After the hanging of Afzal Guru for his role in the 2001 terror attack on Parliament, things have changed for the worse in Jammu and Kashmir. This is the popular narrative in our media, even though there were only three deaths in protests following the hanging and the curfew was completely lifted within a few days.
This belief bolsters the separatists who are hoping that it will reignite their movement which till recently seemed to be on its last legs. They identify 2014 as a pivotal year: US forces are exiting Afghanistan and parliamentary and assembly elections are scheduled in J&K. The similarities between 2014 and 1989, when violence really erupted in the state, are hard for them to miss.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq returned to Srinagar last month, Yasin Malik is likely to return from Pakistan on Saturday and Syed Ali Shah Geelani will soon follow suit. But even in their absence, Asiya Andrabi has brought all the separatists together under a new umbrella called the Mutahida Majlis-i-Mashawrat (United Advisory Council) or MMM. Pakistan-based terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen have openly supported the MMM.
Andrabi, if you remember, heads a women-only militant organisation, Dukhtaran-e-Millat and supports jehad in Kashmir. In the 1990s, her cadres threw acid and paint on the faces of women in Srinagar for not wearing burqa. As expected, by asking people to protest after Friday prayers, stop work on Fridays and work instead on Sundays, the MMM has again propped its separatist agenda on religious legs.
Notwithstanding this, indubitably there is genuine disaffection among a section of Kashmiris. This section is the core support base of the separatists. Even if Afzal Guru wasn’t hanged, their disaffection wouldn’t have gone away. This support is not evenly spread across the state but limited to certain pockets in the Kashmir Valley. The anti-India sentiment runs deep in these pockets.
Take Sopore for example. The town to which Afzal Guru belonged. It was known as a “liberated zone” till 1993, when the Indian army launched an operation to regain control of the town. It was in Sopore that one of the first major pro-Pakistan militant outfits, the Tehreek-e-Jihad-e-Islami led by Abdul Majid Dar, set up base. In the 1990s, Afghan mujahideen commander Gulbadeen Hikmatyar’s bodyguard, Akbar Bhai, operated from Sopore for two years.
Moreover, Sopore has always been a separatist stronghold with substantial support for the Jamaat-e-Islami. Before the advent of militancy, Syed Geelani, then the tallest leader of the Jamaat, was the MLA from Sopore for three terms. During the 2008 assembly elections, when 60 percent of electorate turned out to vote in the state, less than 20 percent people voted in the Sopore assembly constituency.
This came down to 7.8 percent during the 2009 parliamentary polls when the state witnessed 40 percent polling. Not to forget that the constituency with the lowest voting percentage across the country during the last general elections was Srinagar: only a quarter of the electorate turned out to vote.
This should put into perspective the areas in Kashmir Valley where we witness protests. These areas were, are and will probably remain strongholds of the separatists. These people are the irreconcilables. They won’t be won over by any step India takes, short of allowing the Valley to merge with Pakistan.
An incessant media focus on these pockets of orchestrated trouble after every incident creates a distorted picture about the overall situation in the state. A majority of people in the state want to lead peaceful lives. They want jobs, they want tourism to flourish, they want more economic opportunities. Since the last troubled summer in Kashmir in 2010, people have shown their yearning for normality by consistently rejecting calls by separatists for protests, shutdowns and boycotts. That the security forces have been able to suppress the jehadi violence to its lowest levels since 1989 has allowed this yearning to be expressed freely.
This yearning among Kashmiris for routine social and economic activity is often mistaken by commentators as a missed opportunity to “solve” the Kashmir problem; as if there is a perfect “solution” which can be imposed by the state and union governments.
Although there is something that the government must essentially do -– it must maintain peace in the state which allows people to lead routine lives. It won’t “solve” the Kashmir problem but a failure to even do this minimum will certainly push the state back into turmoil. The rest of the answers will then come in due course.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review