Like an onion, one can peel layer after layer of what is happening in Kashmir, and still discover more layers. There is a distinct demographic pattern across much of the Valley. Political rivalries are at play. Sociological rifts have emerged. Ideological battles are being played out. And geopolitical manoeuvres are obvious.
Travels through parts of South and North Kashmir confirm that teenagers have been the backbone of the upsurge of rebellion sparked by the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8. Some of those who kept the stone-pelting going are in their pre-teens.
Adults seem to be divided in general, many of them watching silently from the sidelines. Some are introspective about whether all this will lead anywhere.
A common enough discourse reflects willingness to flow with the tide: this discourse holds that people should keep the hartal going this time until it yields something. Some in places like Shopian, a major centre for horticulture, say they are willing to lose this year’s crop, if that’s what it takes.
A couple of leading social and (covert) political activists in Kupwara contend that 30% of the Valley’s population backs, or is actively involved in, the stone-pelting demonstrations. This figure, they add, includes the boys actually demonstrating on the streets. The rest – 70% – are watching quietly from the sidelines, according to them.
These estimates change, depending on who you talk to. But everyone seems to agree that many of the most active motivators and organisers of the groups of boys have apparently been from the Jamaat-e-Islami. The tightly controlled organisation appears to be working in tandem with Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, although Jamaat had formally expelled Geelani more than a decade ago. For a couple of decades before that, Geelani had dominated Hizbul Mujahideen and led its support for militancy from January 1990 on, even though he was never allowed to become the Amir.
Under Geelani’s guidance, Jamaat activists had strongly supported the Hizb-ul Mujahideen through much of the 1990s but had been on the back-foot after they were battered by mercenaries working with the army. These mercenaries, generically known as “Ikhwanis” had been their lethal worst through the second half of the 1990s.
A few activists of other Islamist groups such as Ahle-Hadith and Tablighi Jamaat have also been active, say ground-level social activists. Moulvis at several mosques in places like Kupwara have added fuel to the fire, they add.
They also add the extremely worrying insight that policemen and officers with a pro-Jamaat or otherwise Islamist bent have played a dubious role in some places.
On the other hand, public rifts have cropped up since the weekend. In Kupwara, for instance, there have been a few arguments and clashes, even some pro-India slogans. These may have been engineered, even paid for, but then that can be said about every side in an environment of extraordinary duplicity.
Kupwara has, arguably, been the worst-affected district in the Valley. Conversations with a range of political activists there reveal that politics has been covertly in play, as in many parts of the Valley. The most obvious political pattern is that National Conference workers and leaders have fanned the flames.
That holds true for several parts of the Valley. A top party leader is said to have taken the position that this is “pay-back time” – a reference to the widely acknowledged fact that Peoples Democratic Party activists had played an even more fiery role when stone-pelting had erupted in 2010.
At that time, the PDP had wanted Omar Abdullah’s National Conference-led government to be dislodged. Some hold, tongue in cheek, that it left no stone unturned. No doubt, Omar would want the ouster of the current regime now, they argue.
However, this is only the most obvious pattern of the political currents swirling beneath the surface. Another is disgust regarding the Bharatiya Janata Party among some leading lights of its coalition partners from the Valley.
Some grassroots political workers say that public anger was fuelled when, despite the loss of political capital over the alliance with a Hindutva-based party, no benefits flowed to the state from the Centre. Political activists talk of having convinced people that the alliance would bring projects, funding, and thus benefits for ground level political workers.
These activists argue that Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference staked a great deal to ally with the BJP before the assembly elections. Further, they say, the PDP risked the political capital it had built with great effort when it formed a coalition with the BJP.
Some of these ground level activists argue that disgust over the alliance with the BJP is a major reason why the Jamaat, which had covertly supported the PDP during the 2002 and 2008 assembly elections, has whipped teenagers and pre-teens into such a virulent face of public opposition.
Some of the more cynical of the government’s ground-level opponents even speculate about whether the PDP has given a loose rein to the recent unrest in order to shock its coalition partner, the BJP, into loosening the Centre’s purse strings.
Centres and peripheries
Politics is not all. Several activists in Kupwara give a sociological explanation for why Kupwara has been the worst-affected district this year, although it was generally quiescent in the past. “We used to be beaten and humiliated when we passed Sopore,” two separate interviewees used the same set of words to describe their experience. Sopore, a town on the major route from Kupwara to Srinagar, used to be a centre of fiery protest in the past. It has been relatively quiet this year.
One of the interviewees added that the instrument of contempt has rippled outward this year. Passengers from relatively quiet places such as Tangdhar and Keran have been stoned and abused in Kupwara – accused of being “mukhbir” (collaborators), the same way Kupwara residents were contemned at the hands of Sopore people in the past.
Some even relate the relatively quiet response of towns such as Sopore, Srinagar and Shopian (traditionally, the three most volatile in the Valley) to long-established contempt for villagers, who are frequently despised as “gomuk” or “gruhus” – derisive terms akin to “bumpkins”. Such observers point to the fact that Burhan Wani was from Tral, a small town, and was born in a village outside.
There are other dimensions. Some add that rumours have been spread that freedom is round the corner, that Pakistan is about to attack, and that those who take a leading part in the current uprising will be rewarded with scholarships in Lahore. Some of the young “stone-pelters” believe this, said a former militant supreme commander.
The teenagers in the forefront of the protests may not be paid, such ground-level activists say, but their organisers and handlers do get money. Large amounts of foreign funding are said to have come to Kashmir.
Pakistan’s ISI and other handlers, activists say, are not only spending large amounts, but they appear to be coordinating strategies and tactics too. And doing so with great success.