Why Kashmir's Armed Insurgency Is Not a Variant of Terrorism

Viewing Kashmir’s armed insurgency as a variant of terrorism fails to explain Rafi Bhat’s case. It is hard to blame a mix of poverty, unemployment and lumpen elements as the cause for armed militancy. Bhat’s militancy,  like that of many who lost their lives before him, challenges the statist narrative that is carved out in the national imagination by news outlets and rightwing political networks.  

Is Kashmir destined to writhe in extended bouts of violence? A new norm of mourning is inaugurated where a schoolboy, just nine years old, shot dead by the armed forces at a good distance from an encounter site, is buried in his school uniform. This sense of interminable mourning prevails in the Valley as the mother of a slain militant commander, Saddam Padder, gives a gun salute at the funeral of her son. A young boy trapped in a military cordon calls up his father to inform him that the time has come; the father consoles him by saying, “I hand you over to the Lord.” Perhaps, these stories seem unreal, almost mythical, but they are proof that Kashmir is turning into a cavernous void, gulping down lives, young and fresh.

The first Sunday in the month (6 May 2018) was drenched in the blood of almost a dozen people who were killed. But, what caught the attention of Kashmir watchers was the death of a university teacher, Rafi Bhat, who had a doctorate in sociology.

Bhat’s death has raised some disturbing questions about the new turn of events in Kashmir. He was not a teenager susceptible to a single dose of some high-voltage speech from a radicalised doctrinaire. He was not a school dropout trying to add value to his life. Married for three years and already teaching at a university, Bhat was on his way to a good career in academics. He had  every reason to want to live and possessed the necessary skills to secure a comfortable life for himself and his family. Why then did he choose otherwise?

Bhat’s alleged militancy cannot be explained away easily.

Viewing Kashmir’s armed insurgency as a variant of terrorism fails to explain Bhat’s case and it is hard to blame a mix of poverty, unemployment and lumpen elements as the cause for armed militancy. Bhat’s militancy,  like that of many who lost their lives before him, challenges the statist narrative that is carved out in the national imagination—fanatically and faithfully—by news outlets and rightwing political networks.

Recently, Junaid Sehrai—son of the newly elected chairman of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, M Ashraf Sehrai—with a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and belonging to an affluent family slipped into this world of armed rebellion (Greater Kashmir 2018). In early 2018, Mannan Wani, a PhD scholar from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen forgoing a future in academics (Jameel et al 2018). In his 20s, Esa Fazili, a third-year engineering student, left the BGSB University in Rajouri to join the militants. His funeral witnessed a display of ISIS flags (Sood 2017). Fazili also belonged to a financially stable family and had a good educational background.  

Album of Violence

What made these men join the armed groups instead of continuing to live a life of comfort?

Kashmir’s relationship with violence spans many decades. Burhan Wani had epitomised the deep cultivation of violence in the Valley for many years. Barely 15, Wani joined a militant group at a  time when the armed militancy was terminally lying on a cot. A few years down the line, Wani’s image had laid the foundation to a new genre of militancy. While it was minimal on the ground, it had swept the social media (Dasgupta 2016). Wani, with surprising speed, became the face of a new phase of militancy in Kashmir. When he was killed in 2016, Kashmir burst out like never before and with that emerged a new phase of violence as fresh blood streamed into militant groups in a steady trickle.

Every now and then, there is a story in the news media about some boy who has been missing, his image then appears on social media holding a gun; weeks later, another coffin is draped in green and carried on a million shoulders.

Each death invites more lives to this extremely short-lived experience. But, all of this did not happen overnight. Wani’s death and the subsequent public mobilisation was a telling statement on the failure of the political process in Kashmir. It also showed how deep structures of violence, put firmly in place, by the state defeat any political initiative, eliciting violent responses from people.

Even now, some “military strategists” emphasise that this unrestrained use of military force—a security driven mindset calls it operation clean out—against any traces of armed militancy is the sole way to make Kashmir violence-free. However, what they fail to understand is that armed militancy in Kashmir is a manifestation of a deeper contradiction that has been thrust on the “political-self” of Kashmir. Whenever this contradiction comes to a head, there is a surge in violence.

From the 1930s, Kashmir's politics evolved with a strong sense of individuality. Even as the stated “joined” the Union of India, Kashmir’s sense of selfhood was not eroded and it resisted all attempts at subordination from, and merger with, the politics manufactured in Delhi.

This separateness informs even the electoral politics of Kashmir  that is otherwise considered pro-India. Whenever this separateness, or call it political self of Kashmir, was assaulted, Kashmir went up in flames. It began with the arrest of Sheikh M Abdullah in 1953, and the first phase of resistance from this “political-self” against Delhi lasted for more than 20 years, until 1975. It was dotted with some violent patches, such as al-Fateh, the armed underground rebellion of 1965.

Later, when New Delhi again thrust itself on Kashmir as Rajiv Gandhi's Congress, and Farooq Abdullah's National Conference joined hands in 1987, popularly known as the Rajiv–Farooq Accord, the contradiction again turned active. That was the period when armed resistance began its journey. Similarly when the J&K Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made an alliance, it was a direct assault on the political self of Kashmir, hence this renewed phase of violent upheaval. This pattern is quite graspable in Kashmir's recent political history. Any attempts to forcibly, or mischievously, bring Kashmir's politics closer to that of New Delhi activates the primordial contradiction. All the proposals by the pro-India parties like the NC's Autonomy Resolution, or the PDP's Self Rule Document, are attempts to make that contradiction less frightening for the political self of Kashmir. When Kashmir reverberates with slogans like “We Want Freedom,” or “Go India Go Back,” that is a plain and undiluted expression of recovering the Kashmir's political self from the grip of that contradiction.

A long term, uninterruptible, political initiative based on an unhindered acceptance of the political realities of Kashmir is the only way violence can be contained in Kashmir. Rhetorical lines such as: “Kashmiri youth are alienated,”, “Sky is the limit,”, “Economic packages,”, “Democracy and secularism”– are expired coinage in Kashmir.

Towards the end of 1990s when armed militancy was decisively exhausted of its core energy, no one thought it would one day return in this manner. Though armed militancy in Kashmir was never completely absent, it had its highs and lows. From the mid-1990s, it underwent multiple changes. Prominent militant leaders were killed, and entire organisations were wiped out in military operations. Effectively, it no longer posed a challenge to the state. Kashmiris have faced severe repression all these years because of the militarised atmosphere. The total reliance on the military, meant to control a dissenting population, has engendered serious anxieties in the Kashmiri society (Greater Kashmir 2016). However, some silent changes have also happened over the years; Kashmir, as a society, started recovering and the political energies coalesced. However, this transformation still carried the memories of the 1990s.

Major events of violence where people were killed in large numbers, such as those in Handwara, Maisuma, Zakura, and Bijbehara, served as annual reminders of what Kashmir has been through. An entire crop of politically informed activists, most of whom had turned into militant commanders, became idols for the next generation (Greater Kashmir 2016). The core content from the “politics of resistance” either from the political history of conflict in Kashmir or the prevalent religious narrative in the Muslim societies was transmitted to the next generation without any loss. What happened in the 1990s was bound to re-emerge in newer forms. What those forms could be depended on Kashmir's own internal political dynamic, the international atmosphere, changes in the Muslim world, and of course the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Failed Peace Process

In the subsequent years, Kashmir witnessed an unfolding of a kind of peace process. This process did not deliver and significantly contributed to the return of violence to Kashmir. Though this new phase of violence cannot be explained solely in the backdrop of a failed peace process, a keen analysis of what went wrong with that process can yield some useful insights into understanding the pattern of present violence in Kashmir.       

The peace process, or what can also be called an India–Pakistan dialogue, divided the resistance leadership into hawks and doves at the very outset. But, the process created a new atmosphere for Kashmiris. The military footprint in the civilian areas diminished, giving people a long awaited relief. The opening up of the Line of Control (LoC), allowing Kashmiris to travel across to meet members of their families brought international attention to Kashmir. As hoardings in Srinagar city displayed things related to the other side of the line infused a sense of change. However, there was stiff opposition to this peace process from the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and the militant leadership also sounded dismissive, but it somehow informed people's deeper responses.

Kashmiris attempted to grasp the importance of this change, as there were open exchanges on differing points of view within Kashmir. Even the hardliners who opposed such a peace process articulated their opposition well. One of their major concerns was that the peace process does not end up becoming a resolution to this conflict. They also assumed there could be dishonesty in the peace project on part of both the states, India as well as Pakistan. On a rhetorical front they branded the votaries of this peace process as being capable of selling the blood of martyrs. It was during those days that Kashmir occasionally reverberated with the slogan Shuhada Kai Vaaris Zinda Hian; in plain terms meaning that the legacy of armed struggle, and the memory of those who fell in the fight against the oppressive state, is not lost. The torch is aflame.

Pervez Musharraf's “four-point formula” faced severe criticism from the opponents of this peace process in Kashmir (Greater Kashmir 2015). He was voted out of power in Pakistan in 2008 and with that the peace process in Kashmir was destabilised. Public mobilisation in the same year crashed the floodgates open. Tens of thousands were on the roads in Kashmir, seeking resolution: Intifada as it later became popularised. In the aftermath of this agitation, even the alliance between  the PDP and Congress snapped, and with that the state government fell. As a shrewd politician, an image that the late Mufti Sayeed had earned for himself over decades, he peddled a soft separatism, riding on popular sentiment. But the PDP could not make it to the hot seat. Omar Abdullah was sworn in as the new chief minister, but things turned unfavourable for him at the outset.

The alleged rape-and-murder case in 2009 of two young women in Shopian resulted in a long agitation. The build-up for a major crisis began with the story of a fake encounter at Machhil, in North Kashmir (Jaleel 2011). In 2010, the public erupted again, more than 100 people were killed, and Kashmir remained shut for months. The two public mobilisations—2008 and 2010—brought up new images of violence in Kashmir. When unarmed people fell to the bullets of government forces it brought global attention to Kashmir. The lingering image that these two uprisings produced was that of stone pelting. The stones had replaced the AK-47s of 1990s.

The Government of India (GoI) later appointed a team of interlocutors on 25 September 2010 as a direct result of the long public agitation in the same year (Kumar 2010). This team held extensive meetings with individuals and parties and produced a report in the end. This report too advocated the creation of an atmosphere of outward peace, also addressing some serious political concerns of Kashmir[1]. Nothing moved, and all the moderate voices in Kashmir went silent one by one. Meanwhile Indian politics took a turn for the worse.

Slave to Mainland Politics

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Congress was pushed out of power and with that all the characters, that had in the past, attempted to initiate a peace process in Kashmir disappeared from the scene. In 2014, in the Jammu and Kashmir state elections, the PDP raised the fear among Muslims in Kashmir saying that  if a Kashmir-based party did not secure a majority, then the BJP would take the lead by sweeping the Hindu votebank in Jammu.

The electorate was divided vertically into Muslims and Hindus. In Kashmir, many people voted for the first time just to keep the BJP at bay. However, PDP did not manage to get the majority of votes. People, individually and in groups, made frantic attempts to impress upon Kashmir-based parties to cobble together a coalition to keep the BJP out. However,  their hopes were finally dashed to ground when Mufti Sayeed broke his silence to announce an alliance with the BJP. While  Mufti Sayeed may have thought of this move as a “master stroke,” he must have also realised that Kashmir’s politics was now slave to the new masters of Indian politics (Noorani 2015).  

Kashmir is now in a state of collapse. The current pattern of violence just indicates that. If it goes on to become a part of some global violent pattern, state and non-state, Kashmir will never be the same.

A new dynamic has already crept in. Earlier people used to wait for the dead bodies of militants to be handed over to the families by the police. Now, they rush to the site of encounter to save them (Bhat 2017). This is one of the reasons as to why there are militant killings accompanied by civilian killings on the sites of encounters. Two bloody Sundays, one in April and another in May, are a reflection of how Kashmir is turning into heap of explosives.   

What Lies Ahead

When the rising tide of a communally charged politics in India is seen as posing an existential threat to the Muslim population of Kashmir, violence is fed through visceral responses. Young boys, one after another, are being lowered into graves: in twos, threes, and sometimes by the dozens. Bhat is the latest addition. Kashmir carries the coffins of its own future.

These graves are becoming the signposts of an unknown journey for the Kashmir conflict. Kashmiri society is no longer what it was in the 1990s. Then, Kashmir had capacity to absorb and accommodate violent shocks; it is that capacity which helped transform an armed movement gradually into political forms of dissent and resistance. This generation of militants does not have any experience with political processes, add to this the general decay of politics in India and Kashmir is  put into a state of suspense, as the state familiarises itself with newer patterns of violence. These patterns of violence cannot be contained and will eventually find new breeding grounds. 

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