Jammu Kashmir: The deadly game of perceptions

02 May 2016 15:42:22


Abha Khanna

Going by the headlines of last few days, the entire state of Jammu-Kashmir appsears to be on the boil, with anti-India protests everywhere, stone-pelting, police firing, terrorist encounters…  And that’s exactly what they want us to think – us, the people outside the state in India and abroad. After all, their survival depends on it!

The separatist-cum-terrorist elements in Jammu Kashmir state have been active far too long to let go of their ‘movement’ easily. As they say, a snake is most ferocious when it feels threatened. The separatist ‘leadership’ has been fast losing relevance in the Valley, with their local support base dwindling steadily. Their influence has been reduced to just a few mohallas, with even their bandh calls going unheeded. They simply had to create an atmosphere of unrest to get noticed again. So they are back to the little pockets of influence set up during earlier disturbances, to play the old games – of provoking stone-pelting, police action, army retaliation and the resultant ‘concerns’ of rights violations. They’ve always managed their media well, and now seem to have learnt social media skills too.

The interesting thing is that Kashmir is only 15 per cent of the state’s land area. Jammu and Ladakh constitute 85 per cent of the state. Both Jammu and Ladakh are completely peaceful regions, with a sizeable population of Muslim population where there are no incidents of anti-India or pro-Pakistan sloganeering.  And yet whenever disturbances get triggered in small localities of Kashmir, the media makes it look like the entire state is burning with every Muslim shouting pro-Pak slogans and demanding ‘azaadi’. The role of media in Kashmir region is crucial to this game of perception management, but that’s a story in itself.

The majority in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the Kashmir valley, is peace-loving and totally Indian at heart. The tragedy is that no one is talking to them. The historical blunders of political leadership during and after the Partition era are being compounded today. Pro-India voices have always been in majority in the state but unfortunately Delhi has always negotiated with separatists working at the behest of anti-India forces. It’s regrettable that separatists and terrorists manage to use the nuisance factor in their favor.  

What we are seeing and hearing in news everyday is not the truth, but a cleverly created perception with the help of a biased local media. The common man has been reduced to a silent onlooker, confused and frustrated.

There’s urgent need to change the discourse in favor of the common people. Despite high voting percentage in almost all elections in Jammu Kashmir, the voter continues to be deprived of the benefits of democracy and governance.

For separatists, the idea of fomenting trouble serves the added purpose of targeting the new dispensation in the State, especially with the right-wing BJP in coalition at state-level and in power at the Centre. It was a good time for them to start the action as soon as the Mehbooba Mufti government took charge as chief minister.

The youth is critical to players of ideological mind-games. Their typical ploy is to infiltrate educational institutes to capture young minds and develop cadres. The NIT Srinagar issue is a typical case in point. Why would engineering students go to such extreme lengths to antagonize and provoke ‘non-local’ students as to bang on their doors in the middle of the night and shout obscenities? After all, all of these students cleared an all-India exam to take admission at the institute with the dream of becoming professionals and getting good placements somewhere in India. So ‘azaadi from India’ is obviously not their mission in life. Isn’t it evident there were certain forces working behind the scenes throughout – right from the anti-India antics of ‘local’ students to the unimaginable police lathicharge on students peacefully and proudly marching with the Tricolor in their hands?

One has to salute the patriotic spirit of the NIT students who took such a brave stand for the dignity of their national flag. Even after they were ruthlessly beaten up and their flag snatched from them, they repeatedly made the Tricolor with their hands and continuously staged peaceful protests till their voice was heard by the powers that be. The unprecedented police action in this case has to be seriously investigated to get to the core of the issue. The State and Centre have to actively ensure that no student is henceforth targeted for their nationalism. The students’ academic and personal safety cannot be compromised at any cost.

It was in separatists’ interest to develop a discourse on the lines of Kashmiri versus non-Kashmiri sentiment. And they would have succeeded in the game plan, given that gullible media houses in Delhi had started parroting the language deliberately used by separatist leaders in their reactions to the NIT issue. However, the students were smart enough to gather that there was a fraudulent attempt to turn this into a local-non-local issue, and made it clear to everyone that local Kashmiris were very much their friends and buddies, and the instigators were just a mischievous group bent upon creating trouble. 

Then, the Handwara incident was virtually created out of thin air. The flare-up was almost entirely fanned by the social media managers of separatist groups – it went viral within minutes of the initial argument. It was a strange case of ‘molestation’ indeed since the girl herself strongly denied, right from the beginning, any attempt to molest her. There were allegations that she was forced to refute allegations of molestation in the video that went viral on social media. But the girl stood by her earlier statement before the chief judicial magistrate too. She reiterated that she was not molested by any army soldier, but was in fact confronted, assaulted and dragged by two local boys and her bag was snatched among whom one boy was in school uniform. It was clear there was something sinister behind the entire episode. Who were the local boys, and who was giving them orders?

A watch on the social media activities of some radical Kashmiris, who regularly share separatist agenda, gives an interesting insight. Their reactions to the girl’s statement range from death threats to vicious character assassination and filthy language. Instead of sympathizing with the 16-year-old girl’s plight, there seems to be anger at why she has exonerated the imaginary armyman. There is no concern at the loss of lives in the ensuing violence. It was almost as if they were frustrated at a plan gone wrong.

It was again in Handwara and Kupwara, known separatist strongholds, where protests turned violent and four civilians (three youth and a woman) were killed in clashes between stone-pelting mobs and security forces.

Youth soft target

Have you ever wondered why it is always the youth that is shown as the face of ‘militancy’? Whether it be ‘anti-India’ protests, stone-pelting at security forces or terrorist encounters, the perpetrators are almost always teenagers!

Separatists have, over the past decades, perfected their hand at the game of perceptions. It is clearly in their interest to create the notion that ‘militancy’ is returning to Kashmir because the people are unhappy. If the issues before the local population are so serious, why aren’t the adults out on the streets as well?

Unfortunately, the mainstream media plays into the hands of separatist strategists, whether wittingly or unwittingly. In any case there are certain media houses which would rather play the devil’s advocate than do positive journalism. As a case in point, I refer to a recent article that talks of how today’s “young Kashmiri militant is brazenly releasing his pictures and videos on social media” in contrast to the militants of yore. They present themselves in the typical image of a macho ‘militant’ – dressed in fatigues, gun in hand, laughing or smiling in a forest-type background. The same article admits there’s “an attempt to glamourise militancy and attract more youth in the manner that ISIS does”. While seeming to justify local youth for taking to ‘militancy’, the writer fails to grasp the crucial point that there’s an obvious institutional support behind this exercise. If the ISIS has used social media as an effective tool to attract youth, there are certain forces which are strategically working in the same manner in the Valley as well.

Youngsters, especially teenage boys, are always easy prey. It is normal for teenagers to rebel, to defy authority. In fact, psychologists go to the extent of saying that ‘all children rebel”. “Problematic teenager” is a common phenomenon with which the adult society has struggled across the world, since times immemorial. Just search the phrase on the net, and you’ll come across hundreds (maybe thousands) of pages discussing and debating the issue. So, obviously the tendency to defy is not unique to the Kashmiri youth. It’s just that in Kashmir there are too many predators scouting around for youngsters who can be instigated to rebel.

Local Kashmiris are themselves unhappy with this situation. In fact those who can afford it prefer to send their children out of the state to study, with the express purpose of keeping them away from such disruptive influences. In each and every case where a youth has left home to join a terrorist group, he has not done it with his parent’s approval. He just leaves the house without telling anyone, sometimes leaving behind a letter. The family tries its best to trace their son and bring him back, but he’s already in dangerous territory from where there’s no coming back.

On the other hand, stone pelting had been consciously developed into a profession during the 2008-10 unrest. Youngsters were known to get paid as much as 500 rupees per day for pelting stones. Even today youngsters of certain areas, such as Pattan, are known for their ‘expertise’ in stone-pelting.  

While there’s still some money to be made in this ‘profession’, it has also turned into a favorite pastime for restive youth. All it needs is a small trigger for them to come out to throw stones at marketplaces, at security convoys etc.

It speaks volumes for the restraint exercised by security forces that when unarmed boys throw stones at their vehicles, the armed forces personnel quietly suffer the assault and drive away. The social media and internet are full of such videos – clearly nailing the lie behind the effort to project security forces as ‘trigger happy brutes’.

The key issue here is the complete lack of constructive avenues for today’s youth in the Kashmir valley, added with the easy access to separatist/terrorist elements. There’s an imperative need to keep the youth positively engaged.

Sacrifice of lives is not a big issue for separatists, who have done this for decades now. The lives at stake, of course, are always of other children, never their own. The children of top separatist leaders themselves are conveniently out of the so-called ‘azaadi’ movement, cozily settled or studying out of station and even abroad.

Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Sayeed Salahuddin’s five sons, for example, are drawing comfortable salaries from their state government jobs. His youngest Syed Mueed was among the 100 people rescued by security forces when terrorists attacked the Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) complex in Pampore in February this year. He works in the EDI as IT manager.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s elder son Nayeem is a doctor in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. His second son, Zahoor, lives in New Delhi, while his daughter Farhat is a teacher in Jeddah. All Hurriyat leaders and their family members own prime properties in other states too, even abroad.

In March last year, a policeman named Naseer Ahmed Pandit of 11 Battalion, J&K Police, decamped with two service (AK) rifles and two loaded magazines. He was a trusted officer, given the duty of guarding the house of a state cabinet minister. Locals recount how he was highly regarded in his native village in Karimabad, of southern Pulwama district, as an upright policeman. He openly cheered for India during India-Pakistan matches and went out of his way to support paramilitary forces during election days. His father proudly recalls him as a ‘crusader’ and is still at a loss as to why his 29-year-old son left his coveted police uniform to don the garb of a terrorist. It seems he developed enemies within the ranks when he took action against drug-peddlers. Angry and frustrated at the corruption within, he joined the terrorist group of Hizb commander Burhan Wani. Earlier this year he was killed in anti-terrorist operations.

The stories of all ‘local terrorists’ are similar – bright youngsters fallen prey to negative forces during moments of anger, frustration or rebellion.

Economy of terrorism

In actual terms, the economy of terrorism is more important than the idea of ‘azaadi’ in Kashmir. Steady and robust inflow of funds over decades has created powerful lobbies there that would never want separatism-terrorism to come to an end in the valley. From government sponsored developmental packages to terror funds to narco money from across the border, it is easy money all the way.

“Demand azaadi, get package” is a successful formula for the Kashmiri leadership. Thousands of crores are sanctioned to Jammu Kashmir state every year as special packages by the Centre. These crores flow into mysterious black holes, as there is simply no development that one can see across the Kashmir Valley.

My latest visit to Srinagar was an eye opener. Last time I was there in 2002, ahead of the crucial assembly elections, at the fag end of the darkest phase of ‘militancy’.  After 14 years of elected governance, the capital city of Srinagar seems to have spiraled down on all parameters of development. What immediately strikes you as you come out of the airport is the ill-managed traffic and high level of air pollution. There’s hardly any new infrastructure in place and the roads across the valley are in tatters, dust spiraling up as one drives through the capital city and beyond.

Lack of development is certainly a big issue here, but surprisingly no one is talking about it. Perhaps it is convenient to keep the separatist agenda alive and the law-and-order situation tense so that local residents never get the opportunity to ask their leaders about basic developmental work!

Needless to say, the separatist groups also get huge amount of funds from across the borders to keep the pot boiling. Their political as well as monetary survival depends on it.

The most dangerous of all is the drug money, which has come to play a big role in Jammu Kashmir state in the past few years, especially in the valley. The region has developed a thriving drug smuggling system controlled from across the border and resultantly, drugs like opium and cannabis etc. are freely available. The system functions like a well oiled industry with support from a large number of smuggling gangs operating on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC).

Drugs are also carried by infiltrating terrorists, who are known to use innovative methods like passing the drugs in PVC pipes from under the fence. These are more prevalent in the Jammu sector since electronic vigilance along the LoC is of a higher degree. New age terrorists, both local and foreigners, are mostly drug addicts. Young boys are first channeled into addiction and then forced on to the path of terrorism.

According to a report published in 2015, United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) sponsored survey reported that the Kashmir Division alone had 70,000 drug addicts. Inputs suggested the actual number was more than two lakhs.

Most terrorists who infiltrate from Pakistan, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, are on some sort of substance abuse or the other. They also take shots of steroids to give them energy to brave extreme cold climates and other hardships. Fidayeen (suicide attackers) are invariably heavily drugged before they go in for the attack.

Drugs are a source of income for Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) for carrying out terror activities in Jammu Kashmir. Money earned from the narcotics trade, extending from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the Kashmir Valley, is invariably used to fund terror activities.

Once again it is the youth of the valley bearing the brunt of the Pakistan-sponsored narcotics trade.

Radicalization in Kashmir

The religious extension of separatist mindset is the attempt to radicalize the Valley people, especially the youth. Originally, Kashmiri Muslims have been believers of Sufism. Muslim rishis and peers of the Valley have always preached pluralism and tolerance for other religions.

The concerted effort to replace Sufism with the radical Salaafi/Wahaabi thought can be discerned by the free-flow of Wahaabi literature.  It is a known fact that the local maulvis of many mosques in the valley have been replaced by non-local clerics, sometimes from across the border.

However, you don’t see much radical influence on the common man on the streets. Burqas and skullcaps are a rare sight, despite the ferocious efforts of the likes of pro-Pakistan separatists such as Geelani and Asiya Andrabi.

The Sufi influence actually is still strong in most regions. Most Kashmiris still revere their Sufi shrines and living saints and consider them to be part of their cultural heritage. However, since Sufi saints have a quiet presence, unlike the loud and disruptive separatists, they are not seen or heard by the outer world that depends on media coverage.

The majority of Kashmiri Muslim is still not radicalized. To prevent any further erosion, the government needs to address the socio-political and economic concerns of the Kashmiris.

Governance nil at ground level

Governance seems to be completely missing at ground level in the Jammu Kashmir, the valley included. The institutions of democratic functioning that have been effectively developed elsewhere in the country – for example Panchayati Raj – are totally missing in this state. A lot of public frustration stems from this reason.

The core issues of development and corruption need to addressed seriously. That’s the only way to do away with misunderstandings of the past and disenchantment with the governments of the day.

The governments also need to focus on the processes of integration and cultural exchange to create a positive social atmosphere.

The bureaucracy, both at the state and central level, is still functioning with the mindset of mid-90s when terrorism was at its peak. The rules and procedures put in place then are no longer relevant now. The situation on ground has completely changed since then, and the governments now need to apply their mind afresh to techniques and procedures to handle the current scenarios.

In fact, it’ll be a good idea for political leaders and bureaucrats to start talking directly to the people of the state, across all regions, instead of depending on the media for ground reports. The people of the state may be in pain, but there’s no doubt they are very much Indian.

Courtsy: www.organiser.org

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