Back in April, when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was still alive, young boys in his home town of Tral declared they were readying for a long struggle in which there would be no leaders. My colleague Basharat Masood and I were in Tral to report on the new militancy centred in South Kashmir, and that remark came when we observed that Burhan and the other militants with him were likely to be captured soon as the police had already eliminated many of them and were said to be closing in on him.
“New militants will come. We are safe now because we have already transferred the struggle to the next generation. The cause is bigger than the individual. Even if [Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah] Geelani or [Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed] Salahuddin side with India, our struggle will not end.” The Centre would try and engage with Kashmir, they said, “but they will find no one to engage with, because there will be no leaders, no one subscribes to any leaders any more”.
Leaders made compromises, they said. Even though many of these boys were not born or were infants at the time, in their minds was inscribed the notion that the previous generation of militants took up the gun because they wanted to become high officials in Kashmir, liberated or not. “Some of them thought, here comes azadi, now I can become a minister, may be even prime minister”. Burhan, on the other hand, was seen to be “pure”, because he had no such “greed”, no political ambition.
There were no leaders at Burhan’s funeral on Saturday. The security establishment may well conclude that there were faceless entities orchestrating the arrival of the tens of thousands of mourners from across the state over WhatsApp and other social media, that there were over ground workers in the crowd provoking the acts of violence.
That may or may not be true. But the mourners who streamed into Tral from all parts of the state did not believe that they were acting on anyone’s instructions. As they took over the roads leading to Tral, burning tyres and pelting stones, policing the massive influx of people, in their minds they were reacting in spontaneous anger.
As Kashmir boils over at the killing, it is this leaderlessness, and the new ideal of the “azadi” struggle as one that ends in death and a hero’s funeral that should worry the security and political establishment. Even a call for calm by Geelani has not helped defuse the situation. Young Kashmiris continue to revere him as the only leader who has “not compromised” but even he was not spared, as protestors jeered at his appeal.
This is not a situation that developed overnight. Since 2008, when the Mumbai attacks put talks with Pakistan in the freezer and all attempts at a restart tripped up repeatedly, the disillusionment of a new generation of Kashmiri youth has grown, with the continuing presence of the military, Centre’s insistence on keeping AFSPA, and continuing human rights violations, all erupting in the stone pelting agitation of 2010. Then, anger over the 112 deaths of young boys in that episode segued into popular discontent over the 2014 alliance between the PDP and BJP in the last two years, bringing the Valley closer to the bruising debates in the national arena over what to eat and who to marry.
Meanwhile, for a full decade now, since the round table exercise by the previous government under then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, there has been no political initiative by the Centre in the Valley except the doomed three-member interlocutors panel set up to find out views on the ground and suggest ways to address the issue. Its report has lain in cold storage since 2011. It is the same with the recommendations of the round table committees. That has left the moderate factions of the Hurriyat, which participated in the round table process, in the cold. They had nothing to show for their compromise, and it diminished them in the eyes of a new generation of Kashmiris.
The NDA government has made it clear that it wants nothing to do with either the moderates or hardliners in the Hurriyat, nothwithstanding a cursory line in the BJP-PDP “agenda for alliance” that “the state government will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders which includes political groups irrespective of their ideological views and predilections”. If the Centre is firm that it will deal only with the elected representatives in Kashmir and mainstream political parties, the NDA government has hardly been proactive in facilitating even the implementation of the doable political promises in the coalition’s common programme, despite entreaties by the PDP and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.
With infiltration down and fewer incidents of terror strikes in Kashmir, the smugness in the political and security establishment has been apparent. Only a few thousand Kashmiris protesting on the streets, only a handful of militants, we can do encounters, we can do crowd control, it is all very manageable, has been the confident refrain.
But the problem with this is that it is almost entirely security driven. It has meant firing into crowds of youngsters with lethal weapons, resulting in deaths or life-impairing injuries — many boys hit by pellets are landing up at eye hospitals in Amritsar for treatment with their parents fearing their sons might be picked up by police if they went to local hospitals. It has meant taking out militants, which did not seem to matter so long as they were from across the border, but has taken on an entirely different meaning after Kashmiri boys began following Burhan’s example. The fierce resistance put up by local communities, from under 10-year-olds to senior citizens, at encounter sites, and the mass displays of anger more than grief at their funerals, is now all too well known. The police say that the death in encounter of a local militant is a sad event, yet security forces repeat such encounters and are each time taken by surprise at the public reaction.
What this approach has done is to bring out kids as young as 8 or 12-years old, to whom defiance of the Indian state is now as natural as playing cricket. Each death, of a militant or protestor, has become a celebration of this defiance, triggering more protests, adding more grievances, increasing the alienation. In death, Burhan has caused more turmoil in two days than in his six years as a militant. In April, Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Ahmad Wani, a school teacher, had told The Indian Express: “Kashmir is on fire. If India wants to douse it, they need to use water, not oil”. That, really, is the lesson from Kashmir’s weekend of fury.