The war of propaganda intensified globally after India abrogated Article 370 in 2019. The anti-India rhetoric was built around the narrative of “human rights abuses” by the Indian security forces and “illegal integration of a disputed territory”. On both counts, the central theme was constructed around the women and children of Kashmir.
The vulnerability of women and children anywhere in the world rightfully draws attention. It justifiably invites severest criticism from human rights activists, academics, governments and non-government organisations across the globe. In Kashmir, the central theme was crafted intelligently by the Pakistani deep state and its extensions all over the world—particularly in the US, EU and UAE.
In US, an organisation called Stand With Kashmir (SWK) was formed overnight following the abrogation of Article 370. Throughout 2019, SWK spearheaded the propaganda against India by highlighting the “plight” of women and children in Kashmir. It organised protests and events to send the message to Kashmiris to “stand united against illegal integration”. Academics of Kashmiri or Pakistani origin representing SWK appeared to reasonably discuss the “plight of women and children”. Their intention was to provoke and indoctrinate young minds in Kashmir for violence.[i]
In EU and UAE, the orientation of protests was on similar lines. The shrill cries of the alleged rights abuse of Kashmiri women and children have never been as vociferous as they were post Article 370 abrogation. This was the period when the Indian government had issued strict instructions that any indiscipline by the security forces would not be tolerated. India had taken the unprecedented decision of doing away with J&K’s special status. It could hardly afford to invite the wrath of the international community over human rights issues—real or manufactured.
India was treading cautiously. The Prime Minister’s office was monitoring the situation round the clock. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval landed in Srinagar on August 7, 2019, a day after Article 370 was revoked. He undertook a whirlwind visit to militancy-infested south Kashmir and assured the locals that their security is the government’s responsibility.[ii] In an attempt to restore the confidence of the people, Doval made an outreach and reassured them that their safety and security was the responsibility of the government. Though his visit to the interiors of south Kashmir was termed as a photo-op by many, it was reassuring in many ways. The message to the security forces to humanise their operations was loud and clear. The data post the abrogation shows that incidents of harassment of locals by the security agencies recorded an all-time low. The local commanders of all the security agencies were conscious of the fact Kashmir was back in focus internationally, and the slightest provocation could be troublesome.
Doval stayed in Kashmir for 11 days during his first visit after the abrogation. He visited Kashmir again on September 6, and then on September 25. His frequent visits were part of a multi-pronged mechanism. One, the Centre wanted to give the message to Kashmiris that they would not be abandoned, as propagated by Pakistan. Two, his presence developed synergy among security forces operating in Kashmir. India could not afford to allow any untoward incident to develop, which would have the potential to eventually snowball into a vicious cycle of violent protests, as was the case in 2016.
There were attempts by some groups and individuals of the likes of SWK to construct a narrative around the alleged human rights abuses of women and children in Kashmir by Indian security forces. The rhetoric was shored up without evidence. A local woman activist alleged that security forces had ruthlessly tortured an elderly man and his handicapped son in Herpora village of Shopian district. BBC reported this incident. Later, the villagers revealed the truth. The man had been buying bread from the local baker (Kandhur) in bulk for days together for a family of just five or six members. The locals got curious. It was known by and by that dreaded, high-profile terrorists like Riyaz Naikoo, Naveed Kamran and Zeena ul Islam had been hiding at his place for more than 15 days. The security forces got the inputs and cordoned off the area. The trio fled before security forces could zero in. The man was taken for questioning, where he confessed that these dreaded terrorists were hiding at his place for many days. The incident was projected without its context.
In all other cases, random allegations were levelled without any solid evidence. In most of the cases, the terminology used was “a woman on the roadside narrated” or “a man sitting at the outer gate of his residence told us”. In order to rein in any untoward incident, the government had admittedly imposed harsh restrictions, and civil liberties were curtailed for a limited period. But no one could report any specific incident of women being molested or children being tortured. Some sporadic incidents of stone pelting, or other incidents in which security forces fired teargas and even pellets to disperse the stone-pelting youth were reported by media houses locally and internationally. But there were no reports of any casualty from any side.
In Hajin area of north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, it was reported that a young boy jumped into the river after being chased by security forces. In the 2010 agitation, 125 people had been killed. During the agitations in 2016, 14 people were killed. Most of these victims were violent stone pelters. In 2019, security forces were able to keep the situation under control because unprecedented curfew was imposed. Violent mobs were not allowed to rule the streets.
The Army committed a grave error on July 18, 2020, when in a case of mistaken identity, two men in Amshipora Shopian, were shot dead, mistaking them to be terrorists. The two men were however labourers from Rajouri district. The operation had been conducted on the basis of the information provided by the local sources to the Army. Here, the local input had not been shared with Jammu and Kashmir police to verify the information provided by the local informers. As the standard operating procedure was ignored, the Army later admitted the error and initiated an enquiry into the matter. The Army assured that the erring personnel and the local informers would be punished. On September 14, 2020, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha addressed a press conference in Srinagar. He said that the Amshipora Shopian encounter was being probed by the Army and also the civil administration, and assured justice.[iii]
Whatever the result of the enquiry, much damage was done. A single incident of misplaced identity has the potential to lay all to waste. The Indian Army is paying a huge price for the perceived wrongs committed in the early phase of Kashmir militancy. Since then, it continues to invest hugely in public goodwill programs. The Army has also humanised the behaviour of its personnel in dealing with the common masses. Simultaneously, the Indian Army is also very keen to strengthen its global image of being a highly disciplined force. Despite these efforts, it faces tough questions from certain quarters for the conduct of past military operations against terrorists.
Since 2015 onwards, the Army and also Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) have involved the parents of local terrorists trapped by the forces before initiating action. Wherever possible, security forces and JKP call the parents of trapped local terrorists to the encounter site to influence their wards to surrender and live a peaceful life with their loved ones.
On August 30, 2020, three motorcycle-borne militants fired upon a CRPF naka party along the Srinagar-Jammu national highway at Pantha Chowk in an attempt to snatch weapons from the security personnel. The J&K Police and CRPF personnel present at the naka retaliated. In chaos, the terrorists left their bike on the road. They escaped from the scene and took shelter in a nearby school at Dhobi Mohalla. A joint team of police and CRPF cordoned off the area and conducted door-to-door searches to nab the attackers. As soon as the joint team zeroed in on the suspected spot, the militants fired upon them, triggering off an encounter. A militant was killed while Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Babu Ram of JKP suffered injuries. He was shifted to Army Hospital for treatment, where he succumbed to his injuries. The encounter was halted due to darkness. It was resumed in the morning, and two more militants were killed. The top cop said the other two militants were given an opportunity to surrender, but they refused. “We brought the families of these two militants from Pampore. They appealed to their children to surrender. But the militants refused and fired upon the forces. We gave them an opportunity even though we had lost a colleague,” said the DGP.[iv] This gesture has worked at times. Many militants have surrendered amidst gunfire, heeding the appeal of their parents.
The killing of innocent Kashmiris by terrorists continues unabated. These barbaric killings are video-graphed and circulated on social media to terrorise the populace. Keeping the people terrorised has been their modus operandi for long. I am reminded of July 1994. I was at the residence of my parents-in-law in village in south Kashmir. My father-in-law, Advocate Muhammad Sultan Bhat was a prominent Jamaat-e-Islami leader. He was very vocal against the intrusion of gun in Kashmir society. Late one evening, a group of Hizbul militants entered the house. Most of them were senior commanders of the terrorist group. The group included Farooq Ahmad Shah alias Siddique, Fayaz Ahmad Mir alias Abu Bakr, Ghulam Nabi Khan alias Amir Khan, Gul Muhammad Sheikh alias Abu Rafi and some more, whom I could not identify. A firebrand Jamaat leader of south Kashmir, Abdul Rashid Bhat of Tarigam in Kulgam district, joined the group for dinner. The militants had literally forced their way into the house. Advocate Muhammad Sultan was constantly harangued by the Hizbul militants and also the Jamaatis for his views on the use of the gun. Hizbul has always been closely aligned with the Jamaat as its militant arm. But I was kidnapped by Hizbul militants five times as a pressure tactic on my father-in-law to soften his views regarding militancy in Kashmir.
Over dinner, the conversation centred on the perception of the common people regarding militancy. Siddique proudly informed his commanders, “Logon ke dillon mein hamara dehshat behta hai” (people are terrified by our presence). Advocate Muhammad Sultan, known for his uncompromising views retorted, “Iska matlab hai ki aap dehshatgard ho” (This means that you are terrorists). There was complete silence. Muhammad Sultan gently stood up and left the room. I followed him silently, thinking that the militants would try to harm me to vent their anger against Muhammad Sultan.
About a month before this incident, Mirwaiz South Kashmir Qazi Nisar Ahmad was killed by Abu Bakr and Abu Rafi on June 19, 1994. The Hizbul terrorists had made their plans public much earlier. Advocate Muhammad Sultan had left no stone unturned to prevail upon both Jamaatis and Hizbul militants not to harm Qazi Nisar. But this was a conscious decision of the terror outfit backed by Sayed Ali Geelani. Qazi Nisar was killed. I curse the day when blood-thirsty Ikhwanis killed Advocate Muhammad Sultan Bhat in 1996. Had he not been killed, the gun would have lost the argument in Kashmir. He was the apostle of non-violence, and had no political agenda. This way, the sane voices were silenced, and the vacuum was filled by insanity.
Reason and logic have always been the target of non-state actors in Kashmir. Terrorism targets persons and property normally considered protected under the laws of war. As a strategic end, terror confronts the state first by targeting the reason. The rest follows. Violent political Islam has dictated this course of action in Kashmir. Kashmir remains alienated under the sway of extremist Islamists of Pakistan. The internally generated insurgency conceived in Pakistan much before the infamous elections of 1987 changed the dimensions of the uprising. From insurgency, it morphed into an unconventional warfare to wreak havoc and “make India bleed by a thousand cuts”.
The theological orientation of the current breed of terrorists undermines, rather threatens the very foundations of Kashmir society. Terrorism in Kashmir now relates to global jihad. It should have been challenged by Kashmir’s opinion leaders and scholars at the very beginning, but that didn’t happen. The voices which could have proved to be a deterrent to this deadly ideology were either eliminated or they fell in line. The elimination of liberal and nationalist intellectuals, social and cultural activists was justified as one of the prerequisites to cleanse the Valley of un-Islamic elements. Militant groups imposed the Islamic order upon the society. Democracy and secularism were denounced as un-Islamic.
In a conference organised by Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation of Sushobha Barve in 2005 in Jammu, noted separatist lawyer Zafar Ahmad Shah derided mainstream political leaders Mirza Rashid of the Congress, Muhammad Shafi Uri of National Conference and Nizamuddin Bhat of PDP. He accused them of having no locus standi in the Kashmir dispute. “You are simply collaborators,” Zafar thundered. There was silence in the hall. I could not take this uncivilised argument from a lawyer who had made fortunes arguing Indian laws and India’s Constitution. I gently responded, “Sir, we accept your sole proprietorship over the Kashmir dispute. We are nobody and have no locus standi. Muhammad Shafi Uri of National Conference and Mirza Rashid of the Congress are here simply seeking an answer from you for the killing of their thousands of party workers. Why did you kill their innocent poor workers in thousands when we were nobody with no locus standi?” Zafar stood numb and speechless.
Whether the Army took action against all those personnel who were accused of human rights abuses, whether any wounds were healed by material compensation—we do not know. What we know is that the Army has been punished by the people of Kashmir. The Army lost the trust of the people. It invested heavily into regaining the confidence of the people across the length and breadth of Kashmir Valley. But the trust deficit in south Kashmir continues. However, the Indian Army is accountable at the end of the day. Are the terrorists accountable or answerable to anyone? Are separatists and their ideologues in Kashmir accountable to anyone? Are people free to raise their voice against the horrific crimes perpetuated by the terrorists? In the name of azadi, all azadi of the people has been trampled upon by the separatists and the terrorists. Nobody has punished the terrorists for the crimes they committed upon Kashmiris. Instead, criminals are hailed as heroes and glorified.
SWK describes Asiya Andrabi, the jihadist, as a non-violent social worker. It terms the dreaded and notorious terrorist Riyaz Naikoo as a Hurriyat leader, and so on. The war of propaganda intensifies. There is no end to it. The management of perception is directly related to the intensity of the propaganda. The Indian government has certain inherent drawbacks in managing the perceptions in Kashmir. Three factors give Pakistan a clear advantage.
One, Pakistan has been invoking the “Islam in danger” rhetoric. Its rabidly fanatical clerics are indoctrinating the Kashmiri youth with Wahhabi ideology. They reject Kashmiri Sufism, terming it as violation of the teachings of Islam. The concept of Ummah (Islamic community) rejects national boundaries, seeking the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. It poses a threat to pluralistic social order, interfaith and peace. You can’t be peaceful if you believe in pan-Islamism. Pakistan is harvesting the fruits of this deadly ideology in Kashmir. It has successfully coached the youth, who then find the switch to terrorism easy. The mayhem that we witness in Kashmir is a consequence of this deadly ideology.
Two, owing to deep-rooted corruption in the Kashmir society and polity, the government’s redressal mechanism for real or perceived grievances is not efficient. If the political, administrative and police system in a region infested with ideological terrorism fails to deliver, the narrative of othering and alleged discrimination is fast bolstered by adversaries. Growing up under the umbrella of a single religion and social homogeneity, the youth fall prey to the narrative of Us versus Them. This again is advantage Pakistan. Pakistan benefits from Kashmir’s weak political system. The clergy quickly jumps in to impose social changes on the basis of real and perceived grievances, thus justifying a violent revolt.
Three, a constant and consistent mainstream discourse is missing in Kashmir. The propagation of the mainstream discourse and a convincing argument around it has not been there. The discourse must be vocalised and localised; and it must be driven by Kashmiris. There are enormous challenges for creating such a discourse, but it cannot be deferred—particularly when the enemy is propagating a false narrative vocally and vehemently.
The killing of local political representatives, threats and intimidations by terrorists’ groups have made things more difficult. Since the abrogation of Article 370, scores of unarmed innocent civilians have been killed by terrorists for their political affiliations and loyalties. Many terrorist organisations have been revived, and many new ones have been formed in an attempt to consistently stoke terror. Kashmiris have accepted the new political realities, and they are ready to adapt to the new constitutional arrangement too. But terrorism poses a constant threat to public life.
Dogma of Political Issue
To my understanding, the real challenge to the Indian state comes from certain sections of people locally and globally, who conveniently play out the dogma of Kashmir being a political issue. Their constant refrain is that the Indian State should stop looking at the problem in Kashmir through the security prism.
Over the years, ideological incitement has defined Kashmir jihad to potential recruits and apologists alike. The theology boils the issue down to “The problem” and “The Solution”. The secular, liberal democratic system is described as the problem. It is given a tragic twist by manufacturing the narrative around the cries of children, blood of the youth, the tears of women and the wounds of older Kashmiri Muslims who were supposedly suppressed and oppressed by Hindu Indian state. The solution prescribed is Jihad – violently resist the conspiracies of Hindu India. This is the genesis of the contemporary Jihad e Kashmir.
This narrative is now entrenched and has been accorded social sanction. But the dogma based on outdated assessments and historical errors is so deep-rooted that people who propagate and justify violent extremism conveniently use the façade of political issue. This dichotomy poses a genuine challenge externally.
Many international bodies, NGOs and groups tend to believe the narrative intelligently crafted by the architects of the Kashmir “dispute”. The understanding of the situation has become so distorted that these organisations keep advising India to give up the policy of approaching the Kashmir problem as a counter insurgency and security issue to be tackled militarily. They tend to believe that the situation requires a political solution. They strongly advocate dialogue with “stakeholders,” intentionally ignoring the fact that the dynamics and nature of the Kashmir problem changed long ago.
Ask the militants: What are you fighting for? Ask opinion leaders: What exactly are you demanding? Ask the political class: What are your grievances? You will encounter total confusion and distortion of the so-called historical perspective of the Kashmir issue. You will also encounter total Islamisation of Kashmir. This does not mean that New Delhi should ignore the genuine issues of governance, strengthening democratic institutions and providing a congenial atmosphere to the people of Kashmir to breathe freely. But the misplaced narratives must be known and acknowledged internationally. New Delhi has to do a lot diplomatically to provide answers to the questions based on outdated notions and misplaced narratives.
A host of initiatives have been taken by the government during the last one year to address the concerns of certain marginalised sections of the Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory. The long outstanding issues of West Pakistan refugees, Valmiki Community settled in Jammu and other marginalised sections have finally been addressed. The UT administration has also issued detailed guidelines for domicile laws. On development and investment promises, the government has not been able to make significant headway. This may be because of the extraordinary situation that arose after the abrogation of Article 370 and then the Covid pandemic. In defence of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35(A), New Delhi had committed in the Parliament and outside that these constitutional measures will bring development and normalcy, ending violence in the conflict-ridden region.
The move has been exploited widely by the antagonists. They have been vociferously propagating that the BJP-led government wants to bring about a demographic change in the region. Every initiative taken by the government post August 5, 2019, has been linked by this section to the argument of changing the demographic character of the region. They have been strongly arguing that the narrative of development, investment and employment has been crafted only to further the “sinister agenda”. The Kashmiri diaspora describes the August 5 decisions as a “colonial project”. There have been consistent attempts to internationalise Kashmir post abrogation of Article 370. New Delhi wisely resisted these initiatives. The antagonistic argument is centred on the human rights plight and casting aspersions on the intentions of New Delhi.
The agencies of the Indian government have been unable to effectively communicate the right perspective to the people, and change the narrative in the region. New Delhi seems less sure of its future steps. This will not help the Indian state. I strongly and urgently recommend that the fears and insecurities created by the dominant narrative around the conspiracy theories should be challenged aggressively by Kashmir’s nationalists. Proactive measures by the UT administration are essential. Equally important is the construction of a localised counter narrative to combat the information warfare unleashed by Pakistan. Unfortunately, New Delhi has not yet realised the importance of vocalising the locals.
(Bashir Assad is a Srinagar based Senior Journalist from J&K)
[i] Karys Rhea, ‘Does “Stand with Kashmir” really stand with Kashmir,’ available at https://foreignpolicynews.org/2019/12/13/does-stand-with-kashmir-really-stand-with-kashmir/