Towards the end of a primetime TV debate five days after the constitutional changes on Kashmir, the ruling party spokesperson on that debate boomed haughtily about why the only Kashmiri on the programme and I were ‘pessimistic.’
I instantly felt like replying that I was pessimistic because I knew history. A daunting round of militancy has generally emerged, not immediately, but a couple of years after major moves to integrate, aka reduce Kashmir’s particularistic status.
For example, Kashmir’s first militant group, Al Fatah, came up a couple of years after the designations of prime minister and sadr-e-riyasat were reduced to chief minister and governor.
Also, my book ‘The Story of Kashmir’ establishes the link between the eruption of militancy in 1988-89 and the brazen rigging of the 1987 assembly elections, which a pro-independence phalanx contested as the Muslim United Front.
How Resentment Brews in Kashmir
I was convinced that, while there might be little public response immediately after the August 2019 constitutional changes, Pakistan would sponsor more militancy, and perhaps a lot more trouble, a year or two after. I was about to say so on that debate when I realised I would just be accused of trying to rouse militancy— ‘he called for it on TV!’
So I held back from predicting what would happen.
Quite soon after those changes, it became obvious that most ordinary people in the Valley had settled down, even if they were resentful when their thoughts did turn to the changes. The recent district development councils elections indicated that most people have accepted the situation. Apart from Pulwama district, participation was fairly energetic.
And yet, alienation, a sense of betrayal, and a lack of faith in the state has run deep, albeit submerged, in at least some minds.
How do we know? Both local militants and foreign terrorists have been getting public support and sustenance over the past year.
Even during the early months, when the Valley was flooded with troops, the foreign terrorists who had infiltrated over the past few years must have been lurking in safe houses.
Terrorists have shown up quite frequently over the past year, and have had several successes to kill security men—even a special forces unit at one point.
Seeking Solution Only Through Guns
Despite this obvious fact, the state apparatus did nothing significant to cure alienation and mistrust. The forces were left to deal with militancy, and they continued in the only way they know—a shooting match. They killed militants wherever they could, and waited for others to show up, so that those, too, could be killed.
This is what they have done for most of the past three decades. They have only succeeded in keeping their battles going, except that Pakistan has repeatedly come up with new and challenging tactics, eg suicide attacks in 1999-2001.
The forces have managed to respond to these after taking initial reverses, but the bottom line has remained: battles between terrorists and forces have kept going.
How Kashmir Has Viewed ‘Good Governance’ Through Decades
The only break from this pattern was when Prime Minister Vajpayee reached out to common people, separatist leaders, and to Pakistan in an earnest effort to make peace—and forced Pakistan to pull back from covert support by massing the army on the border for a year.
He succeeded. As I have shown in ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir,’ there was a radical difference in the middle of the first decade of this century. People refused to give refuge to militants, and many youth happily explored a newfound sense of being Indian.
Over the past couple of years, the government and its mysterious strategists turned resolutely away from that example, instead of learning from the ‘healing touch’ approach. They ought to have focused on education and societal initiatives at the grassroots.
They returned to the hackneyed playbook of the previous 70 years—development with lots and lots of central funds. If they had studied that period, they would know that no one can rival the development that the awesome prime minister of J&K, Ghulam Mohammed Bakshi, brought about during the last decade of Nehru’s life.
They would also have known that, instead of respecting Bakshi for all that development, many Kashmiris revile him as a corrupt stooge. If they are not grateful for what was achieved then, many of them will not be now for the good governance they have had under Lt-Governor Manoj Sinha—who took over after a largely wasted two-and-a-quarter years from when the Centre took charge.
Why is Kashmir Back to the 90s?
So what do we have after all this time and money—and the failure to address resentment and alienation?
A spate of terrorist attacks since last week has transformed the ground situation. Barricades, queues for frisking, and restrictions have sprung up in Srinagar.
Young men suspected of being over-ground workers in league with militants have been picked up in south Kashmir—more than a couple of dozen in Pulwama district, according to a local.
Some of us have been saying for some years that things could be heading back to the ‘90s. Well, the restrictions currently in place in the city are very much like the ‘90s.
Even in the centre of uptown Srinagar, people are subjected to searches, humiliating restrictions, and the prospect of increased violence.
This was bound to happen. And, yes, many ordinary people might be quietly rooting for the militants. But there are also many who simply want to get on with their lives in peace. For their sakes, policymakers ought to have used the previous few years more creatively and sensibly than they did.
Growing Militancy in Kashmir; Fresh Support From Pakistan
Now, the rigours of checks and restrictions are only going to alienate even those who were quite happy with the set-up. In Kashmir’s particularist ecosystem, forcing people to take off their pherans is the one aspect of the current restrictions most likely to grate.
It should have been obvious that something like this would happen sooner or later—as was clear to me in that news studio. Not only have a lot of young Kashmiris been motivated and radicalised since 2008, Pakistan has pushed in a lot of highly trained militants too.
Evidence of both that have freshly appeared in the field has increased significantly over the past couple of months. I had already heard of this increase in south Kashmir before the recent spurt in violence. Now, it’s obvious that there are militants in Srinagar city, too. Who knows, some may be lurking in north Kashmir as well.
One amazing aspect of this trend is that boys who have recently gone underground are motivated enough to leave the comforts of their homes during an extraordinarily cold winter. Over the past several weeks, Kashmir has had its coldest weather in the lives of these boys. Even though March is round the corner, there has been fresh snow.
Panic in Upmarket Areas
Many have seen the viral CCTV footage of a young man whipping a Kalashnikov from his pheran and firing from his hip to kill two policemen outside a shop. The boy has been identified as from the Burzala area —where he fired. We are told he had taken to militancy only two weeks before.
The Burzala-Baghat area is an upmarket part of central Srinagar, on the main road from the heart of town to the airport. It has large mansions, and the house of the city mayor (though he now lives in a plush security enclave.)
No wonder that killing sent shivers through upmarket Srinagar. I am told police officers across the city barely slept for the next few days, for there were reports of several more militants. An IED was defused on the upmarket south side of the city bypass.
Even minor politicians and those who have publicly spoken in favour of the establishment, or met visiting diplomats as recently as last week, have been warned not to venture out. They are likely to be especially targeted.
The forces and agencies are confident they will maintain a tight grip on things. Still, none of this portends well for the spring and summer ahead.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)