A year after Burhan

New levels of violence are erupting in Kashmir

A year after Burhan
When we open our eyes on July 8, it will be one year past the killing of Burhan Wani, the poster boy of Kashmir militancy who not only eclipsed thousands like him who chose the gun over dialogue, but gave new impetus to the armed struggle. Till the time he was encircled in his “hideout” in South Kashmir and swiftly gunned down by the forces, his potential to become a rallying point for a new wave of protests was unknown.

Burhan hit the scene by displaying his unique Kashmiriness on social media and soon his messages of “tak[ing] on India’s might” went viral. He was indeed a Kashmiri with rosy cheeks and there was not a shred of malnutrition visible on his face. As news of his killing spread like wildfire, Kashmir erupted into an unprecedented commotion that did not let up for about six months. Life came to a grinding halt, thousands were injured, and scores lost their eyesight from being shot with pellets. Nearly 100 civilians were killed. The government lost control and people claimed the streets. The voices were becoming louder for Kashmir’s resolution. People did not shy from saying that they wanted “Azadi from India”.

For the first time in recent years, after the public protests loaded with political sloganeering became reality in 2008 and 2010, the youth were dead set on chasing death rather than running away from a policeman or a soldier as used to be seen in the 1990s. This sense of challenging the forces at the people’s level has crossed new barriers in the shape of resistance to counter-militancy operations. It was in March this year that three youth were killed in Chadoora of central Budgam district after people pelted stones at government forces who had gone to catch a single militant. He was eventually killed but not without taking three civilians along.
The BJP government's clear policy to take a military approach has hardened positions within Kashmir as well. In the last one year since Burhan was killed, the number of local militants has gone up. It was 88, the highest in 2016 and by the end of the year nearly 30 locals had joined ranks

The situation has not changed and instead has grown worse in that sense. Since South Kashmir is seen as a hotbed of homegrown militancy, the forces have been struggling to flush them out. But people putting up a resistance is making the job difficult and the collateral damage in such operations is becoming a new norm. When on May 4 the Army launched a massive operation in South Kashmir by encircling 20 villages, they had to retreat as people “defeated their plans”. However, by pumping more forces into South Kashmir, the strategy is to limit the operations to smaller areas and on the basis of specific inputs. That, however, does not come without resistance that ultimately claims civilian lives.

This phenomenon is deeply rooted in the angst against the state that has been in denial. Involvement of people in the agitation against the state has undergone a drastic shift and the figures are enough to explain the drift that has taken place in the last one year. In the first six months of 2017, the number of civilians killed in different incidents is 32, which is nearly eight times higher than what it was in the same period in 2016. According to official records, five civilians lost their lives from January to June 2016.

The way the people forced the government to indefinitely postpone the by-elections for the Anantnag parliamentary seat in April sent enough of a message on how the distance between the people and their politicians has increased. When the by-elections to Srinagar were held on April 9, it came at much higher price as people’s resistance led to the killing of nine civilians by the forces. National Conference president Farooq Abdullah did win the seat but the lowest turnout of 7% put a question mark on its credibility.

Whatever is seen today in Kashmir, either in the shape of rising militancy that has much bigger participation of locals than what it was eight years back, or the people showing up to challenge the forces without hiding their faces, is the result of the insensitive approach Delhi has adopted. Burhan was a trigger that consolidated a simmering discontent in Kashmir. It could have been anything else but him becoming a rallying point to unite Kashmiris not only showed how the ground situation had slipped out of their hands but it also led to social sanction for violence as a means to achieve a political goal. Kashmiris had consciously embraced a transition from violence to non-violence and that is how a peace process on two tracks—Delhi-Islamabad and Delhi-Srinagar—factored into this reality from 2003 to 2007. Though many were skeptical about its success, notwithstanding the historic confidence building measures between two parts of Jammu and Kashmir, the process had enlivened the hope of a durable and dignified solution to the Kashmir issue.

That, however, did not lead to a settlement. Amid claims and counterclaims between New Delhi and the resistance leadership that engaged in dialogue, the gains were wasted when Mumbai terror attacks hit India. But Yasin Malik, chairman of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), accuses Delhi of derailing the process. In an exhaustive letter written to the Unites States government (in the backdrop of Hizb chief Salahuddin being declared a global terrorist), he says that the bureaucracy sabotaged then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s plan to resolve the Kashmir issue. “I took the most unpopular decision of a unilateral ceasefire, endangering my and the lives of my colleagues. This was a decision that threatened to jeopardize my political career, my integrity and could have negated my struggle and sacrifices but despite all odds and provocations by Indian forces to go back on the path of violence, I stood firm to my decision,” he writes about the unilateral ceasefire JKLF announced in 1994. “More than 600 of my colleagues were gunned down by Indian forces after this but no one from the international community intervened.”

Both India and Pakistan have failed to pick up the threads from the process that had promised new hope. With a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi and a weak civilian government in Pakistan, hostilities have touched a new low. On top of it, Delhi’s belligerence on Kashmir has compounded the problem. With no political approach in sight, tongues are rightly wagging as to what will happen in Kashmir on July 8. The BJP government’s clear policy to take a military approach has hardened positions within Kashmir as well. In the last one year since Burhan was killed, the number of local militants has gone up. It was 88, the highest in 2016 and by the end of the year nearly 30 locals had joined ranks. Frustration and despondency are pushing raw youth into violence. It is unlike proper training that would take them to the other side of the Line of Control. Today’s youth is content with training at the local level and they sustain the tempo by snatching rifles from the police and paramilitary forces. With the political dimension of the problem being a hard reality that is sustaining violence, bad governance, corruption and atrocities by the forces are making it a deadly combination of factors. Burhan may have died but his killing shaped a new Kashmir that is aggressive and violent. Delhi may not read the writing on the wall as it probably suits its hardline agenda on Kashmir but people certainly suffer and may continue to brave the odds of uncertainty.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at shujaat7867@gmail.com