kashmir’s conflict industry which survives and thrives on instability and on the abuse of power by the state forces.
In June 2016, Burhan appears in a video, surrounded by weapons, boasting of a kārvāyi (‘action’) “last month in which our men targeted the army and the police personnel,” threatening of more such kārvāyi “without any warning” as the latter had not acted as advised, he says. Apni banduk ka rukh India ki taraf kar do (‘Turn your guns at India’), he directs the local police in a matter-of-fact tone. While he makes a statement assuring the “protection of the Amarnath Yatris” (because “they are our guests,” he says), he also adds a warning against the formation of the proposed colonies for sainiks (‘soldiers’) and “composite colonies” for the rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits – proposals which many Kashmiri Muslims, especially the separatists, saw as an attempt to “turn Kashmir into an Israel-like occupation in Palestinian territory.” Recall that much hullabaloo and paranoia was created after the newly-formed state government announced the two proposals which have since been set aside.
In yet another video footage that appeared later, Wani is seen with five other young boys in black-n-white kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads video-taping themselves during a private moment in a forest near Kolgam – a scenic village of Kashmir located at a distance of 68 km from Srinagar. In the footage which is more pretentious and comical in nature than it is terror-inducing in character, the friends are seen hugging, joking and calling each other names like “hato, Lashkar waalyah” (‘Hey, Lashkar man’). One of them, in a boyish way, turns: “You videotape me and I will videotape you.” Towards the end of the amateur video, Wani makes a reference to Rajauri being “very close” and maintains “Pakistan is on the other side of (a nearby) “baagh’ (‘garden’)”. Among the group, Wani is the most good-looking and soft-spoken one. He could very well be an actor from a cheesy Bollywood movie or perhaps a prospective fashion model.
Soon after the videos appear, the mainstream Indian media pounce on the opportunity to turn Wani, an otherwise non-entity who hardly anyone knew before, into a most-wanted and dreaded terrorist – khunkhār ātankvādi is how a national television channel describes him. Though he never crossed the border nor reportedly conducted any operations himself, he is introduced as a “commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen”, a terrorist outfit based in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A bounty of Rupees ten lakh (i.e. Rs. 1000,000) is soon announced as a reward for any information leading to him. A similar coverage is given to several other youth, including Zakir Rashid Bhat (also “Zakir Musa”) of Nurpura (Pulwama). Recall that Zakir had just joined the ranks of Burhan in a dramatic way: at the end of a vacation in Pehelgam and Gulmarg with his college friends from Chandigarh where he was pursuing a degree in civil engineering. “Don’t try and look for me. Jihad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris,” Zakir wrote in a note for his father before he disappeared.
This was a time when the rise of the Indian right was being discussed in heated debates on the national television. In Dadri, a village in Uttar Pradesh, a 50-year old Muslim man, Muhammad Akhlaq, was mercilessly lynched by an angry mob inspired by the right wing RSS ideology after a rumor spread that the family had eaten beef. In a similar incident, Zahid, a trucker was attacked on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway with petrol bombs on suspicion that he was carrying “cattle for slaughter”. On his death, the murderer of Akhlaq received a hero’s funeral, wrapped in the tricolor. Several such ruthless killings took place in the name of “religious sentiments” since and the rise of the Hindutvavadi forces continued across the country mobilizing into vigilante groups and cracking down upon various groups and vulnerable populations on one pretext or another.
“Why is (Kashmiri) Muslim youth knocking at the doors of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen?” — Harinder Baweja of the Hindustan Times took up the question in December 2015 and traveled to Pulwama inquiring about the “Tral boys”, Naseer Ahmad Pandit, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, and Afaq Ahmad Bhat. Nasir Pandit, a young Jammu & Kashmir police constable, Baweja maintains, was the “first to cast his vote” (in the assembly elections) and “among the few who cheered for India during an India-Pakistan (cricket) match” that had been held in the recent past. Yet, one fine day in 2015, Pandit disappeared along with his service weapon. In a press release, Pandit was “claimed as a trophy” by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. His father referred to the incident of the trucker burnt alive on the Jammu-Srinagar highway as one of the possible reasons behind his decision. In fact, Burhan’s father too made a reference to the two incidents related to the beef controversy as some of the reasons behind his son and boys of his age joining “Jihad”. “Beef is halal for Muslims,” he says on camera, “pehle khuda, phir bet̩a, Islam hamein yehi sikhata hai (‘First God, then the son; that is what Islam teaches us’).”
Wani was gunned down by the forces on July 8 2016 in what they called an “encounter”. An ocean of people attended the militant’s funeral. The dead body was carried without a shroud, his wounded face visible through his bloodied clothes and his uncovered feet on the wooden pyre as mourners attempted to touch him on all sides before his final rites. It was a spectacle. His brother Khalid had been killed in yet another “encounter” only a year ago when he went to meet Burhan at his “hideout”. But he wasn’t even a militant we were told. “Then how did they carry out an encounter of his brother?” people wanted to know.
Reit ki deewaar ko ek dhakka aur do; BJP sarkaar ko ek dhakka aur do (‘Give another push to the wall of sand; give another push the BJP government’) – slogans such as these reverberated in the streets of downtown Srinagar in July 2016. The rise of the right wing parties in the Indian mainstream had made many people nervous about the “special status” of the state and the status and future of Article 370, which the BJP openly advocated to abrogate – a slogan it sort of relied its victory upon in the Jammu province. The newly formed PDP-BJP alliance didn’t go down very well with many Kashmiri Muslims, including PDP’s support base, who saw the alliance as a “sell out”, a “stab in the back”.
The role of the media in covering the situation in Kashmir has been pretty dubious throughout, providing only a murky picture for two parallel discourses have served different audiences. While heart-wrenching images of teenage boys and minors – dead, injured or blinded in firing by the security forces, wailing mothers and sisters, graphic images of injuries – took the front pages of the local newspapers in Srinagar, the national media generally glossed over much of the details of the ground situation in Kashmir, often not even covering it at all. Instead, they focused on such trivial issues like whether or not a certain Pakistani actor should be allowed to stay in India because they had “not condemned the Uri attack.” While the separatists and their supporters, including some valley-based newspapers, used exaggeration and hyperbole in whipping up sentiment in the valley, the mainstream Indian media would rather downplay the police atrocities on the citizens. At the same time, many nationalist Indians, chose to put the blame on the victims themselves, feeding into the discourse of hatred against Kashmiris, calling them “jehadis”, “Islamists” and “terrorists” on social media.
Close to a hundred young lives were silenced and many more injured in firing by the police and security personnel during protests and processions in Kashmir in the 2016 uprising. Many received life-changing injuries, and the majority of those affected were youth, including several minors. A large number of people, many of these youths indulging in violent stone-pelting protests and also many government employees and separatist leaders were arrested during the unrest, causing much outrage in various circles. “A state of anarchy” was how a senior journalist based in Srinagar described the situation when I talked to him on phone during the third week of my six-week long visit to Kashmir last summer. Not to mention the enormous losses incurred by the endless shutdowns.
The 2016 unrest had the undertones of the uprising which took place in the aftermath of the notoriously rigged 1987 elections when the Muslim population of Kashmir felt disenfranchised and many young men crossed the border in a state of frustration and deceit. “Entire ballot boxes were thrown out the window,” a Srinagar-based senior journalist said in an interview to researchers at the Kashmir Oral History project. Many activists of the otherwise winning party, the Muslim United Front (Muslim Muttahida Mahaaz) ended up crossing over to Pakistan for arms training to protest against what was an outrageous failure of the democratic process.
Fast forward to early 2017. While more and more incidents of atrocities by vigilante forces continue to take the headlines of newspapers and television screens at the national level amidst a sense of fear among the minorities which was confounded by the outcome of the legislative elections in India’s biggest state (Uttar Pradesh), a parliamentary by-election in April triggered another spat of violent protests in the Kashmir valley. Voting machines smashed by the protesters, dozens of incidents of stone-pelting and several more young lives lost in retaliatory action by the paramilitary forces. Youth locking soldiers in polling booths and the soldiers using civilians as human cover against angry mobs — sentiments have been high and so have tempers.
In May 2017, Sabzar Bhat, who had succeeded Burhan Wani as the “Hizb commander”, was killed in a similar “encounter” followed by massive funeral processions and calls for Azadi and Nizam-e-Mustafa. More recently, we have seen attacks by militants on the police forces killing many, buildings set on fire by the soldiers after more “encounters” with the militants, and soldiers posing next to charred bodies of the slain militants in photo ops. We have also witnessed an angry mob lynching a lonely policeman mercilessly to death outside the grand mosque of Srinagar on what ought to be the night of prayers and value during the holy month of Ramadhan.
Again Kashmir is shrouded in grief. Every other day is yet another day of violence and uncertainty. More and more youth are on a suicidal path romanticizing militancy and gun culture, occupying places of worship and instigating violent protests, and cracking down upon institutions of learning and intellectual growth. Strengthening their grip on to symbols of a radical ideology, many of these “freedom fighters” are advocating a homogeneous society under the aegis of an Islamic state and the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic governance), thus shaking the very foundations of the syncretic culture that the Kashmir of yore boasted of. With a worsening situation at the hands of the vigilante groups elsewhere in India, the space for Kashmir’s liberals and secularists is fast shrinking. So what has really been achieved over the years and where are we heading? Some food for thought…