27 Sep 2010
Kashmir: The Hour of the Vulture
By Ajai Sahni 

The Indian state bought itself a few precious days of ‘peace’ – actually, the absence of fatalities (though some of those injured in earlier violence did die during this phase) or of high levels of mass violence – through a relentless 15-day curfew that paralysed life across the Valley, and the diversionary spectacle of the ‘All Parties Delegation’ to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The pious intentions of the Centre and the State Government have, since, been encapsulated in an ‘eight point peace package’ that has done nothing to assuage the volatile separatist constituency in the State, and has been rejected even by the ‘moderate’ factions of the Hurriyat.

Preliminary reports at the time of writing suggest that, while curfew has officially been lifted from ‘most parts’ of the Valley, it is, in fact, even now been imposed in all but a few upscale neighbourhoods and arterial roads in Srinagar. As for the Government’s resolve to open educational institutions, and to provide special and dedicated transport, under protection, to school children, this is already falling apart. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the principal leader of the current disorders, has already announced a new ‘calendar’ of shutdowns, commencing Monday, September 27, the date on which schools were to open, and has declared, that, "by showing false sympathy for our children, India is only trying to deceive us." Early reports suggest that few children were actually on the buses Monday morning, and several acts of violence had already been witnessed, including damage to vehicles, despite the overwhelming Security Forces’ (SFs) presence. The move to open schools can be expected to quickly collapse, with few, if any, parents willing to risk the lives of their children in the Centre’s gambit.

Over the past weeks, the sheer and criminal ignorance of the policy discourse has been repeatedly exposed in what appears to be a competition to produce the most vapid statements. Among these, the winner must certainly be UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for "an immediate end to violence in Kashmir" and for "calm and restraint by all concerned". Unsurprisingly, the impact of this sanctimonious nonsense on the situation in the Valley has been no different from that of the high-sounding garbage that has been spewed out by many ‘leaders’ over the past twenty years of violence.

As for the All Parties Delegation – that blind, ignorant clutch at ‘peace’ – what were they thinking? What obscure secrets was this gaggle of ill-informed politicians, drawn from distant provinces across the country, expected to uncover during their brief and directionless visit? Their ‘discoveries’ cannot conceivably have been expected to include anything that was not already known to ‘Delhi’. What this sad assemblage of discordant political voices has produced is just another edition of the enduring incoherence of policy that has systematically eroded governance and the hard won possibilities of peace in J&K.

It cannot have been otherwise. Initiatives based on contra-factual assessments of the prevailing ground situation cannot produce effective policy interventions, and the entire political assessment of the situation in Kashmir, and of the emergence of the current disorders, is contra-factual.

According to the dominant narrative, the present ‘disorders’ or, as the separatists like to style them, ‘intifada’, commenced abruptly as a reaction to the death of Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, who was fatally hit by a tear gas shell on June 11, 2010. The internal contradiction of this narrative should have been obvious at this very point: evidently, the SFs were already using tear gas against presumably violent crowds at this stage, so the disorders clearly preceded this incident.

A quick look at the facts – something ‘Delhi’ and the All Party Delegation apparently have had little time for – will establish that, with the sharp and continuous decline in terrorist activities in J&K since 2001, essentially as a result of rising internal and external pressures on Pakistan, the separatists and their backers had decided to engineer a transformation of their movement to an intifada model – violent street mobilisation, backed by calibrated terrorist incidents. Sufficient cumulative intelligence of such intent has been available over at least the past five years.

Crucially, these intentions had already been irrevocably demonstrated in several cycles of violent mobilisation, prominently including widespread disruption in the wake of the ‘prostitution scandal’ of March 2006; in June 2007, when the rape and murder of a teenager became instrumental in escalating an ongoing xenophobic campaign against the presence of migrant workers in the State; by the Amarnath land transfer agitation in June-August 2008; in 2009, again through June-August, in mass agitations and violence organised around the Shopian rape-murder allegations. Between these major mobilisations, there were numerous lesser attempts, focused around various ‘moral codes’, ‘anti-vice’ campaigns, ‘un-Islamic’ content of Television broadcasts, etc., most of which failed to secure significant traction, but each of which provoked some disruptions.

The current cycle of violent mobilisation is variously dated from June 11, 2010, the date on which Tufail Mattoo was killed; or from June 26, 2010, with the Krankshivan incident, in which protestors from Sopore confronted the Police in the middle of a counter-terrorist operation. Two terrorists were killed, but two protestors also lost their lives.

It is, however, altogether incorrect to believe that something new was initiated, either on June 11 or June 26. Indeed, protests had never ceased at any time in the post-Amarnath campaign phase. Since the supposed ‘end’ of the Amarnath agitation, there have, in fact, been several incidents of stone pelting every single Friday, often at multiple locations, with a particular focus in the Srinagar Downtown area. There was also the major Safar-e-Azadi (Journey to Freedom) campaign, which witnessed as many as 1,260 separatist rallies across the Valley, as well as the India Ragdocampaign, which saw significant street mobilisation. The situation had, in other words, been kept on a continuous simmer.

Partial data available indicates that there were 350 pelting incidents in 2008, with 750 injured. In 2009, there were 250 incidents, with 250 injured. In just January and February 2010, there were 60 incidents, with 240 injured. In addition, the number of Policemen injured by stone pelters in these years were, 2008: 140; 2009: 320; 2010 (Jan-Feb): 96. Nearly 4,000 SFs and 504 civilians have been injured in street violence over the past three months, and a total of 103 protesters and one Policeman have been killed since June 11, 2010.

Between January 2010 and end-May 2010 alone, 9,300 tear gas shells were used in as many as 519 incidents, well before the present ‘crisis’ was acknowledged to have commenced.

More than three weeks of continuous disorders had been experienced after the killing of two protestors, one on February 2 and another on February 4, 2010. Even after the Tufail Matoo killing of June 11, 2010, while the troubles persisted, they did not escalate dramatically, despite two fatalities on June 20 in Srinagar.

It was only after the Krankshivan incident, with the dovetailing of terrorist and street mobilisation, that an abrupt escalation was witnessed. The situation was infinitely compounded by the earlier release, on June 8, of Masarat Alam, and the innovation of the ‘calendar’ of protests, that was implemented through a complex of widespread rage at the continuous civilian fatalities, street and house to house mobilisation, and outright intimidation.

Through all this, the ‘strategy’ – if any – of the administration and the security establishment, was simply to wait for the trouble to break out, and then to react with the use of available Force. Inevitably, in each such cycle, someone would die – the sheer dispersal and intensity of the stone pelting incidents ensured this. Significant indices of intensity are provided by the fact that as many as 32,162 teargas shells had been used in just the period between June 26 and August 25, 2010; and just between June 1 and August 12, 2010, 1,129 stone pelting incidents had been recorded [recorded incidents do not reflect a very large number of minor incidents involving a few individuals, where little damage is caused], averaging nearly 27 incidents a day.

The response of the SFs to the agitation reflects a comprehensive crisis of capacities. The lack of non-lethal weapons and of training has been widely commented upon, but is not the heart of the failure. Irrespective of weaponry, personal armour and training (which are, of course, factors that must be separately evaluated) current deployments cannot deliver effective non-lethal riot-control responses. The dispersal and size of deployments is simply too small for effective riot control. Small, heavily armed units, in some cases issued with additional ‘non-lethal’ weapons, including tear-gas rifles, pellet guns and lathis, are presently the norm. In every deployment in the worst affected areas, these units are too small and too widely dispersed to escape the risk of being overrun without recourse to firing. Indeed, firing has ordinarily been resorted to in precisely such situations, where large and violent crowds are on the verge of overrunning such deployments [though there have been confirmed reports of at least some incidents of panic or otherwise unjustifiable firing].

Through all this, and in the years, preceding, a systemic perversion of the political discourse in J&K has undermined or even destroyed every constitutional and democratic political constituency, even as it has strengthened the separatists. Both the Government of India (GoI) and the State Government have undermined democratic legitimacy and institutions, discounted and discredited elected leaderships, privileged violence, appeased the most intractable political formations and failed to punish even the most heinous crimes. While no history of the systemic defalcations in this context is possible here, some of its broader contours demand attention.

Historically, of course, there has been the blemish of the rigged elections of 1987, and the failure to honour electoral outcomes before that. More recently, however, the Assembly Elections of 2002 were widely acknowledged as excellent, and suffered from no such distortions; the elections of 2008, with their higher participation rates, even greater transparency, and unqualified endorsement by a number of international observers, were even better. And yet, the Centre has not engaged with the elected representatives in J&K as the principal, if not exclusive, interlocutors of the people of the State. Indeed, there has been a progressive concession of the separatist position that State elections are, at best, an administrative arrangement, and not a ‘political’ one.

This is a message that has been communicated to the street and the State polity through numberless decisions and incidents. An example is the by-election of April 2006 in Sangrama, after the local incumbent, Ghulam Nabi Lone, had been killed by terrorists. Simultaneous by-elections were held in four troubled constituencies at this time, three in the Baramulla District, and one in Doda. Despite a boycott call by the separatist Hurriyat formations and by the principal terrorist groups, and significant efforts to derail the election process through violence, the average turnout in the by-polls stood at an astonishing 75 per cent. In Sangrama, despite an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion a day before the elections, the turnout was 62.2 per cent, as against 23.1 per cent in the Assembly Elections of 2002. This was a resounding rejection of both the separatists and of violence, and a clear articulation of faith in the democratic process. And yet, within days of the election results, the Prime Minister made an unconditional offer of talks with the Hurriyat and other separatist formations, and the focus of the succeeding Round Table Conference was once again on Hurriyat participation.

Indeed, the various ‘round table’ and ‘all party’ conferences have only deepened this process of marginalisation of the democratic constituency. Whatever the formal proceedings or profile of participants in any of these ‘processes’, the political, media and public focus remains exclusively on which elements of the separatist constituency choose to attend, and which of them stay away, and what is stated by either of these. No sustained effort has been made either to centrestage elected leaders in these conferences, or to bring a focus on any other region of the State. Indeed, other groups have often been discouraged from articulating their grievances for fear of offending or alienating the purportedly reluctant participating of the separatist constituency. The interactions of the recent All Parties Delegation remained entirely within this ‘tradition’.

Indeed, the ‘messaging’ of the Centre and the State Government within the current crisis has also been entirely counter-productive.

At the very peak of the crisis, statements emanating from the highest offices have sought to bring a focus on the ‘solution with Pakistan’ which was ‘imminent’ during earlier rounds of the dialogue with that country; have made a gratuitous offer of talks to the separatists, and of an ‘all parties conference’ at a time when it was inevitable that such an offer would only meet with a snub; have repeatedly made offers of political and economic ‘packages’ at a time when every constituency has already articulated the position that such ‘packages’ are no longer the issue; have repeatedly and defensively engaged in the separatist-formulated discourse on the withdrawal or dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); and have openly criticised the SFs even in cases where such criticism was entirely unjustifiable.

In other words, every element of the separatist critique has been internalised in the establishment discourse without any realistic assessment of fact or of political consequence. To the extent that these offers and statements are read in the street as signs of rising panic in Delhi, they encourage the false impression that, with just a little more escalation, the agitators could even secure their goal of ‘Azadi’. Perception is the key here, not reality. Perceptions of ‘reality’ in the street in Kashmir are very different from perceptions in the corridors of power in Delhi.

Crucially, within the Valley, the Centre’s position is already taken as having conceded autonomy as the baseline of any future negotiation. The separatist baseline, on the other hand, has been consolidated around ‘Azadi’. The status quo has, in other words, been conceded as unacceptable even by the Centre. But the status quo is, in fact, governance within the secular democratic framework of the Indian Constitution; and ‘autonomy’ in all its current formulations, necessarily implies a new set of divisions within the State along communal lines. Such a communal division militates fundamentally against the spirit of the Constitution. No constituency in J&K, and no leader within the Central establishment, has ever had the courage to state clearly that there are irreducible frictions within the Indian Constitutional scheme and the Islamist separatist notions of autonomous spheres of power between communal formations. Worse, in conceding the principal of communal separation within schemes of ‘autonomy’, the Centre only validates the fundamental secessionist ideology of complete separation of communal groups.

There is, today, among pro-Indian and constitutional groupings in J&K, an endemic sense of betrayal and mistrust of what leaders in Delhi say and do. This can only have been intensified by the ill-conceived comments by the Cabinet Committee on Security, at the very height of the current crisis in Kashmir, about a "governance deficit" in the State. The reality is, the Omar Abdullah Government, by most assessments – including many among the separatist constituency – has been no better and no worse than any of its predecessors. Just a few months ago, between March and May 2010, the media and Delhi were celebrating the unprecedented flood of tourists into the Valley as a measure of Abdullah’s grand success. Abruptly, the poster-boy of dynamic and youthful politics has become the principal villain of the piece, with the most irresponsible elements in Delhi recklessly encouraging speculation on a change of guard at Srinagar, even as the escalatory cycle was gathering pace. The unfortunate truth is, reality and political perceptions have little in common, and the national interest has never been the core concern of the Centre’s feckless and partisan politics in J&K.

As for the ‘governance deficit’, it starts at Raisina Hill, and projects disorder and lawlessness to every corner of the country.

Unfortunately, the State Government’s record has been no better. Through a succession of decisions and pronouncements, the State Government has directly undermined the legitimacy of the SFs and their capacity to contain growing street and persistent terrorist violence, even as they have compromised the security grid. A few examples will suffice to highlight the magnitude of this defalcation.

1. At the height of street violence, the State’s Law Minister chose to make a public declaration that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) leadership had lost command and control of its personnel. 

2. In a number of cases, after allegations of SF excess or error, the Government chose to shut down SF camps, even where this compromised the security grid. The shutting down of the camps at Bomai and Khaigam are cases in point. 

3. Similarly, the hasty and panicked action against more than 70 policemen, including senior officers, in the wake of the fabricated Shopian allegations, and in the face of violent street protests, again demonstrated the infirmity of the Government, undermined Police legitimacy and authority, and validated false charges. The impression has gathered strength that Omar Abudllah’s Government will undermine state institutions and the security grid under pressure. 

4. When Omar Abdullah resigned in the wake of the sex scandal allegations against him, moreover, the perception was that he could be easily hectored and bullied by an aggressive opposition. 

5. Even as the current stone pelting campaign gathered force, the Government announced that it would ‘rehabilitate’ stone pelters, thus incentivising violence, even as it conferred a projected immunity on the pelters. Nothing could be more counter-productive at the height of this crisis. [If anything, this factor has been further compounded by the Centre’s ‘eight point formula’, which includes the release, without charge, of all persons arrested for stone pelting, arson and other violence during the current street mobilisation]. 

The reality of Kashmir, today, is that carrion feeders thrive in the politics of the Valley. The intifadagrows on dead bodies, and the separatist leaders and their fellow travellers in ‘mainstream politics’ celebrate the increasing numbers of their ‘martyrs’ as milestones on the way to the fulfilment of their political ambitions. Children, sometimes as young as nine and ten years old, are intentionally and cynically being thrust into harm’s way in violent demonstrations on the calculus that the death of a young child – whatever the circumstances – would provide extraordinary provocation for dramatic escalation.

As with terrorism, the current street violence in J&K is the manifestation of conscious, often coercive, political mobilisation by extremist ideological formations. One thing that must be abundantly clear is that the present mobilisation is Islamist extremist at its ideological core, irrespective of its pretensions to 'Kashmiriyat' and moderation. As one chronic stone pelter and street mobiliser expressed it, in this ideosyncratic interpretation of the Faith, "the stone is a weapon sanctioned by Islam." There remains, however, a large and silent majority that is increasingly frustrated by the enduring disruption of their lives – and of the future of their children – by these volatile groupings, and there have been several, albeit minor, demonstrations of this resentment. Regrettably, such opposition has been quickly and brutally silenced by extremist groups, even as the state stands by in mute witness.

The Government’s spin doctors appear to have run out of spin, and are now regurgitating tired, failed, clichés in new ‘formulae’, even as the intent, the purpose, and the sheer relentlessness of the radicalised separatist constituency in J&K, and of their backers in Pakistan, remains abundantly clear. Through each preceding cycle of violence in J&K, one truth has been demonstrated inexorably: vacillation and the unwillingness to impose order in the early stages of violence have eventually forced ever greater bloodshed on the state. Yet, this is a lesson that has been buried deep by the mandarins of Delhi, who continue to peddle their magic remedies in a blind search for peace.

Author is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management 

© 2002-2016 Kashmir Bachao Andolan | All Rights Reserved