From Stones to Guns — Kashmir’s vicious cycle of violence

The road to Tral in a remote sub-district in south Kashmir crisscrosses wet rice fields and icy streams as the Himalayan Mountains arch high on the horizon. An insurgency against Indian rule has been resurrected here in recent years.

On July 7, hundreds of people descended upon this picturesque and rural landscape to visit the home of the late insurgent commander Burhan Wani, who has become the area’s most well-known descendant.

The second anniversary of Wani’s death on July 8 was a pressure point for regional officials, who feared thousands of demonstrators would be attracted to Wani’s home. In preparation, they imposed a curfew and suspended internet services in the region.

In Tral, an armored police vehicle patrolled the roads, making regular announcements urging residents to stay indoors. Throughout the district, as many as half a dozen checkpoints ensured no one entered the village.

Wani’s death in a gunfight with Indian forces in July 2016 triggered a wave of street protests in the restive region. Unrest continued for months as authorities struggled to contain protests with a brutal crackdown that resulted in more than a hundred civilian killings. Hundreds of protesters were blinded as police fired iron-pellets to disperse the demonstrations.

‘A hopeless situation’
Along with stone-throwing protests and a government crackdown, Wani’s death also gave birth to a locally inspired armed rebellion. In the last two years, several hundred young boys have disappeared from their homes and joined the insurgency.

Public support for the rebels has also increased and can result in fierce and deadly clashes. Civilians rush to locations where gunfights between soldiers and insurgents take place and attempt to block soldiers from reaching the insurgents, who are often holed up in a home or shed.

“The situation is worsening every day,” Wani’s mother Mymoona Jan told DW last week. “More and more boys are joining because there is injustice,” she said.

Wani became a militant in 2010 when he was sixteen. He lived for six years as an insurgent before he was killed in a gunfight with Indian forces in south Kashmir’s Bamdoora village.

Kashmir is claimed by India and Pakistan in its entirety but both administer a part of it. The two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars over the former Himalayan kingdom. And as a result of separatist violence since the late 1980s, more than 44,000 militants, security personnel and civilians have died in the region.

Many critics claim the iron-fist military tactics employed in Kashmir by India’s ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) have only made the situation worse.

Rahul Bedi, a Delhi-based journalist and security analyst who has covered Kashmir for more than two decades, told DW that “the military approach can bring down the violence to some extent but that is not the solution.”

“The situation in Kashmir is hopeless. No one has any idea what is going on there, the military deployment has been there for two decades but there have to be talks and negotiations for the issue to be settled,” he said.

What is Pakistan’s militancy issue all about?
Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of the disputed region and the leader of the main opposition political party, National conference,recently warned that Kashmiri youth were being pushed into “the abyss of alienation and disenchantment.”

“People need a respite and a sense of justice, and if we are to rescue the state from the present situation of alienation and turmoil, we will have to strictly implement a policy of zero tolerance towards civilian killings,” he said last week.

“With every loss of a precious life we are pushing the youth farther away into the abyss of alienation and disenchantment and that’s alarming,” he warned.

Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a Kashmir-based academic in the field of legal studies said, “Nothing has changed in Kashmir over the years of turmoil as the root problem continues to be there,” adding that Kashmir has become a “dormant volcano.”

“There was a lull in between but India could not use that opportunity to solve the Kashmir dispute, that’s why violence has increased,” he said.

New civilian victims
On June 29, a gunfight raged in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, overwhelming government hospitals as streams of wounded civilians were brought into the already-overflowing wards.

Abdul Gani Poswal, a doctor at the government-run hospital in southern Pulwama district, was done with his duty shift at 4 p.m. when he was asked to assist with one more case.

“I attended many wounded patients that day. Once I was done with my shift and reached the residential quarters in the hospital I received a call that they wanted me to see another patient,” he told DW.

“When I went back, I found the whole staff in tears and saw the bullet-hit body of my teenage son on the stretcher,” he said. “He was hit in his chest.”

Poswal, who has worked as a doctor for the last two decades, said that his teenage son, Faizan Poswal, had left home for prayers.

Killings of civilians have been one of the constant triggers for massive anti-India demonstrations in Kashmir.

“Young boys are not being spared,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, an anti-India political leader in Kashmir, said after Faizan’s killing. “They are targeted and killed mercilessly,” he added.

The state police chief, Director General Shesh Paul Vaid, told DW that they are “dealing with the situation properly.”

“We have been appealing that wherever there is an encounter [between militants and security forces], people should not go there to pelt stones at the army,” the official said.

Khurram Parvez, a local human rights activist in Kashmir, told DW that over 200 Kashmiri civilians have been killed by Indian forces since 2016.

“All these brutalization and dehumanizing tactics are a direct result of the mindset in New Delhi, which believes in hatred and highly militaristic means for countering the self-determination movement in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Parvez.

Educated militants
The latest form of the insurgency, which emerged after the death of Wani in Kashmir, is now attracting a new generation of men, some of whom have sophisticated educational degrees, including doctorates.

According to police records, 10 youth with graduate degrees have joined the insurgency in the last 18 months. The new recruits now use social media to announce their joining a militant group.

Local journalist Bedi said that during the past three years of BJP rule in India the “disillusion has grown manifold.”

“The militant organizations have been able to woo more and more youngsters. The more the violence grows, the more difficult it will be to hold negotiations. The hard policies are not going to solve anything, as we have seen over the past 25 years.”