What keeps South Kashmir boiling?

While navigating through the lanes and by-lanes of South Kashmir, the most restive zone in the Valley, anti-India and pro-freedom graffiti, and names of slain militants and civilians written on flex boards hanging from trees is a common sight. “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom” can be seen on many walls in villages across South Kashmir. The spirit of the 2016 summer unrest, which broke out after the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani, still endures in people’s discussions, with tragic tales of youth giving up comfort to pick up arms against ‘state repression’.

Public support for militancy is growing in the four districts of South Kashmir — Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama and Anantnag — like a replay of the early 1990s when insurgency was at its peak in the Valley and enjoyed mass support. People rushing to encounter sites to help militants escape security cordons is a common sight here. Crowds of Kashmiris, including women, participating in militants’ funerals and giving shelter and logistic support to ultras shows that militants are again gaining ground.

The early phase of militancy in the 1990s had lesser impact in South Kashmir compared to that in the northern parts of the Valley because Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama and Anantnag share no border with Pakistan. As it was easier for boys from the northern districts of Baramulla and Kupwara to cross the Line of Control (LoC) for arms training in Pakistan, the impact of the first wave of militancy was more there compared to the south, till home-grown militancy erupted in the early years of this decade.

Most of the areas in the south had been declared as militancy-free by 2008 and the mainstream parties, especially the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), had made significant inroads in these areas. What changed after 2010 that South Kashmir erupted like a volcano? It is not only the “inherent pro-freedom sentiment”, but the alleged harassment of people, especially youngsters, by security forces that is keeping the region boiling.

Families of militants and locals whom Deccan Herald spoke with claimed that the harassment of the youth who participated in the protests in 2010 and 2016 had left young boys with no choice but to pick up arms. The elders believe that such harassment is “only rejuvenating the spirit of Azadi (freedom). The more they harass them, the higher the flames will reach.”

After the 2016 summer unrest, in which over 90 civilian protesters were shot dead by security forces and thousands were injured due to bullets and pellet guns, hundreds of youth were put behind bars for participating in anti-India rallies. A good number of these youth chose to join the ranks of the militants upon release. Allegations of ransacking of houses of militants and stone-pelters during nocturnal raids, cordon and search operations (CASO) have become the norm in South Kashmir. The army denies these allegations, terming it “propaganda” against the security forces.

Youth led astray

Last year, according to official figures, 119 Kashmiri youth joined militancy, despite the ambitious Operation All-Out (OAO) launched by the security forces in April 2017. Most of these local militants came from the southern districts. The OAO began with the deployment of 2,000 more army troops to South Kashmir and six new army camps. 2017 ended with nearly 220 militants killed, the highest since 2011. But, despite sweeping mobilisation of troops and killing of militants, another 80 youth had taken up arms till July this year. 

The influence of Jamat-e-Islami (JeI), a politico-religious organisation, and radicalisation happening through social media, according to analysts, is one of the main reasons for young boys picking up guns. But a common thread that runs as inspiration for today’s militants is that they are drawn to violence due to a void caused by hopelessness and unending political turmoil. In this situation, religion provides solace and meaning to their lives. Burhan Wani and his handlers cleverly used social media and the message penetrated deep into the villages. The results are evident today.

In South Kashmir, the JeI has traditionally had broad swathes of influence and the party is said to draw its supporters from the richer and more influential sections of society. A substantial number of the youth who have joined militancy in South Kashmir in recent years belonged to Jamati families.

Even before Burhan’s killing, South Kashmir had always seen a lot of mainstream political mobilisation. The PDP, wearing the cap of ‘soft separatism’, was able to draw in followers of the JeI. For close to two decades South Kashmir remained its bastion. The party has 28 legislators in the state assembly, most of them from South Kashmir. But today, not only is the region almost out of bounds for mainstream politicians, the militants have been targeting even the houses of J&K policemen, too, warning their families that they should quit their jobs or else…The situation is so grim that last April, the Election Commission put off by-election to the Anantnag Lok Sabha indefinitely.

Post-2015, a palpable anger over the PDP’s alliance with the BJP fed into disillusionment with mainstream politics in general. A J&K Police report points out that for every militant killed, there is more than one youth joining militancy. In 43 encounters that took place between November 2016 and April 2017, 77 militants were killed, but 104 more youth living within a 10 km radius of the residences of slain militants, were recruited into militant outfits.

Apart from radicalisation and alienation from the mainstream, the fact is that lack of opportunities and avenues are driving youth not only in the south but across the Kashmir Valley towards the stone and the gun. The protests of 2016 have ebbed, but bitter memories linger. And it rankles more that no political party tried to reach out to the youth of Kashmir to heal their wounds in the last two years. Are Delhi and Srinagar unaware of this? Or, do they just not care?

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