The 2016 intifada: Challenging the statist narratives

The 2016 intifada: Challenging the statist narratives

By Murtaza Shibli

The death of Burhan Wani in July 2016, that provoked Kashmiris into a mass rebellion, severely challenged the narratives of status quo as advanced by India and Pakistan. The events that followed also nullified the respective policy prescriptions of the two countries that had been put in place for the management of the dispute, and its socio-political and emotional trajectories.

The rebellion also rekindled some old and traditional strands of Kashmiri political thinking like an overwhelming support for the idea of Pakistan and a strong association of the new generation with it – as manifested visually and verbally – through the public display of pro-Pakistani slogans as well as flags. This, in essence, reversed the sustained efforts of India that it had been employing for well over the last two decades to engineer chaos, confusion and hopelessness among the population in order to convince them to accept and actively embrace the fait accompli as chosen and delivered by an increasingly hostile and predatory state. In addition, This has also caused panic and consternation within Pakistan’s policy setup as they had long deserted Kashmir but for their occasional verbal outbursts that lacked any substance or direction, and were motivated to act as nothing more than complimenting the mood music of certain cyclical but drab events without any intention to display or attribute any seriousness or commitment.

Though there has been no substantive change in the Chinese stance, one cannot fail to notice a marked shift in its position as indicated through active public diplomacy as well as procedural pronouncements on the issue from time to time. In the post-July 2016 setting, the Chinese ‘counsels’ to solve the problem peacefully have become more salient and frequent. This is quite important and can have a galvanizing power in influencing the public discourse at local and regional level because China controls a large part of the territory of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, and is, therefore, a de facto party to the dispute and its emergent new equations. Besides, as the Chinese flagship One Belt One Road initiate under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has a strong footprint in Gilgit-Baltistan and a significant presence in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the future of the Chinese economic activity and interest is deeply embedded to the region.

Interestingly, for the first time in the history, the 2016 rebellion saw the Kashmiri protestors displaying the Chinese flags during the pro-freedom rallies. Although symbolic, this showed how the people see the rise of China as a bulwark to contain India and also hope to use its influence to intercede on Kashmir’s behalf. Regardless of the fanciful nature of such thinking, this demonstrates that while Kashmiris are so forthright in readily exhibiting their fondness for Pakistan they are willing to explore new avenues to seek assistance for and on behalf of their long-standing political goals and desires.

Hizbul Mujahideen militants in south Kashmir during the early 1990s
Photo Courtesy: Caravan

The post-Kargil Indo-Pak rapprochement that was hastened after the 9/11, and choreographed under the heavy influence from the US and the UK, the Kashmir issue was all but buried. Pakistan was first goaded to sideline and then compelled to bury the Kashmir problem, “once, and for all”, as one senior Pakistani diplomat told me at the time. After more than half a century of bitter contestation, Pakistan was finally marooned by its own lack of imagination and courage and forced to surrender its congenital claims on Kashmir – both political and moral.

To manufacture or obscure the Kashmiri consent, classical conflict management tools such as the so-called people-to-people dialogue and cultural exchanges; allowance of selective movement of men and material through the de-facto borders and pouring in cash to prop-up various institutions – from pliant newspapers to non-governmental organizations – were employed with a singular aim to generate a cacophony of sounds to actively fabricate support for the political disengagement of Kashmiris under the so-called peace process.

Actively prescribed and propagated by the two countries, it was envisaged that their mutual trade-off could result in de-escalation without any need for an active input or involvement of Kashmiris. This was touted as the only viable solution and offered to assuage the Kashmiri desire for freedom under the rubric of ‘making the borders irrelevant’.

The new approach to contain Kashmir offered several tactical and strategic benefits to both countries. For India, it finally earned Pakistan’s de-facto recognition of its suzerainty over its controlled part of the former kingdom; and encouraged her to strengthen its apparatus of brutal control and repression without ever being subjected to any scrutiny from anyone including Pakistan. In return, this surrender allowed Pakistan a tactical western approval to jettison its sobriquet ‘the sponsor of terror’ and gain appreciation as a ‘contributor of peace’ in the region.

In addition, under the guise of a peace process, Pakistan could finally afford a dignified retreat from its ideological position that cast Kashmir as its jugular vein. This self-designated relationship with Kashmir had pushed its civil-military combine to employ a litany of half-baked, haphazard and ill-conceived adventures from time to time with an aim to wrest Kashmir from India.

Regardless of sharing a supposedly warm and mutual bond laced with an inflection of religious commonality, all that Pakistan could do was to entertain itself with a cyclical but cynical and ritualistic rhetoric about the future of the territory. At the height of its otherwise highly risk-averse strategy, Pakistan offered support to the Kashmiri youth to take up arms in order for them to be sacrificed at the altar of a misshapen nationalism; favourably from a very safe distance. Sadly, this presented very little promise but an instant catharsis to the besieged population apart from a lifetime of mourning and sufferings.

Despite a voluntary but massive support base inside Kashmir, Pakistan was always checkmated by India and continues to be humbled in all its efforts to break the stranglehold of the status quo. And with each success on the ground, the Indian State has become more predacious, destroying the vestiges of Kashmir’s political autonomy that it enjoyed before its forced merger with India in 1947 in addition to its distinct socio-cultural and political identity.

The supposed permanence of the Indo-Pak compromise was based on the assumptions that Kashmiris possessed no agency or willingness to change their future; they were only seen as mere props, which could be co-opted and compromised by the security agencies of their respective sides. Initially, the governments of India and Pakistan managed to neutralize or drown out much of the criticism directed against this new arrangement, but as the initial excitement, manufactured through carefully choreographed public events or professionally crafted news analysis and dramatic soundbites, wore off, Kashmiris felt betrayed and dishonoured. The majority of the people began to view the emerging arrangement as detrimental to their ultimate political aspirations. Regardless, both the countries stayed the course, ignoring any protestations or sufferings of the people – who despite being the principal party to the dispute were stripped off any credible or practical influence over their future.

It is very important to bear in mind that from 2002-2015, for more than a decade, Pakistan had officially reneged on its so-called ‘moral and principled support’ to the Kashmiri cause of self-determination. Its premier military intelligence forced the Kashmiri leadership under its influence, baring Syed Ali Geelani, to support and follow the Indian thinking on the issue. Also, there are suggestions that Pakistan actively cooperated with India by way of sharing intelligence against the Hizbul Mujahideen that resulted in deaths of scores of its senior militant commanders who were seen as ‘spoilers’ by Pakistan against the new and emerging configuration.

Withdrawing from all her historic responsibilities and commitments, Pakistan also turned a wilfully blind eye to the massive human rights violations and wide-scale state-enacted murders, much to the disappointment of the Kashmiri public.

This all changed after 8 July 2016 when millions of Kashmiris rose in rebellion following the killing of Burhan Wani. The first Pakistani response was one of extreme caution lest it disturbed the broader understanding between the two countries. However, when the quantum of public reaction and the resultant State repression unravelled, Pakistan was pushed, albeit reluctantly, to wade in publicly. This was a stunning and diametric departure from its over a decade-long self-inflicted estrangement, disengagement and conscious uncoupling from the issue.

The Pakistani official reactions in the wake of Burhan’s killing became stronger after India threatened it with military aggression and terrorism. The Indian intransigence left Pakistan with little option but to renew and reactivate its so-called ‘moral support’ as the new protests instantaneously morphed into a cry for azadi.

This restitution of official support served everyone inside Pakistan very well. Nawaz Sharif, the beleaguered Prime Minister at the time, was driven by his desire to distract the public from the dominant narrative about his mass corruption that has made him into a billionaire tycoon in less than three decades. Championing the cause of Kashmir’s self-determination has been a time-tested trick that the Pakistani politicians and military has often employed to earn people’s sympathy while at the same time obfuscate public sentiments and frustrations that spring up from ceaseless massive corruption, misgovernance and a breakdown in the rule of law.

The Pakistani army that was demoralized by its Musharraf era U-turns, outlandish realignments and forced a historical geo-political readjustments; constant humiliations by its once Western allies and benefactors as well as a relentless pillorying by the emboldened politicians and the media also felt it useful to renew its vows with Kashmir.

People hold an anti-India rally in Bogund, Kulgam in south Kashmir during the 2016 agitation
Photo: Muneeb ul Islam

The Pakistani politics and the military framework found it convenient to converge on Kashmir albeit for their mutually exclusive interests. As a result, there was an abrupt hardening of the public posture and political rhetoric that so glaringly sounded unconvincing and amateurish. Also, we witnessed impulsively arranged special events commemorating the ‘Kashmiri sacrifices and sufferings’ to raise the public profile of the issue through all available local and international channels of communication and expression.

It was uncanny that Pakistan’s flourishing private media, mainly the television news channels – that ignored the 2008-2010 Kashmiri rebellions and the resultant mass murders – suddenly recovered from its moral hiatus and joined in to market the Kashmiri rebellion to generate sympathy for their political and military elite, per the individual or institutional biases. There is a reason to believe that India was genuinely surprised at the quantum of the Pakistani reaction – abrupt, unexpected and heavy.

In response, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is often overpowered by the overwhelming desires of his megalomaniac boasts, literally threw the baby with the bathwater by publicly committing to support terrorism inside Pakistan, particularly in Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. This left very little room for Nawaz Sharif who – both as the opposition leader and Prime Minister – displayed consistent desire to seek accommodation with India – an effort his critics claim was informed by his personal business interests and a deep hatred for his army that propped him up in his formative years only to overthrow him later in a very unceremonious fashion.

As the year 2016 drew to a close, the Kashmiri rebellion had been largely subdued with the aid of massive and disproportionate firepower, and the legally-sanctioned large-scale repression. However, in the process, the renewed Kashmiri resistance – armed or civilian – was able to frustrate the status quo and force India and Pakistan into a new cold war amid a regeneration of the toxic rhetoric of mutual allegations of exporting terrorism into each other’s territories. This war has since spread to the actual field along the Line of Control and the international border causing massive loss of lives – both military and civilians – on both sides.

That Kashmiris were finally able to challenge the statist narratives of both India and Pakistan is indeed the biggest achievement of this rebellion. When the two countries had started the so-called peace process that ultimately whittled down to the Four-Point Formula as propounded by the former Pakistani president General Musharraf, there was a great sense of achievement and relief in India. This led to a brash display of raw triumphalism for not only having humbled Pakistan but also forcing it to withdraw ideologically from Kashmir. When this was followed by the targeted dismantlement of the pro-freedom resistance structures inside Pakistan that were so painstakingly built by the army over the past decade, the Indian mindset brushed off any prospect for the future of Kashmiri resistance.

As a result, previous Indian attempts to assuage Kashmiris through political means such as promises of greater autonomy and withdrawal of the army and repressive laws that afford cover to the wherewithal of a brutal occupation were tacitly withdrawn from the table. During this time, I remember several personal interactions with Indian thought intellectuals including the former journalist and current external affairs minister of state, MJ Akbar; the former law minister Ram Jethmalani; journalist Kuldip Nayyar; former bureaucrat and author Wajahat Habibullah; and retired IB director Maloy K Dhar. Many of them would swear by their conviction that the Kashmiri resistance was all but extinguished and forever, as Pakistan had withdrawn herself from the cause. In their considered opinion, without Pakistani ‘provocation’ and support, Kashmiris would not dare to challenge India’s growing might.

Such thinking was partly built on a drip-feeding from a select bunch of Kashmiri journalists. For my own valid reasons, not discussed herein for the paucity of space and keeping focus on the subject at hand, I would like to refer to them as the ‘Sadhbavana journalists’, taking inspiration from the Indian army’s ‘Operation Sadhbavna’ or goodwill that started in 1998 ‘to win hearts and minds’ with a lavish budget worth millions of US dollars. Regardless of its successes, the operation is rumoured to have enriched several top army commanders in addition to cultivating a plethora of Kashmiri opinion makers and influencers who are also alleged to have had their share from the loot. Some of these ‘Sadhbavana journalists’, who for their own petty personal interests – from seeking promotions within their news organisations to begging for more clandestine funding for their rags – were being pushed to manufacture a deliberate groupthink within a clique of very influential Indian opinion makers at the behest of their benefactors within the Indian security community.

At a later time, some of these journalists even tried to influence New Delhi as they ran a campaign to pitch for a gubernatorial assignment for one of the retired army commanders, General Ata Hasnain, who by his own confession was ‘advised’ by some of these journalists whilst his posting in Srinagar as a Corps Commander.

The July 2016 rebellion destroyed all assumptions that the Kashmiri resistance totally depended upon Pakistani support. Although there was a strong comeback of traditional pro-Pakistani sentiment, the rebellion was autonomous and instantaneous, exhibiting that the Kashmiris were able to contravene the received official wisdom of the two countries. Despite the mass Indian propaganda to blame Pakistan for the upheaval, no one – from Kashmiris to the so-called international community – believed the nonsense.

Another assumption advanced by India and ably alluded to by the Pakistani security establishment was that Kashmiris would not be able to think of armed resistance let alone sustaining it without Pakistani patronage. No doubt, India had been successful in reducing the once-formidable militant cadres that ran into thousands to barely double digits. This was, by no means, a small achievement within a geography that is overtly hostile to the occupation and its paraphernalia. However, the large-scale neutralisation or demobilisation of militant resistance could not contain the sentiment – more so among the new generation of Kashmiris who are guided by their passion to fight the occupation with little appreciation or interest in the positive prospects for such an engagement. While this may paint them as zealous fighters with no grounding in realpolitik, their bravery and sacrifice continue to inspire more votaries to the cause who are willing to lay down their lives.

Onward from 2010, we can trace an organic but a low-key pro-freedom resistance movement sustaining itself despite raising continued suspicions from within Pakistan about the organising power and prowess of the Kashmiri youth including the technical and ideological aspects such as weapons supply chain, financial support mechanism, and their ambivalent ideological orientation. At the same time, both India and Pakistan seemed to have arrived at a tactical understanding – whether formal or informal – to allow a low-key militant resistance to sustain the institutions of war on both sides that so heavily depend on continued violence and instability in the region.

Immediately after the killing of Burhan Wani, Kashmiris offered an overwhelming support, yet again, to the armed resistance disturbing the optimal balance that the two countries might have come to accept for a necessary justification to actively engage their men and material in the war theatre. In the last two years, the number of youths joining the resistance ranks has almost quadrupled, autonomously and without any external inducements or promises of ‘moral support’. This has punctured the myth that India and Pakistan can co-opt, manage and manipulate Kashmiris for eternity. Despite a sustained pressure, coercion and outright threats from both countries, Kashmiris have refused to surrender their right to fight, and have continued their struggle at a great peril.

Ex-Pak President Pervez Musharraf with Hurriyat (G) chief Syed Ali Geelani in New Delhi on 17 April 2005. Geelani reportedly told Musharraf that the Indo-Pak process was ‘ignoring’ the wishes of Kashmniris

The role and the position of the Kashmiri rebels have also evolved. In the 1990s, it was common knowledge that the preferred profile of a would-be rebel was a social castaway who was uneducated or at best ill-educated in order to be moulded and directed per the wishes of his handlers. At the time, I have heard it from multiple sources including some former JKLF commanders that Amanullah Khan, the former chairman, was openly hostile to educated youth joining the resistance for fear of losing control over them and the movement that he guarded like his personal property. That is why a large majority of the militant cadres were uneducated who often lacked vision and sensitivity. This led them to commit various terrorist activities. For example, JKLF was involved in most of the murders of Kashmiri Pandits that happened in the beginning. They were also involved in some cases of rapes, including against the Pandit women. The Al Umar Mujahideen led by Mushtaq Zargar participated in a large-scale loot of the Pandit properties, mainly in Srinagar. The organisation also introduced the ISIS-style brute executions against the so-called ‘mukhbirs’ or police informers by tying them with explosive devices that would blow them into smithereens.

Similarly, the groups such as Al-Jihad or Jihad Force patronized by Shabir Shah made millions by large-scale destruction of forests, kidnappings, taxing and extorting government contractors and bank robberies. Shah’s militant groups were more styled on the pattern of Pakistan’s politico-terrorist group, MQM. Nominally educated with little to none intellectual understanding or organizing skills, Shah would become the darling of both Indian and Pakistani states that ultimately led him to emerge as one of the richest ‘pro-freedom’ leaders with an impressive real estate portfolio including a hotel at Pahalgam. This is not to say other political organisations or their armed affiliates did not engage in criminal or corrupt behaviour: the Jama’at-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen were embroiled in mutual clashes with other groups that led to wave of public resentment and hatred against them. But, compared to other groups, the Hizb remained the most disciplined organisation with little room for its leaders or commanders to enrich themselves, something that the Jama’at had also maintained within its fold.

The corrupt activities and brutal human rights violations degraded the pro-freedom resistance to an extent that by the mid-1990s the common people would be scared of the so-called mujahideen on a par with the army or the paramilitary forces, with the people choosing to stay aloof from their activities. This was a massive turnaround from the early ‘90s when people would treat these armed boys with respect and awe for they were seen as the liberators.

Burhan Wani’s death restored the dignity and the honour of Kashmiri resistance fighters, as millions of people came out to display their support and appreciation for his actions, respect for the people whom he represented and his ultimate act of sacrifice. Suddenly, and once again, turning to the path of armed resistance became a reputable and reasonable vocation, a cause to aspire for that is now seen as above everything else – career, family or a gainful craft. That is why in the post-Burhan period, we see more and more highly educated youngsters and with careers – from university lecturers to aspiring scholars – taking up the gun and dying for the cause of azadi.

Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin during an election campaign at Sarai Bala in Srinagar in 1987.
Photo: Meraj-ud-Din

The most important display of defiance by the Kashmiris is both exciting and fatally infantile. They have overwhelmingly rejected the politically exigent local and international labels that designated their resistance as terrorism. The Kashmiri youth have openly displayed support for the armed resistance and even beckoned the pro-freedom resistance fighters from the Hizb and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), regularly during protest demonstrations or funeral gatherings of militants and civilians that fall to the free-flowing bullets.

Both India and Pakistan have supported international efforts to designate groups fighting in Kashmir such as the LeT as terrorists through the US-directed and mediated mechanisms within the UN structure. Following the ban, the LeT has been slowly dismantled and hectored through various mechanisms to the extent that it has been forced to largely abandon its militant ideology and join the electoral politics under the name of the Milli Muslim League.

Last year, during a meeting with the LeT’s former ideologue, Hafiz Saeed, I learned about the hostility of the Nawaz Sharif government, “under the influence and lobbying of the western NGOs and some Indian businessmen”, towards any efforts that sought to organise support for Kashmiris’ right to resist the Indian control. Since his ouster, while Sharif has renewed his contacts with Saeed through a private emissary that I personally know, the LeT has been further marginalised and weakened by the army establishment to the degree that it has been virtually forced to abandon its self-stated commitment to send fighters to Kashmir.

The local resistance outfit Hizb is also designated as a terrorist group both by the US and India. Although Pakistan does not support a ban on the Hizb, it is exploiting the embargo to manage and control the group per its own requirements and demands. The resurgence of public support for the resistance has nudged the Pakistani security agencies to tame their intrigues that seek to marginalise and downgrade the Hizb. But its top leadership is wary of continued massive surveillance and control as a means to render them operationally ineffective and politically enervated.

A paramilitary trooper looks at a pro-Burhan graffiti in downtown Srinagar during the 2016 agitation
Photo: Abid Bhat

I am personally aware that the top leadership of the Hizb loathes the interference and the humiliation that they are continually subjected to since the takeover of General Musharraf. There are several stories from the recent past about how at one point General Musharraf summoned Syed Salahuddin, the supreme commander, and abused him and Syed Ali Geelani at the presidential palace.

In another incident, Salahuddin was arrested and pressurised to force Geelani to abandon his opposition to Musharraf’s Four-Point Formula. Since Burhan Wani’s death, as the Hizb tries to respond to the growing public calls of support, it had tried to send some of its men and material across the border. But most of them were arrested and incarcerated before being released albeit without their rudimentary weaponry.

At the same time, there have been some daring acts of militancy like the attacks in Uri and Sunjunwan army camp that killed several soldiers. Such incidents have tested the limits of Indian determination for projecting power in the region. While there are suggestions that these actions could be part of false flag operations, the Indian allegations of Pakistan pushing in diverse jihadists under different names and guises might contain some merit. Rather than designating it as a new strategy, this should be seen as a tactical move that could benefit both the countries to reinforce their official control regime against the popular resistance groups in order to limit their influence and bearing upon the Kashmiri resistance movement. Such an arrangement could also satisfy the overwhelming yearning of the Indian and Pakistani security establishments to continue their stranglehold on the Kashmiri aspirations and its various manifestations.

However, the empirical evidence from the past suggests this might not be able to fulfil their strategic designs. For the new generation of Kashmiris India is an eternal enemy that needs to be resisted through whatever means, including the great acts of self-sacrifice that lack any potential to challenge the Indian might but are potent enough to resist and restrict the reach of its psychological war narrative on Kashmir and beyond.

Similarly, Pakistan might be seen as a friend, whether imagined or real, Kashmiris will refuse to accept or install it as their master or blindly allow it to mediate on behalf of their aspirations. For me, that is the essence of the July 2016 rebellion that will continue to inform the future of the Kashmiri resistance and its ever-changing contours.

Murtaza Shibli is a journalist, author and communications and security specialist. He lives between London, Lahore and Kashmir.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

This article was published in Kashmir Narrator’s June edition. To subscribe to print edition of Narrator, please call +91-7298102560 or mail at [email protected]

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