In the town of Shopian in Kashmir, a group of men in their early 20s are killing time at an apple orchard. Until recently, the valley was cut off from the outside world by a months-long communication blockade imposed by the Indian government. The men are eager to share their predicament. “This government wants us to perish. They have taken everything away from us. They have taken away our identity,” says one of them. “We will not sit quiet.”
Mutiny is in the air in Kashmir. It has been five months since the region’s semi-autonomous status was unilaterally revoked by the Indian government. So far, the presence of over 700,000 Indian soldiers has prevented the eruption of a large-scale insurgency, but Kashmir’s youths are increasingly determined to fight back against what they describe as an assault on their political voice.
India has also stepped up its rhetoric. Last week, the country’s most senior military commander provoked outrage for suggesting that sending young Kashmiris to “deradicalisation camps” might be the answer to fighting militancy.
There is growing anger over the actions of the security forces, who inhabitants say have tortured Kashmiris. In September, it was reported that a 26-year-old man from Shopian was taken to an army camp, stripped naked, waterboarded and administered electric shocks. Others allege that late-night raids and illegal detentions have become the norm. “They come and torch our houses. They beat us. It’s not paradise, it’s hell,” is a common refrain across picturesque south Kashmir.
Palpable anger against India
In Kashmir’s largest city, Srinagar, everyday life is suspended at the slightest provocation. Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent statement in Parliament claiming that everything is normal in Kashmir was met with a self-imposed curfew by Kashmiris. Menacingly worded posters in Urdu calling for a strike have mysteriously appeared on lamp posts and fences. Traders and businessmen who have refused to participate have been harassed and attacked.
A handful of restless men assemble outside the medical store. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) majoritarian agenda, the deteriorating law and order situation, the possibility of a war with Pakistan, the hope for international mediation form the crux of their animated discussion. The anger against India is palpable.
“We won’t let Kashmir function. They [the government of India] can’t get away with it,” declares a twenty-something man. “Till this day, we have been warm and cordial to Indians coming to Kashmir. We held on to our pluralist traditions... Not any longer. No Indian will be allowed here from now on,” he adds. Others try to assuage him, reiterating their belief in peace and concord. “Hospitality is inbred in us,” someone in the crowd counters.
“They have choked us.”
A man in his 40s, whose two sons study in the Muslim Public School in Kursoo, believes the Indian government is to blame for this irrepressible urge to retaliate that has begun to sprout in many of them. “They have choked us. For the past four months, my children haven’t been to school. This academic year is wasted. ‘Why are there so many snipers on the street?’ the younger one asks. What should I tell him?” the man, who refused to be named, says with an air of resignation. “Wouldn’t this lead us all to militancy?”
Human rights violations with impunity
Tensions in Kashmir have been high ever since Burhan Wani, the 21-year-old leader of militant group Hizbul Mujahideen was killed by security forces in 2016. Wani’s effective use of social media to spread anti-India messages made him the poster boy of separatist militancy.
In the months-long protests that followed Wani’s killing, nearly a thousand civilians were blinded by pellet gunshots amid scores of fatalities. A 2018 report by the United Nations human rights office said that security forces responded to demonstrations with an “excessive use of force that led to unlawful killings”. It added that there is “impunity against human right violations” in the region.
The Indian government said the report was based on a “false and motivated narrative” that ignored “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.”
In 2017, armed forces launched a large-scale offensive against militant groups, named Operation All Out. A relative of a militant who was killed last year said that the increase in night raids and illegal detentions that followed drove more youths to militancy. “We can’t sleep at night. You never know when the army might take someone,” he said.
Last February, 40 Indian security personnel were killed in a militant sucide attack near Srinagar. The killings hardened the government’s position on Kashmir. In the aftermath of the attack, dozens of clerics and religious leaders were arrested, raising fears among Kashmiris that their freedom of religion is at risk.
Militant recruitment on the rise
Over the last three years, there have been several cases of disgruntled youths going missing only to appear on social media holding an AK-47 rifle to announce their decision to become a militant.
Within a month of the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status at least 20 boys were reported missing, raising fears they may have joined militant ranks. According to the report, the number of cases may be far higher.
When Tawseef Ahmed Thokar was killed by security forces last January, it came as a shock to his family. Like many, they were unaware that he had joined a militant group. Thokar was a mathematics graduate who taught in a school in Pulwama, and spent his evenings giving tuition to his neighbours’ children. “We never thought he would join Hizbul,” his mother sighs, still in disbelief. “He never discussed politics. Never said anything that would have alarmed us. He was a reticent person.”
His family is still trying to figure out what could have served as the trigger. “It may have been the treatment meted out to his father,” Tawseef’s mother says. His father, Ghulam Mohiuddin, also a school teacher, was arrested in 2016. “Every second day Tawseef hopped from Pulwama to Jammu, where Mohiuddin was detained. It was a painful experience for him. We suspect it was during that time that he came in contact with overground workers of the militants,” she adds.
Sixty-three-year-old Mohiuddin was arrested again last March. “These excesses drive our boys,” said one of his neighbours.
Ending special status worsens situation
Last year, as figures in Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party raised the pitch on ending Kashmir’s constitutional guarantees, militants warned of reprisals. In February, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander released an audio-taped message threatening attacks on non-locals if Kashmir’s autonomy, which includes laws prohibiting settlers from purchasing land in the region, were revoked.
In August, the Modi’s government pressed ahead with its proposals without consulting local representatives. Officials claim that abolishing Kashmir’s special status was necessary to integrate the region with the rest of the country and lift obstacles to investment.
However, many Kashmirs fear that the government's true aim is to reshape the demographics of the Muslim-majority region. For the first time in decades, outsiders are now permitted to buy land in Kashmir. “They want to turn us into a minority,” said an orchard owner in Bandipora.
The integration of Kashmir into India has long been a goal of the far-right organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), devoted to transforming India from secular to a Hindu nation. Modi has been an active member of the group since childhood, and his party, the BJP, are closely aligned to the RSS.
Last month, the government passed a highly divisive law which excludes Muslim migrants from a clear path to citizenship. The law is the latest move aimed at cementing Modi’s hardline Hindu nationalist agenda. In August, two million people in Assam were made stateless after failing to pass a controversial citizenship test, which critics say is anti-Muslim.
In recent months, militant groups have made a point of targetting Indian workers and residents. In October, as many as 11 non-locals were killed by militants in separate attacks. Kashmiris have also been caught up in these attacks, which have become increasingly violent. In November, at least three people were killed and dozens injured in grenade attacks in Anantnag and Srinagar.
With India refusing to offer a fig leaf to Kashmir’s disgruntled masses, there remains little hope for an end to the violence at present.