For almost a decade, in the centre of the main market in this town, 70 km north of Srinagar, at a showpiece roundabout, stood what was a symbol of India’s might in Kashmir — a 20-foot-high Army bunker on stilts, the entire structure built in concrete as if to assert its permanence. Next to it, a flagpole with the Tricolour.
Flanked by two outposts, one built over a shop, another attached to the gate of the nearby Jamia Masjid, the brick red bunker and the outposts were set ablaze last week by angry residents protesting the rumoured molestation of a teenaged girl. The flag was an early casualty, the soldiers had to leave as the mob chanted “hum kya chahtey, azadi,” flung Molotov cocktails and gas cylinders.
The gutted bunker, its windows and roofs charred by the blaze, was dismantled Tuesday by the civil administration.
For long, the people of Handwara had been asking for this bunker to be removed. They argued that they saw no need for such a bunker in the middle of the market in a peaceful district that security forces consider a success story in the fight against militancy.
As it came down today, Sajjad Lone, who represents the Kupwara Assembly constituency in which Handwara falls and whose party, the Peoples Conference, is part of the ruling coalition, held a rally that hundreds of people attended, promising that the other demands of the people would be met, too.
Chief among them: there will be no cases against those who took part in the protests, the government will pay generous compensation to the families of those who lost their lives.
“That was never the right place for a bunker,” Lone told The Indian Express. He remembers the roundabout for the fountain that it once had, and over which the bunker came up.
“If the whole objective of these protests was the dismantling of the bunker, the question has to be asked: was this the right way to go about it?” a senior military official said.
Five people were killed in the violence across Kupwara district from last Tuesday, when the alleged molestation incident took place, until Friday. There are conflicting reports about whether it was the police that fired the first bullets or the Army.
Coming within 10 days of Mehbooba Mufti taking over as Chief Minister, and fast on the heels of the trouble at NIT Srinagar, the incidents at Handwara threatened to add one more layer to the challenges that the new PDP-BJP government faces.
The dismantling of the bunker has finally brought down the temperature in Handwara after six days of curfew-like restrictions — policemen fiercely monitored entry; journalists were turned away from checkposts.
North and south
Kupwara’s angry eruption last week showed that even in areas considered relatively peaceful in today’s Kashmir, anger and alienation are simmering not far below the surface.
Once a militant hotspot, the border district of Kupwara, 20 km from the LoC at its nearest point, remains a gateway for militants who cross into Kashmir from over the LoC. But the militants hardly come into the towns and the villages anymore, and have few local recruits.
In that sense, it is different from south Kashmir — the four districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam, and Anant Nag — which in recent months and weeks has seen spontaneous outpouring of support for militants and anger against security forces.
But all it took for the dam to burst in Handwara was a rumour of an alleged sexual assault.
No one is even very sure now if the girl was molested as the two boys who raised the alarm alleged, whether it was an Army man who went into the public toilet after her or from another force or whether there was such a person at all. But once the first bodies fell, it created a chain of killings, protests, more killings and more protests, all adding appendices to the thick book of Kashmiri resentment.
“Jab logon par zulm ho raha hai, people are bound to come out of their homes and on to the streets,” said Mohammed Shaban, the nephew of Raja Begum, who succumbed after apparently being hit by a bullet while she was working in a field, some 4 km from the scene of the Handwara clash, in Langate.
Her death triggered more protests and stone pelting, this time in Langate.
Police say it was impossible that a bullet from the Handwara firing could have hit Raja Begum. Two senior police officials told The Indian Express there was no firing incident at Langate and that they were awaiting the post-mortem report to ascertain the cause of death.
But Raja Begum’s family members and neighbours are emphatic in their allegation that it was a bullet that killed her, and that it came from an Army bunker in Langate.
“This is what the Army do under cover of AFPSA. They fire knowing they are protected from punishment. They fire for enjoyment,” said another nephew of Raja Begum, Mir Ilyas. “We demand a judicial enquiry into these five killings so that such an incident should never take place again”.
“Just watch, when things go back to normal here, they will start their nightly raids, start pulling out people from their homes and arrest them for taking part in these protests,” said a third nephew, Mushtaq Ahmed.
With the bunker gone, there is hope in the government that the district will soon return to its relative calm. Lone believes that having been the frontline district for militancy in the early years, and having suffered high casualties in the early 1990s, the people of Kupwara have few illusions.
“The highest count in terms of fatalities has been borne by this district. There is a village of widows here. So I don’t think they want to go through all that again. The people here have weighed realism against idealism, and concluded that realism is better,” he said.
For all its resentment over the bunker, the local population has worked out a co-existence with the Army over the years. All mainstream parties are present in the district and their workers are active. When the Hurriyat sends out a shutdown call, the entire Valley responds, but never Kupwara or Handwara.
On the day of the incident last Tuesday, when Srinagar, Baramulla, Sopore, and other towns in the Valley shut down in response to a call from the separatist leadership to protest against the attacks on Kashmiri students studying in campuses outside the State, Kupwara and Handwara remained open.
The dark joke about last week’s disastrous episode is that it might not have taken place had Handwara toed the shutdown call.
The Army is reluctant to comment on whether the perceived local victory over the bunker in Handwara could act as a trigger for similar protests in other parts of the Valley. “The removal of the bunker was an old demand. We will have to wait and see what effect it could have,” said an official.
In the J&K police, there is more concern right now about the trouble building up in south Kashmir.
A police officer in a south Kashmir district said if an incident like Handwara had happened in a presently volatile district like Pulwama, “the reaction would have been far more intense. There would have been more participation in the protests.”
South Kashmir is where a new wave of militancy in the Valley is centred, where the young boys wielding the gun against the Indian State are all local, those without guns say they are unarmed militants, and youngsters take inspiration from a local hero, Burhan, the social media-savvy poster boy of this new militancy.
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