Valley of death: Being young and restless in Kashmir

Published 04 Feb, 2018 12:07am
Kashmiris climb trees at the funeral procession of a Hizbul Mujahideen fighter in Pulwama district in January 2016 | Photos by Syed Shahriyar
Kashmiris climb trees at the funeral procession of a Hizbul Mujahideen fighter in Pulwama district in January 2016 | Photos by Syed Shahriyar

It’s 5:45 am. Thousands of people walk towards a ground. Some of them are carrying a dead body draped in a woolen blanket. Others are throwing rose petals on it. The crowd is taking Burhan Muzaffar Wani to his final destination.

By 9:30 am on July 9, 2016, his funeral prayer has been offered. Tens of thousands of mourners are still pouring in. A small band of young fighters arrives by noon in combat fatigues carrying automatic weapons, standing out amid the sea of people.

Wani was only 21 when he was buried in his village, Tral, 42 kilometres south-east of Srinagar. He was an acclaimed commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a militant organisation engaged in an armed insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir. He made a name for himself by using social media to promote the cause of resistance against India. His photos and rebellious messages often appeared mysteriously on Facebook pages. The photos show him sitting in front of a camera, often with the Quran, Kalashnikovs and other rebels by his side, issuing warnings to Indian security forces and calling young Kashmiris to arms. His social media images romanticised the life of a rebel, making him a youth icon and winning the fading rebellion many new recruits.

These photos and videos showed him in various poses and guises — wearing a hoodie, sporting a green bandana, carrying automatic weapons, in full military uniform complete with a helmet. He looked relaxed, sometimes doing what every young man does in this part of the world in his free time: loitering, playing cricket, enjoying meals with his associates. His bearded oval face became etched in the minds of his social media fans, many of them aspiring to follow his footsteps.

Wani’s life also became the stuff of legend. His followers started giving him attributes usually reserved for mythical or cinematic heroes. According to one story, he once called an army officer to tell him that he was bathing in the Jhelum river but when the officer arrived, Wani was nowhere to be seen. All he could find was a freshly used bar of soap.

A masked protestor takes pictures during a protest rally in Srinagar on May 21, 2016
A masked protestor takes pictures during a protest rally in Srinagar on May 21, 2016

Once Wani was like any boy in Tral, attending school and playing youthful games. One day in 2010 some security officials beat him along with his elder brother Khalid and a friend as the three passed by a military checkpoint near their village. He did not take the beating lying down, shouting and resisting as much as he could instead. The same year he joined the rebels. He was only 16 years old.

For Kashmiris, those were particularly trying times: in 2010 alone, Indian security forces had shot dead 120 civilians in different parts of Jammu and Kashmir, as the Indian-administered part of the former princely state is officially known. Young men like him were both agitated and frustrated. Pro-India political parties were more interested in spoils of power than in empowering Kashmiris to become masters of their own destiny. All Parties Hurriyat Conference – an alliance of mainly pro-Pakistan parties – and other groups and individuals had lost vigour and unity. Rebel militias did not have popular support, mostly because their fighters came from outside Kashmir and their leaders operated from the relative safety of their headquarters in Pakistan. New Delhi and Islamabad, meanwhile, used Kashmir as a bargaining chip in their ceaseless competition for strategic superiority.

Wani and his associates knew of only one solution to these problems: attacking Indian security forces and targeting government sites and installations. By late 2013, his name rang across Kashmir as a fierce, fearless fighter. At the age of 18, he had become the poster boy of the movement for Kashmir’s freedom, azadi — an apt symbol of resistance in a state teeming with youngsters.

Wani was six years a rebel. He became very religious in those years and developed an intense attachment to militant ideology.

On the evening of July 8, 2016, Indian soldiers shot him dead along with two others in Bumdoora village of Anantnag district — around 40 kilometres south of his home in Tral.

The government jammed data service on cell phones across Kashmir that day. In southern areas of the state, where Tral is located, even phone signals were blocked.

These measures, however, did not stop the news of Wani’s funeral from spreading like wildfire across the valley — an area marked by Pir Panjal Range on the west and the mighty Himalayan peaks on the east and north. By the time he was buried in the afternoon, Kashmiris had taken to the streets in many cities, towns and villages. At least 16 of them were shot dead by Indian soldiers.

The protests and the killing spree continued months after his death. According to Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights group, security forces killed 145 civilians in 2016. Another 15,000 of them sustained injuries during protests, including over 1,000 hit in the eyes by pellets fired by police and paramilitary forces.

Violence was not restricted to the protests. According to the coalition, 138 rebels and 100 security officials were also killed last year. Indian government data put the number of rebels killed in 2016 at 165 — the highest figure, compared to those of each of the preceding six years.

A Kashmiri man feeds pigeons in the compound of Makhdoom Sahib Shrine in the old city of Srinagar
A Kashmiri man feeds pigeons in the compound of Makhdoom Sahib Shrine in the old city of Srinagar

The epicentre of protests and casualties has been Kashmir Valley’s southern region — comprising the districts of Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian. During 2016 many areas in these districts slipped out of India’s control on occasion. Boys in south Kashmir do not hesitate to publicly pronounce their support for the insurgents. “Today, these rebels are our only heroes,” declares one of them.

Young rebels are routinely seen in public. Carrying Kalashnikovs and offering gun salutes to people, they openly participate in public rallies. Often they stay overnight with villagers while moving from one area to another.

Even where the rebels’ presence is known, Indian security forces find it difficult to launch siege and search operations to nab them. Protesters come out in large numbers to support the rebels, shouting slogans and hurling stones at soldiers. Young civilians develop an informal intelligence network to help rebels move around undetected. They know they can die in the process. ‘We can sacrifice our lives to help our brothers,’ is a sentiment shared by many among the youth.

The youth, says Siddiq Wahid, a prominent Kashmiri historian based in Srinagar, have taken charge of the political struggle in Kashmir. “[Young people believe] that resistance by the earlier generations has been co-opted – in different ways and by varying degrees – by interests that are external to the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he says.

Indian soldiers directed Abdul Majeed Reshi and his family to step out of their house at 11 pm on the freezing night of February 12, 2017. They suspected some rebels were hiding inside.

Reshi, a frail old man in his sixties with a grey beard, lives in Frisal, a beautiful village surrounded by plantations and dense trees in Kulgam district, 55 kilometres south of Srinagar. The soldiers cordoned off his residence and ordered his sons – Ashiq Ahmed and Muhammad Shafi – to accompany them inside as Reshi and other family members shifted to his brother’s place.

The soldiers initially found no one inside, eyewitnesses say. Soon gunfire boomed in the air and a fight started. Four rebels had taken positions somewhere within the house, the locals say. The exchange of fire continued overnight.

Next morning, hundreds of young boys from across south Kashmir arrived in Frisal and started throwing stones at the soldiers to help trapped rebels escape. By the time the armed clash ended at 11 am and security forces had blasted the house to the ground, four rebels and two Indian soldiers were killed. Locals claim three other rebels had managed to escape in the dark of night.

The rebels who died in the encounter – Mudasir Ahmad Tantray, Wakeel Ahmad Thokar, Farooq Ahmad Bhat and Younus Lone – all belonged to Kulgam district. The former two were associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba and the latter two belonged to Hizbul Mujahideen. Lone had joined the rebels only a month or so earlier.

Protestors in the Rainawari area of Srinagar's old city hold playcards during a protest held against the killing of civilians in July 2016
Protestors in the Rainawari area of Srinagar's old city hold playcards during a protest held against the killing of civilians in July 2016

Reshi and his family went back to their demolished residence only to find the soldiers had taken Shafi with them and Ashiq had gone missing. Hours later, Ashiq’s body was recovered from the debris of the house.

Ashiq was 38 when he died. He worked as a grade-four employee with a government department, earning a meagre 3,000 Indian rupees a month. His wife and young daughter are now in the care of his ageing parents.

The Indian army says he was killed because the rebels had held him hostage. “It might be the first case of militants taking a civilian hostage,” an army statement read. The soldiers, the statement added, “made [their] best possible efforts to rescue the civilian”.

Reshi’s family and other residents of Frisal say Ashiq lost his life because the soldiers had used him as a “human shield” — a tactic security forces often deploy in gunfights with rebels.

Two months later, I went to Frisal from Srinagar along with two other journalists. As we stop by the site where Reshi is building a new house, an army jeep screeches to halt next to us. Some armed soldiers alight from it.

“Who are you? What are you doing here? Show us your cell phones, IDs,” one of them shouts.

It takes a while for the soldiers to examine the phones and identity documents.

An officer in his twenties is sitting in the front seat of the vehicle. He tells us: “Come over to the junction ahead.”

Speaking in fluent English, he points to a blind curve on the road with orchards on either side. The jeep goes there ahead of the visitors. As the officer gets out of it, soldiers can be seen taking positions in the orchards.

Finding every step towards the bend heavier than the previous one, our apprehensions grow.

“Who are you?” the officer asks.

We produce our press cards.

“What is the story here?” he asks again.

“The story is about civilians being killed at gunfight sites,” I respond.

The officer lets us go back to Reshi’s house. Soldiers still stand guard in the distance.

A woman walks past closed shops in Srinagar on the eve of Eid Al Adha on September 12, 2016
A woman walks past closed shops in Srinagar on the eve of Eid Al Adha on September 12, 2016

Reshi’s wife, Haneefa, is grief personified. Her colourful maroon pheran, a traditional Kashmiri overcoat, and purple headscarf, fail to hide her agony. Her hands tremble as she speaks. “We had spent around 40 lakh rupees on our house,” she says, pointing towards her under-construction house.

She has no idea how the rebels got in. “Some informer gave the army a tip that the mujahids were present at our place. The soldiers arrived within no time and entered the house. They started checking one bathroom in particular but they did not find anyone,” she recalls. “Later we could only hear gunshots.”

After speaking to her, we leave Frisal a while later. Army personnel waiting at the curve also turn their jeep and speed away.

Mushtaq Itoo, 23, took out his motorcycle after he heard about the gunfight in Frisal. He travelled 15 kilometres north from his home in Hatigaam village, Anantnag district to take part in the funeral of the killed rebels.

A clash was already underway between protesters and security forces when he reached. Young men were throwing stones at Indian soldiers. The soldiers responded by firing tear gas shells, shotgun pellets and live bullets. By the end of the day, around 25 people were struck by various objects. Mushtaq received a bullet in his abdomen and died at a nearby hospital. The motorcycle’s keys were still in his pocket when the body was brought home.

His father, Mohammad Ibrahim Itoo, a 58-year-old well-to-do businessman-cum-landowner, was in Amritsar, in the neighbouring state of Punjab, when he heard about his son’s death. “Someone called a relative of mine who was with me,” he says in an interview at his three-storey house in Hatigaam, a village of about 400 households located on a small hill surrounded by orchards.

Mushtaq was a laboratory technician and had a special interest in religion. “The day he died he was scheduled to deliver Hadith lessons at a local seminary,” says Ibrahim, whose simple clothes, greying beard and white skullcap suggest his own preference for a religious way of life. “He often went to religious gatherings at different mosques.”

Mushtaq was also a loving son who took special care of his parents. He took them to meet relatives ahead of their travel for hajj last year. Most of his day would be spent at his laboratory, his father reminisces. He would divide the rest of his time between home, the mosque and friends.

Ibrahim says he does not want his son’s death to become a political cause. But, he insists, it is impossible for him to stop his other sons or anyone from taking part in anti-India protests. Nobody can stop these processions, he says. “It is the same everywhere.”

Even at the young age of 20, Suhail Ahmad Shah knows a thing or two about the deadly pull of these protests. His elder brother, Arif Ahmad Shah, died in December last year while protesting during a clash between rebels and the Indian military.

Suhail and his wife then lived in Hatigaam at a little distance from Itoo’s residence in a house owned by his uncle who had adopted him years ago. Arif used to live with their parents in Sangam, a village 42 kilometres to the south of Srinagar.

Their mother Firdousa, wearing a purple headscarf and a black pheran with red embroidery, is caressing the head of a granddaughter in the kitchen of her single-storey house, at the edge of a street, on an April day this year. Kitchen cabinets have shards of broken glass in them. The windows are all shattered. Some have wood planks nailed over them. Stone-throwing Indian soldiers seem to have used the house for target practice.

Firdousa knew about Arif’s participation in protests around gunfight sites. When asked about her son’s death, she calls her husband Muhammad Amin Shah.

Parents of slain Arif Ahmed Shah, Mohammad Amin Shah and Firdousa, with their granddaughter at their home in Sangam village
Parents of slain Arif Ahmed Shah, Mohammad Amin Shah and Firdousa, with their granddaughter at their home in Sangam village

Amin works as a carpenter at a nearby workshop and, at the age of 48, appears too young to have two married sons (one of them already dead). His trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and skullcap mark his lined visage. His rough hands suggest that life has been tough on him. He looks exhausted as he steps into his house and takes a seat against a pale green wall.

The story he tells is a familiar one.

On December 7, 2016, a group of militants were trapped in Hassanpora, a village six kilometres from Sangam. Security forces got wind of their presence and rushed to the house they were in, to lay siege. A gunfight ensued.

Among the rebels was a Lashkar-e-Taiba commander, Majid Zargar. He had instituted a trend to snatch weapons from Indian security personnel as an entrance test for young boys intending to join the rebels. The test was an instant hit. It gave the rebels new recruits who were already armed.

When the gunfight started in Hassanpora, youth from several neighbouring villages reached the spot to pelt stones at security forces. Many other villagers started an impromptu protest.

On the first night of the gunfight, Arif, 23, asked his wife before going to bed: “Who would be so powerful to help these rebels escape?”

Next morning, on December 8, he was asked to go to Srinagar by his uncle – a contractor with Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), a telecom company – for whom he worked as a driver. Arif was to stand in for a driver who had not been able to make it to work that day.

He took a shower, wore new clothes and left home at around 11 am. He never reached Srinagar though. Instead, he went to the site of the gunfight. “He offered his afternoon prayers there, joined the protesters and started throwing stones at the soldiers,” his mother recalls what she heard from eyewitnesses later. The soldiers fired tear gas shells, shotgun pellets and live bullets at protesters, hitting at least 30 people. Arif received three of them, one hitting his nose. He died on the spot.

Many months later, Amin looks like he is still in mourning. “When tragedy befalls this is what happens to you,” he says, as he recounts his miseries.

Firdousa is also finding it difficult to cope with her loss. Even though Suhail and his wife have moved in with them, she still feels lonely. “Everyone comes [to see you] when tragedy strikes but there is no one with us except Allah.”

A woman wails at the death of a civilian at her village in North Kashmir on March 15, 2014
A woman wails at the death of a civilian at her village in North Kashmir on March 15, 2014

Hizbul Mujahideen lost a fighter, Tauseef Ahmad Wagay, a resident of Kulgam district, on March 28, 2017. He was trapped in a house in Chadoora area of Budgam, a district in central Kashmir.

When a gunfight began between him and Indian soldiers inside a two-storey house, young boys from various areas reached there within no time. Dozens travelled on motorcycles from as far as Pulwama district, 20 kilometres away.

At around 10 am, Wagay was killed and the house was destroyed but the stone-throwing youth continued protesting. It was then that Zahid Rashid Ganai, a 22-year-old student who also ran a cell phone shop in Chadoora, started live streaming the protest on Facebook. The last video he aired was taken a few minutes before two bullets hit him — one in the chest and the other in the neck.

“The police targeted him,” says a friend of Zahid. “[The soldiers] did not let us take his body home either. The cell phone he used for shooting the videos was taken away.” Police also stopped the ambulance carrying his body to a hospital in Srinagar — an event streamed live on Facebook by his cousin.

Zahid, who was the lone brother of his five sisters, was not the only civilian killed that day. Sixteen-year-old Amir Ahmad Waza, a 10th grader, and 24-year-old Ishaq Ahmed Wani, a mechanic, were also shot dead in Chadoora.

Police also barged into a local hospital where many of the injured were taken for treatment. “They came to beat me up,” says a hospital employee. “They attacked us as if we were terrorists … We hid ourselves in bathrooms.” He does not want to reveal his name because he is a government official. “An ambulance driver was beaten up too,” he says.

A friend of Zahid, who also refuses to be identified, fearing police action, adds, “We support the militants because they fight for us against the Indian occupation repressing us.”

He believes no one can start or stop the protests. “People are coming out to protest on their own,” he says. Even the All Parties Hurriyat Conference will not be able to stop them, he says.

Haleema Bano, mother of slain Amir Nazir Wani, seated next to the bat her son would play with at her home in Kakapora village
Haleema Bano, mother of slain Amir Nazir Wani, seated next to the bat her son would play with at her home in Kakapora village

His logic is simple: Kashmiris have been killed, both when they were protesting peacefully or not protesting at all. “People are being killed where there have been no gunfights. See what happed in 2016,” he says. “There will be no peace” in Kashmir, he warns, as long as “it is [under] occupation”.

Nearly three dozen civilians sustained bullet and pellet injuries at the gunfight site in Chadoora. Among the injured was Shahid Ali — a resident of Kakapora village of Pulwama district, 24 kilometres to the south of Srinagar. He was hit by a bullet in the chest.

When Shahid reached his native village, almost everyone went to see him at his home — everyone except Haleema Bano.

A middle-aged woman who lives in a modest single-storey house at the entrance of the village, she is sitting against a bare wall in her house. “The graveyard is on the way to [Shahid’s] house. I would not have returned home alive if I had gone [past it],” Haleema says.

Her youngest son, 14-year-old Amir Nazir Wani, is buried there. He was the same age as Shahid when he died on March 9, 2017.

That morning, he wore his school uniform, bade his mother goodbye and disappeared behind a blind turn in the street. This was his daily routine. Haleema continued doing her household chores as he left home; as did her daughter Saima, 20, who was knitting cardigans. Haleema’s husband had left home earlier to work at a brick kiln.

Amir broke away from routine when he heard about a gunfight in Padgampora, eight kilometres away. Two rebels were besieged in a house, exchanging fire with security forces. Instead of going to school, he went there along with some of his friends. They joined other protesters there, chanting slogans and hurling stones at the soldiers.

The clash ended when the rebels were killed. Two civilians had also died by then. Amir was one of them.

Back in Kakapora, people started gathering outside Haleema’s house as soon as they heard of Amir’s death. “I went out and saw people coming to my house,” she says with moist eyes. “I tried calling some young boys in the street. They were glued to their cell phones and were not coming near me. My daughter then went out and a neighbour told her that her brother had been martyred,” she recounts. “I told them he was in school.”

Amir was still in his school uniform with a pheran draped over it when his bullet-riddle body was brought home. “He used to keep the pheran in his bag because the weather was still cold then,” Haleema says. Whenever she sees a boy of her son’s age wearing a school uniform, she starts to cry.

Haleema fondly recalls how Amir used to oil his hair and how he helped her in growing vegetables at home. Her other sons – one just about to finish his degree in civil engineering and the other a graduate in fisheries – “do not do any household work [but] he used to do everything,” she says while weeping softly.

Haleema believes her son was not killed at the site of the gunfight. He was shot two kilometres away from where the fighting took place, she says. He was too young to have gone to a protest, she insists.

Saara Baano holds a photograph of her slain son Jalaluddin Ganai at their home in Tahab village
Saara Baano holds a photograph of her slain son Jalaluddin Ganai at their home in Tahab village

Around eight kilometres from Amir’s house, 21-year-old Jalaluddin Ganai was buried in Tahab village after he, too, was killed during the March 9 protests. A short-haired man with a square face, trimmed beard and thick eyebrows, he had just finished high school and was aspiring to get admission in college. He would be the first person in his family to do so.

His mother, Saara Baano, asked him not to venture out of the house after she came to know about the Padgampora gunfight. “He was at home till 12 pm and then he went [to join the protesters] along with his friends. No one was at home at the time. We were all at our farmland,” she says.

Sitting across from another son of hers, she lovingly remembers how Jalaluddin used to tease her. “He once said to me, ‘Be happy, I have failed the exam’, even though I already knew that he had passed,” she says.

Jalaluddin and his friends took a cab to reach Padgampora. They all pooled in for the fare — 50 rupees each. After a few hours, news spread in Tahab that someone from the village had been injured in clashes. Hearing these reports, one of his brothers went to Padgampora in order to bring Jalaluddin back home. Still on his way, he received a call from a hospital where a dead body was lying. A doctor from Tahab had identified the dead person as Jalaluddin.

People offering prayers at the grave of Zahid Rashid Ganai, a civilian who was shot dead during clashes in Chadoora in March 2017
People offering prayers at the grave of Zahid Rashid Ganai, a civilian who was shot dead during clashes in Chadoora in March 2017

“It was around 1 pm when he was martyred,” says Saara Baano. She was working in her kitchen when a shopkeeper told her that her son had been hit by a bullet. “It was his destiny. We helped him cover half his life’s journey but Allah did not let us go far ahead,” she says, taking out a photograph of Jalaluddin from her wallet. “He needed this photo for his college admission.”

Srinagar, the state capital, has always been the hub of anti-India protests and shutter-down strikes. Whenever Hurriyat Conference leaders give a call for agitation, usually after the Friday prayer, the city’s residents close down their businesses and take to the streets.

But the city has witnessed far fewer protests over the last year or so than what the towns and villages of south Kashmir have. This, however, has not resulted in any downward revision in security measures in Srinagar. If anything, the security forces have increased their visibility. Checkpoints are ubiquitous and body searches a way of life for residents.

On April 9 this year, the relative calm in Srinagar came to a deadly end. A by-election for the Lok Sabha, India’s national assembly, was scheduled for that day and pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan parties and rebel organisations had called for its boycott. People listened and mostly stayed away from the polling process. There were far more protesters on the street than there were people inside polling stations. Voter turnout was just 7 per cent.

Perhaps frustrated by the negligible turnout, security forces went berserk. They had killed eight civilians by the end of the day.

In districts north of Srinagar, protests may not be as deadly and frequent as they are in the south but rebels have grown in strength there too. In areas such as Baramulla, Bandipora, Kupwara and Uri, attacks on government forces have increased of late.

North and south Kashmir still differ in one crucial respect. Official reports suggest most rebels operating in the south are locals and those active in north are mostly outsiders. In south Kashmir, the reports claim, the total number of rebels is 112; out of these, only 13 are non-locals. On the other hand, 118 outsiders and 23 locals operate in north Kashmir.

These numbers appear miniscule as compared to the 30,000 who operated in different parts of Kashmir during an insurgency in the late 1980s. Three decades later, the rebel head count has decreased drastically. Public support for them, however, has risen extraordinarily. It could be higher than it ever has been.

There is history to this change.

People attend a funeral procession of a militant killed by Indian forces in January 2015 in southern Kashmir's Aglar area
People attend a funeral procession of a militant killed by Indian forces in January 2015 in southern Kashmir's Aglar area

People in Kashmir have been seething with rage for years. In 2008, their anger channelled into mass protests. Another, even more intense, wave of public demonstrations started two years later. The popular uprising that began in the wake of Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s death has surpassed most previous protests in intensity and public participation.

Their frequency and ferocity indicates a major shift, says Siddiq Wahid, the historian. “[This] means less reliance on the acquisition of arms from Pakistan and greater reliance on internal [sources to fight] for our rights.”

The Indian government has responded to the popular upheaval by increasing its use of force. Authorities have imposed strict curbs on communication and information dissemination. They have kept large areas under curfew for days and have often conducted mass arrests.

All this has done little to quell the uprising. Kashmiris are so frustrated and tired of being treated brutally that they are refusing to budge. They see that a positive, sincere and practical resolution of the dispute is nowhere in sight, says Wahid. They also see that they are demonised as miscreants and terrorists whenever they protest against the violation of human rights, he says.

Naeem Akhtar, a senior leader of Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which rules the state in a coalition with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blames tensions between India and Pakistan for a resolution not materialising. “I still say that I am an Indian but we have issues to resolve,” he says and then asks: who dies every time firing between India and Pakistan takes place along the Line of Control that passes through Kashmir or when infiltration of militants takes place from the Pakistani side? “A Kashmiri.”

Akhtar, who is also a minister in the state government, adds: we request Pakistan and India to spare us this agony. “Partition happened 70 years ago and since then you have settled your disputes over Punjab and Bengal borders. You are having trade through Wagah,” he says, addressing the Pakistani and Indian governments. “But Jammu and Kashmir continues to suffer. We suffer a partition every day.”

Akhtar also blames protesters for the deadly force being used against them. Those who get killed “in police action” do not lose their lives “sitting at home”, he says. It is not that some policeman comes and shoots them, he adds. “Ten thousand people come out in a village … and make it possible for militants to escape. These are very unfortunate developments.”

What is making people so angry and fearless that they care little about their lives to save those fighting against India? Akhtar’s answer: Islamic radicalisation. He is worried by the “abandon with which [radicalised] boys invite trouble”. They have developed a “suicide mentality” which results in “the loss of stakes in life and building of stakes in death”.

A view of downtown Srinagar from a broken window of the Makhdoom Sahib Shrine
A view of downtown Srinagar from a broken window of the Makhdoom Sahib Shrine

India and Pakistan, meanwhile, are so caught up in their bilateral rivalry that the search for a resolution of their long-running dispute over Kashmir has fallen by the wayside. The two countries have often exchanged fire along their mutual border in recent months. They regularly accuse each other of cross-border interference and sponsoring terrorism in their areas. It looks implausible that they will soon find time and reason to talk to each other on any issue, leave alone Kashmir.

Instead, they have been talking at each other. Early in May 2017, Pakistan accused India of scuttling all opportunities for a “meaningful” dialogue to resolve the Kashmir dispute. “India’s contention that the Kashmir issue is, primarily, an issue of cross-border terrorism is a claim that no one in the world is prepared to accept today,” a statement issued by the Foreign Office quoted the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, as saying.

India’s home minister Rajnath Singh acknowledged later the same month that “Kashmir has been burning and the problem is decades old” but he insisted his government would not accept any solution that involved a “compromise on the territorial integrity of India”. He rejected talks with pro-freedom groups and said whoever, instead, wanted to talk about “development and peace” was welcome.

Like Akhtar, Singh also attributed recurring protests and gunfights to the radicalisation of youth in Kashmir à la youth everywhere in the world. “Radicalisation is a global phenomenon. We are aware of it and we will tackle it,” he said.

The international community, meanwhile, has mostly watched from the sidelines. If and when an offer is made to India and Pakistan for mediation on the issue, it is promptly welcomed by the latter but immediately rebuffed by the former. When, for instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested, during his visit to India in May this year, that there should be multilateral talks on Kashmir, Indian response was to instantly reject that the dispute is about history, politics and human rights. “We clearly conveyed [to Erdogan] that the issue of Kashmir is essentially an issue of terrorism,” said a spokesperson of India’s foreign ministry.

A Kashmiri girl shouts slogans during the funeral procession of a civilian, Adil Magray, in Shopian in June 2017
A Kashmiri girl shouts slogans during the funeral procession of a civilian, Adil Magray, in Shopian in June 2017

Only some international efforts have survived such rebuffs. One of them is being spearheaded by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He disclosed on June 21, 2017 that he was engaged in bringing about a dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. “Why do you think I met three times the prime minister of Pakistan and two times [with] the prime minister of India,” he said at a press conference.

The outcome of his initiative remains mysteriously unclear, but one thing is obvious: diplomacy has done little in making India feel the need to address the Kashmiris’ demands.

Neither have intensified protests and violence forced New Delhi to change its stance that Kashmir is India’s integral part. As historian Siddiq Wahid says, there seems to be no hope, at least in the short-run, that India will come around to the idea of addressing the problem through any means other than force. “In the longer term, however, there is always hope,” he says. In the long run, we are all also dead, British economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped.

Where will Kashmir go from here? Wahid says the answer depends on a number of factors. Will resistance expand and convince all the people in the state that dispute resolution should not be held hostage by Islamabad’s and New Delhi’s interests? Will New Delhi and Islamabad permit a dialogue within various parts of Kashmir — including the one administered by Pakistan? Will Kashmiris start believing that they can come up with a solution from within? “Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad can come up with a solution,” says Wahid.

Akhtar believes discounting external factors is well-nigh impossible. Trouble in Kashmir waxes and wanes in tandem with the state of India and Pakistan’s relationship, he says. The biggest window of opportunity opened between 2002 and 2005, he adds, “when people thought that something was happening [between the two countries]”. In the end, nothing came out of it.

Additionally, the state’s political landscape is deeply divided. State elections in 2014 threw these fractures into sharp relief. BJP, that won almost all the seats in Jammu region, secured 23 per cent of the total votes polled. The two Kashmir-based parties secured 44 per cent of votes together but they won all their seats from the valley. The rest of the 33 per cent votes went to other parties, with the biggest share – 18 per cent – going to Indian National Congress. No party won the simple majority of 44 seats to form a government on its own.

The divided mandate resulted in an unlikely ruling coalition of the Hindu-nationalist BJP and the Muslim-dominated PDP. “Through this coalition we could engage with a new India which is now represented more or less by BJP,” says Akhtar. BJP’s emerging domination of Indian politics is a reality we cannot run away from, he adds. “We have to engage with this reality … We cannot be agitational about it.”

A little less than 11 months after Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s killing, Tral was filled with anger and frustration again. A Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, 28, was shot dead in the village in a brief gunfight on May 26 this year. He was a close aide to Wani and was seen as his successor. The other young man who lost his life along with Sabzar in the gunfight was 15-year-old Faizan Bhat, perhaps the youngest fighter killed in Kashmir so far.

Sabzar was a well-built man with a thick beard and a fondness for covering his head with an Arab-style keffiyeh. He is said to have engaged an Indian soldier with bare hands to snatch his weapon during a 2015 protest over the killing of Khalid Wani, Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s brother. His pictures in military fatigues and combat gear circulated widely on social media even before his death.

Stone-throwing protesters embarked on a new wave of agitation after Sabzar’s killing. Renewed clashes between them and Indian security forces soon spread across Kashmir, prompting the state government to impose a strict curfew. Pro-freedom politicians were left with little choice but to give calls for protests and shutdowns.

Thousands of people gathered in Tral immediately after Sabzar’s death. They were raising anti-India and pro-azadi slogans and had arrived from all over the valley. Each one of them wanted to catch one last glimpse of Sabzar’s face before his burial.

This article was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has written for several international publications including Al Jazeera and The Diplomat. He edited the anthology 'Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir' and is founding editor of 'The Kashmir Walla'.