Kashmir issue

100 days of unrest in Kashmir: Curfew, pellets, shutdown and death

A collection of Scroll.in's reportage on the season of protest in the Valley.

On July 8, Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces in South Kashmir's Anantnag district. It plunged the Valley into a deep and violent mourning, which it is yet to recover from, even 100 days after Wani's death.

Wani, who left home at 15 after a brutal encounter with security forces, had become a presence on social media and something of a legend in Kashmir. That he managed to survive for six years, instead of being killed within a year like most of his cohort, seemed to add to the lustre around him. But he was doomed to meet the same end, fitting into the same story of armed struggle and "martyrdom" that the Valley tells about its local militants.

It was clear that his death would reverberate across Kashmir. But the state administration, headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, seemed to be living in denial about the grievances and aspirations that Wani represented. Protests broke out spontaneously, as mosques in almost every neighbourhood announced his death and people poured out into the streets. Thousands attended Wani's funeral in his hometown, Tral.

'Pellet-shellet'

The government took recourse in the tried and tested riot control measure: curfew. For the next 100 days, the Valley would remain under intermittent curfew. While North and Central Kashmir had periods of reprieve, there was no letting up in places like South Kashmir's Pulwama district and Srinagar's downtown area.

Moreover, restrictions remained in place, so that residents were never sure when it was safe to step out. They soon got used to a new normal, working around curbs on movement, internet bans and, for a while, a complete suspension of mobile services.

As the protest raged, it became evident that the government had learnt no lessons in crowd control from previous summers of unrest, in 2008 and 2010. Security forces initially responded with bullets, leading to heavy casualties in the first few days, especially in the South. Then, the police and paramilitary brought out a riot-control measure introduced in 2010. These were metal pellets, fired from 12-gauge pump-action shotguns.

Described as a non-lethal weapon, pellet guns proved to be quite the contrary. Scores of people were killed as hundreds of pellets were pumped into them at close quarters, puncturing vital organs. Hundreds of others were maimed for life or blinded.

As Srinagar's Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital was flooded with pellet victims, specialists from other parts of the country were rushed in to help treat them. In Anantnag, which saw some of the heaviest casualties, the district hospital struggled against shortages. Meanwhile, reports emerged that security forces were stopping ambulances carrying the injured. The Central Reserve Police Force denied that it was obstructing ambulances on a regular basis but said it was sometimes necessary to check if they were carrying protestors, not patients.

Faced with a backlash for endorsing the use of pellet guns, the Centre announced that it would explore other options, such as PAVA shells and rubber bullets. But, used wrong, these too could prove to be lethal. Meanwhile, casualties and injuries from pellet guns continued.

In the Valley, they would become a fresh object of anger. Along with slogans for azadi, protesters on the streets would chant, "Yeh pellet-shellet, na bhai na."

Stones and shutdowns

While the government imposed curfew, the separatist Hurriyat leadership under Syed Ali Shah Geelani ordered shutdowns. The government's relaxation had to compete with the separatists' "dheel" (also relaxation). Parts of the Valley remained locked down even after the curfew was lifted.

In Anantnag district, protestors had blocked almost every alley and main road. The Hurriyat calendar was enforced by the youth and protests soon settled into a rhythm woven around prayers. In the villages of South Kashmir, there were pro-freedom rallies, called by the Ittehad-e-Millat, a new coalition of religious groups.

While the government resorted to familiar measures, so did protestors. Like 2008 and 2010, protestors faced security forces armed with stones. Kashmir has a long history of stone pelting, or "kani jung". Drawing from religious rituals surrounding the Haj, stone pelting has become a symbolic act in the Valley, giving vent to pent up political frustrations and becoming a means of hitting back against government.

In September, Bakr-Eid, the biggest festival in the Valley, was a sombre occasion. While curfews and heavy security remained in place, shops remained closed because of the shutdown. Businessmen and traders have been hit hard by this season of protest, and orchard owners had to deal with high transport costs, reduced output and poor local demand.

The unrest has also left traces on walls and shop shutters across the Valley, as pro-azadi graffiti sprayed on by protestors is effaced or defaced by counter-graffiti by state forces.

The politicians

Politicians, both at the Centre and the state, have flailed in the face of the unrest. Parliament, in its monsoon session, spent several hours discussing Kashmir. In the Rajya Sabha, some leaders from the Left urged government to take note of the political discontents, hold talks with separatists and curb excesses by security forces. But most of the Central leadership mouthed the old line: Kashmir was an integral part of India and Pakistan was responsible for fuelling unrest.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh paid a visit to Srinagar in July but was snubbed, in public at least, by the Valley's traders and businessmen. As talk of talks continued, voices from the Valley felt that an all party delegation would have no one to speak to even if it did visit Srinagar.

They were proved right, when an all party delegation visited Srinagar at the end of August, separatist leaders reportedly refused to meet them. As it was turned away from Geelani's house in Hyderpora, the delegation was followed by cries of "Go back, India."

Weeks earlier, in an interview to Scroll.in, Burhan Wani's father, Muzafar Wani, had urged the governments of India and Pakistan to talk and work out a political resolution to the dispute, but as ties between the two countries deteriorated, that remained a distant prospect.

Meanwhile, the unrest proved disastrous for Mufti, whose government was already unpopular in the Valley after it entered a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party. After timidly suggesting that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act be withdrawn from certain areas on an experimental basis, Mufti made few attempts to reconcile protestors. She said, instead, that only 5% of the people were bent on fomenting trouble while most people wanted peace.

Mufti's People's Democratic Party is now in the throes of an existential crisis. Cracks within the party are beginning to show as senior leaders resign and the ground-level cadre complain of a disconnect with Srinagar.

But it was not just the PDP. As months wore on, it became apparent that the entire political mainstream in Kashmir was shrinking, and parties saw a wave of resignations at the grassroot level. Early on, in another interview to Scroll.in, former chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah had urged the Centre to accept that a "political problem" lay at the roots of the unrest. A delegation of oppsition leaders from Kashmir even travelled to Delhi to put forward their concerns. But that process went nowhere.

Media war

The media became another theatre of conflict for the unrest. To begin with, it became clear that the state government was using information clampdown as tool to deal with dissent.

In July, the government asked Valley-based newspapers to stop publication for three days. Printing presses were raided and newspaper copies seized by security forces. Pakistani news channels went off air. So did Zee News, Times Now and News X, for a while. Later, early in October, the government ordered Kashmir Reader, a local newspaper to stop publication as it apparently carried content which "tends to incite violence".

Apart from government measures, there was a war raging between news rooms. Times Now's Arnab Goswami suggested that journalists who questioned the government narrative that the Kashmir unrest was fuelled solely by Pakistan be arrested, giving rise to an angry retort from NDTV's Barkha Dutta, among others. National media also wrestled with a question of semantics, whether to call Burhan Wani a "militant" or a "terrorist".

A polarised media, where some valorised Wani while others unquestioningly toed the government line, did not help in calming tempers.

Arrests and reprisal

As the unrest wore on, it appeared that the government and security forces were determined to put it down with force. It led to ugly incidents like the apparently unauthorised army raid in Khrew, where soldiers burst into homes at night, killing one and beating up everyone in sight. In South Kashmir, the army moved in, backing up demoralised police and CRPF under Operation Calm Down.

Amid reports of regular night raids, there have been a rash of arrests, many of them under the widely reviled Public Safety Act. Among those arrested under PSA were Hurriyat leaders and human rights activist Khurram Parvez. In spite of a public appeal by prominent personalities ranging from Noam Chomsky to Arundhati Roy, Parvez remains behind bars, the reasons for his arrest unclear.

Uri aftermath

After four militants stormed a border camp in Uri, on the Line of Control, killing 19 soldiers, the story around the unrest changed focus. As attention turned to the border, Kashmiris feared that rising Indo-Pak tensions would push prospects of a political resolution even farther away.

But tensions kept escalating, with India announcing that it had conducted surgical strikes across the LoC. In recent weeks, the Valley has seen a rash of militant attacks, in Kupwara, Pampore, Shopian and Kulgam, among other places.

For now, the unrest limps on, with neither government nor separatists showing signs of relenting. While the Hurriyat has extended its shutdown call, the government insists it will go ahead with examinations as scheduled in November. Yet classes have not been held for months, and students have taken to the streets in fresh protests.

Various commentators have tried to make sense of the unrest. Some say it is the expression of an identity in crisis, spurred by the spread of conservative Islam. Others see it as a continuation of the old struggle for azadi. Pandit voices have alleged that it is not about azadi but about Islamism. They drew hurt retorts which pointed to the state brutalities and the government's long history of failed promises, which led to the making of a Burhan Wani.

Hundred days on, with more than 90 dead and thousands injured, the arguments continue.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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