Understanding Kashmir: From Burhan Wani to Junaid Ahmed

APTOPIX India Kashmir Protests
AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

Part I

July 8 to August 8


Kashmir is the abyss Friedrich Nietzsche warned us about. I have only stared into it three months and it is already staring back. How can you have done the same for 70 years and not been pulled inside?

The death of Junaid Ahmad at the hands of Indian security forces, Saturday, marked the end of the third month of protests in Indian-held Kashmir (IHK). These protests erupted in response to the death of Burhan Wani in July. But not much has changed from July 8 to October 8: for those of us in Pakistan, in terms of dynamism; and for those of us in Kashmir, in terms of stagnancy.

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Burhan Muzaffar Wani (right)

It all began with the death of Burhan Wani.

Known as the face of new-age militancy in Indian-Held Kashmir (IHK), Wani – the 22-year old commander of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen – was killed in an encounter with Indian security forces in Kokernag, southern Kashmir. His death had the whole of IHK up in arms. People came out in hundreds and thousands to protest and, with time, as the batons and pellets charged and only played into the sentiments first sparked by Wani, it evolved into something bigger. Turned out, Wani’s death had only strengthened his hold on the levers of resistance.

By the end of the first month, an estimated 60 stone-pelting civilians had died at the hands of a security force armed with live ammunition, shotgun pellets and tear gas. A further 5,000 were injured. Likewise, 2 Indian security personnel were killed and 3,000 injured in attacks on police installations, government establishments and in encounters along the Line of Control.

But where India seemed to have reached a dead end, Pakistan sensed an opening. Separate statements were issued by the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s Office condemning the act and the subsequent crackdown as extrajudicial. Within days, concerns were conveyed to the P5 – United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – and the contact group of the Organization of Islamic Countries. However, the Indian narrative was not one to be countered easily.

At a high-level debate on human rights at the UN general assembly, Maleeha Lodhi – Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN – unequivocally condemned the “atrocious human rights violations, including rape, torture, arbitrary detentions and summary executions” by Indian forces in held Kashmir. Her statement was met with a fiery tirade from the Indian representative Syed Akbaruddin that, though diversionary, was nevertheless powerful.

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Syed Akbaruddin – India’s Permanent Representative to the UN

Ambassador Akbaruddin’s statement did not serve to defend India against the claims put forth by Pakistan. But so long as he hit it on the head, no one seemed to care if it was the right nail. This would continue to be Indian policy in all diplomatic exchanges – to meet offensives with counter-offensives rather than defensives.

On August 1, 2016, nine of the most distinguished Pakistani diplomats gathered at the Foreign Office in Islamabad. In the three-day envoys conference that followed, they deliberated on the foreign policy challenges facing Pakistan and possible ways forward. The immediate outcome of the conference was a letter by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the UN Secretary-General calling for an end to the violence in Kashmir and a plebiscite in accordance with the decades-old UN Security Council resolutions.

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Upon his party’s landslide victory in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir elections, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed hope that one day Kashmir would become Pakistan

At around the same time, two dramatic episodes – one before, one after the envoys conference – made headlines on both sides of the border. The first was Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s response to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech in Muzaffarabad. Having won a landslide victory in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir elections, the latter had expressed hope that one day Kashmir would become Pakistan. Retorting sharply, Swaraj stated that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir belonged to India and that Pakistan would never be allowed to make this heaven on earth a haven for terrorists. “The country which has used fighter planes and artillery against millions of its own people has no right whatsoever to point a finger against our brave, professional and disciplined police and other security forces,” she said.

A day later, Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, issued a terse and diplomatic response to the statement. “Such a verdict on the future of Kashmir can only be given by the people of Kashmir,” he said, “not by the external affairs minister of India.”

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Rajnath Singh (left) – Chaudhary Nisar (right)

The second episode was a row between Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan of Pakistan and Rajnath Singh of India at the SAARC interior ministers’ conference. Responding to Rajnath’s indirect yet all too obvious admonition to Pakistan for glorifying and discriminating against certain ‘terrorists’, Nisar maintained that a UN-sanctified struggle could not be equated with terrorism. He said that India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh were not the only victims of terrorism and that, in fact, it was Pakistan that had suffered the most. Nisar implied that it was India, rather than Pakistan, that put conditions and sub-conditions for initiating dialogue and that the latter was ready to engage in any dialogue process based on mutual respect and dignity with no strings attached.

The two ministers later skipped the official luncheon with Nisar leaving early and Rajnath going back to India and declaring, on the floor of the Rajya Sabha, that in spite of repeated high-level attempts at mending relations with Pakistan, yeh padosi hai k manta nahi – this neighbour is never convinced.

Meanwhile, the situation in Kashmir deteriorated further and it became evident that neither coercion nor diversion would work. The opposition in India took heed and switched gears. Hitherto neutral, it now put its weight behind the Kashmiris, calling for addressing the motivations underlying the violence (Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress) and breaking the sitting government out of its indifference and inertia (Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha). It may be argued that these calls served as the antecedent development behind Narendar Modi’s rise to the occasion in the following month.


Part II

August 9 to September 8


With the onset of the second month, Pakistan intensified its diplomatic offensive. Another briefing was hosted at the Foreign Office. This time, along with the P5, envoys from the European Union were also apprised of the situation in Kashmir and reminded of the international community’s commitment to its people under the UN Security Council resolutions. In addition, 20 parliamentarians – 16 from the ruling PML-N – were appointed by the Prime Minister to lobby for the Kashmir cause in foreign capitals around the world. Also, at this time, the Secretary-General of UN, and that of the OIC, responded.

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his willingness to offer good offices, subject to a request by both sides, “to facilitate dialogue in order to achieve a negotiated settlement.” He also appreciated Pakistan’s “continued commitment” to the pacific settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Iyad Madani, Secretary-General OIC, too, re-affirmed his support for Pakistan’s stance. In a strongly-worded statement, he said that the OIC would “continue exposing the rights violations in the held Valley till resolution of the issue in accordance with the UN resolutions and wishes of [the] Kashmiri people.”

But perhaps the most important of Pakistan’s diplomatic manoeuvres was the proposal to India for a dedicated dialogue on Kashmir and a bilateral moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons. With tensions simmering as high as they were in mid-August, it was extremely unlikely for the two sides to sit together and talk out their differences, though it was – as was becoming increasingly evident – the only wise thing to do. The letter was thus handed to Indian High Commissioner, Gautam Bambawale.

One day and 5 deaths later, the reply came: India was willing to talk to Pakistan on Kashmir, but only in the context of cross-border terrorism. Needless to say, the dialogue never took place.

While all this was playing out in Islamabad, New Delhi and Srinagar, Narendar Modi chose to stay on the sidelines. He was the only on his side of the border to have waited month-long before breaking his silence. On the Pakistani side, it was Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Chaudhry Barjees Tahir. Ironically, his statement came on the same day Pakistan proposed a dialogue on Kashmir. Not only did he claim that the “Pakistan Occupied Territory” was, in fact, India’s but also called for a probe into human rights violations in the region and in – wait for it – Balochistan.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendar Modi in his Independence Day speech

Came August 15. In a sensational closing to his 90-minute speech, Modi said that the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and “Pak-Occupied Kashmir” had thanked him. For what, he did not specify, but there were rallies across Gilgit-Baltistan in protest against the statement.

Not surprisingly, there was uproar in Pakistan in response to the speech – less for its provocation and more for its diversion. Modi had attempted to knock Kashmir out of the scene in a single stroke. Was he successful? Not yet.

In his response, Sartaj Aziz condemned the diversionary tactic and reminded India that its “dream for greatness” could never be achieved by suppressing the Kashmiris and blinding them – a reference to the use of shotgun pellets which were causing victims severe eye injuries.

In the days that followed, there were two high-level visits from the Indian side to Kashmir. One by Narendar Modi himself who called for unity and compassion, asserting, that if any life is lost in Kashmir, “that loss is ours.” He then rushed back to New Delhi where he would greet US Secretary of State John Kerry on August 30.

A few days later, coinciding with the injuring of 100 protestors in IHK, Rajnath Singh led an all-party delegation to Srinagar in hopes of a breakthrough. Prior to this visit he had sent out a message from his Twitter account: “I will be staying at the Nehru Guest House. Those who believe in Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat, and Jamhooriyat are welcome.”

Hurriyat leaders – the chief of them under detention – refused to talk to him or any other member of his delegation. They urged that all efforts would be futile until the nuclear giants on either side of the Valley – India and Pakistan – talked to each other.

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Thus ended the second month…

Thus ended the second month. It was marked by an increasing number of encounters between Indian security forces and so-called ‘non-local’ militants – some of them along the Line of Control. The number of civilian deaths rose to 80 and, on the single most violent day, as many as 100 protestors were injured. Under increasing pressure, the Indian government decided to replace shotgun pellets with chilli shells, however, the former would continue to be used for crowd control into, at least, early October.


Part III

September 9 to October 8


By all accounts, the events of September/October marked the climax of the entire episode. It appeared that, since his first appearance back in mid-August, Modi had wrested control from the saner voices in his government and was firing salvo after salvo. He drove the two states toward what one columnist described as vertical and horizontal escalation – a reference to military offensives on the Indo-Pak border, and diplomatic offensives around the world, respectively*. If nothing else, the degree of proactivity made sure he was in near absolute control of the situation.

On September 11, a home ministry official acquainted the media about Rajnath Singh’s plan to embark on 5- and 7-day trips to Russia and the United States, respectively, starting September 18. The trips were later postponed in the aftermath of the Uri attack but, had they taken place, the agenda would have included ‘Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism’. This was the beginning of India’s drive to isolate Pakistan internationally under the pretext of terrorism and thereby counter, as far as that was possible, its capitalization on the situation in Kashmir.

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Khurram Parvez

In a related development, human rights activist and coordinator of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), Khurram Parvez, was blocked from boarding a flight for Switzerland on his way to a conference of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva. He was arrested a day later and detained at the Kothibagh Police Station in Srinagar.

The watershed came with the militant attack in IHK that killed 17 Indian soldiers on September 18. Earlier referred to as an ‘attack on an army base near the town of Uri’, the incident later came to be known as the ‘Uri Attack’. Immediately afterwards, Rajnath Singh tweeted: “Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such.” It was clear that the incident would be made to serve India’s larger diplomatic purpose and, the very next day, Prime Minister Modi directed security agencies to collect all the evidence pertaining to Pakistani involvement in the attack for presentation at international fora. This was only one step in India’s ratcheted up campaign to have Pakistan declared as a terrorist state. Islamabad’s response was tough:

Pakistan has noted with serious concern the recent spate of vitriolic and unsubstantiated statements emanating from Indian civil and military leadership in the aftermath of yesterday’s attack on Indian occupation forces in the Uri sector of the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK). Pakistan categorically rejects the baseless and irresponsible accusations being levelled by senior officials in Prime Minister Modi’s Government… The statement is part of a pattern to mislead world opinion and cover up India’s reign of terror in IOK.

Soon enough, Afghanistan had jumped into India’s bandwagon. Its ambassador in New Delhi Shaida Mohammad Abdali told Indian channel NDTV that they had to bring all like-minded South Asian countries together, and single out the one country that “spoils our unity and regional peace.” Also, at this time, the United States expressed its “serious concern” over the situation in IHK refusing, for the third time since July, to condemn the aggression.

On the 21st of September, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif referred to the current Kashmir uprising as an Intifada – alluding to the popular Palestinian insurgencies. His carefully-crafted speech was centred on Kashmir and hit some high notes with statements like “talks are no favour to Pakistan”. He said that resolution of the Kashmir dispute was indispensable for peace in South Asia and that that was an objective evaluation, not a partisan position. The Prime Minister demanded that the General Assembly live up to its own commitment to the people and Kashmir and, also, that an independent inquiry be conducted into the atrocities in IHK.

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Eenam Gambhir reads out India’s response to Nawaz Sharif’s speech

In the next five hours, top Indian diplomats drafted a 500-word rebuttal and handed it to first secretary Eenam Gambhir. The young officer read out the pithy statement in the General Assembly and instantly became an Indian media favourite. Gambhir took the floor to respond to Pakistan’s “long tirade about the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir” but, soon after, took an about-turn. She claimed that the worst violation of human rights was terrorism and then continued down that path for the rest of her 3-minute speech.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the National Highway and Motorway Police was closing M1 and M2 under directives from the Pakistan Air Force. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) was reportedly issued three days earlier, in advance of the ‘routine exercise’. The drills – also due on the 22nd and 24th – led to speculation and a sharp fall in the stock market. The next day, the Pakistan-Russia joint military exercise – Druzhba 2016 – was kicked off in Cherat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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A few days later, the September 21 episode was re-enacted at the UN – this time, Pakistan was on the defensive. In her speech to the UN, Sushma Swaraj stated that Kashmir would remain an integral part of India and that no one could take it away by force. She said that instead of urging others to set their human rights record straight, Pakistan should look at the “egregious abuses” it is perpetrating in its own country including in Balochistan.

In her rebuttal, Maleeha Lodhi stressed that Jammu and Kashmir never was and never could be an integral part of India. She said that the Indian External Affairs Minister’s speech was “a litany of falsehoods and a travesty of facts and history.” Referring to recent events, she said that the Uri attack, particularly its timing, had all the hallmarks of an operation designed to divert world attention from India`s atrocities in occupied Jammu and Kashmir and that India’s policy of interference in Pakistan, “especially its attempt to destabilize Balochistan”, were now on record.

Perhaps the most confrontational step by New Delhi was the suspension of the Indus Water Commission talks until “Pakistan-sponsored terror” in India could be put to an end. This was coupled with the dramatic statement “blood and water cannot flow together” by the Indian Prime Minister. The next day, India pulled out of the SAARC summit scheduled for November. And, as if that was not enough for the postponement of the event, so did Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on the following day. Recounting India’s role in the summit’s postponement in 1991, 1999, 2003 and 2005, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria said that India had a track record of impeding the SAARC process.

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On September 29, India claimed to have airdropped commandos from three Parachute Regiments near the LoC. It was reported that they penetrated as much as 3 km into Pakistani territory and conducted “surgical strikes” on “terrorism launch-pads”. At least 2 Pakistan Army soldiers – Naik Imtiaz and Havildar Jumma Khan – died in the ensuing fight. In the official statement, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh – Indian Director General Military Operations – said that he had spoken to his Pakistani counterpart, “explained our concerns and also shared with him the operations that we had conducted last night.” Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza, however, denied the statement and, along with Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary, briefed P5 envoys on the “frivolous” Indian claims.

A day later, Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa, Director General ISPR, led 40 journalists representing 20 local and foreign media organizations to two of the seven places Indians claim to have targeted with surgical strikes. They were briefed by the military spokesman and regional commanders, and also interacted with the locals. Lt Gen Bajwa cautioned that escalation on the eastern border could affect Pakistan`s commitment to the fight against terror, in which 208,000 troops were engaged and operations were in concluding phase. He said that losing focus on the counterterrorism operations would not serve the cause of regional peace and security.

The surgical strikes episode served to shift attention from the diplomatic to the military realm and people soon started debating the odds of a nuclear war. In a way, that suited India. Its drive to isolate Pakistan diplomatically had, in fact, received a severe setback. In a matter of days, OIC foreign ministers had reaffirmed their support for Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, China had blocked a tributary of the Brahamaputra/Yarlung Zangbo river to which India is a lower riparian, Washington had shut down the petition calling for declaring Pakistan a state-sponsor of terrorism, and Russia had continued, in spite of New Delhi’s reservations, its joint war exercise with Pakistan.

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Abdul Basit – Pakistan High Commissioner to India

All statements issued by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at this time showed, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif claimed, “unequalled and unprecedented restraint despite great provocation.” High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s statements often made it to the headlines – and for good reason. They assure those of us who are neither in New Delhi nor in Islamabad that our case is structured and articulated in way that is always restrained but never weak and, at times, tough but never provocative. For a student of international relations, a comparative discourse analysis of the statements coming from Pakistan and India would make for a good case-study. Ever since it began on July 8, the latest Kashmir episode has been a very public trial by fire for Pakistan’s diplomacy. But, so far, the professional cadre has made it look like a job well done.

On October 7, India allowed the residents evacuated from all areas within 10 km of the Indo-Pak border to return home. The move was hailed as a sign that tensions between the two states were finally de-escalating.

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The next day, October 8, 12-year old Junaid Ahmed succumbed to shotgun pellet injuries in Srinagar.

As I wrote Junaid’s name as the last entry to my timeline, I could not help thinking about Burhan who had been my first. I could not help thinking: We just came full circle.

*Husain, Z. (2016, September 28). Modi’s new battle lines. Dawn. Retrieved from http://www.dawn.com/news/1286535

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