In the very first week after the current Kashmiri upsurge began on 8 July, it was obvious that parts of Kupwara district were among the worst affected. A recent visit to the area revealed that it had already been on the boil since the month of Ramzan, which ended three days before Burhan was killed. Fiery sermons every Friday through that month had charged up people to demonstrate fierce anger.
Trends over the past few days suggest that this may have been a well-planned strategy. For, there has been a noticeable increase in the infiltration of militants from Pakistan through various sectors of Kupwara district. Kupwara stretches in a mountainous arc across the heights to the north of the Kashmir Valley. It remained marginal during the violence of the 1990s, although it was the route through which many militants crossed the Line of Control.
The army tackled three different infiltration bids simultaneously on certain nights over the past couple of weeks. This, a senior army officer said, was the first time they had faced such intense infiltration in perhaps 15 years.
Not only has the number of infiltration bids increased substantially in the past couple of weeks, they began in December and continued through large parts of the winter and spring. In previous years, infiltration had generally begun around April.
An army officer pointed out that, in some ways, the coldest part of the night in winter is the best time to trek in the heights. For, the frosted snow is crisp and leaves no footprints.
Hurriyat lit a fire
It seems clear that Pakistan’s military establishment had planned a massive injection of militants this year. That might explain, at least in part, the extraordinary upsurge in this district. Activists went to extraordinary lengths to light and fan the flames of rebellion in this district - well before Burhan’s killing.
Whether or not it is in fact related to the inflow of militants, there is no doubt that disturbances have been uncharacteristically prolonged in Kupwara. Bakshi Hafeezullah, who heads the town traders’ association, is among the several leading citizens who describe the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani on 8 July as little more than a blip in the current story of Kupwara. Tempers were set aflame in April over an alleged sexual liaison. Then, anger was further stirred during the month of Ramzan. The highlight of Ramzan in Kupwara was a visit by Pir Saifullah, a leading light of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Saifullah gave a fierce extended sermon at Kupwara’s Jamia mosque.
The highly-funded, extraordinarily-equipped intelligence leviathans apparently did nothing to stymie this. Former leading militants are among those who speculate that they either had no idea what was being planned, or they are compromised. Although many Hurriyat leaders, including the relatively moderate Mirwaiz Umar, were under house arrest during Ramzan, Saifullah was not only permitted to travel to Kupwara, his return to Srinagar was facilitated.
According to several Kupwara residents, Saifullah returned to Srinagar after his sermon by a circuitous route, going in the opposite direction initially. Some say he switched vehicles, and that one of the vehicles he used was provided by a police officer. That might sound bizarre, but far more bizarre things have happened in north Kashmir. While Saifullah returned to Srinagar unhindered, his sermon sparked a fiery protest on the streets of Kupwara. Soon, those demonstrations gathered steam, and their targets became more specific. One of these targets was an army post at the main bus stand, the hub of this relatively small town.
Some local observers link this to the removal of the huge army bunker at a central roundabout in nearby Handwara town after fiery protests took place there in April. Those protests were sparked by a liaison between a local girl and a soldier who hails from the area. That was used to whip up frenzied protests by youth, who set fire to the bunker. The bunker was then razed by a bulldozer under the supervision of the minister elected from Handwara, Sajad Lone.
On the political plane, Sajad gained from that — at the expense, obliquely, of his chief local rival, Chaudhary Ramzan of the National Conference. Of course, that only made Ramzan’s workers determined to push back and regain political ground over the past few weeks. Some Kupwara-based analysts speculate about whether the success of that mobilization in April paved the way for the fiery sermons in June. Perhaps strategists, either within the Hurriyat or in Pakistan, decided that the time was opportune to raise the temperature of a district that has been less responsive to the 'azadi' movement than many other parts of Kashmir.
The demonstrations in April and during Ramzan certainly helped to set the stage for those during the past six weeks. For example, advocate Arif Hussain Wani of Drugmulla says those who attacked the Military Hospital at Drugmulla in mid-July were connected with (and remained incensed over) the killing of a young man by the army on May 21 during the demonstrations that followed the Handwara incident last April. That young man was from Nagari, which is just across a rivulet from Drugmulla, explains Wani. His associates at Nagari were still irate over his death, and chose to vent their anger on the Military Hospital at Drugmulla, just a few kilometres short of Kupwara.
That attack was arguably the worst during the turbulence in Kupwara during the couple of months. Indeed, the uprising in Kupwara peaked from 13 to 16 July, not on 9 July (the day after Burhan’s death), which was the peak in most other parts of the Valley.
Pulwama and Kulgam in south Kashmir were the two other badly affected districts, apart from Kupwara. Those two were easily explicable: they have long been strong bases of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been most active in promoting the current uprising.
Kupwara, on the other hand, has never been a Jamaat-e-Islami base. Rather, it has been the bastion of Abdul Ghani Lone, the Hurriyat leader who was assassinated on 21 May 2002. Lone had built amazing political capital in north Kashmir in a political career that spanned almost five decades. Since Burhan’s death — and to an extent, since Saifullah’s visit — stone-pelting and barricades manned by boys were common in Kupwara and nearby areas such as Lolab and Trehgam - until a week ago. Handwara, where Sajad Lone has substantial influence owing to his father’s legacy, has been quiet.
Many a leading townsperson alleges that political activists of various shades, including the National Conference, have been at play. In the same breath, they say that the role - or rather, the lack of activity — of the leaders of ruling parties such as Sajad’s fellow minister Abdul Haq Khan has dismayed them too. While the various profit-seekers who pass for politicians of various hues have played with fire, the army has coped valiantly with the task of stymieing the dangerous inflow of militants even while providing vital support to the police.