Elections in South Kashmir- “It will be Azadi vs India here”

April 14

Qazi Shibli

Junaid marches a shushed lane through an Army camp that leads to his home in Sugan area of Shopian. In the nearby locality, Heff, one of his friends, Abid is set to tie not to a nearby girl on a warm Sunday. Heff Shermal area of Shopian saw as many as 17 young boys take up arms, after a local youth Waseem Ahmed Shah, an affiliate of Kashmir’s dreaded Militant outfit picked up arms. He was killed during an encounter in October 2017.

In 2015, a photo surprising Indian agencies, marked the arrival of new-age militancy in Kashmir. In the photograph, top Militant commander Burhan posing with 12 associates, broke the decades old tradition of Militants preserving obscurity. The Photo, Security officials believe, was taken in Zainapora belt of Shopian in July 2015.

After the killing of Burhan Wani in July, 2016, most of the areas of South Kashmir remained out of bounds for Government forces due to the undying protests for at least six months. “This was the time, Militants started finding space in the hearts of people in South Kashmir, with militants moving around freely, speaking openly to people,” Ghulam Hassan, the father of a Slain Militant told The Kashmiriyat.

Today, Kashmir is on tenterhooks. Ghulam Hassan feels that the person-to-person contact in the aftermath of killing of Burhan Wani swelled the support for Militancy. “Not because Burhan was killed, but the open communication with public, helped Militancy enormously in South Kashmir, I remember before 2016, my son and his companions would scarcely rove in inhabited spaces, 2016 changed everything,” Ghulam Hassan feels.

The Kashmiriyat

The posters of slain Militants are put up in almost every locality, which serves as a reminder of all the people whom they hail as heroes-/ Photo- Zaffar Dar~ The Kashmiriyat

South Kashmir districts — Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag — have become a breeding ground for militants with many youths joining their ranks, out of the 191 recruits in 2018, 139 alone hailed from south Kashmir thrice more than the number in 2016.

As Junaid passes besides the Army camp, he angrily looks towards the camp, “We will soon oust you from here,” he whispers. Last year in December, Junaid was on way home, when Forces stationed near Lassipora Pulwama, snatched his vehicle, forcibly, “They use these (civilian) vehicles to avoid scrutiny to reach encounter sites.”

ALSO READ: Everyone Lives in Fear- Army Presence Heightens in South Kashmir

The state of Jammu Kashmir has the population of more than 12 million, as according to the 2011 evaluation, the number of inhabitants in the state was 12,548,925. There is an estimated 700,000 security forces. It is not a small number. So in reality India has deployed 1-soldier to 12-Kashmiri civilians.

Indian Government forces claim they are fighting to protect Kashmiris from militants and Islamist extremists, but Over the years, widespread and numerous human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) have been reported against the common people, creating among the civilian population a pervasive climate of fear, distrust, and sadness.

This is not a posh bund Locality, or an urban, tourist bustled space, here Suspicion and fear continue to permeate the residents of the South Kashmir areas which is now dotted with camps of Government Forces. A knock on the door late at night sends spasms of anxiety through households, afraid that a family member will be asked by the Government forces to step outside for “a minute” and then never return. Psychological trauma related to the violence has been enormous, as life itself is constantly under threat.

Abid and Junaid in their mid-20s have been friends since their childhood days. Today Abid, feels, he has seen a joyful gathering after nearly three years. “Here gatherings of people are only witnessed on funerals.” In this everyday battle to live under a constant vigil and scrutiny, threat of being caught and beaten by Government Forces, patrolling the streets all the time, Abid thinks Kashmir shall stay away from polls. “Two years of endless and forceful uprising against the Indian rule in Kashmir, we are tired, people want to rest for a while, but we must desist from voting for those, who justify this oppression.”

The Kashmiriyat

Militant funerals have been seen as a major political statement in absence of space for dissent/ Photo- Zafar Dar ~The Kashmiriyat

On his wedding day, The Kashmiriyat¸ reported about BJPs rally that was attended by less than 60 people in North Kashmir. “The party openly supports the exodus of Muslims, Christians and other minorities, they impose beef ban, this has pushed me to extremism,” Abid says while looking at Junaid who is watching a video from Mehbooba Mufti’s election rally where she said “Kashmir will be a free country, if Article 370 is abrogated.”

In the aftermath of 2016, the heightening Army presence in South Kashmir, with military camps often found close to school buildings and campuses leads to a negative psychological impact on children which can cause higher dropout rates and has certainly been the case in Kashmir valley where many children feel scared of the school’s proximity to military camps.

A research study conducted by the Working Group on Peace, Conflict and Education at Colombia University in 2013, found that 79% of the military camps in Kashmir were at a distance of less than 1 km of the schools examined.

The topography of South Kashmir mixed with people openly supporting their cause and young boys proudly talking of them as “heroes”, makes Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Islamabad (anantnag) an ideal ground as a militant base, A Security official told The Kashmiriyat. He said that the logistic support Militants receive here has emboldened Militancy, “Like the Pulwama attack, it was not an overnight exercise, it was being planned for months together,” the official said. He believes that Forces have accomplished a major success in the last year. “Around 800 of their (Militants) upper ground workers have been detained in the past year, which has helped forces chart the Militant hideouts and their preferred locations.”

“These parties want us to reject the evidence of eyes and ears, they come to tell us tree is stone and water is dry, I supported her (Mehbooba Mufti) in 2014s State assembly elections, she proved us all silly, ” Junaid said while recalling the enormous power arrayed by PDP- BJP coalition against Kashmir.  “They face an enormous challenge here, nobody, nobody will vote.” Junaid feels that the regional pro establishment groups have lost their credibility in Kashmir.

A member of one of the largest pro election party, People’s Democratic party who wished to maintain anonymity said, “In the past, if they (security forces) were harsh on people somewhere, the people would come to us. We would go to the Chief Minister and request for her help. Things would change on the ground,” he said. “But where will we go now? Who will listen to us now?”

Amid a heightened army presence and killings becoming a daily concern, South Kashmir is likely to stay indoors in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls that will be held here in three phases, While Islamabad (Anantnag) will go to polls on April 23, under the third phase, Kulgam will vote during the 4th phase, on April 29. The elections for the twin districts of Pulwama and Shopian will be held under 5th phase, on May 6.

Mehbooba Mufti 59, is among the 18 candidates trying their luck from this sensitive seat, in a triangular contest with Congress and National Conference (NC). Both Congress and NC have put up best of candidates. NC has fielded former HC judge Justice Hasnain Masoodi who in 2015 ruled Article 370 of the Constitution cannot be abrogated, Congress has fielded its state chief GA Mir, who lost Dooru assembly constituency to Mehbooba’s uncle in 2014, also for the first time in the history of electoral politics in Jammu Kashmir, a candidate is contesting for the seat. 

A total of 13,93,370 voters are eligible to exercise vote in 1,842 polling stations on April 23, April 29 and May 6.

Higher reaches of Islamabad (anantnag) district are likely to see moderate to low turnout, however the numbers will likely go down in the urban areas and the suburbs of this South Kashmir township.

An Electoral officer from the South Kashmir seats believes that conducting elections in South Kashmir will be the toughest. “Given the amount of resistance South Kashmir has seen in the past three years, we are not expectant of good results here, we just are hopeful that anger does not simmer during the three phases,” the electoral officer told The Kashmiriyat.

The Kashmiriyat

The heightened presence of Indian Army has created fear psychosis among locals as hundreds of Army men enter their localities almost everyday, a stark reminder the fact that, ‘Conflict is Far from over’/ Photo- Zafar Dar~ The Kashmiriyat

This was quite evident when authorities decided to cancel by-polls to the Anantnag LS seat last year. It was probably the first time in the history of Jammu Kashmir that an “unfavorable situation” forced the government to cancel the by-election necessitated after Mehbooba Mufti vacated it to return to state politics in April 2016.

Even after three years, the region continues to remain out of bounds for contestants of pro establishment parties, who have not dared to hold any major political rallies. During the recently-held local body elections, the region witnessed a near-total boycott. “It is not easier for us to move out and hold rallies in these areas, given the amount of support the separatist cause enjoys in these regions,” a senior member of National Conference told The Kashmiriyat.

“The area is a graveyard, Silence prevails, we turn off the lights of our houses by 6 pm, my family is now extremely frightened. They keep their doors locked at all times. The little boy who witnessed a nocturnal raid and Army men vandalizing the property amid shouting and abusing even stopped speaking for months from the shock,” Junaid told The Kashmiriyat.

In Redwani in Kulgam, another volatile zone of South Kashmir, here in Redwani, On June 22, 2015 stone throwing at encounter sites which is a norm today started here. A 21 year old boy Asif Ahmad Tantray was shot dead when Civilians broke into a cordon to help Militants trapped at an encounter site escape.

The Army barged into the locality at least 10 times since they set-up the camp here in the middle of the village in October last year. “Everyday their vehicles pass at least five times in the day, They are trying to crate fear psychosis among youth,” Aaqib, a local shopkeeper told The Kashmiriyat .

“My handicapped father was alone in the house, the Army broke into the house and hurled abuses before breaking the window panes of our house, they did not search for any Militants here, My father almost faced a heart attack,” says Zareefa whose house was among the many houses that were damaged by Forces last year in October. “Our Demand is simple, you cannot have a Military camp in the Middle of a residential area, it has restricted our movement.”

The majority of civilian casualties (88%) have been caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), such as villages, schools, hospitals, and residential areas. In October last year, seven civilians died in Laroo Kulgam after an explosive went off from a residential house where Army had held an Anti-Militancy operation.

Majority of the arrests of Militant upper ground workers took place during Nocturnal raids in Redwani. “Even today, more than 30 boys from the locality are under detention,” Bilal Ahmed, a resident told The Kashmiriyat, adding that under such conditions holding elections here is a bad choice. “Voting for any party is like crushing the grave of my brother.”

Unending Cycle of Violence- A Failed Policy of Iron Fist

A security report released last year has analysed 43 encounters since November 5, 2016, until April 26, in which 77 Militants were killed while 104 were recruited and this recruitment was directly linked to the killing of Militants in their area or a killed militant belonged to their area.

The report divided Kashmir into 29 clusters, and finds that while the epicentre of the new militancy lies in south Kashmir, local youth have been recruited in almost every district in the Valley, besides Doda, Kishtwar, Reasi and Ramban in the Chenab valley of Jammu province.

In first two months of 2018, 26 Militants were killed while 46 fresh recruits were reported. Four were killed in January against 15 recruitment. None killed in February but five had joined militant ranks and seven were killed in March against ten new recruits. In April, 18 Militants were killed and 16 local youth joined militancy.

According to the the report, 216 local youth joined militancy in Kashmir since June 8, 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed along with two of his accomplices in an encounter in south Kashmir’s Kokernag area till March 2018.

Almost half the recruitment into militant ranks in the Valley after the killing of Wani came from within 10 km of the residences of killed Militants or encounter sites and this recruitment took place within 40 days of the encounters.

 The Kashmiriyat

Residents, in large numbers, despite confinements and restrictions have reached encounter sites, risking their lives to save the lives of Militants at site of Gunfights with Indian Army/ Photo- Zaffar Dar ~ The Kashmiriyat

Back in Shermal, Shopian Abid and Junaid are preparing to leave to bride’s home, as the Army laid siege around the area. The ‘Baraat’ had to be delayed by three hours. “There is no question of political activity.” Abid points to the huge public presence at funerals and encounter sites as another eye opening sign. “You need to see how angry people are. At Shermal, Turkwangam, the Army had to leave an encounter site midway. People managed to save Militants at least during four encounters.”

Senior National Conference Leader, Ghulam Hassan Peer, feels that for the past two years, after the government of India took dialogue as an option off the table, the muscular approach has been the order of the day. According to him this “muscular policy” has failed in the Valley. “The manner in which these elections are being conducted in this election clearly explains failure of your security strategy in Kashmir.”

Electoral officials told The Kashmiriyat there is a huge concern and its yet undecided where al we shall set the polling booths. “We do not want to run into militancy hot beds, we just want to keep the election staff and the people safe.”

By raising security concerns, the government of India has acknowledged that it can’t manage a single constituency on a single day, Junaid says.  “South Kashmir will not be a battle ground between PDP and NC, but between Azadi and India. There is no South North factor to the resistance struggle, it runs in veins of every Kashmiri.”

Adil feels that gradually the intensity of the protests and the resistance struggle in the aftermath of July 2016 is dying down. “People are exhausted now, but they will rest and we will be fresh again to fight with full intensity and full force.”