Over eight days in December, three civilians were killed in three separate gunfights in Kashmir. Two of them were young women who leave behind daughters under a year old. The third was a driver in Kupwara, allegedly caught in the crossfire. The tally of casualties rises when you count the militants killed, the protestors injured. Days later, four soldiers were killed at the Line of Control in North Kashmir.
The year 2017 has ended as it began in Kashmir, with slow bloodletting and sporadic protests. The summer of unrest that started in 2016 never really ended, though the tidal wave of mass protests and strikes that lasted months may have petered out. The shape of violence changed this year. Gunfights between militants and security forces took place almost daily. Civil unrest usually erupted in short, sharp bursts, concentrated around specific events: an encounter, an election, a spate of alleged braid chopping.
Despite government efforts to restore what it terms “normalcy” to the Valley, the defining image of Kashmir in 2017 remains that of shawl maker Farooq Ahmed Dar, tied to the front of an Army jeep and used as a “human shield”.
The numbers tell their own story. Militant and civilian fatalities were the highest in four years, the Lok Sabha was told earlier this month. According to government figures, 203 militants and 37 civilians had died till December 10, while 75 security forces personnel were killed in the same period. There were 335 militancy-related incidents in 2017, according to government data.
Later, the Rajya Sabha was told that incidents of stone pelting had dropped from 2,808 in 2016 to 1,198 till November this year. Estimates vary. In November, SP Vaid, director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir, declared a “90% drop” in stone pelting since 2016.
Yet a survey by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reveals a surprising graph of unrest. The number of protests and riots in Kashmir rose on average between 2016 and 2017, settling at 10 times higher in August than they were in June 2016, the month before Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed. Curiously enough, according to this graph, civil unrest peaked in May, rather than in the thick of the 2016 uprising.
As for militancy, Wani’s death galvanised the local youth, who joined up in large numbers during the unrest of 2016. In October 2016, security agencies had estimated that 250 foreign and local militants were active in the Valley. In spite of heavy casualties after the Army launched “Operation All Out” to crush armed groups, informal police estimates put the number at 200, if not more. According to reports by security agencies, later disputed by the state police, at least 117 youth had joined militancy till November 30, the highest in eight years.
If civil unrest, militancy and political activity are taken to be the three indicators of peace in the Valley, none looked good in 2017.
Civilian protests: Back on the streets
By November 2016, as the streets emptied after months of protest, armed encounters began to pick up. This brought crowds to the streets again, pelting stones and shouting slogans in order to help militants escape. Encounters in South Kashmir in February and Central Kashmir in March claimed several civilian lives. When bye-elections for two Lok Sabha seats came around in April, public anger was running high again.
As crowds poured out to protest on the day of the Srinagar bye-election, security forces opened fire, killing at least eight civilians. When the internet, which had been blocked during the election violence, was restored, videos started circulating: a teenager in Budgam who seemed to have been shot at close range near a polling booth, Central Reserve Force Police personnel being heckled by protestors and the famous “human shield” video, which sent shock waves across the Valley.
The bye-polls led to a surge in protests, which might explain why the graph peaked around May. For the first time in years, protests started emanating from the Valley’s campuses, where student politics had been proscribed for years. Female students in urban centres like Srinagar and Anantnag became a visible part of these daily demonstrations.
September and October saw a new flashpoint for public anger: mysterious incidents where masked men were said to have attacked women and cut off their braids. As rumours of a conspiracy by state agencies circulated, vigilante groups patrolled the streets. The protests were directed at the government, which had failed to contain the alleged incidents.
Militancy: Shifting patterns
If the charismatic Burhan Wani had rallied support for his cause, this year saw a decline in the brand of militancy that he had popularised through photographs and videos on social media. Of the 11 militants posing for the famous picture of Wani and his men, nine are now dead and one has surrendered. New militant videos on easily accessible social media forums are now comparatively rare.
While the Hizbul Mujahideen still remains the largest militant group, other outfits have also gained ground. Several new militants joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba and, after years, the Jaish-e-Mohammad made a comeback in Kashmir. In May, Zakir Musa broke away from the Hizbul Mujahideen to form the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, believed to be al Qaeda’s Indian cell. In many parts of the Valley, Musa is now considered the figurehead of the militancy, with crowds chanting his name at protests as well as cricket matches.
While the militancy seems to have grown more fragmented, groups across the board lost top commanders. In May, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, believed to be the Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational commander after Wani’s death, was killed in an encounter. The Lashkar’s former divisional commander in Kashmir, Abu Dujana, was killed in August and then his successor, Abu Ismail. Most recently, Noor Mohammad Tantray, the Jaish-e-Mohammad commander in South Kashmir known for his diminutive stature – he was rumoured to be only three feet tall – died in a gunfight.
As the year wound to a close, a spate of surrenders were reported and videos showed families asking their militant sons to return. But this does not, as yet, promise a reversal to the trend of growing militancy.
Most worryingly, there was a shift in the pattern of militant attacks, which had previously been restricted largely to security targets. A widening circle of violence claimed politicians from parties that contest in elections, unarmed Kashmiri soldiers home on leave and pilgrims on their way back from the Amarnath shrine.
These attacks, together with Musa’s declared allegiance to al Qaeda and the appearance of Islamic State flags in the Valley, led many to speak of a hardening in Kashmiri militancy. The armed struggle in the Valley, it was speculated, was increasingly identifying itself with global jihad. As of now, there is little to suggest that such ideas have made more than limited headway in Kashmir, where both civil protest and militant violence are directed primarily at the Indian state and its excesses.
Politics: Year of discontent
Part of the disaffection may stem from the complete failure of democratic politics in the Valley. The Lok Sabha bye-elections this year, which grew violent, saw a 7.14% voter turnout. During re-elections in 38 polling stations, this number dipped to 2.2%. Elections to the Anantnag Lok Sabha seat – that fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti gave it up in April 2016 to become the chief minister – have been postponed indefinitely. While high voter turnouts are a poor indicator of political sentiments in the Valley, these elections revealed how deep the anger against the government ran.
Mufti and her People’s Democratic Party had already lost ground after they tied up with the Bharatiya Janata Party to form the state government in 2015. After the protests of 2016, Mufti became the face of a government that endorsed the use of pellets on unarmed crowds and looked away as civilians were killed. As militancy gained ground, members of mainstream parties were targeted and many declared their resignations in public.
The Centre, for its part, maintained a silence that was filled by the Army chief’s aggressive bluster. Apart from an unofficial delegation led by BJP legislator Yashwant Sinha, little attempt was made at dialogue. By the time the Centre announced an interlocutor for talks, former Intelligence Bureau officer Dineshwar Sharma, an embittered Valley was not moved. From the start, the talks were narrowly defined, and it became clear that the government was not even willing to consider greater autonomy within the ambit of the Constitution, never mind other political possibilities.
The separatist leadership largely boycotted these overtures; the National Investigation Agency’s simultaneous crackdown on and incarceration of senior leaders of the Hurriyat did not help. While it was seen as an attempt to discredit the Hurriyat, it also cast doubts on the government’s sincerity about holding talks.
But the year closed with confidence building measures announced by the state government, reportedly at the instance of the Centre: amnesty for first-time stone pelters and jobs for pellet victims. Will these measures soften the mood in the Valley and restore confidence in democratic politics? The state government seemed to think so, as it scheduled panchayat elections for February 2018.