Two years after the popular rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian government forces in the disputed Kashmir region, the Kashmir Valley has changed in many ways – from the rise in violence to the growing instability of the political system.
July is the month of Wani. He was shot dead in a brief gunfight in South Kashmir on July 8, 2016, followed by a civilian uprising in which over 120 civilians were shot dead. The uprising didn’t end within a few weeks or months. It continued, and still continues, only in different shades. The impact of Wani’s killing is perhaps the most significant change in Valley since the late 1980s, when an armed rebellion erupted against Indian rule in the region.
Kashmir continues to be volatile even after hundreds of killings in the last few years and oppressive measures against dissenting civilians – who found prominent space after the killing of Wani. It was once said that Wani will be more influential from his grave than alive. The current situation vindicates that statement; his popularity has risen exponentially since his death.
‘No Idea of What Was Coming’
Ahead of the second anniversary of Wani’s death, the government imposed a strict curfew and restrictions on his hometown of Tral – 60 kilometers from summer capital Srinagar in South Kashmir. Announcements were made over loudspeakers asking people to not venture out.
A few days ago, his father, Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, who is a principal at a government higher secondary school, said he still couldn’t believe what his son’s death did to Kashmir.
“I had no idea of what was coming for Kashmir ahead of his burial,” said the elder Wani. “I thought people are here for only for his funeral prayers, and after that normalcy will be restored. I remember, I even discussed with a bunch of people at the graveyard that tomorrow is Sunday, after that everyone should resume office work again. I appealed to everyone to not throw stones and let the traffic move smoothly.”
Little did he know that while his son was being buried by over 200,000 people, who had come from all across the Valley, youth were on the roads engaging in clashes with the government forces. The next day 19 civilians were shot dead by security forces during clashes, opening the door for a months-long civilian uprising against Indian rule in which over 120 were killed.
Wani’s father today says that he had no idea the army would be so brutal toward civilians. “Before Burhan’s body reached Tral, the government forces had already killed three civilians by then. We didn’t even have our hand on the body of Burhan by that time.”
Burhan’s burial — what the government would have thought was an end to a popular rebel commander — gave birth to a new Kashmir. An angry generation, vehemently against Indian rule, is ready to face bullets and die.
Wani’s Youth-Driven Militancy
During his reign as a commander, Wani had already given a modern shift to the militancy movement. More and more youth were joining him. With his death, the movement gained new life, as South Kashmir became a hotbed for new-age militancy.
In 2017, over 207 militants were killed in the government’s “Operation All-Out” (OAO) and over 81 civilians were also shot dead. Many of these civilians were out at the gunfight sites to help the trapped militants escape. As per the official data, there was jump of 167 percent in civilian killings in 2017 compared to 2015, and a 6.21 percent increase in the number of militant terrorist incidents compared to 2016. The number of militants killed went up by 42 percent.
In last three years (2015, 2016, and 2017), over 300 civilians have been killed by government forces across various operations. The continuous killings have only led to more youths joining the militancy, often by snatching weapons from on-duty government forces.
So far in 2018, more than 100 youths have picked up guns against India, despite the OAO. Many credit the popularity of militancy to Wani’s death, which revived Kashmir’s resistance movement against India in the last two years.
India Losing Control
As militancy has surged, the Valley’s internal politics are also in turmoil. After the 2014 elections, the Narendra Modi-led Bhartiya Janta Party, a right-wing, pro-Hindu party, made inroads as a coalition partner with the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to form a government. The unholy and unpopular coalition government not only divided the parts of region along communal lines, but also gave free rein to the military’s heavy-handed approach.
When the BJP and PDP came together to form the government, much against the wishes of voters who gave the PDP a mandate, it was a critical political development for Kashmir. The BJP’s approach to Kashmir — that a muscular military response to dissent is the way to peace — only turned out to be counterproductive. The BJP opposed any talks with Pakistan, which also claims the region, or pro-freedom leaders, further widening the gap between New Delhi and Srinagar.
With Mehbooba Mufti as chief minister of the unpopular government, anger among youths, who are more than 65 percent of the total population, rose massively. It was evident on the streets; with each killing of a militant, thousands joined protests and funeral processions. The space for engagement slowly vanished to a level where dialogue was seen as a distant dream. Mufti’s father had once mentioned that Kashmir is a battle of ideas, but his daughter couldn’t uphold promises of dialogue made to voters.
On June 19, 2018, the BJP finally pulled out of the coalition government, saying, “Mehbooba failed to handle the situation in the valley.” The break-up came days after the month-long Ramadan ceasefire announced by New Delhi was called off to resume anti-terror operations in the state.
“There has been terrorism at a high level in Kashmir Valley – radicalization is increasing at a fast rate. Right to life and free speech are in danger,” said BJP leader Ram Madhav, who was the architect of the coalition’s formation years ago.
In response, Mufti said that the alliance with the BJP was decided based on “thinking that BJP is a big party which had got a big mandate.” In other words, there was hope the BJP’s national clout would give it the space to tackle the entrenched Kashmir issue. “It took a lot of months to come to an agenda, whose main objective was reconciliation and dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir. We wanted confidence-building measures in Kashmir,” she said.
With the fall of the government, the region has been torn apart politically. Elected lawmakers of Mufti’s PDP are openly rebelling against her policies, paving the way for a new alliance government that could be detrimental to the long-pending dispute and for those who carry pro-freedom sentiments.
As National Elections Loom, Kashmir Burns
The change in the BJP’s Kashmir policy is seen as preparation for the upcoming 2019 general elections in India. Modi’s aim to win the elections is connected with the government’s policy toward Pakistan and the situation in the Kashmir region.
Last week, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that the BJP is committed to take all possible measures that will bring accountability, transparency, and good governance. “With renewed focus on good governance and development, the Center is looking forward to kindle new aspirations and hopes amongst the people of the State. The dream of a developed and prosperous Jammu and Kashmir will be realized when there is peace and normalcy in the state,” he added.
But peace in the region seems unlikely before the 2019 general elections. Experts believe that the BJP decided to pull out of the coalition government because it wants to show off a muscular policy for its core voters, who are mainly pro-Hindutva and anti-Pakistan, and have ultra-nationalist sentiments with respect to Kashmir.
Two BJP leaders were recently quoted saying that withdrawal from the local government came froma desire to protect its “core support base” in Jammu, avoid future “political costs” in the run-up to the general elections, and scale up “internal security operations” both in the state and “across the border.” It is clear that the Modi-led BJP is trying to use the situation in Kashmir for its electoral gains. But in Kashmir, Wani has redefined the resistance movement to an extent where using the region for political gain will only strengthen people’s resolve against India.
Fahad Shah is a journalist and editor of The Kashmir Walla magazine and writes on politics, foreign policy and human rights. He is the editor of anthology Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir (2013).