Misguided Nationalism: How the Government Lost the Plot in Kashmir

Mishandling of the upheaval in Kashmir will have repercussions in the near future, writes David Devadas.

8 min read
Hindi Female

A series of robotic, supposedly ‘nationalistic’ responses on Kashmir have ended up shooting India in the foot repeatedly. These responses have come from a range of wannabe nationalists, including many in the government. At the rate things are going, even more serious trouble lies ahead.

Generally, these counterproductive responses have been reflexive and blinkered. Sadly, that is the only way policymakers seem to be able to think currently. Thoughtfulness and insights have been missing in action since the redoubtable Atal Behari Vajpayee ceased to be India’s prime minister.

The current crisis in Kashmir began with the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on 8 July. Insightful analysis of trends over the past year would have told the powers that be that Burhan should not be viewed as just another militant. His popularity might even be compared to that of Sheikh Abdullah in 1931 when the latter had been jailed for leading a revolt. He had become a symbol of a generation’s aspirations.

A government that does not have a sense of mass perceptions should not be governing. Sadly for India, its rulers keep their heads firmly thrust into a cloud of hubris.


Burhan Should Have Been Captured Alive, Not Killed

The vast intelligence-security apparatus should have done two things – or at least one of two. One, announced a huge reward for catching Burhan alive rather than dead, and two, made a detailed plan to deal with the aftermath of his death or arrest – such as, if they were not to stretch their minds too far, strict curfew in large parts of the Valley.

That vastly overpaid, over-financed and generally unaccountable apparatus did neither. Indeed, many of the gentlemen who run that apparatus apparently sat complacently through the night after Burhan was killed. Some even remained on leave instead of rushing back to work. Others continued to work at cross-purposes with others within the system – or what stringy patches there are of a functional system.


Meanwhile, Mourners and Protestors Mobilised.

The next morning, police stations and security force camps were apparently unprepared for the series of attacks by mobs that turned quickly into mobile columns. The forces had instructions not to fire. But as those furious mobile columns descended on them, they were forced to open fire at place after place, to avoid being stampeded.

At many places, those security forces used pellet guns at much closer ranges than had been proposed on file when the weapons were purchased. That possibility should have been factored in when the purchase was considered. Perhaps it was the biases of certain kinds of ‘nationalists’ that moved those files instead of insisting on less potentially debilitating weapons.

The government has remained on the back-foot for a month now, unable to reach out to the angry youth. Those pellet guns and bullet guns are their only response tools.

Over the past week or so, some units of the CRPF are reported to have returned to a terribly vicious tactic that the force used in 2010 – breaking the windows of houses and vehicles around places from where stones are hurled. If this seems like a nationalist response to those in power, they need to have their heads examined.


Lost Credibility

Having made those mistakes, the state apparatus lost control of the narrative about what was happening in Kashmir quite quickly. Home Minister Rajnath Singh made some salutary statements, but his factotums apparently could not control or influence or counter the spinning of spin. The world has even been told that Burhan had never been involved in a militant attack – that there is no record of any such attack!

The trouble is that after wannabe nationalists in hyper-frenetic television studios insisted that empathetic Indians call Burhan a ‘terrorist’ and nothing but a terrorist, the government urged moderation – which was taken to mean that news coverage of the situation in Kashmir be played down.

There have barely been any statements from the government. Police and other security officers have generally ducked the press. Instead of explaining what they and their men are doing, they have vacated that field.

Of course, the forces of the state, including the police and the Intelligence Bureau, have eroded their own credibility over the past several years by giving out false or doctored information. By killing citizens not involved in any kind of militancy – such as at Ganderbal about a decade ago and at Machil in 2010 – the army and police have cast themselves as villains.

The government too has lost credibility for repeatedly promising inquiries and probes, and repeatedly failing to actually take action against errant officers and men. A magisterial inquiry had indicted the CRPF for killing a young man of Umarabad on the outskirts of Srinagar the day Prime Minister Modi visited last November. But no action has been taken.

Mishandling of the upheaval in Kashmir will have repercussions in the near future, writes David Devadas.
Women supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami at an anti-India rally, holding pictures of Burhan Wani, Karachi, Pakistan, 4 August, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Anti-India Spin

The result of all this is that anti-India spins, including googlies and doosras, have had a field day on social media and other internet platforms during the past few days. Some people have the impression that genocide is underway and that a sizeable proportion of Kashmir’s population might go blind.

A strong campaign to get rid of those pellet guns – issued to the police and the CRPF after 2010 – is urgently called for before those awful weapons cause more damage.

Thankfully, according to a top Kashmiri ophthalmologist treating the injured, most of the eye injuries currently sustained are likely to heal over the next few months. Three weeks after Burhan was killed, doctors said that three persons had permanently lost both their eyes, and 23 one eye.

After the first flush of anger, many in Kashmir have prayed for an end to the current instability. So much so that calls for Valley-wide demonstrations have not taken off. For instance, there was very little response to a call to march to the Hazratbal shrine on Friday, 5 July. A police officer claimed that not more than 100 persons gathered in Baramulla district to fill the 25 trucks which organisers had prepared to carry people to Srinagar that day.

Organisers have taken to organising local marches within different sub-districts instead. These have been far more successful.


Restrictions Not Strong

At most places, restrictions on movement have been applied with a relatively light touch. Yet, a general impression has gained ground that the Valley has been shut down by a terribly restrictive curfew.

The fact is that most of the restrictions on people’s movements have been imposed by coercive bands of youth – the ones for whom the state has no response except for those pellet and bullet guns. One hears of villages with access cut off unless residents turn out for demonstrations. One even hears of activists recording attendance at local demonstrations, and of arson threats.

In different places, companies of the CRPF as well as bands of boys have checked ambulances for people who might not actually be ill, but hitching a ‘safe’ ride. The paramilitary looks for ‘stone-pelters,’ the pelters for people defying their hartal. One group was reported to have insisted on checking whether a woman was pregnant before allowing her to pass their barricade.


Calling ‘Wolf’ a Bad Idea

Those wannabe nationalists shot India in the foot in another way: by focusing on marches and demonstrations in Pakistan after Burhan’s killing.

Pakistani interest in, sympathy for and claim over, Kashmir is a story as old as that country. But while focusing on such petty matters such as the level of that country’s reception for Rajnath Singh, those wannabe nationalists have missed out on the real threat – the huge increase in the level of Pakistan’s support for, and coordination of, what is happening within Kashmir.

When Kashmiri anger erupted in demonstrations in 2008, Pakistan was able to redirect the agitation in its favour after RSS thugs closed the national highway near Udhampur and Samba for a few days. A march to Muzaffarabad followed as a direct result of what those RSS thugs did. That helped throw the ball into Pakistan’s court.

In 2010, Pakistan was able to take control of the prolonged season of stone-pelting relatively sooner. Around midway, its point man for that year, former militant commander Masarat Alam, was directing operations.

This year, Pakistan appears to be using a range of agents provocateurs, including activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and many of those who have been alienated by the police since 2010. An unfolding plan has become evident from the first day; the recurring patterns of demonstrations, of coercion, and of narrative discourses all point to remote control.

One of the many things that should worry those wannabe nationalists in government is that in places such as Kupwara government officials, including persons holding key offices, have played leading roles in drumming up demonstrations and keeping them going.

Mishandling of the upheaval in Kashmir will have repercussions in the near future, writes David Devadas.
Masked Kashmiri protesters throw bricks at paramilitary soldiers during a protest in Srinagar, 28 July, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Teenagers at the Core

After the first flush of widespread anger and protest, teenagers and boys in their pre-teens have been the bulwark of the current agitations. Unlike 2010, when Masarat Alam coordinated demonstrations centrally, the angry young have been coordinated and directed by a host of figures this year. These range from separatist activists to government officials, and include a large number of activists of religion-based organisations.

For the first time for about 15 years, activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami have been reported playing a command and control role. More overtly, activists of religion-based organisations have engaged in volunteer work at hospitals. This has given them tremendous leverage to influence the narrative about what is happening.

A journalist who visited Srinagar’s major Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital three weeks after Burhan’s death was surprised to find empty beds in the ophthalmology ward; many patients had been discharged. Those beds have since been filled again, but reportage has generally missed out on the nuances and variations in a fast-changing situation. That journalist had also found that children’s versions of what had happened to them – and those of grandparents too – sometimes differed from how the world perceived their cases.


Bad Days Lie Ahead

  • ‘Nationalistic’ responses, including some in government, to recent developments in Kashmir suggest more trouble in the days to come.
  • The Centre’s failure to perceive the public mood over Burhan Wani’s killing is reflective of hubris.
  • Many in Kashmir have prayed for an end to the current instability but teenagers and boys in their pre-teens remain highly strung.
  • Restriction on movement is not so stringent but restraint is imposed by certain groups that call for demonstrations.
  • Wannabe nationalists have missed out on the huge increase in Pakistan’s support for, and coordination of, what is happening in Kashmir.
  • Each death gives credence to the narrative, however stretched, that a Hindutva-run state wants to repress Kashmiris.

Targeted Killings

The most distressing way in which these wannabe nationalists have shot India in the foot is by targeting particular agents provocateurs. For several years, they gave ample space for teenage fury to mushroom – either through blindness, incompetence, or plain contempt for the people. Now, they see no way to communicate with the youth. Instead, there are signs that agents of the state are selectively targeting coordinators and ‘motivators’ for threats, and worse.

This sort of evil statecraft is condemnable in any case. Not only that, even as a political and military strategy, it is counterproductive. It will anger the vast numbers of Kashmiris who have been somewhat introspective compared with the majority of teenagers. These include several of those who are in their 20s.

Meanwhile, each death alienates a mass of people. It gives credence to the narrative, however stretched, that a Hindutva-run state wants to kill, maim and blind ‘us’ in Kashmir.

Such a belief will queer the pitch even more. For it will coalesce with the narratives that have already gained ground. It will add immensely to the mobilising power of those who have taken command and control in Kashmir. It will turn the mobile columns of teenagers into even more effective operational tools.

Very bad days lie ahead – thanks in part to the ill-advised bumbling of our wannabe ‘nationalists’ and hubristic rulers.

(The writer is a Kashmir-based author and journalist. He can be reached at @david_devadas)

Also read:
Did BJP’s Hindutva Agenda Stifle Peacemaking in Kashmir?
Through Blinded Eyes: A Kashmir Story

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