There is no clarity yet on last week’s protests in Handwara in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. All that is known for certain is that they started after word spread that a schoolgirl had been allegedly molested by an army man. Journalists reporting from the state say they are facing the most severe media clampdown in Kashmir since the stone-pelting incidents of 2010.
Because the reportage has been sketchy as a result, the op-eds appearing in various publications have struggled to make sense of the events unfolding there, reflecting the two broad and opposing narratives that emerged.
One of the two, dubbed the narrative of the establishment – which is seen as being composed of the army, the state police and the state government – is the girl’s video statement in which she said that no army personnel molested her, speaks for itself and no more questions need to be asked.
This narrative is questioned by the those who are sought to be dismissed as the voice of the separatists. In this version, the girl has been pressured into making the statement – not only in the video but also in her deposition before a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Handwara.
Given these two diametrically opposite narratives, even the deaths of five people in firing by the security forces, ostensibly to control the protests that followed, have not sparked any real discussion, and was seemingly dismissed by Chetan Bhagat as "collateral damage, terrible as that might be".
While the exact sequence of events remain mired in the fog of conflicting versions of truth, we have collected below 10 voices who have tried to make sense of the events of the past week and place them in perspective.
Bilal Handoo: Writing in Kashmir Life Handoo described the sequence of killings:
The twin killings came so fast that people, still in shock and curfew, were unable to tell who the first victim was. Pir, the sole breadwinner of his Drugmulla family, was a salesman in town. He received a bullet in his face and died almost instantly.
Nayeem [Bhatt], a promising cricketer, was a tall and handsome youth. He was on way home with vegetables when a bullet hit his abdomen. People drove him out but he breathed his last in the periphery and was driven to the police station. With the enraged town on the streets, the cop drove doctors to the police station for autopsy of the two.
Handoo also provided a background on why angry youth lit the bunker that dominated the town, within hours after protestors cleaned the blood splattered main square, pointing out how the bunker had come to be established in the town in 1990s and had become the field headquarters for the Establishment. Exactly five days before the recent killings, Handoo pointed out, Engineer Rasheed had told a Handwara gathering: “It’s my wish to see the square bunker go for good…”.
In his narrative, we also get an account of the video, and how the focus earlier had been on those who died in the firing:
As people started mourning killings, everybody forgot how the crisis erupted. The home of the school girl, who was central to the brawl between a student swarm and a soldier, in Ganai Mohalla was locked. The family had fled their home after a brief video was circulated instantly for 24 hours till army owned it to justify its “innocence”. After two days, it was revealed that the girl and her father were in custody!
Aarti Tikoo in the Times of India provided the missing details in Handoo's version, on finally getting to visit the family of Nayeem, an exceptional under-19 cricketer, who was one of those killed, providing a totally different angle not brought out prominently in other reports about how Nayeem was killed and how his uncle claims to even have begged an ASI to not shoot him:
Nayeem was at home when a boy was shot in the market on Tuesday following fierce stone pelting, his family members said. "He was holding a lollipop for a family kid on the veranda when we heard the gunshot," Muneera recalled.
Half-an-hour after the first killing, Nayeem's elder brother Zahoor called him from the troubled spot and asked him to bring an DSLR camera so that he could take pictures for a news agency. "He brought me the camera and one of our uncles, who was nearby, handed him a bag of vegetables to take home. I went to the hospital to check the victims and had no idea that I would find my brother there too," Zahoor said.
“Our uncle saw ASI Mohammad Rafiq shoot my brother from behind as he walked home. Uncle begged Rafiq not to shoot, but the cop took a gun from a soldier and targeted Nayeem’s lower back. The police that used to reward him for cricket, killed him,” said Zahoor.
A relative disputed the police and Army version that they fired after the mob set an Army picket ablaze. “They’re lying. The fire started almost two hours after they killed the boys. It was a mob of only 200 boys and it could’ve been easily handled without lethal force. The first boy was a stone-pelter but Nayeem was just a passerby,” he said.
One of Nayeem’s brothers is a police constable. His uncle was a National Conference official and was killed by militants in 1996. “We’ve served the state and the country. But now my children are outraged. They want to go and pelt stones,” one of Nayeem’s cousins said. [April 19]
Syed Ata Hasnain: Former General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar based 15 Corps, who is now a Fellow with Vivekanand International Foundation & Delhi Policy Group, offered his perspective based on his experience, providing the army point of view and pointers for the way forward, in the Tribune:
The incident at Handwara panned out in a manner that was typical of a deep-set conspiracy to bait the Army. Targeting and burning of the bunker was deliberately done to invite response. The Army’s could not have given a benign response as the safety of its men was involved...
A dangerous situation is unfolding in Kashmir and it appears a deliberate attempt to up the ante. It was predictable to any one who observes the Jammu and Kashmir situation on a regular basis. South Kashmir was far too volatile and the north far too quiet over the last few months. The conditions were ideal for a return to the street turbulence witnessed during 2008-10. Sopore, Handwara, Baramula and Pattan are competing centres for attention. Bandipura too has been without political or terrorist activity for some time. All of them have distinct separatist bases with a large cadre of over ground workers (OGWs). Terrorist strength has dwindled due to an effective anti-infiltration grid and effort of the security forces in the hinterland. Separatists cannot afford to allow their movement to flag off beyond a certain threshold and the youth-based militancy in south Kashmir is increasingly out of control of the United Jehad Council with whom the separatists have a good working linkage. The stamina of the public for another round of street turbulence has resurged. This was evident from the manner in which mobs attempted to intervene in the operations of the Army’s Victor Force in south Kashmir and turned out to pay tribute to dead terrorists. The local media has largely been eulogising the terrorists in south Kashmir, with pro- separatist commentaries. The return of a government also triggered the idea of agitation...
...There is a dire need for messaging at this time. The parents must know that their sons in the streets are being instigated. Even with best of intentions of the security forces, lives will be lost if a threshold is crossed. Is it difficult to get this message across? Perception management isn't the strongest area of any government establishment but this time sincere efforts must be made to shift blame squarely to the perpetrators who care least for young lives.
Mukul Kesavan: The historian, writing in the Telegraph, pointed out how we the citizens of Indian often end up deploying explanations that "are close cousins to the arguments used by the raj to discredit anti-colonial movements of resistance. All of them contain a measure of truth, but all of them wilfully underestimate the scale of alienation in these regions. They do so because to recognise the enormity of the problem would mean acknowledging the violence done in our name". Kesavan wrote that the absolute minimum is to ask for an abolition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act:
The Indian citizen outside the valley has three options. He can support self-determination in Kashmir knowing that it might mean either a sectarian Muslim statelet or more territory for a larger sectarian state, Pakistan. He can endorse the military occupation because, in the larger scheme of things, Kashmiri Muslim suffering is the price that must be paid for the greater good of a pluralist India. Or he can press for the abolition of AFSPA, the demilitarization of Kashmir and the Northeast and the institution of a process by which atrocities by the security forces, especially in the period between 1989 and 1996 are investigated and the guilty punished. If the Indian republic wants to demonstrate its good faith, to make some reparation for the history of State violence there, this is the absolute minimum that it must do. If it claims the allegiance of the people in these areas, it must treat them as rights-bearing citizens, not mutinous subjects.
Indians committed to the nation’s territorial integrity need to recognize that a democratic republic’s claim on its constituent territories is, in the last instance, under-written by consent. Unless the republic creates the conditions for earning that consent by withdrawing AFSPA and returning the army to its barracks, it runs the risk of permanently damaging its claim to political legitimacy. Without legitimacy, governance shades into occupation. (April 18)
Praveen Swami: The National Editor, Strategic and International Affairs, of the The Indian Express on April 16 provided a historical background of the troubles in Kashmir:
From the 1990s on, the web of institutions that made up Kashmir’s civil society – among them, its political organisations, cultural bodies and the very structure of the family – have slowly imploded. Though formal democracy revived in 1995, it has failed to transform a dystopic polity. Failing a serious effort to revive and build a new democratic culture, the prospect of a larger crisis is very real.
The underlying crisis in Kashmir needs to be read against the slow growth, from the 1920s, of neo-fundamentalist proselytising movements. Key among them was the arrival of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, a religious order set up by the followers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareli – a mystic who died in Pakistan’s northwest…
From the 1950s on, Jama’at-run schools entrenched a worldview that cast secular democracy as an onslaught on Kashmir and Islam. The Jama’at, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, believed “a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth”. By 1987, these social tendencies had acquired a political platform, the Muslim United Front (MUF). At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state, and that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was an agent of Hindu imperialism. (April 16)
Ramachandra Guha: Writing in the Telegraph, the historian pointed out how Narendra Modi's government has not handled Kashmir or Kashmiris with either wisdom or compassion, and listed some of the key decisions taken by the Congress party “that have deepened the alienation of Kashmir and Kashmiris from India”:
The attempt to appoint an independent person or body to reach out afresh to the Kashmiris was well-judged. It was suggested to both the prime minister and the home minister that Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a distinguished former high commissioner and governor, be appointed the sole interlocutor. Gopal Gandhi had worked in conflict-torn Sri Lanka and South Africa, spoke decent Urdu, was deeply knowledgeable about modern Indian history, and had a most engaging personality. He would have been a fantastic choice; as a former home secretary who knew Kashmir well told me, “Even the Hurriyat leaders would have come out to meet Gopal Gandhi.”
In the event, a team of three interlocutors was appointed, whose collective expertise in conflict-resolution fell short of Gopal Gandhi’s. The Hurriyat refused to meet them, and the initiative came to naught. It was speculated that, while her son was taking his first steps in politics, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to give prominence to a Gandhi related not to her family but to the great Mahatma himself. Whatever the reason, the failure to appoint a credible interlocutor set back the possibility of peace in Kashmir once more. (April 16)
Rahul Pandita: The author of Our Moon Has Blood Clots, a memoir of a lost home in Kashmir, raised some pertinent questions in the Firstpost:
The girl has stuck to her statement. Deposing before a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Handwara, she has maintained that no Army personnel molested her and that she was assaulted by two boys, one of them in school uniform. But nobody, including civil liberties walas in Delhi who want women to have freedom to enter Shani temple are even writing a Facebook post on how the girl’s freedom has been curtailed and that she has a right to live her life as she chooses, which, by the way, includes cosying up to an Armyman…
As this aspect remains shrouded in convenient silence, the girl’s life is getting dissected. On social media, some in Kashmir are saying that she should be buried alive. Some are calling her a prostitute…
What is the Markaz [the Centre] doing, meanwhile? The Markaz is using neither science nor common sense in Kashmir. Has the ASI been suspended for firing at and killing one of the boys? Then why is nobody from the state or the central government coming forward and saying categorically that the Army did not kill them? Or if the Army did fire that led to their deaths, then it needs to be asked that why would the boys, one of them a promising cricketer, attack an Army bunker? When the girl has categorically denied any involvement of Army personnel, why is no action being taken against the two boys guilty of assaulting her?..
...The BJP has different answers at different places. It has chosen to be bipolar, smug in its assessment that it has done a fine job with managing to form a government with Mehbooba Mufti... Modi, of course thinks (and has said in as many words) that on Kashmir, he doesn’t need anybody’s advice or analysis from anywhere in the world. Handwara should give him a clear indication that he will have to stop and ask for directions.
But the question also is: who will give him directions even if he asks for them?
Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, which has insisted that the girl had been pressured by police to make the video statement reiterated the stand after the limited meeting they were allowed with the girl in question, in their blog on April 18:
§ The minor girl has on two occasions – in the video recorded and circulated and in the Section 164-A CrPC statement before the judicial magistrate – been pressurized to testify in a manner as directed by the police. Neither of these statements were made voluntarily.
§ From 12 April to 14 April 2016 the minor girl and family were illegally detained at the Handwara Police Station. From 11 p.m. of 14 April to the morning of 16 April 2016 the minor girl and family were illegally detained at a police personnel’s private residence at Shehlal village who was a complete stranger to the family. On 16 April 2016, the minor girl’s statement under Section164-A CrPC was recorded before the judicial magistrate at Handwara. Her father was not present in court during the recording of the statement. No lawyer was present in court accompanying her. In the courtroom, besides the judge, there were four other persons who the minor girl couldn’t identify. From the night of 16 April 2016 to this morning the family has stayed at Zachaldara under constant police surveillance and control.
David Devadas: The author of In Search of a Future: The story of Kashmir, pointed to the growing animosity in Kashmir, writing in Firstpost:
Over the past few days, for example, a several months old video of army men celebrating by firing in the air over the bodies of slain militants has been circulated with claims that it shows soldiers celebrating having killed civilians in Kupwara district last week. A video showing a youth bringing down the Indian flag at Handwara has also been widely circulated and repeatedly watched.
The narrative of Kashmiri victimhood at the hands of outsiders has been further promoted through a theory that the events at NIT and Kupwara were deliberately engineered and played up in order to destroy Kashmiris’ income at the start of the tourist season. Another strand of the narrative is pointedly political. It contrasts the PDP’s promise to draw down military deployment with the fact that more forces have been sent to Kashmir after the clashes in Kupwara district.
These narratives emphasize that unarmed ‘civilians’ were killed by armed forces, with no reference to the fact that the mobs attacked an army bunker and a camp before the army retaliated.
...As with most forms of xenophobic exclusion, patriarchal and misogynistic discourses are part of the deal...Abusive language was even more liberally used for the young woman of Handwara who was apparently 'caught’ by young men of the area with a soldier. The discourse in Kashmir has held her guilty simultaneously on moral grounds, of lying, and of being coerced by state forces. A young Kashmiri said 'our girl’ had done wrong (by associating with an outsider soldier) and so this was `our mistake’ collectively.
Chetan Bhagat: The fiction writer Letter to Kashmiri youth: Even if you don’t like India, here’s why your best bet is to integrate J&K with it in the Times of India, provoking more reactions than any other op-ed, ending with these lines:
Don’t blame the Indian army. It has the tough job of weeding out terrorists from a civilian population which is almost impossible without collateral damage, terrible as that might be. However, blame those truly responsible, the Pakistani army, the local leaders who exploited the situation and the experts who did nothing for you.
Don’t burst crackers when India loses. Don’t feel good when India fails.
Because if India fails, you will fail too.
Jai Hind. Jai Kashmir.
Nayeem's death is what your letter sweepingly calls "collateral damage", but in using that phrase, do you not dehumanize him and the other civilians killed in this past week's clashes? Does your silence not in effect render them invisible and pretend they don't even exist? When I quizzed you on this, you tweeted me back, gracious and open-minded in tone, saying your focus was on the "broad issue." But isn't rule of law, empathy, humanity, justice for all stakeholders key to any solution moving forward? Of course there is no discounting the cross-border patronage of terror groups and the worrying radicalism among a newer generation of Kashmiris. But to be in denial about the genuine emotional alienation among large sections of people doesn't help; you can't repair something if you don't first acknowledge it's broken...
...When we assert - as we must - that Kashmir is an integral part of India, do we mean only the land and not its people? What else can possibly explain the complete lack of interest in and empathy for the death of five people in Handwara, most of them incidentally in the same age group your letter targets? It's a good thing that so many rallied around in support of the non-Kashmiri students at NIT and protested at how unfairly they were treated; they even inspired you to write a letter. But were Nayeem Bhat and others like him not worthy of even your comment, leave alone your compassion?