A few days before Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces I travelled through the interior villages of South Kashmir, the epicentre of new militancy in the state to try and understand the changing nature of violence. Why were educated and increasingly radicalised young men, some of who were school toppers, picking up the gun? Why were their families, many of whom were government employees, willing to see them die rather than turn them in?
An effective counter-insurgency grid had brought down the number of Pakistan trained infiltrating and operational militants from across the Line of Control to below 200. So why was there a sudden resurgence in local militancy? The brave and beleaguered Jammu and Kashmir police force had been trying to draw New Delhi’s attention to the warning signs for a while. In 2015 its internal survey warned that for the first time in ten years local militants had outnumbered foreign terrorists making up 62 per cent of the total. The overall numbers were not very high but the pattern itself was alarming and needed emergency intervention. As the report warned ‘The new trend reveals that terrorist cadres have influenced the impressionable youth, a significant number have gone missing in recent past.’ Since it involved local communities the challenges this threw up were much more insidious than battling hundreds of Lashkar- e-Toiba terrorists. Already the nature of street protests was changing, with women fronting them and sometimes even over-running security posts and snatching away weapons. But denialism is the disease that has plagued the Kashmir crisis more than any other; every opportunity to make things better has been a lost one. And these cautionary tales were either ignored or underestimated.
Today, as thousands of security personnel lead one of the largest search and cordon operations in Shopian, the valley’s Apple belt, they are seeking area domination to hunt down local militants with house to house investigations. While restoring the writ of the state is critical, operationally this is a throwback to the nineties, a disturbing turning back of the clock and more proof that all the incremental advantages of the past ten years have been frittered away by successive central governments.
Yet, it has never been so difficult to have an honest conversation about Jammu and Kashmir. Every stakeholder, on all sides of the trenches, wants to co-opt you; the real absence of azaadi is reflected in this blinkered vision that prevents people from seeing things as they are. The high-pitched calls for nationalism from prime-time studio warriors (most of whom have spent little or no time in Kashmir) have ironically reduced the very soldiers they claim to protect to cannon fodder. For instance, it’s not the job of India’s Army to control restive and violent crowds of protesters; especially not when they have another front open at the Line of Control where Pakistan’s army has escalated conflict with the beheading of two soldiers. In the past, Army commanders I know have firmly declined to be pitted against the locals. Why should failed politics take shelter behind the uniform? Why should soldiers or policemen carry the cross for the lack of political imagination? Why should Governors’ Rule not be imposed in a state where law and order has collapsed? And when will we admit that things have never been as grim, intractable and difficult to unknot in the Kashmir valley as they are today?
How, for instance, do we understand, why 20-year-old Ishaq Parray whose academic excellence earned him the name of Newton (after Isaac Newton) aspired to be a doctor, but died a militant. At his modest village home his family showed me his book shelf still stacked with tomes on chemistry and physics and his A-grade report cards. His sister is married to a police officer; his elder brother is unemployed with a master’s degree. But Newton’s father told me militancy had little to do with jobs and opportunities. “Newton was brilliant; he could have got any degree, any job he wanted.” Other parents sent their sons away from Kashmir thinking distance would be a curative – like Abdul Rashid Bhat, the father of Burhan Wani’s successor, Zakir Bhat. Abdul Rashid, a government civil engineer sent Zakir to an engineering college in Chandigarh. He too excelled at studies and his father proudly showed me certificates of national carom championships Zakir had won. None of this stopped Zakir from picking up the gun.
Laptops instead of stones, as the Prime Minister once proposed, won’t change much. The problem is elsewhere. And Kashmir is staring down an abyss.