By Reeta Tremblay*
July 2016 will be etched for a long time in the memory of Kashmiri Muslims as mensis horribilis. The killing of Burhan Muzafar Wani, the 22 year old homegrown commander of the Hizb ul Mujahideen and two of his associates by the security forces (including the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Rashtriya Rifles and the CRPF), when the Valley was in the midst of Eid festivities, was to unleash a state of pandemonium.
Burhan, currently one of the most recognizable faces of the militancy, has acquired the status of Shaheed (martyr) along with Maqbool Butt and Afzal Guru (the former hanged on February 11 in 1984 and the latter on February 9, 2013) for openly challenging the dominant State power and keeping alive Kashmiri resistance against the Indian State. Since July 8, 2016, following the public grieving for their local hero (which included 40 funeral prayers for Burhan’s janaza), Kashmir Valley has remained engulfed for more than two weeks in continuing violence. Stone pelleting crowds (including women and children) were responded to harshly by the security forces’ so-called non-lethal pellet guns, fired at close range, resulting in the death of 45 people and injury to more than 2000 civilians.
In this unparalleled two week retaliation by the security forces, 30 people, including children, lost one eye and at least 3 people lost both their eyes. 99 percent of those killed and injured are under the age of 25. The Valley has remained under curfew for more than two weeks. Defying curfew, the streets are open sites of contestation between the Kashmiri masses (mostly young men but children and women are visible too) and the State. The Central government rushed additional troops to the Valley to curb the on-going cycle of violence. Meanwhile all communication channels have been closed – no internet and mobile service. At the end of the first week of protests, the police raided the leading Press Offices of two local English dailies and seized the copies of their newspapers.
Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, points out that this information blackout is nothing new. A recent illustration of State control over the press took place after the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013. The State’s Education Minister justified the muzzling of the local press on the grounds that its intent was ‘curbing violence’. All these actions, as a recent New York Times editorial points out, are not worthy of Indian democracy.
State actions to control the mass protest through the usage of force, denial of public space for protest, mobility and information to the Valley’s already angry and grieving population have been accompanied by a hysterical, often provocative, response in certain sectors of India’s media, resulting in further alienation and resistance in the Valley to the Indian state. The day Burhan was killed, the Indian news channels, some with great bravado, talked in detail about the army operation to capture Burhan and his two colleagues and showed the dead militants faces on television – apparently without realizing the consequences of such a coverage, for, the Kashmiri masses, while most of them abhor violence, did admire the courage and commitment of these local young men to openly challenge the Indian State. No doubt, what Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Wani, a government school principal, had to say about his son’s death (“It gives a satisfaction that he has achieved martyrdom”) echoes what the ordinary Kashmir Muslim feels and thinks. It is clear that the dominant narratives such as ‘a terrorist is a terrorist, ‘jihadi militant and religious radicalization’, ‘Pakistan intervention in India’s internal affairs’, ‘Kashmir a law and order problem’ fail to grasp the Kashmiri reality, Kashmiri Muslims’ grievances and their ongoing resistance against the Indian State and their demands for azadi.
Both the regional government and the union government appear to be ineffective in reassuring the masses. It was almost a week after Burhan killing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first statement which was fundamentally an advice to the security forces to exercise restraint and see that the civilians are not harassed.
Demonstrating an unfortunate lack of insight into the Kashmiri political reality, Home Minister Rajnath Singh blamed Pakistan for the bloodshed and pointed out that the current crisis was basically between the separatists and the country. No wonder Rajnath’s visit to the Valley on July 23 to reach out to the people of Kashmir received a major setback as prominent trade and commerce bodies refused to meet him and the imams who showed up to meet him had their faces covered while in the car which transported them to visit the Home Minister.
The Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, who heads the ruling PDP-BJP coalition, has discovered that it is different to occupy the seat of the Chief Minister than to be in the opposition. She pleaded ignorance about the Burhan operation by the security forces. Several commentators have given credence to the view that in order to effectively perform their duties (in this case the elimination of the militant leadership), they do not and need not require civilian clearance during their operations.
After the huge backlash in the national and international media against the press censorship, she was to suggest that this action was done without her approval and was a result of some ‘local miscommunication’. Her personal apology to the editors of local dailies and her assurances of media independence ‘at all costs’ has brought some degree of rapprochement between the Press and the government. Only recently she reached out to the families of the civilians who lost their lives in the recent violence and assured them of every possible help. Although, after the first 30 people lost their lives at the hands of security forces in the first five days of the protests, Mehbooba did appeal to the civil society, religious leaders and the media ‘to cooperate and help restore peace’, it was to take her another ten days to call an all party-meeting to build consensus on the measures to be taken for restoring normalcy in the Valley, which the major opposition party, the National Conference, did not attend. The five-hour-long meeting ended with Mehbooba reiterating the PDP-BJP Agenda for Alliance –bringing all stakeholders on board to address problems confronting the State and to pursue a ‘politically inclusive’ and ‘development intensive’ agenda.
If the recent events have taught us anything, it is that there are serious limitations to any good governance strategy if identity-based demands are ignored. Despite the reactivation of the electoral process and the formation of popularly elected governments, demands for azadi have not abated. On-and-off, the Valley erupts; the 2008 Amaranth Land Row and the 2010 youth protests were reminiscent of the events of the late 1980s that culminated in the Kashmir Valley’s mass-supported opposition to India, the breakdown of the administrative framework and a reliance on the security forces to deal with the escalating ethno-nationalist upsurge. Now, once again (2016) the Valley is in the throes of a mass-supported protest politics.
Since the late 1990s the good governance agenda has been in the forefront of electoral programs of the Valley-based mainstream political parties—the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). In 2002, the PDP promised a corruption-free government, unconditional dialogue with militants, the disbanding of the Special Operations Group (SOG) while providing a ‘healing touch’ to those affected by the militancy. Following the PDP lead, in 2008, Omar Farooq of the National Conference similarly campaigned on a platform of meeting the daily needs of the people: bijli (electricity), pani (water) and sadak (roads). The ultimate articulation of the good governance agenda has been the 2015 Agenda of Alliance (AoA), negotiated between the PDP and the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), a guiding framework for governance for the two ideologically opposed coalition partners of the present government.
But improving governance through the delivery of economic and social benefits to the population might not be a good substitute for responding directly to the demands for dignity and justice arising out the persistent deep–rooted sentiments of a separate identity. And even if somehow improving the quality of governance is able to confer legitimacy upon the government it will likely prove to be only a short-term solution. A good governance strategy can only succeed if the Valley’s Muslims perceive that their distinct and separate identity is actually being protected, particularly in response to the competing nationalist/religious demands. Moreover, the State will have to deal with the Kashmiri Muslims’ collective memories of subjugation, which are built upon multiple occurrences since 1947.
Each period of Kashmir’s political resistance history – from raishumari (plebiscite) to autonomy to azadi and the accompanying strte’s repressive response – has contributed to the collective memories and conscience of the population, shaping and reshaping the nature of resistance, both in the everyday life of the Kashmiri Muslims and in open collective assertion against the Indian state. These memories have indeed emerged as instrumental in making Kashmiri Muslims become increasingly aware of the hegemonic forces, thereby only enlarging the possibilities for an active and continuing resistance against the state.
We need to get back to brass tracks. Kashmiri Muslims want good governance, democratic rights, and, protection of their religious and political identity. Congress Party member P.Chidambaram, the former Home Minister, has aptly noted recently that “we look at Kashmir as an issue of land, but it is a problem of people instead”.
Indeed, the Kashmiri people are as much searching for dignity and justice arising out their persistent deep–rooted sentiments of a separate identity as they are for their economic and material welfare.
*Prof. Reeta Tremblay is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She can be reached at: [email protected]