The year that has followed Burhan Wani’s killing has broken, perhaps forever, the trust between people and their government; now only a binary remains: oppression and resistance
SRINAGAR: What’s in a name? Danger. In mid June this year, the Indian home ministry issued a circular to its staff. Instructions went out that the name of Burhan Wani must not be mentioned in official communications. Specifically, the name must not crop up in the Indian Parliament, neither in queries on events in Kashmir nor in the replies.
The reason for this strange embargo was to check, as a home ministry official said, the “glorification” of Burhan Wani. Since he was killed in a controversial encounter in Kokernag area of south Kashmir on July 8 last year, Burhan Wani had become synonymous with the fierce uprising that broke out in Kashmir the very moment he was killed. The name of Burhan Wani appeared in newspapers and websites the world over, even in the headquarters of the United Nations when Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed the “young leader who has emerged as the symbol of the latest Kashmiri intifada.” India’s home ministry was trying to shut out this disturbing ring of Burhan Wani’s name with a piece of paper. Two days after the circular was issued, Burhan’s posters surfaced in the United Kingdom, outside the Edgbaston stadium where India and Pakistan were playing the final of a cricket tournament. A film on the life of Burhan is being released on his first death anniversary in Pakistan. In Kashmir, government forces have been trying for months to efface the graffiti at thousands of public spaces where the name Burhan, impossible to erase from the Kashmiri mind, glares at the eye.
Burhan Wani’s killing turned out to be a watershed moment in Kashmir. Everything that has happened in the Valley over the past year can be traced back to his death. “Before Burhan’s death, the battle-lines were never so overtly drawn in Kashmir, nor has the defiance of people been so blatant and assertive,” Muhammad Ashraf, a High Court lawyer, said.
The biggest fallout of Burhan’s killing was on the Mehbooba Mufti-led unpopular coalition of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Mehbooba was four days short of completing hundred days in office when Burhan’s killing took place. Her intelligence department chief at that time, Shiv Murari Sahai, now shunted out of Jammu and Kashmir, emphatically said that the chief minister in her capacity of also being the home minister was in the loop when the operation was carried out. Mehbooba tried to feign ignorance but her clarifications did not cut ice with the people.
The killing of civilians that took place the very next day, on July 9, made the second major dent in Mehbooba’s government. The region of south Kashmir became and remained the epicentre of a massive public uprising. The public exhibition of defiance started with the historic assembly of people at Burhan’s funeral. Thereafter, countless public meetings and processions carried forward the rebellion.
This rebellion was a body blow to the PDP, painstakingly built by Mehbooba and her late father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed as an effective alternative to the National Conference (NC). South Kashmir was the PDP’s pocket borough. The maximum number of PDP legislators elected in the 2014 assembly elections came from here. It enabled the PDP to form a coalition government for the second time in 15 years, but this time the coalition was with the BJP. Disenchantment, anger, and the sense of betrayal was already ubiquitous against the PDP, but after Burhan’s killing, the PDP’s leaders and workers became, overnight, persona non grata in south Kashmir. Almost all of them fled from the region. One legislator, Khalil Bandh from Pulwama, was waylaid by protesters past midnight when he was on his way to Srinagar. He was beaten up, so badly that he suffered limb fractures.
Member of Parliament Fayaz Laway’s property was attacked by a mob and policemen guarding it were disarmed and their weapons looted. Mehbooba Mufti’s own cavalcade was pelted with stones when she attempted to visit a slain youth’s residence in Kund-Qazigund area. Tral legislator Mushtaq Shah could not go to his residence for eight months. Apart from the public ire, militants also trained their guns at PDP workers. In Shopian-Pulwama belt, several PDP workers including a district president were gunned down. A year down the line, the situation has worsened for the party, rather than showing any signs of improvement.
The reasons, an academic from south Kashmir maintains, are political. “The coalition with the BJP was the first fraud that the PDP committed against the people. PDP had gained votes on the promise of keeping the BJP out of Jammu and Kashmir. After the elections, it embraced the BJP, without thinking of the consequences,” the academic said.
“The BJP showed the PDP its place. The party that had vowed to release prisoners re-arrested Masarat Alam 40 days after his release, obviously under BJP pressure,” he said.
Before she became chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti had acquired political stature by defending human rights, preaching individual and political freedom, and advocating dialogue for resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The post-Burhan scenario saw her trampling the ideals she stood for. She infamously justified the killing of boys, saying they had not gone to army camps to fetch candies. She justified the firing of bullets as a fit response to those hurling stones at government forces. Mehbooba acquired the distinction of presiding over the most brutal blinding of people in history as pellets fired by government troops took away the vision of thousands of youngsters, completely or partially. Insha, the symbol of this carnage, was in her room and not part of any protest when she was hit with a shower of pellets.
“During this year, Mehbooba Mufti lost every argument. She razed to ground her political castle, brick by brick. It turned her into the weakest chief minister Jammu and Kashmir had ever seen,” a senior journalist in Srinagar said.
Worse, under her blind watch, the Valley again turned into a battlefield with a phenomenal increase in the number of local militants. Most of them were recruited during the uprising that followed Burhan’s killing. The new recruits armed themselves by looting rifles of police and paramilitary troops.
Burhan in his penultimate video had given a ‘last warning’ to police to stop ‘atrocities’ against militants and their sympathisers. He had warned that policemen would be targeted directly. After his death, the threat turned real. Police officers and their families became the target of militants. When a police constable sporting a flowing beard and manning a traffic beat was killed in Anantnag town, it was notice that militants had shed their restraint of attacking the constabulary.
Attacks on police constables are also an outcome of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s policy to assimilate the draconian Special Task Force (STF) into regular police in the year 2003. Since then, the constabulary took such a form that it became the primary target of public anger as well as of militants. The situation reached such a pass that police chief Shesh Paul Vaid recently issued a circular asking policemen to avoid going to their homes in south Kashmir. The unjustifiable lynching of a police officer at Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid by an irate mob is one of the more glaring examples of the growing rage against the police force. Mehbooba Mufti has not offered any solution to this growing wedge. Instead, she has issued a veiled threat, counselling people to not test the police’s patience.
On the issue of engagement with pro-freedom groups, once the most cherished plank of her party, Mehbooba acquiesced to New Delhi’s doctrine to subdue, sideline and suppress pro-freedom groups. Syed Ali Geelani has not been allowed to move out of his residence. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was jailed at a guest house for several days and has remained under detention for most of the past year at his Nigeen mansion. Yasin Malik has been frequently jailed. Interestingly, these three leaders used to be in bitterly divided camps, but under the Mehbooba regime they drew closer and established a loose union to spearhead the anti-India campaign. Mehbooba boasts of having invited the pro-freedom leadership for talks during Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Kashmir, but she does not refer to the public declaration by Singh that her invitation had no sanction from New Delhi.
Mehbooba endorsed Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s stern warning to protesters that anyone reaching encounter sites to help militants escape will be treated as an over-ground worker of the militants. Since that warning, more than 20 youngsters have been killed in such attempts, and dozens others have been injured. The defiance of people is not showing any let-up. The swell of people at militants’ funerals is not receding, even as the blasting of houses and charring militants’ bodies beyond recognition have been employed as additional deterrents.
From the very day that Burhan was killed, the Mehbooba-led government has been imposing all kinds of communication curbs on the pretext of stopping rumour-mongering. The worst was the nearly 3-month ban on the publication of Kashmir Reader. Internet and mobile telephony was banned for months at a stretch, and keeps getting banned at the drop of a hat.
Observers say that the toughest year in Mehbooba Mufti’s political career has dismantled her base. However, she is still putting up a confident face. In her speeches, which invariably create controversies, she pleads with people to give peace another chance. She gives the impression that as soon as peace returns, she will do groundbreaking development work. The political ideals have been replaced by a yearning to construct roads and buildings.