By Rouf Dar
Many people have been expressing amazement about how the mainly rural uprising in 2016 ebbed away from its epicenter, southern Kashmir. This has been a coming-of-age moment for the people of rural Kashmir who have never detached themselves from the movement for self-determination. But the uprising took many by surprise.
Many explanations have made rounds since the uprising was sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani. Here is what my perspective reading of what happened, how it happened and why this vehement rural uprising took the course that it did.
Nobody doubts participation of rural masses in this ongoing tehreek. They have been at the forefront of the movement for self-determination. Unfortunately, Kashmir is Srinagar in a similar analogical way as India is judged by New Delhi or Mumbai by many.
Almost all premier institutions, educational, political, administrative, economic, cultural and even pro-freedom structures have always been located, and in a sense restricted to the main city of Srinagar, making a default representation of the entire valley.
Same is the case with the media including newspapers, local cable channels and online portals which function out of the capital the city. They recruit reporters from other regions too who are overburdened with a larger area to cover with lesser manpower. So, any news from the countryside will rarely make it to the front-page of a newspaper unless it is something radical or big in terms of news value.
In such a backdrop, what has been the contribution of rural Kashmir in this ongoing movement, and has it been acknowledged or given due attention and recognition?
As early as 1931, during the well documented revolts against Dogra rule, many people from Shopian and adjacent areas had been shot dead during and after the July 13 protests that have become an iconic moment in the history of the nation’s liberation struggle.
An invisible but vital contribution, I would say, was also the production of food that enabled the entire valley to stand on its feet. This self-reliance transformed into resilience in times of adversity, natural or colonial. The wide-scale protests of 2008, 2010, 2014 and 2016 are classical examples.
In terms of direct involvement in the struggle, armed resistance erupted and sustained itself for a long time in rural Kashmir where specific topographic terrains provided a safe zones to the militants and they managed to survive for as long as possible until the lure of money and collaboration with the state became somewhat entrenched.
In 1990s, the peak years of militancy, rural Kashmir was ruled by militants who had even set up parallel adjudication mechanisms for the residents. The presence of 10-15 militants in each village at a time is testified by elders who lived through that era.
It is said that militants had such an influential presence in Kulgam that they would move around in groups of 10 or more. And the state armed forces, who were not as densely deployed as today, would never dare to travel beyond Khudwani Qaimoh, an area that still maintains a reputation for resistance.
When analysts and experts were busy promoting the so-called “normalcy” and “return of peace” in the 2000s, South Kashmir had not done away with the gun yet. The number of armed rebels had dived down but the sentiment had only begun to stay dormant.
As Kashmir began go back to stone throwing, mass protests and social networking as means of peaceful dissent in 2008, militants were nowhere to be seen. This was taken to be an end to the use of arms against state-sponsored violence. However, the “crush any form of dissent” policy of the state had other repercussions.
The protests of 2008 replicated in 2009 and more vehemently in 2010 when government forces killed 120 youth while protesting. The wise could read the writing on the wall then, but the Indian state chose to ignore it.
Experts who attribute the resurrection of militancy to “alienation of people” or “reduced democratisation processes” are hallucinating. This frequent shift in resistance methods is integral to freedom struggles around the world and not something in line with the coloniser’s politics.
As had happened in the 1990s, this resurrected militancy also sprouted from rural areas. Tral favoured the militancy by providing the “poster boy” who was suave, techy, intelligent and equally compassionate. Burhan Wani intersected the Kalashnikov with Facebook. He stirred together arms with social networking to attract youth towards armed militancy.
His moves worked. The dormant sentiment resounded once again in the rural regions of Kashmir. Contrary to the last time, these militants had a continuous, immortal life in people’s digital world everywhere in Kashmir and beyond. They transcended their physical selves into the realm of the virtual, being in one place and everywhere at the same time through their online engagement.
Their unfazed relationship with the public horrified the state more than their guns did. Essentially, their presence was amplified by their images on the internet, and as one knows a body can be killed, but an image that translates into an idea, that of freedom cannot be erased from the minds of those who have seen such an image and courted such an idea.
Militancy reappeared in South Kashmir. Together with a generation that had survived the torment of the 1990s, they began scripting a remarkable ideological turnaround in the valley. Now, any encounter the new militants had with the government forces had the latter fighting not only the armed rebels but the youth with stones as their weapons.
Funerals became massive affairs where an ocean of people would converge to bid adieu to the martyred souls. LeT chief Abu Qasim, who was martyred in Kulgam in October 2015, was one such instance where, like old times, a group of rebels appeared to pay a gun salute to the slain commander. This represented a turn around.
It was these fast evolving circumstances that Burhan Wani was martyred. The entire valley rose in rebellion. The State, and many others, who thought this would be a regular militant funeral, are still in shock as the mainly rural backlash raged for months.
The oppressive tactics like the military siege of an entire population, like was done on the eve of Afzal Guru’s hanging, failed this time round. This spontaneous response drew from the acceptance of militants as “their own” sans any hesitation. More youth now are disgruntled with the stone and “there is only one solution gun solution” has been a slogan renewed.
In 2008 or 2010 when youth in Kashmir protested nonviolently on the streets and subsequently began emulating stone pelting, like in Palestinian Intifada, after their protests were met with reckless State force. Villages however could not pelt stones.
Firstly, there is the presence of army camps, and not police pickets, after every several villages. So, most of the villages without army camps have none to pelt stones at. Second, army is mostly seen as more cruel, trained to kill, than police. Unlike police forces who confront protestors on the streets, army is not trained for such situations. So, people avoid confronting them.
Therefore, in 2008 and 2010, rural areas were quite. A rally here, a rally there was all that formed the activity of countryside people. However, dynamics entirely changed in 2016. Anger overtook fear and people straightaway pounced on army camps and pelted stones on them.
Over the next many months, every Friday, people of many villages would assemble and march while protesting towards the army camp of that area. This became a weekly routine when crowds would converge on army camps from different sides.
Then the organisation of Ittehad-e-Millat Conferences proved another arena where people remained involved de facto in the uprising, unlike earlier years when the only preoccupation was collecting and dissemination of relief material for urban areas.
Rampur is a small hamlet comprising of no more than 100 households near Qaimoh in Kulgam district. A total of around 20 militants from this village have been martyred at various places. And all of them happen to be relatives of each other. As of now, the two active militants from this village happen to be a 40-year-old and his teenager nephew.
Their voice echoes with the recoiling of the gun. They enjoy immense sympathy and support for their resistance, and the people fear no force confessing this. This apparently is a microcosm of the society that is building forte in the region and manifests a collective will of the people.
In the present phase of “unrest”, more than 80 youth are believed to be missing in southern Kashmir, mostly suspected of joining militant ranks. With such a turnaround in the minds of youth in the region, any anticipation of silencing them into any idea of “integration” with the Indian Union has almost died.
To further foreground the growing conflict with the state, youth and militants have been involved in heists of weapons from government forces. Smaller deployments of policemen at political workers’ houses and to guard minorities have been easy targets for building up new weaponary.
This again means, by default, that the number of armed Kashmiris is increasing and they possess enough public backing.
The build-up to this point is much deeper than what appears on the surface. It is quite perplexing that how a region infested with strong PDP and CPIM sentiments can witness an unprecedented scale of protest over the death of a popular militant.
The PDP has its genesis in Anantnag district where it has tasted a spate of successes. The CPIM sprouted from Kulgam where Yusuf Tarigami has been winning in assembly elections consecutively the last four times. Owing to this, Kulgam earned the sobriquet of “Communist district” though the ideology and party are diametrically contradicting.
One of the earliest villages to become a launchpad for the CPIM was Bugam which housed the party office that supervised the working in all other villages of the constituency. The transformation of Bugam into a hard-line resistance hamlet is a typical example that illustrates how the tag has been shrugged by the district.
Around 2004, a local religious preacher formed Dawat-e-Islami Centre in Bugam with the aim of uniting people for ‘the cause.’ Fayaz Rather was involved in tireless work which began producing results. The roots of the CPIM began trembling. The apex was 2014 elections when not a single vote was polled in the entire village. This made news and altered the image of Bugam altogether.
In 2015, PDP MP, Nazir Ahmed Laway was passing through the village and decided to inspect the local higher secondary school. As word spread about his arrival local youth gathered and set fire to a car of his cavalcade. He stayed indoors till more troops rushed to the spot and, after intense clashes, managed to free him.
This was the undoing of the infamous tag that had stayed with Bugam. In 2016, as more than 200 large public rallies were held, nicknamed as the Ittehad-E-Millat Conferences, it was again Bugam that threw in the idea of uniting people on one platform.
Fayaz Rather attributes this transformation to the noble mission that he and his colleagues had started way back in 2004. They simply sent an invitation to prominent clerics of all sects in the region to address the crowd on a particular date. This ignited the spree which pricked the state and proved a masterstroke in terms of rural participation in resistance activity.
A noteworthy fact to point out here is that these rallies were not a part of the weekly calendars issued by the joint resistance leadership. People began to get primarily involved in these conferences on a full-time basis irrespective of what the protest calendars commanded them to do.
This however does not mean that they disrespected the leadership. It only depicted that people are ready to lead and not be led. There was no waiting for calendars.
There was little in the calendar followed by people actually on ground. The only similarity, and the most important one, was that shutdown had to continue. Unlike 2010, people found their own ways of getting involved in resistance activities.
Leaders sprung up from Ittehad-e-Millat Conferences as it happened for the first time that religious figures made a foray into resistance politics. Every act became a collective effort. Sectarianism took a backseat and different religious ideologues shared the same stage.
This phenomenon threw up Sarjan Barkati, the Ummati Islamia leader who became the darling of rural masses. Coming from a remote village and a humble background, his fiery speeches and rhythmic sloganeering animated the entire region. People thronged conferences to listen and watch Barkati speak.
Barkati spoke satirically and but the anger and resentment was always visible from his face and lionesque voice. He added a unique method of sloganeering which was brutally transparent of his ideas and equally breathtaking. People followed Barkati wherever he went. They even provided him security as he evaded arrest for a long time.
The evolvement of local leadership filled the gap between far off rural regions and resistance leadership in Srinagar who were behind bars or confined to their houses. The dependency on protest calendars just vanished.
These new leaders, along with youth, will have much more to offer in future and it goes on to show that the web of resistance is being spread far and wide.
With the “normalization” of the situation, which is in no way a consequence of state repression because no state can ever bury dissent, considering that the future of rural regions holds nothing different from the past? In fact, with increasing number of youth joining militants, oppression of the 1990s might return to rile the region.
Grapevine has it that more military camps are going to be set up across the rural belts. Some of them have already been placed as part of the ‘Operation Clampdown’ which featured massive deployment of soldiers in the region. But even now, the moment one crosses Srinagar-Jammu highway towards Kulgam or Pulwama, an entirely different landscape meets the eye.
The fearlessness of youth all these preceding months has created such a trouble for the forces that they require a large contingent of men to arrest youth during raids. They crackdown on localities to pick up youth, just like they would searching for armed militants.
People, especially youth, both of Bugam and Rampur, and similarly for the entire region don’t shy away from confessing their support to armed resistance. When people openly rebel with their ideas and whatever resources they might get hold of, the state should anticipate a tough battle.
By recruitment of youth as SPOs, dispensing sports packages, imprisoning students including minors, holding entire localities hostage under the nozzle of a gun, monitoring public movement in Panthera T6 vehicles and teaching people a harsh lesson for demanding their rights, India is not setting a right precedent for itself.
The Indian state is in the process of creating a Frankenstein monster which will haunt it for many years to come. And in the process, it may end up teaching the State a harsh lesson.
—The writer is co-editor at withkashmir.com Views expressed in this piece are personal.