Post Burhan’s killing, the political discourse against ‘Hindutva machinations’ to ‘alter J&K’s special status’ boiled down to demands of ‘Azadi’. The unprecedented use of force against Azadi-seekers resulted in 96 civilian deaths and an epidemic of dead eyes, a ghastly phenomenon which will come to define the year gone by.
The year 2016 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons that kept Kashmir in headlines month after month as the state government led by Mehbooba Mufti, the first ever female chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, struggled to assert itself.
From political uncertainty to a range of controversies, the first year of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government remained embroiled in turmoil. But it was the summer uprising and longest ever shutdown in the Valley’s turbulent political history that dominated the Kashmir discourse. At least 96 civilians were killed and over 15000 persons were injured in action by security forces on youths who took to the roads seeking “Azadi “ (freedom).
The year, however, would be especially remembered for the epidemic of dead eyes which resulted from firing of metallic pellets by forces on protestors. Such was the scale of these ruptured and blinded eyes that, by the time the intensity of the protests came down, one international newspaper described the tragedy as the first case of wilful mass blinding in the world.
The PDP and BJP, which had stitched the coalition in March 2015 much to the surprise of analysts, had just entered the second year of its term that it was struck by a tragedy as chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, who had been instrumental in cobbling up the coalition, lost his battle for life after brief illness at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.
The loss was more personal for her daughter and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti who had grown under his shadow for past 20 years, ultimately rising to become the chief of the party that her father founded in 1997.
Under Mufti, the state government was marred by controversies like beef ban, attack on J&K special position by rightwing parties and challenge to the state’s own flag, hardly giving it time to perform and showcase anything on the political and economical front.
Aware of these bitter realities Mehbooba toughened her stand, seeking political and economical concessions from the government of India before taking call on continuation of the coalition which was just one year old. Her stand deepened the political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir that ultimately saw the state coming under the Governor’s rule for the second time in two years. The negotiations continued between the PDP and the BJP for three months, both in New Delhi and in the Valley, which finally culminated with a meeting between Mehbooba Mufti and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi wherein the two agreed for continuation of the alliance which was described by Mufti Sayeed as coming together of north pole and south pole.
But the PDP chief came under opposition attack for doing a “sellout”, demanding explanation from Mehbooba about the concessions she had got from the government of India. A low-key swearing-in ceremony followed in Jammu as Mehbooba was sworn-in as the first female chief minister of the state.
But the PDP-BJP-II government was still in its honeymoon period when it faced the first crisis as police and army personnel killed five civilians in Handwara area of Kupwara, barely days after Mehbooba had assumed office. The killings followed protests over alleged molestation of a school girl by an army man in Handwara. The protests and shutdown in Handwara and many parts of Kashmir followed for many days, forcing the government to order an inquiry.
But the case took an ugly turn when an interview of the victim, recorded by police at an undisclosed location, went viral on social media, bringing severe criticism for the government as well as police. Kashmir has a history of unfinished probes and investigations. Handwara proved to be yet another addition to Kashmir’s conflict statistics.
The dust of Handwara case was yet to settle when the government found itself caught in another controversy. This time the trigger was a tiff between local and outside students at National Institute of Technology in Srinagar. While local students accused their counterparts from outside of beating them, the latter blamed J&K police for harassing them.
But the controversy took an ugly turn when the outside students accused J&K police of harassment as Delhi-based media trained its guns on the State government and local police for failing to perform their duty. Sensing the situation had gone out of control, the government ordered the closure of the campus which ultimately helped to calm the tempers.
This, however, wasn’t the end of controversies. When media reported about the government’s plans of settling migrant Pandits in exclusive townships and setting up Sainik colonies, it provided fuel for yet another storm that hit the Valley. The separatists, civil society groups and even opposition warned the government against any such move with the Hurriyat threatening to agitate. The controversy that was now threatening to takeover the entire state lingered on till the first assembly session of Mehbooba-led Government which repeatedly reiterated there were no such plans to build Pandit Township or Sainik colonies.
By now, Mehbooba who was for the first time holding any position in the government in her two decades long political career realised that running a politically volatile J&K wasn’t an easy cup of tea. Trying to reach out to people, the chief minister sought time from them to help her fulfil the promises that her government had made to the people.
For the first time since 90’s when militancy broke out in Kashmir, the local militants have outnumbered foreigners and young educated youth, in ones and twos, are giving up their lavish lifestyle to join militancy, a phenomenon that was attributed by opposition to coming together of the PDP and BJP.
Both the government and security agencies had been expressing concern about local youth picking up guns, particularly in south Kashmir which was considered to be the stronghold of the PDP. Mehbooba would repeatedly promise to take steps to address the long pending issue of Kashmir.
The Eid was approaching and amid the fervour, Kashmir was witnessing a brief period of calm. But that didn’t last long. The face of Kashmir militancy, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, was killed by security forces in a south Kashmir village on July 8. Wani had dared to take off the mask from the face of militancy, throwing an open challenge to security establishment and daring them openly on social media, a move that was also attracting young Kashmiri boys towards militancy. His killing was bound to generate a massive reaction from the Valley.
And it did happen. The entire Kashmir came out on roads to protest against Burhan’s killing. By the time the sun set on July 8, the government had snapped the internet across Kashmir and imposed strict curfew in entire south Kashmir, hoping against hope that things would calm down. That wasn’t to be the case, however.
The valley which had seen three consecutive uprisings since 2008 erupted into yet another massive uprising with people including young and elderly hitting the roads. The government responded with strict curfew which was extended for more than two months. With no end to protests, the separatists finally came to the fore and started issuing weekly protest calendars against the civilians killings.
In the first three days of uprising, at least 30 persons were killed in south Kashmir alone. Massive protests and rallies became order of the day as the government totally vanished from the scene. Every killing would be followed by protests and there would be more killings. The cycle continued and by the time the uprising completed five months, at least 96 civilians had fallen to bullets and pellets. More than 15000 people were injured in forces’ action including over 1000 persons whose eyes were ruptured due to pellets fired by forces.
At the SMHS hospital alone, more than 1200 youth with pellet injured eyes were received for treatment during the unrest; many of them including teenagers have permanently lost vision in one or both eyes. Amidst the uprising, the police and other security agencies launched one of the biggest crackdowns in Kashmir by conducting mass arrest of young boys and separatists and by booking more than 500 protestors under the Public Safety Act to crush the civilian unrest.
When the government’s iron fist strategy came under sharp criticism, New Delhi dispatched an All-Party delegation, led by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, to Kashmir to try and restore normalcy in the region. The resistance camp, however, shut the doors to the delegation which had to return without any success in its mission. Soon, the top separatist leaders including Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Muhammad Yasin Malik were either arrested or put under house arrest as Kashmir continued to hog international headlines.
As the situation was going from bad to worse, a group of fidayeen struck at an army camp in Uri, killing 19 army men in September. The suicide attack led to heightened tension between India and Pakistan, resulting in increased skirmishes along the LoC and International Border.
Soon, the Army said it conducted “surgical strikes” across the border in retaliation to the Uri attack, though Pakistan denied the attack. The tensions continued to escalate on borders amid fear of a full-blown war between neighbouring countries, forcing migration of people from scores of villages along the LoC and International Border.
Back in the valley, the months-long protests and shutdown had led to fatigue and the mass arrest had resulted in a decrease in the intensity of the protest. It was during this time that a delegation led by former Union Minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha visited Kashmir and held deliberations with cross section of people. The separatists, surprisingly, opened their doors to the panel and days later, the Government lifted curfew from many parts of the Valley.
Though there was no schooling for the entire period of uprising, the government went ahead with the decision to hold annual exams amid the mysterious burning of over 30 schools across Kashmir. As the situation started to improve by the middle of November, the separatists relaxed the weekly protest calendar. The traffic was back on the roads and people started to resume a normal life.
But there is no end to the controversies yet. As curtains have fallen on the year, the Mehbooba Mufti-led government is coming under fire after media reports that it has started to issue domicile certificate to West Pakistan Refugees, an issue which prompted separatists to call for a shutdown and warning the government to cancel the decision or face agitation.
Clearly, the new year hasn’t brought much respite for the people of the turmoil-hit state. With the winter chill setting in, the talk on the streets is that the summers are going to be hot again.