A new wave of unrest in Kashmir threatens a fragile peace
BY Shahnawaz Khan
Indian-controlled Kashmir is on the boil, again. This time, the spike in violence occurred after the killing of militant commander, Burhan Wani by Indian police and security forces in the Kokernag area of southern Kashmir on July 8. Twenty-one-year-old Wani was more of a poster boy for Kashmir’s new age militancy than a feared insurgent. He fled his South Kashmir hometown at the age of 16 in 2010 to join the Pakistan-backed insurgent group Hizbul Mujahideen, after paramilitary personnel beat him up along with his brother at a check point. That same year, around 120 youth were killed by security forces in Kashmir during successive street protests triggered by the death of a teenager, who was hit in the head by a police tear gas shell while returning home from school.
At a time when the armed insurgency was consigned to the fringes of the Kashmir conflict, and restricted to masked, unnamed foreign fighters, Wani gave it a local face. He’d post his pictures and videos on Facebook along with his associates, brandishing assault rifles and combat fatigues. His erstwhile appeal attracted youth like him to join his cause, and he was soon promoted to operations commander of Hizbul Mujahideen.
In a recent video, Wani warned the local police to stop “harassing people” or be ready for armed attacks. Despite his online defiance, police officers concede that there was little evidence of his involvement in any major attacks.
Operations such as the one that killed Wani and his two associates on July 8, are common in Kashmir. But this one brought with it an unprecedented wave of protestors across the region, unleashing a fresh cycle of deaths and protests.
A day after he died, tens of thousands of people gathered to attend Wani’s funeral in his hometown Tral. In response, in neighboring Kulgam and Anantnag districts, police and paramilitary fired bullets and pellets on demonstrators killing at least 12, and wounding hundreds.
The death toll has since hit 50, and more than 3,000 were reported to have been wounded by firearms. The government has blamed the fatalities on violent protestors, claiming the police were forced to retaliate. “In most of the places where the firing has taken place the crowds have attempted and have, in fact, entered into the camps,” Javid Gilani, the inspector general of police for Kashmir Valley, said in a statement on July 9. Police handouts said that protestors have stormed security camps, police stations and government installations across the region.
Though the government later averred that it would investigate reports of disproportionate use of force, fatalities from fresh firing on protestors kept on piling up through the weeks that followed. In its efforts to contain the situation, the government not only imposed a widespread curfew, but also shut down all mobile and internet networks barring one operated by the state. On July 16, police also seized copies of local newspapers and arrested staff from printing presses, leading to a news blackout. Newspapers resumed work after five days. However, three weeks after Wani’s killing, clashes between protestors and police have yet to die down amid curfews and shutdowns.
The government recently disclosed that some 93 ambulances ferrying the wounded to hospitals have been damaged this week alone. Though it did not identify the people responsible, eye witnesses reported police and paramilitary men vandalizing ambulances, breaking their windshields, dragging out and beating attendants and patients. Twenty-seven-year-old Fayaz Ahmad was accompanying his wounded brother from Pulwama to Srinagar in an ambulance, when they were stopped by the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
“We were five (wounded) patients and five attendants in the ambulance. They stopped the ambulance, rammed the doors, and asked us to get down,” Fayaz recounted at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS). “Then they made us lie on the road and started beating and trampling us. A trooper climbed [on] my back and trampled me, almost choking me,” Fayaz said.
Rather than attending to his 17-year-old brother, who had sustained pellet wounds to his eyes and upper body, Fayaz found himself lying on a hospital bed. Like most of the 120 patients with grievous wounds to at least one eye, Fayaz’s brother’s chance of regaining eyesight is dim. Overworked ophthalmologists at SMHS performed back to back eye surgeries on more than a 100 people in just the first five days of unrest.
“Most of these patients are unlikely to regain their eyesight,” one eye surgeon at the hospital said, requesting not to use his name as he was not authorized to speak to media. “These are preliminary surgeries where we just seal the wound to prevent infection. Most will have to go through more rounds of surgeries, but their chances of recovery are bleak.”
The doctor said that while they have been receiving cases of pellet injuries to the eyes on and off ever since the so-called non-lethal pellet gun was introduced in the state in 2010, this time patient incoming has been unprecedented.
“It is heartbreaking. Most of these are youth and children, and they face a dark future ahead. On the operation table many tell us they would prefer death instead,” he said.
According to a government spokesman more than 200 people with eye injuries were admitted to the SMHS Hospital alone, out of which 173 underwent preliminary surgeries. A team of eye surgeons, sent by the Indian government to assess the situation described the situation in hospitals as “warlike.”
People with grievous injuries flooded hospitals under a strict curfew that has even hampered the movement of medical staff. Supplies of essential medicines were drying up, and volunteers put up camps to feed the hordes of attendants trapped away from their homes without enough cash or supplies. As ambulances with sirens blaring bring more wounded, chants of Azadi (freedom) fill the air.
Not all of those wounded were taking part in the protests. Many were bystanders, and some were even wounded in the comfort of their homes. Inshah Malik, 14, from Sedow village in Shopian district was sitting in her home, when a policeman fired pellets into the house. Her face and throat looks pockmarked with scores of tiny metal ball bearings pierced into her skin. Her condition is critical, and doctors say that even if she survives, she is unlikely to regain vision in any of her eyes. She has now been moved to New Delhi’s AIIMS for further treatment. “She has even lost perception of light,” a doctor said. Pellet guns were introduced in Kashmir as a form of non-lethal weapon for crowd control in 2010, apparently to bring down potential fatalities in protests. The classification of pellet guns as non-lethal sounds ironic to many, given the army of blind and maimed youth it has left behind in the region.
“These youth [are] maimed for life. As many of them are from poor families, the economic fallout of expensive treatments in many cases bring misery to entire families,” said Dr. Raashid, an ophthalmologist at SMHS.
Depending on the type of pellet used, the guns release some 300 to 600 tiny metal ball bearings in a single shot that scatter over a wide area inflicting multiple wounds to those within its range. Many pellets remain lodged inside the victims for life, while doctors try their best to mend serious wounds only.
Shafia Jan, a mother of a two-year old, was standing outside her home in Arwani village when policemen chasing a small group of protestors passed by her.
“A policeman trained his gun at me, and shot me,” she said. The surgeon who operated on her told me that she was shot at such a close range that multiple pellets pierced her abdomen and intestines. “She thinks she has been hit by a bullet, but it is actually pellets fired from a close range,” the doctor said.
The rightwing government in New Delhi headed by Narendra Modi is an alliance partner to the provincial government headed by Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In her days as an opposition leader prior to 2015, Mufti was a vocal critic of pellet guns and “police brutalities.” For now, however, her government is placing the blame on “unruly elements” that foment violence in the region. The government even appealed to Kashmiri separatist leaders to help bring peace. “We appeal even to the separatists that if they are interested in peace in the state, and want to save lives, then we can take their help too,” Nayeem Akhtar, a senior minister and spokesman in the provincial government, told reporters early this week.
However, demands by separatists to let people come out for peaceful protests and “mourning” were not considered. Instead, prominent separatist leaders were put under house arrest. The recent unrest has sparked a diplomatic spat between India and Pakistan, the two nuclear power neighbors, which claim the whole of Jammu and Kashmir in full. A ceasefire line called the Line of Control separates the Indian-controlled Kashmir from the Pakistani-controlled part. The conflict dates back to 1947, when India gained independence from Britain and was divided into Muslim majority Pakistan and Hindu majority India. The Hindu king of the Muslim dominated princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India, turning the region into a bone of contention between the two countries. Since then, three wars have been fought over its control.
Many Kashmiris seek independence from both India and Pakistan, and a popular anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan broke out in the region in 1989. However, in choosing to put the political nature of dispute on the backburner, successive Indian governments have treated the unrest in Kashmir as a law and order problem albeit suppressing public protests with an iron fist. And that means Kashmir will keep oscillating between an uneasy peace—and violent unrest.
India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Parliament that “whatever is happening in Kashmir is Pakistan-sponsored. The name is ‘Pakistan’, but its acts are na-pak (impure),” Singh said adding that the neighboring country was “misguiding” the people of Kashmir. “Kashmiris are our own people. We will bring them on the right path. We will make them aware of the reality,” Singh said. Singh, who also visited Kashmir later, said that the use of pellet guns would be looked into.
However, a day after Singh’s statement, the head of the paramilitary (CRPF), that comes under Singh’s command, stated that it will continue to use pellet guns in Kashmir.