As the situation goes worse in the Valley by the day, many Kashmir observers have been surprised by the turn of events. Not that the outpouring was unexpected. There were enough signs that a deep resentment was brewing over the past year. Mourners for the slain militants had grown with each new funeral. But what nobody had anticipated was that the eruption could be so ferocious. The streets have seethed with a combination of an intense fury and hatred at New Delhi which, in some of its aspects, has even paled off the five month long unrest in 2010.
So what really happened? The easiest answer to this question is the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who had become a figure of love and reverence since he abandoned his anonymity as a militant and appeared unmasked on Facebook, with his Kalashankov casually slung over his shoulder, calling youth for jihad. Over time, he had built up a love affair with his viewers and through them with the rest of the population. And by the time he was killed in an encounter on July 8, he had incarnated a popular, romantic figure whose loss was dearly felt.
Though social media did play a role in this metamorphosis, the legend of Wani wasn’t a product of Facebook alone. Shot against hilly and pastoral backdrops, they lent drama and glamour to the life of a militant, evacuating it of its inherent danger and messiness. They also gave face to a name and made visible a reality that is supposed to operate in the underground. Wani was the first to do so in the 26 years of militancy and so he instantly hooked people. And this connection only grew over the three years of his social media activity, during which he refreshed the jaded separatist narrative and got a section of the newest Kashmiri generation drawn to the idea of a militant resistance to New Delhi.
But this hardly seemed to qualify him for the depth of mass mourning and the protests that followed his death. Around 96 people were killed, several hundred have either partially or fully lost their eye-sight and more than fifteen thousand injured in the ceaseless cycle of protests and the stone throwing in the state.
There is certainly the long, familiar Kashmir narrative of the conflict which keeps alive a perennial sense of injustice among people. It begins in 1947 with Muslim majority state’s accession to India against Pakistan, Pakistan’s objection to it, India taking issue to United Nations where resolutions for a non-binding plebiscite are passed. Then came 1952 Delhi Agreement between Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah which limited New Delhi’s control of the state to foreign affairs, defence and communicatons. Sheikh who was the first Prime Minster of Kashmir was summarily dismissed in 1953 leading to a succession of New Delhi imposed governments. This paved the way for the erosion of the Article 370 until it was battered beyond recognition. Meanwhile Sheikh started a struggle for the right to self-determination, coming around eventually to a settlement within Indian Union in 1975. An armed separatist movement began in 1989 which is since ongoing – albeit the damage it can inflict has drastically diminished. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the past 26 years. In 2008, a three month unrest broke out against the transfer of the Amarnath land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, pitting Kashmir Valley against Jammu province which supported such transfer. Two more summer uprisings followed in 2009 and 2010, this time over the human rights excesses, which was followed by five years of uneasy peace.
By the time Burhan Wani was killed, he had incarnated a popular romantic figure whose loss was dearly felt by the masses
With this troubled history playing in the background and influencing the day to day course of the politics and the social conversations, the intermittent eruptions should be a foregone conclusion. But, as it turns out, it is not the larger abstract discourse of the conflict and the attendant subliminal sense of being wronged that gets the people to streets to die and be blinded. It is something more physical, raw and everyday in nature. And this something comes about when New Delhi seems to live up to the longstanding narrative about it in Kashmir, now more explicitly than ever. And this narrative, aided by the history of the past seventy years, sees New Delhi always conspiring to undermine the state’s autonomy, not stopping even at its drastic erosion so far but working opportunistically to see the end of it.
And perhaps never has New Delhi been perceived to be making as concerted a bid to mess with the state’s leftover special constitutional position as in the past two years — albeit, some of this perception reinforced by the BJP’s ideological stance on the state. The party has appeared to be in a tearing hurry to pursue its longstanding agenda on the state. The political scene over the three months played out like this:
In April, Mehbooba Mufti took oath as the Chief Minister after three months of indecision following her father and predecessor Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death. And with it the controversial measures that had put the Valley on edge through the first year of the PDP-BJP coalition resumed. It began, as usual, with the talk of the separate enclaves for Kashmiri Pandits, which is seen by separatists as a replication of the Israeli settlements in Palestine. The dominant public opinion in Valley is that the Pandits should either return to their old neighbourhoods where they lived with Muslims or be settled in inclusive colonies.
The controversial move was followed by an officially sanctioned proposal to establish a Sainik Colony for ex-servicemen and their kin in Srinagar. And while the political storm over the colony was roiling the Valley, came the revelation that the New Industrial Policy drawn up by the Governor N N Vohra during his three months at the helm, allows non-state subjects to get on lease the land for setting up industries outside the industrial estates in the state. The policy was silent on the upper ceiling of the land to be leased. And while the public outcry forced the government to review the policy, the state government’s decision to initiate work on building the structures for ‘floating population’ in Jammu and Kupwara districts became a fresh source of concern.
However,land related issues weren’t only ones playing on the fears of the people. The anxiety was further been deepened by the proposed new yatras which were seen as part of a deliberate design “to dilute Kashmir’s Muslim majority character” and detract from the state’s constitutional safeguards under Article 370. One such yatra conceived by Sangh Parivar-allied outfit Acharaya Abhinavgupta Sheshadri Samroh Samiti was proposed to be taken to the alleged cave of Abhinavgupta, a tenth century Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher, in Beerwah in central Kashmir district of Budgam on June 11. Though on the day, Government placed restrictions around the cave to foil the yatra, many pilgrims from outside the state still managed to reach.
Mehbooba proved a weak defence against this perceived nationalistic overreach. Instead, the pressure of a coalition with BJP forced her to vacate the political middle-ground her party come to occupy since its founding in 1999. She played down her pro-Kashmir resolution agenda and offered little counter-narrative to balance her partner’s shrill Hindutva noise. This triggered a deep anxiety about their political identity among a majority of people in the state. And it is this anxiety which hit its critical mass with the killing of Wani. The paranoia about a perceived hostile centre allegedly conspiring “to dilute Valley’s Muslim majority character” had redrawn the discourse in Valley like never before. It brought into full play the issues of land and identity, hitherto more or less dormant elements of the ongoing conflict which operated so far largely along political and militant dimensions.
But as Kashmir returns to normalcy, the anxieties haven’t disappeared. And with Supreme Court overturning the J&K High Court’s October 2015 order which had drawn a parity between Indian and J&K Constitution, and ruling that J&K Constitution was subservient to Indian Constitution, the fear hasn’t got even time to remain dormant for a while. And if the signals from New Delhi continue to stoke these anxieties, another unrest may return sooner than we expect it.