Kashmir is on the boil once again. Protesters have defied curfew orders and security forces are working hard to contain the mob. More than 30 people have died already. The trigger was the encounter killing of the 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Hailing from an educated middle-class family, Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s story has considerable traction among the politically alienated youth of the Valley. Wani joined the terrorist group at the tender age of 15 after his brother was allegedly beaten up by the security forces. Wani would go on to become a sophisticated social media operator using his images and videos to inspire fresh recruitment in the Valley and deliver threats to the security establishment.
Once the security forces had decided to eliminate him, they only had to wait for the by-election in Anantnag—where Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed was one of the contestants and the eventual winner—to get over. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has decided to take advantage. Nawaz Sharif has expressed “deep shock at the killing of Kashmiri leader Burhan Wani” and deplored the “excessive and unlawful force” used against civilians.
What has gone wrong? Indian politicians have failed to provide the required political narrative to exploit the “peace” bought at high cost by the security establishment. Home ministry data puts the number of attempted infiltrations in 2015 at 121, out of which only 33 were successful. To put this into perspective, the number of infiltration attempts would breach the four-digit mark in the toughest years of militancy. The number of casualties—both civilian and armed forces—has seen a similar decline. The security forces have indeed done their job. Infiltrations have been reduced to a trickle—although reports suggest a slight increase underway in the current year—but little of the space so generated has been used for political goodwill.
Even a symbolic and geographically limited revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) could have signalled the right intention of the Indian state to the Kashmiri people. There is no doubt that the security establishment should be consulted before taking any such decision for the simple reason that they will be required if the revocation leads to a deterioration in the situation on the ground. But at the end of the day, revocation of AFSPA is a political call. A token beginning, at the least, should now be made to set the stage for a gradual process of AFSPA revocation.
While militancy was in decline and a free and fair electoral system in place since 2002, the governance deficit remained large. Economic growth in the state almost consistently lagged behind the national growth figures. Between 2005-06 and 2011-12 (before the base year for national growth was shifted), the average gap was close to two and a half percentage points. In terms of the unemployment rate, Jammu and Kashmir keeps company with states at the bottom of the pile. The floods in 2014 exacerbated these problems.
As Pakistan was finding it difficult to push infiltrators, it began to focus more on local recruitment. The lack of economic and political progress in the state helped and so did the legend of Wani and his like, which often thrived on isolated—but nonetheless condemnable—instances of brutality by the Indian army against innocent civilians. Between 2013 and 2015, local recruitment jumped almost fourfold. The ratio of foreign fighters to local fighters turned on its head. All that was now required was a catalyst. And it came in the form of Wani’s death.
But Kashmir’s story has positives to look to as well. If there is a Burhan Wani, there is also a Shah Faesal who topped the Union Public Service Commission exams in 2009. Since then, scores of Kashmiris have cracked the exams. As many as 10 candidates from the Valley have cleared the exams this year itself. Around 20,000 aspirants turned up last year to fill 55 vacancies in the Indian army. And a budding entrepreneurship narrative has already taken root in the state.
The current turmoil in the state should serve as a jolt for the Indian government, which was gradually receding into complacency. The security establishment has done a wonderful job, but what lies ahead is not its domain. Kashmir now needs political engagement and economic uplift. The protests are a message. The governments in Srinagar and New Delhi must heed it.