Unsettled by the Deepening Peace in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), as well as the continuous and cumulative failures of the separatists to orchestrate disorders within J&K over the past two years and to revive a 2010 type 'uprising', Pakistan-backed separatists have been in search of an 'event' that could be exploited to create an environment of unrest and provoke intifada-like situation.
After the February 9, 2013, hanging of December 13, 2001, Parliament Attack case convict Mohamad Afzal Guru in New Delhi's Tihar Jail, Lieutenant General Baljit Singh Jaswal, former General Officer Commanding (GoC), Northern Command, who commanded the Army during the stone pelting campaigns of 2010, noted, "Pakistan always tries to exploit an event and they got an event". The Guru hanging created a space for Pakistani proxies in J&K to engineer disruptive protest campaigns.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), as many as five protestors have been killed in Security Forces' (SFs) action since February 9, 2013 (data till April 28, 2013). At least 400 SF personnel also got injured during this period. Large parts of the Valley, including Srinagar, witnessed intermittent curfews even as terrorists executed a suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in Bemina in Srinagar on March 13, 2013, killing five troopers and injuring another seven. The two terrorists who carried out the attack were also killed. The last suicide attack in J&K was on January 6, 2010, when terrorists had hit a CRPF camp at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, killing a Policeman and injuring nine persons, including one CRPF trooper.
The present disorders were initiated soon after the news of Guru's hanging was made public on February 9, 2013. The separatists called for protests and, as in the past, violent protesters clashed with the SFs. 40 persons, including 23 SF personnel, were injured on the very first day of protests. On February 10, three protesters jumped into a river when they were allegedly chased by the SFs. Two of them, Tariq Ahmad Bhat and Zameer Ahmad Dar, drowned, while the third one managed to swim ashore. While Bhat's body was recovered the same day, Police fished out Dar's body in the morning of February 11. Police, meanwhile, maintained that the duo drowned when their boat capsized in the river while they were crossing. In another incident on the same day, a 16-year-old boy, Ubaid Mushtaq, wounded in alleged SF firing in the Watergam area of Baramulla District, later succumbed to his injuries. The death of the three youth led to a fresh cycle of protests, and large parts of the Valley remained under curfew till February 22. Normalcy was fast returning thereafter.
However, the separatists were in search of another 'event' and this came about when a Kashmiri student committed suicide in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) on March 2, 2013. Protesters quickly returned to the streets and one of them, Tahir Latief Sofi, was killed, and another two were injured in Baramulla town (Baramulla District) on March 5, in alleged SF firing on violent protesters. The Army, however, denied involvement in these deaths, claiming that troops had fired in the air when they were trapped by violent demonstrators in the township. Sofi, the Army claimed, was shot dead by someone else, with a view to trigger large-scale violence. On March 13, another protester, Altaf Ahmad Wani, was killed when SFs allegedly opened fire after protesters pelted stones on a vehicle carrying CRPF troopers, who were rushing to donate blood to the victims of the suicide attack that morning. These incidents led to the imposition of curfew in some areas of the State between March 5 and March 17.
Such orchestrated unrest is not something new for J&K. Since 2008, a succession of protest movements, styled on the intifada, have been organized, peaking in 2010, when at least 112 lives were lost to street violence. This strategy has, however, produced diminishing returns thereafter. In 2011 and 2012, none of the incidents succeeded in sparking the wider troubles they were intended to provoke.
A cursory look into the background of the present, as well as past disorders reinforces the widely-held belief, backed by intelligence inputs, that these have been the handiwork of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and its proxies. Indeed, seven separatist leaders, led by the chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference-Mirwaiz (APHC-M), Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, met with ISI chief Lieutenant General Zaheer ul Islam as well chiefs of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Hafiz Mohammad Saeed and Mohammad Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin, respectively, in Pakistan, in December 2012. Similar visits had also been organized for the separatist leadership in 2008, and quickly resulted in an escalation of street protests over the Amarnath Land Allocation controversy, and recurrent street mobilization over a range of 'issues' and 'codes of conduct', thereafter.
In the meantime, separatist and religious organizations in J&K formed a coordination committee, Muttahida Majlis-e-Mushawarat (MMM, Joint Consultative Council), after two meetings at an undisclosed location in Srinagar town. The committee includes both factions of APHC, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani (APHC-G) and Mirwaiz Omar Farooq (APHC-M), the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and Dukhtaran-e-Millat (DeM). Disclosing its aim, an MMM Press statement of February 25, 2013, declared, "To seek return of Afzal Guru´s body and mortal remains of Maqbool Bhat [co-founder of JKLF who was hanged to death in Tihar jail on February 11, 1984], we have decided to launch a coordinated protest programme. People should observe shutdown on Friday and keep shops open on Sunday. On Saturday, they should tie red ribbons on their vehicles and houses." This is the first time since 2008 Amarnath land row agitation, that the separatists have formed a coordination committee with all major separatist organizations coming together on a single platform.
While SF responses to the recent campaigns have been far better calibrated than they were in the past, the State Government and various parties have chosen to engage in dangerous and petty politicking. In order to score some brownie points over political adversaries, the Omar Abdullah Government has made the CRPF, the main force involved in maintaining law and order in the State, a sitting duck, issuing various and conflicting directives. In one such directive on February 11, 2013, it asked CRPF personnel not to carry weapons while on law and order duty. The controversial directive resulted in injuries to over 350 CRPF personnel, including officers, and damage to 150 SF vehicles damaged in stone pelting and violence after February 9. Media reports, quoted an unnamed senior CRPF official as stating, "It is not possible to undertake such responsibilities without arms, especially when the Islamists are known to attack people and the security forces in the garb of a crowd or taking cover behind women and children. It is increasingly becoming difficult to handle our men." The State Government has also forced the removal of 46 bunkers from Srinagar, over the past two-and-a-half years, while parroting the demand for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Srinagar in particular and the rest of the State at large, in a 'phased manner'. The State Government's assessment is in complete contrast to that of the SFs. Indeed, the Army has been forced to extend operations in the recent past. In the night of April 24, 2013, an Army camp was set up in village Hergam Wuyan on the outskirts of Srinagar city, to put pressures on militants in the area, where they had been re-grouping over the past year. In October 2012, the Army had set up a camp at village Chattergam in Budgam District, on the outskirts of Srinagar District. The camp had been closed three years earlier, but had to be re-established as increasing terrorist movement was noticed.
Worse, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, added to tensions in the aftermath of Guru's hanging, with the observation, on February 11, 2013, that "Afzal Guru´s execution may fuel a feeling of alienation among the Kashmiri youth... The onus rests on the judiciary and the political leadership to show that this wasn´t a selective execution." Abdullah has, indeed, often adopted the language of the 'soft separatist' constituency in J&K, despite visible and overwhelming evidence of declining public alienation in the State.
The Chief Minister's remarks were compounded by a six-point resolution passed by the Working Committee of his party, the ruling National Conference (NC), on April 7, 2013. The resolution noted, inter alia, that "the restoration of Autonomy continues to be the bedrock of the National Conference's policy and agenda and the party shall continue to strive for the honour, dignity and self respect of the people of the State." Going a step further, NC President and Union Minister for New and Renewable Energy, Farooq Abdullah, observed, in the party´s online newsletter, "If there existed solution better than autonomy, which is acceptable to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, his party, the National Conference would have no problem in accepting it. But there is no viable solution (other) than autonomy."
The Congress Party which is in alliance with the NC in the State Government, added to the confusion with conflicting statements on AFSPA. The Centre, led by the Congress, has repeatedly spoken out in support of the continued application of AFSPA. However, senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz, on March 6, 2013, joined the chorus for revocation of AFSPA from J&K, arguing, "Omar Abdullah has been asking for the repeal of AFSPA for a long time. Today I want Omar and Union Home Minister to sit and come forward for a decisive proposition... The Act is a temporary law. It has to go. I want to know when."
Not to be left behind, the President of the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP), which still stands by its "self rule" resolution, passed in 2008, has been quite provocative whenever tensions have risen in the Valley. On March 23, 2013, Mehbooba Mufti, President, PDP, declard, "Kashmiri youth have become fodder for Indian politicians and security agencies for rewards and medals. Kashmiris are the fodder for these security agencies and it seems only Kashmiri blood can satisfy their thirst. They are pushing the youth to (the) wall. They are leaving them with no option, but to resort to violence and take to (the) gun. They have shut all the means of dissent and some kids may say, we had enough of it and resort to violence."
The relative peace in J&K remains fragile, and the politics of the State has displayed little sensibility to the need of a deepening stabilization. Politics has remained opportunistic and completely unprincipled - though this is hardly a problem unique to this State - with little appreciation of the enormous sacrifices that have been necessary even to secure the presently incomplete victory over terrorism. The separatist constituency, its handlers in the ISI, and its terrorist associates principally located across the border, continue to look for an opportunity for escalation. Under the circumstances, circumspection is the most urgent need in politics. Regrettably, competitive communal manipulation remains the sheet-anchor of politics in the State, undermining the restoration of a democratic discourse that could provide the basis of an enduring peace.
(The writer Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)