In Kashmir, Indian Democracy Loses Ground to Millennial Militancy
In the village of Dogripora, the first weekend of May began with a militant’s funeral and ended with a historic election. Dogripora lies in the district of Pulwama, in southern Kashmir, and, on Friday, May 3rd, thousands of people assembled to mourn Muhammad Lateef Dar, a young local man, known as Lateef Tiger, who had gone into the hills to join a separatist insurgency that has lasted thirty years and still threatens to spark war between India and Pakistan. Earlier that day, Lateef was trapped and killed by Indian soldiers in the neighboring district of Shopian.
Mourners packed a field the size of a soccer pitch. Women wore pastel and paisley head scarves; men wore mostly pherans, woollen tunics in shades of gray. Many sat on top of a brick wall or wedged themselves in the high branches of poplars to behold the new shaheed, or martyr. As mourners chanted, young men clambered onto the cot that carried the corpse, stroked its face, and smeared its blood on their cheeks. Periodically, the cot was raised and rotated to offer the crowd a view of Lateef. His body was wrapped in blankets, his head bandaged down to the upper lip.
“God is great,” the crowd called out.
Further back, a young man with a pompadour was incensed. “Look at him!” he said. “They’ve cut off his face!” The man, who would not give his name, believed that the Indian soldiers who killed Lateef had mutilated the body, which is sacrilege in Islam. I asked the man if he thought that the residents of Pulwama would vote in India’s national elections that Monday. “Only informers will be going to vote,” he said.
“And the families of police,” another man said.
“This does not make you want to vote,” a third man added. “This instills the feeling to fight India through war.”
India’s general election, which occurs every five years, is the largest democratic exercise in the world. Due to its scale, this year’s election was conducted in seven phases, spread between April 11th and May 19th, with different voting days for different states or regions. Many large states, such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu—each with tens of millions of voters—were polled on single days. One constituency, however, voted in three phases, to insure that enough troops were in place to control possible separatist attacks or public violence: Anantnag, which comprises Pulwama and Shopian.
To many Indian voters this election season, Pulwama has been synonymous with terrorism. On February 14th, a suicide bomber, a local youth, blew up a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force in Pulwama, killing forty personnel. The attack spurred India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who is the leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, to authorize retaliatory air strikes on an alleged militant camp deep inside Pakistan. An Indian jet was shot down in a dogfight the next morning, but Modi rose in the polls.
Again and again during his campaign, Modi brandished the name “Pulwama,” paired with the name “Balakot”—the site of the facility targeted by Indian jets—to boost his standing as a nationalist. To Modi’s supporters across the country, the two names have become synonymous with the threat that “anti-national forces” pose to India, and of the vengeance that—as his campaign contends—only Modi can exact.
At one rally, in Wardha, in the center of the country, Modi asked new voters, “Can your first vote be dedicated to the brave shaheed of Pulwama?” He wasn’t referring to the militants; Indians, including journalists, increasingly describe slain soldiers as shaheed, just as Kashmiris do slain rebels.
Since Modi’s victory, in 2014, the government has boosted nationalist passions in India, using various foils, Pakistan foremost among them. India’s neighbor has, in fact, stoked the militancy in Kashmir, co-opting indigenous armed groups, such as the Hizbul Mujahideen, to turn a secular, nationalist struggle into a religiously charged campaign for accession to Pakistan. Since the early nineteen-nineties, Pakistan has trained militants and sent them over the border to fight Indian forces. As a result, for most of its three decades, the insurgency in Kashmir was centered in the north, in areas closer to the Line of Control between the two countries.
However, Modi’s election-season displays of strength against Pakistan and its proxies ignore a reality that has emerged since he took power: a new wave of militancy in southern Kashmir that is far less dependent on foreign fighters or aid from across the border. The aggression is rooted in local young people, who are furious at what they see as India’s “regime of oppression,” and who are increasingly recruited via social media. Modi has succeeded at exacting symbolic revenge on Pakistan, but he has failed to prevent the alienation of young Kashmiris and the resurgence of a homegrown insurgency in Kashmir.
Lateef was a member of that insurgency. He spent his last moments pinned down, with two other rebels, in a house in Shopian, as police and Army units laid siege to the structure. As what the Indian government referred to as an “encounter” began, civilians pelted the security forces with stones, attempting to help the trapped militants escape. Government forces held the locals at bay with tear gas, nonlethal pellet guns, and rifle fire.
Lateef was the last of a photogenic squad of Hizbul Mujahideen fighters. Unlike earlier generations of mujahideen, his unit, led by the twentysomething Burhan Wani, used their real names, did not wear masks, and were popular on social media.
An image of them that went viral, in July of 2015, showed a dozen young men in fatigues, holding Kalashnikov assault rifles. Several smiled at the camera. Only one wore a mask. Wani, the commander, is in the center; the others recline into one another with the swagger and self-regard of college athletes. More selfies and group pics, in which they posed with automatic rifles in the scenic highlands, appeared on WhatsApp and Instagram, attracting many young Kashmiris to the insurgency.
The day after Lateef’s funeral, I talked to Rashid Para, a doctor at Pulwama District Hospital. Para has two buttons, blue and yellow, mounted on a wall behind his desk. Pushing either sets off a hospital-wide alert. A “Code Blue” is for a medical emergency, a “Code Yellow” for a “multi-casualty incident or disaster.”
Lateef’s death caused a Code Yellow; the hospital received three people who were injured in the protests that followed the killing. All told, around twenty civilians were injured in that day’s clashes with Indian security forces. Para told me that it reminded him of the day that Burhan Wani was killed. “I joined this hospital on July 7, 2016,” he said. “On July 8th, the Burhan incident happened. . . . It was as if I landed straight in the battlefield.” Following Wani’s death, in July, 2016, when Para asked young people injured in protests for their names, they answered, “Burhan, Burhan, Burhan.”
Burhan Wani was killed by the military during another “encounter,” and his death brought thousands of civilians not only into the streets but into the fray with Indian forces, a development that derailed the gradual progress toward reconciliation in Kashmir. By that summer’s end, almost a hundred civilians had been killed, with nearly nine thousand injured. Each week, in a dynamic that had never existed before, young Kashmiris gathered to hurl stones at police and soldiers, who responded with salvoes of bird-shot pellets that permanently blinded hundreds, including bystanders and children. In southern Kashmir, more and more young men—many of them teen-agers, but also schoolteachers, Ph.D. candidates, and police trainees—disappeared from their homes without warning. They reappeared later on WhatsApp videos, declaring their allegiance to armed struggle.
The Modi government is choosing to deal with these young men as enemy combatants, rather than as alienated locals whose families, neighbors, and schoolmates compose the society of southern Kashmir. Rather than disarming militants with a successful policy of amnesty, government forces are exterminating them. Often, as with those who died alongside Lateef, young men are killed in the middle of their home towns, as swarms of townspeople attempt to intervene and save them.
The cycle of rage and reprisal has allowed Indian forces to post an impressive record of kills, proof of the Modi government’s hard line on terror. It is also further radicalizing the people of southern Kashmir.
Burhan Wani’s successor as commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen was a former engineering student named Zakir Musa, who became the face of a new extremism within the militancy. In May of 2017, Musa warned the members of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference—respected elders of the separatist movement—not to challenge his more radical agenda. “If they want to do their politics, they’d just better not become thorns in our path—our path of Shariah—or we’ll cut their heads off and hang them up at Lal Chowk,” he said, referring to a central square in Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city. Musa’s new group rejected both Kashmiri nationalism and accession to Pakistan. In December of 2018, his followers raised the black banner of ISIS over the Jama Masjid, the central mosque of Srinagar, and vowed to fight “exclusively for Islam.”
By 2018, Kashmir was experiencing its highest level of violence in a decade. The government’s list of identified militants grew to three hundred, up from seventy-eight names in 2013. Then began the cull. In October, as the national election approached, government forces carried out one mission after another, delivering a steady stream of dead militants on prime-time TV. In the rest of the country, each killing was presented as a trophy for Modi’s government. In Kashmir, each was a new shaheed—mourned in his village, eulogized on Instagram, and revered across the state.
That same year, militant violence began a descent into entirely new, spectacular, ISIS-style brutality against civilians accused of acting as informers. Between November and February, two teen-age boys and a young woman were executed on camera, and the videos were distributed as a warning to others. By the end of 2018, two hundred and sixty-seven rebels had been killed, along with a hundred and sixty civilians and a hundred and fifty servicemen. The new year brought no respite. A report by the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society counted at least a hundred and sixty-two conflict-related deaths between January and March, including the forty policemen whose deaths, in the suicide bombing in February, turned Pulwama into a talking point for Modi’s reëlection campaign.
In theory, May 6th was election day in Pulwama and Shopian. The vote for the member of parliament from Anantnag, which had been spread over three weeks, was finally wrapping up. But the districts showed few signs of electoral activity. As expected, separatist figures and militant groups had called for a boycott.
Waheed ur Rehman Para, a spokesperson for the Peoples Democratic Party, which has traditionally been strongest in the area, told me that he believed the spate of anti-militant operations had two unstated goals. One was to alienate Kashmiris—both from his party, which won the Anantnag seat in 2014, and from India. The second was to serve the “political optics” of the Bharatiya Janata Party nationwide, as the suicide bombing in Pulwama and the Indian air raid on Balakot had done. According to Para, who is not related to the doctor at Pulwama District Hospital, ten thousand people had turned out for Lateef’s funeral. “If you want a smooth election, you don’t mobilize ten thousand people against participating,” he said. For him, the government wasn’t avoiding confrontation—“rather, they are inviting it. As a result, south Kashmir is in a constant state of funerals. We cannot go now and talk about votes.”
On May 6th, on a highway in Shopian, under three chinar trees, two dozen helmeted and heavily armed policemen secured polling booths for the villages of Arabal, Arihal, and Nikus. Each booth had a list of between six hundred and nine hundred registered voters. According to election officials, by the early afternoon, the village with the highest turnout had recorded exactly two votes, and one out of every four booths in the two districts had recorded a turnout of zero per cent. Over all, between Pulwama and Shopian, voter turnout would be 2.81 per cent. Votes will be counted and the national result announced on Thursday. Modi appears poised to return to power, with a confident majority.
About three hundred yards away from the policemen, a pack of boys between the ages of eight and eighteen hung out by the side of the highway, their fingers wrapped around handfuls of round river stones. The parties on the ballot offered them nothing but oppression, they said. “Every government they form here only draws our blood to sell it,” one twelve-year-old told me. He had blue eyes and the beginnings of a mustache. “In one week, three mujahideen have become shaheeds. In our village, thirteen boys have lost the light in their eyes”—a reference to the blindings caused by pellet-gun fire.
They said that they would heed only people like Zakir Musa, the new firebrand figure whose followers had hoisted the black ISIS flag. “He says, we have no need of India nor Pakistan—only to make Kashmir a house of Islam,” the twelve-year-old told me.
In Dogripora, the village where Lateef’s funeral had been held the previous day, the walls of the local mosque were pasted with photographs of him—posing with comrades, or sitting cross-legged in a sunlit meadow, checking his phone, with his semi-automatic across his lap. Two thousand residents were registered to vote there. By noon, the polling staff had not seen a single one of them. Down the street, beyond a turreted bullet-proof vehicle, young women washed clothes above a narrow canal, and men tarried on the street. Asked if they would vote, one of the women smirked. “Turning out for the funerals is what is important here,” she said.