After a long day of strict curfew on 15 August, Independence Day, 15-year old Yasir Salaam Sheikh walked out of his dense neighborhood in Srinagar’s Batmaloo area towards the main road, only to find a group of youth demonstrating against India.
Within half an hour, the demonstration was countered by government forces, who fired tear gas shells, pellets and bullets. Sheikh was shot in the chest. He died, while his father Abdul Salaam Sheikh, 52, was told that his son was injured by pellets. It was only when he left home for the hospital that he found a group of people carrying his son’s body.
Abdul Salaam is a carpenter with a family of six — three sons, a daughter and wife. But Yasir is no longer with his family. Sitting against the yellow distempered walls of a room at his home, Abdul Salaam answers a call from a relative. He says, “Aaa, yi aus khudayi syund yachun, Yasir saeb gov shaheed” (It was Allah’s will, Yasir has been martyred)."
Yasir's was yet another civilian killing in the 10 weeks of Kashmir being under lockdown since the mass uprising started after popular rebel commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, 22, was shot dead by government forces on 8 July in South Kashmir’s Bumdoora village.
In the daily demonstrations and rallies since, 88 civilians have been killed by government forces and more than 13,000 injured. Among the injured are more than 800 individuals who were hit by pellets in their eyes; many have lost vision in one or both eyes as a consequence.
The estimated loss to the state’s economy has been more than Rs 7,000 crore, but no one seems to be ready to return back to normalcy — not even the business community. Several hundred government forces have also been injured in stone-throwing incidents across the Valley.
In a move to douse the fire, the central government had dispatched a parliamentarians’ delegation to the state. However, almost all major pro-freedom and civil society groups boycotted the All Party Delegation of Parliament members led by the home minister Rajnath Singh, on 4 September, on the grounds that such talks haven't borne fruit in the past.
The uprising has shown a new face of the people, who are willing to give up their life for the struggle of Azadi — freedom. An on-duty paramilitary forces personnel in Anantnag town, with a pellet gun slung over his shoulder, told me that he has been serving in Kashmir for six years, but has never seen this level of anger. “I have seen the 2010 protests and experienced the stone-throwing also,” he said. “These are not the same people. Young children carrying stones are ready to face bullets. They come in thousands. How many can we kill at once? We can’t stop them.”
His observation seems right to someone who has managed to travel across the Valley during the uprising.
In 2010, the protests were mainly in towns. But this time, even the remotest villages are engulfed in protests and clashes with the forces. Many houses, of people associated with the government, have been attacked and government establishments torched. At night, youth guard the roads — only to announce in the village mosque if there is a police raid. Mosques are reverberating with announcements and songs of freedom. People are giving away their food to the needy and offering shelter to those who can’t get home. Since the militancy of the 1990s, this is the first time that Kashmir has stood up with just intensity against the state, which in turn is finding it hard to crush the people’s movement. As is the case with Yasir's father Abdul Salaam, the loss of life and economy are the sacrifices one has to pay.
“We, all of Kashmir, want freedom,” says Salaam, who believes that his son’s life will not go in vain. “It needs big sacrifices and we are doing that. We will make sacrifices and it is the job of our leaders to follow up on that. I am hopeful that Kashmir will be free, that it will see the spring of freedom one day. Since Eid (7 July), I have worked only for six days. But I don’t have any regret that we lost so much: my work and my son. I’m a common man and believe me, no one’s heart is with India here. We are ready to bear the losses because we want freedom and that is a big achievement.”
Many people in Kashmir share similar views. The one common thing people say is that the uprising shouldn’t end like it did in 2010, when at least 120 civilians were shot dead by government forces during the National Conference and Congress government led by Omar Abdullah. People have been expecting that the pro-freedom leaders would find a political strategy other than only shutdowns. But to understand this uprising, the sentiments that are running high, one has to literally camp in Southern Kashmir — the epicenter.
On my second visit to South Kashmir in 10 weeks, I spent two weeks living with the people who are part of the demonstrations, travelling into the villages, attending public rallies, meeting stone-throwers and seeing militants hanging around. Every action in South Kashmir — the four districts: Pulwama, Anantnag, Shopian and Kulgam ê has become a symbol of defiance against India. Young men search for paint to graffiti any available surface. Fuel is somehow arranged to fill the tanks of cars and bikes, only to travel to the next day’s rally. Flags are stitched or painted and hoisted on electric poles, trees, mobile towers and shop-fronts. At almost every rally, visitors gather around a few banners that display photos of slain militants or civilians. When a slogan is raised, the response is an echo of thousands of people cutting through the dense forests.
One picture that is omnipresent is of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who has become the hero, followed by many militants who are in these areas. Every young boy who is in the protests wants to follow Wani. Children take out parades with handmade wooden-guns amid pro-Kashmir and anti-India slogans.
In one such rally at Kulgam’s Yaaripora village last month, thousands participated to reiterate their support for the uprising. Riding a bike along with a recent journalism graduate, Shoaib (name changed), through interior roads to evade government forces, in the village, we found hundreds of cars, bikes and commercial vehicles parked on the road, and people walking in groups towards the venue. Volunteers were serving food and water to the visitors while the road was dotted with flags of Pakistan, Independent Kashmir and green.
On our way back, in Redwani village, 22-year-old Waris Ahmad (name changed) told me that this uprising is different than the one in 2010. “I want us to be successful as we want plebiscite. In 2010, only cities were mainly involved. But this time, villages all over Kashmir are with the movement. Nothing will happen due to this government crackdown. When there is oppression, that means we will succeed. Politicians betrayed Kashmiris, they showed us green gardens but nothing happened. What is truth is always truth, thus Jammu Kashmir is a disputed region and the dispute has to be solved one day,” he told me.
Two days before this rally, Shoaib and I travelled towards another one in Dabrun village. Before we could reach, however, Central Reserve Police Force personnel stopped us near Ashajipora, a village next to Anantnag town. After telling them where we were headed, the two CRPF men charged at us with their batons. For the next few minutes, blows from the batons rained on our arms, legs and back, even as abuses were hurled at us and we were asked to go back. Showing my press card had only intensified the beating.
I did get a chance to visit the village after a few days. There I met 27-year-old Junaid Rasool (name changed), who has lived outside Kashmir, and told me that the government should understand what is the reason for the 2008, 2010 and 2016 uprisings in Kashmir.
“In 2008, we wanted land to be returned and the situation became normal,” Junaid told me. “Today, it is not about land or any one person, people are looking for their rights. We don’t want oppression to continue. In 2010, India sent delegations here and they showed us dreams and people voted later, thinking something will happen. But nothing happened. In 2016, India is saying a terrorist was killed, that is why there is an uprising. But the point is, why did he even pick up a gun? We don’t want India or Pakistan; we want only Azadi — freedom. India claims to be a big democracy, but there is nothing like that in Kashmir. Even before we start saying something, they shoot pellets at us.”
The situation is similar in the northern parts of Kashmir.
Last month, thousands gathered for a rally in the Kreeri area of North Kashmir. Witnesses said that people with wires, logs and electricity poles blocked all roads to thwart any nighttime raid by government forces. “I am seeing such a situation for the first time in any North Kashmir village,” a witness told a local daily. Earlier the village was raided to arrest youth. But locals said that people were alerted, and announcements were made through mosque loud speakers and everyone was asked to come out on the roads. “We set up blockades at all the entry points to the village,” a local told the daily, “and teams were formed, which patrolled the village for the whole night.” The next day, the stage was set up in the Eidgah grounds for the rally.
The government’s response to such dissent has only been the use of more force. At least 6,000 people have been arrested, with more than 400 booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA). Many families have said that their children were tortured and humiliated in police stations. In one incident, in South Kashmir’s Larkipora area, eight kilometers from the town, army personnel paraded young men naked and used them as human shields.
One late night (when curfew was imposed even during the nights), I reached Larkipora along with some locals who knew the alternative routes to avoid the main road that was dotted with the Army. We went to the house of Amir Yusuf Ganai, 22, a third semester MBA student at a Chandigarh College. Ganai was shot dead by the Army on 16 August. As per witnesses, some Army personnel were coming along one side of the road, beating up people. In Larkipora market, three people were paraded naked on the road ahead of the army vehicles. Initially, there was only stone throwing by demonstrators, who were angry to see the men being paraded, but then army personnel opened fire.
By 1 pm, 12 injured people were rushed to the district hospital of Anantnag. Seven were injured by pellets, four had bullet injuries and one had been beaten up. Among them was Ganai as well. His hospital record read: “Bullet injury left side neck — Brought dead.”
“People were announcing on the mosque loudspeakers that the army – 19-RR (Rashtriya Rifles) — was wreaking havoc,” said Mohammad Yusuf Ganai, Amir's father. “And then people came out. Amir was hit in the neck. As per the witnesses, it was Sajad Ahmad Itoo, a local army man, who shot at him. Then people went to Itoo’s house and burnt it down. Four days after, on 22 August, Amir was to return to his college to pay his fees. He was here for the June-August summer break.”
Among the three men who were paraded naked was 33-year-old Shiraz Ahmad Malik, a driver. At his home in Fatehpur village, 10 kilometers from Anantnag town, lying in bed with a fractured arm and injuries all over his body, Malik tells me that there was stone throwing and he went to see what the commotion was, but fell down. “Three of us were forced to get naked and the stone throwing stopped when they [the stone throwers] saw us naked in front of the army personnel,” he said. “We were beaten up, our clothes torn off, identity cards kept in pockets and money taken away. For 30 minutes, we were kept there. Then our arms were bound and we were taken to a camp in a vehicle. We were in the vehicle but they couldn’t take us down again due to the heavy presence of protesters. We were released later. They were beating up the two others also and one of them was severely injured... his nails were removed.”
The reason that this uprising has been difficult to control is people’s vehement support for militants. Burhan Wani gave a face to the rebels, who would otherwise be on their own in the forests. His killing brought them back into the larger narrative of the general public’s political sentiments. While in the south, I saw militants being celebrated as heroes. Their networks have become stronger over the last two months and a huge number of young boys have already decided to join them. In other districts of Kashmir, the intensity may not be as high as in the south, but the uprising continues in those parts as well. While it is not possible to organise rallies in Central Kashmir, protests have not halted and have spread like wildfire with each fresh killing, even as far as to many areas of the Jammu division. However, the pro-freedom leaders in South Kashmir believe that the People’s Democratic Party, whose origin and base was in the south, stabbed the people in the back.
At the Anantnag police station, Mirwaiz Qazi Yasir, a pro-freedom leader and chairman of Ummat e Islami Jammu Kashmir (that exerts strong influence in Southern Kashmir), has been detained since the day Wani was killed. He tells me that the rural south had been passive over a period of time but silence should not be deemed as peace. “Kashmir, particularly the south, has been deceived time and again by politicians,” said Yasir. “Even when they voted for different mainstream parties, they presented themselves covered in the clothes of the movement. Wailing and crying over the dead bodies of young militants gave them the impression that those people among that camp were pro-freedom. Our own people, some militant commanders or resistance leaders supported these deceiving political parties, which supported and strengthened their pro-freedom cover. There was a time in the pre-2008 era when a huge chunk of intellectuals believed that the signs of resistance have been erased among the youth. But 2008 rediscovered the movement in the present generation.”
As for where this uprising has taken Kashmir, Yasir says, “I believe this uprising has had several impacts, like transition of the movement to new generation. It strengthened the expression that we want nothing less than Azadi and this movement is goal-centric rather than leader-centric. People are growing politically mature. Gone are the times when people were considered as herds.”
The response that the parliamentary delegation received in Kashmir has proven that the people do not want a repeat of the past. While none among the pro-freedom leaders was willing to speak to the delegation, during the day, at least 600 people were injured across Kashmir in protests and clashes. Reports said that around two-dozen people sustained pellet injuries to their eyes, including a photojournalist.
In South Kashmir’s Shopian, protesters torched a new building — a local deputy commissioner’s office — after government forces stopped a scheduled public rally. With no let up in the demonstrations, continuous use of force, people like Yasir Salaam Sheikh’s father continue to believe that the loss of economy and the lives are the sacrifices one has to offer for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
But the coming days and weeks will tell whether there will be any concrete dialogue, or if it will only be another bloody summer in Kashmir.
Fahad Shah is an independent journalist, who frequently writes for Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wire and Hindustan Times. He is the editor of the anthology Of Occupation and Resistance: Writings from Kashmir (2013) and also founding editor of The Kashmir Walla magazine. He can be followed at @pzfahad.