“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow

An Imperfect Storm: The Summer 2008 Uprising in Kashmir

Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

19 July 2008

Unlike the sustained uprising in Kashmir in 1990 which was mostly orchestrated by Pakistani trained operatives, the uprising in the summer of 2008 was mostly indigenous, spontaneous and massive. Yet it began and died after ten days of bloody upheaval under rather strange circumstances. What prevented the latest insurgency from becoming a “perfect storm?” The author conducts a post-mortem of the uprising.

The opening salvo was fired discreetly by the coalition partner, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Networking with a group of seasoned journalists who write for Srinagar based newspapers, the PDP let out a canard ahead of the state cabinet meeting on May 20, 2008, that the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) under the patronage of its Chairman, the Governor of the State, was planning to construct a large township in Baltal, to be named Amarnath Nagar, near the holy Amarnath Cave. There were other, even more serious accusations, the most disturbing of which was that the Governor was trying to change the demographics of the valley by using the SASB authority to resettle nonresident Hindus in the region.

It took time for this news to make rounds among Kashmiri political analysts and public. The PDP had hoped that Kashmir would be on fire by the time the State Cabinet would meet on Tuesday, May 20, 2008, but that did not happen. In the local media, other than a story or two, the SASB episode was treated with the same mixture of curiosity and disdain as the “Pakistani currency” or the “joint management of Baglihar hydel project,” and a few other odd nuggets that PDP habitually threw like proverbial hand grenades once in a while. Perhaps the most visceral story on the SASB related rumors was printed on 12th May 2008 in the leading pro-separatist newspaper in the valley, where a well respected political commentator mixed nationalism with religious chauvinism in opposing the “so-called Hindu invasion” by declaring, “Islam is a reality in Kashmir, which was chosen here by the people to liberate themselves from the highly oppressive social, economic and religious order established by the Brahaminical system.” The same journalist would later claim that “the saddest part of the debate surrounding the Amarnath Yatra is that it has attained communal colors, when the question is fundamentally environmental.” But that would come much later.

Interestingly, both senior PDP ministers – the Law Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig (who also served as the Deputy Chief Minister) and the Forest Minister Qazi Mohammad Afzal – attended the May 20 Cabinet meeting. Not having ignited Kashmir, neither of the PDP ministers made any specific objections when the cabinet voted in favor of the Forest Department’s written recommendation to allow the SASB request seeking non-proprietary transfer of 38.88 hectares (about 800 kanals) of land to SASB. The SASB had made the request for nearly 180 hectares in 2004 and it had taken nearly four years of due diligence, reviews, court orders, negotiations and official approvals by various departments and ministries that eventually ended up paring down the original request for land transfer to the very minimum for building comfort facilities for Hindu pilgrims in transit.

The Cabinet Decision Number 94/7 of May 20, 2008, clearly states that the SASB has only non-proprietary rights to the land and is explicit regarding compensation that must precede any construction – a payment of Rs. 2,31,30,400, and an additional Rs. 19,94,000 on account of compensatory afforestation to be carried over twice the requested land surface (79.66 hectares). The Cabinet Order also mentions what SASB had agreed to follow strict ecological damage containment before proceeding with any construction. It would take all possible environmental safeguards in consultation with the State Soil Conservation Department, State Pollution Control Board, State Forest Department and even the orders of the Indian Supreme Court.

Following the Cabinet meeting, the Forest Department issued Government Order No: 184-FST of 2008 dated May 26, 2008, transferring land to SASB under terms listed in the Cabinet Decision 94/7. It was clear to all parties that transfer process would not be completed until the land is demarcated, and no construction would take place until the SASB made the advance payment of Rs. 2 crores. Incidentally, neither of these actions was either taken or has happened since.

But the former Chief Minister (CM) Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who had never reconciled to having been replaced by someone from the Jammu region, was not yet ready to give up. Recall that it was his daughter and the Party President, Mehbooba Mufti, who during the power sharing negotiations between the PDP and the Congress Party following the fall 2002 elections had declared that, “blood will flow in streets of Srinagar if a non-valley politician becomes the chief minister.” Mufti Sayeed, after stepping down as the CM in October 2005, had treated the new Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad with utter disdain, going repeatedly over his head to discuss state matters directly with the national Congress Party leadership that should have been normally discussed within the state coalition. This was not accidental – Mufti knew that the “Delhi Durbar” always had the last word in so far as Kashmir is concerned. The Durbar courtiers – modern day political nawabs – had more power and authority than the CM. Ghulam Nabi Azad had spent a long time in the Durbar and tormented Dr. Farooq Abdullah when the latter was the CM. Now it was Azad’s turn to be on the receiving end, and Mufti, by running to New Delhi, was making things difficult for him. Azad was well meaning and honest, but having spent a lifetime in the Delhi Durbar meant that he was mostly ignorant of the opportunistic, corrupt and sycophantic nature of Kashmiri politics. Simply put, Azad was not a “rascal enough” to be an effective chief minister of the state.

Following issuance of the Government Order by the PDP led Forest Ministry; Mufti kept working behind-the-scenes on a separate but a related issue that was crucial to his future plans. This dealt with uncertainty regarding selection of the new state Governor. Mufti had a long standing feud with Governor S. K. Sinha and Amarnath yatra was in fact a leading cause of friction between the two. While the SASB was formed after being voted in the State Assembly during the time that the National Conference (NC) was in power, Mufti did his best to scuttle the pilgrimage in every way possible after he became the new CM. It mattered little to him if yatris were not properly housed or protected because to him the whole idea of Hindu pilgrimage to Kashmir was an abhorrent thought. In 2000, 22 people were massacred by terrorists during the yatra in a series of communal attacks attributed to Lashker-e-Toiba (LeT) that year. Seven pilgrims and five workers were killed in a terrorist strike next year during the pilgrimage. In 2002, 8 people were killed and 30 injured by terrorist strikes and the SASB, finding the state efforts lukewarm and indifferent, sought authority from the state to protect pilgrims. Mufti did not even bother to reply the letter from the SASB Board. The matter ended in the J&K State High Court, where in two rulings in 2005 (Mufti sought the higher bench ruling after the first court decision went against him), the verdict was identical – SASB had the responsibility to set the timing and define security needs for the yatra. Mufti never recovered from that judicial defeat and never reconciled with the Governor.

The term of Governor Sinha was expiring on June 4, 2008. Mufti wanted him out but Governor Sinha wanted to extend his stay, and more importantly, Chief Minister Azad liked the Governor and wanted him to continue in the post. This was unacceptable to Mufti, who was working very hard in the Delhi Durbar to force a change, and as usual was able to trounce Azad. Among the candidates under consideration the was N. N. Vohra, a distinguished Indian public servant who had served at the highest levels in the Indian bureaucracy and was the Prime Minister’s Personal Interlocutor on Kashmir. Mufti pushed for Vohra and on June 3, the Central government announced Mr. Vohra as replacement for Gen. Sinha. The only thing that was uncertain was the date on which the changeover would happen because Sinha kept postponing his departure. Once it was publicly announced that Vohra would take over as the Governor on June 25, Mufti went for the kill.

First, most media elements took upon themselves to ignore the SASB dispute in terms of being a sordid drama and an exercise in crass political opportunism between two coalition partners ahead of the upcoming state election. Second, the civil society began sounding drumbeats of an earlier turbulent era and started harping on the “threat to Islam” theme, stepped up their rhetoric in the public. On June 23, a leading pro-separatist daily in Srinagar ran the story (dated June 22) that, “it had documents in its possession that the construction of pucca buildings is going on a war footing at Dumhel, one of the resting points for Amaranath Cave bound pilgrims.” Baltal Traders Association was co-opted to express its indignation which was prominently splashed by the Daily. The fact that SASB was in no position – legally or otherwise – to start any permanent construction was of little interest to rabble rousers. Sadly, the Daily would not tell its readers that the J&K Government had after 1996, when 250 pilgrims died due to heavy snowfall during the yatra and before the passage of the SASB Act in the State Assembly in 2000, built a number of permanent comfort facilities for pilgrims. In fact, the earliest such structures were built in 1980’s. Also, media conveniently ignored that the SASB had donated most of its tear-down comfort facility kits to the people of Tangdhar and Uri after the October 2005 earthquake and there was an urgent need to built replacement facilities along the yatra route.

The same day (June 23), having received confirmation that Governor Sinha’s would be replaced, the father and daughter duo – Muftis – threw another incendiary device and like master tacticians disappeared from the scene; with father announcing that he was headed to America for medical checkup and the daughter to a seminar in London. The “bomb” was an ultimatum to their coalition partner – Congress Party – that if the Government Order 184-FST was not revoked by June 30, PDP would pull out of the government. It was not a difficult decision for the PDP as they believed that they would improve their political standing in an election, especially with Sinha gone for good. Mufti Sayeed had initially indicated that he would exit the country before the new Governor took over, but did not actually leave for the U.S. until after attending Governor Vohra’s oath ceremony on June 25.

Muftis were, after all, masters in harnessing communal tension towards a political advantage. They had executed similar tactics in the past, and the one that seems particularly apt, as reminded to me by a journalist friend in Srinagar, was in 1986 when Mufti ran a similar dirty campaign which targeted Kashmiri Pandits in the Anantnag district that led to burning and loot of hundreds of Pandit properties and temples and caused the fall of the Gul Shah government. In fact, the record shows that Mufti has been involved in triggering most central government interventions in the state through the Governor’s rule hoping to improve his political standing in subsequent elections.

While Muftis were conducting their divorce proceedings with the Azad led coalition government in public, valley newspapers were having a field day. Suddenly, a new picture emerged in the valley. Almost every editor and columnist tried to out do each other in rhetoric and demagoguery, the SASB, a creation of the State Assembly 8 years earlier, got transformed by the media into an alien institution, imposed by Indian authorities, a state-within-a-state, and a conspiracy that was at the vanguard of a Hindu invasion in the valley. None of this was true, but it mattered little to the Kashmir’s civil society that habitually behaves as an appendage to separatist organizations mixing human rights, commercial interests and politicking to feed personal egos, bank accounts and community interests. Chief Minister Azad was more focused on his political problems and totally glossed over the changes taking place in the street.

The streets were about to ignite. The public had already been informed that a delegation of Hurriyat, consisting of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Prof. Abdul Gani Butt and Bilal Gani Lone, would be leaving for Pakistan on June 21. While the two Hurriyat factions were conducting their demonstrations against the SASB separately, Pakistani officials most likely advised Mirwaiz that he would receive a warmer welcome in Pakistan if he patched up with his nemesis, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, ahead of his trip to Pakistan. Besides, Geelani also wanted to change his posture and end public bickering with his former colleagues without appearing to compromise his principles. The moment was therefore opportune to show unity against the SASB order. Even though all allegations were baseless, what mattered was that an opportunity had presented itself that could not be missed.

On June 18, Mirwaiz announced that he would meet with Geelani at latter’s residence on June 19, to chalk out a “common resistance program” against the land transfer to SASB. At the meeting, they agreed to combine their efforts under the Action Committee against Land Transfer (ACALT) and put Mian Abdul Qayyum, the former President of the Kashmir Bar Council who had in the past tried to patch up these two leaders, in charge. Previously feuding Hurriyat cadre rolled into ACALT which took over the organization of street demonstrations, formation of public kitchens for meals giveaways, and volunteer corps to manage auxiliaries.

On June 23, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, gave a slip to the police who wanted him interned at his residence in Hyderpora and led the joint demonstration near Gow Kadal. Elsewhere in the Shahr-e-Khas, the demonstrations got out of hand, pitched battles took place among demonstrators and police, and security booths were burnt down. The engagement with paramilitaries on that day led to a death (first of many that would follow) and many more were injured. It is difficult to comprehend how a request to build brick-and-mortar lavatories at 10,000 ft altitude in an inhospitable area where not a tree grows and where it snows for nearly 8 months a year could be seen as a land give-away that could provoke such violent reaction. But this is Kashmir, where the powerful and the rich have succeeded in maintaining their authority and control (“the status quo”) by hatching conspiracy theories and seeding alienation, while the poor pay the price and continue to stay poor.

Meanwhile, the 3-member Hurriyat team reached Pakistan on June 21. Their most important day during the visit was Monday, June 23. On that day, they held many meetings in Islamabad but the three most important were with the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani in the morning, with the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmed later in the day, and in the evening with the chief of the United Jihad Council (UJC) and leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) Syed Salahuddin in a local hotel. Interestingly, the government of Pakistan made no public statements about either the Mirwaiz-Geelani “Common Resistance Program”, or the uprising in the valley. Based on the recent expose about Pakistani military Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)-Taliban nexus in planning and executing the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and more recent violations of the Line of Control (LOC), it would appear that new Pakistani civil government is a confused lot and unsure of its Kashmir policy — at least for now.

But one could not see that point get across either among the valley people or its media. When the news of Hurriyat meetings in Islamabad hit the airwaves and print media in the valley on June 24, every district in the valley was witnessing massive outpouring of public outcry. Srinagar was brought to a complete shutdown and protests led to more defiance, more deaths and more injuries. Vandals destroyed public property (buildings, vehicles, etc.) and the total destruction of a recently rebuilt park that brought fresh life to the historic almond orchard at the foothills of the Hari Parbat hillock. The uprising seemed unstoppable.

The state government appeared paralyzed. But more importantly, no one in the Delhi Darbar seemed to care. Delhi was busy with its own shenanigans dealing with the instability in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition ruling the Center, and the subject of Kashmir was as usual left to the courtiers like Saifudin Soz and Makhan Lal Fotedar who are generally more critical of the man at the helm in Srinagar than his distracters. The courtiers continued to believe that the PDP would not pull out of the government and asked Azad to convene an all party meeting to sort out the matter politically. Ironically, no one had any idea in New Delhi (since most reports from security services are routinely ignored, or worse not even read, by Delhi based rulers) about the extent of damage that the PDP had caused not only to the state coalition but also in unlashing a deadly mix of nationalism and religious chauvinism in both regions of the state.

Given that the state of affairs, it was no wonder that on Friday, June 27, following prayers in various city mosques, protesters raised anti-India, pro-Islam and pro-Pakistan slogans and raised not Pakistani flags (as reported in the media) but three green flags that bore the crescent-and-star logo of Islam on the clock tower of Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk. As reported by the Greater Kashmir daily, the nearby contingent of local and Indian police personnel did not even raise their eyebrows.

On Saturday, June 28, PDP formally withdrew from the Congress-led coalition citing reluctance of the Chief Minister to withdraw the Government Order 184-FST.

After the new Governor took over, he assessed the situation and realized that the whole affair had been blown up beyond proportion by an unlikely alliance of conniving politicians, opportunistic separatists and misplaced emotional rhetoric by the civil society. Equally of concern was that the situation in Jammu was beginning to turn sour.

Srinagar continued to suffer unofficial curfews as more violence led to more deaths which led to further violence. The cycle of violence would not let up. Besides, the Dailies were doing their bit to inflame passions and keep the agitation (and their cash registers) going. On Friday, June 27, Governor Vohra sent a letter to the State Government asking if the State government would take over the entire logistics dealing with the Amarnath yatra, in which case there would be no need to pursue the land transfer to SASB for constructing new comfort facilities for pilgrims. Lacking adequate facilities after thousands of portable toilets had been transferred elsewhere, it would be the State Tourist Department that would now build and operate such comfort facilities. The Chief Minister replied promptly and the state agreed to accept the responsibility. But that did not satisfy lawyers leading the separatist demonstrations under the banner of ACALT. Syed Ali Shah Geelani played the “ultimate” communal card. He announced that there will be a massive show of public defiance at the Jamia Masjid on July 1.

The Governor acted quickly thereafter. He accepted the resignation of nine PDP ministers on June 29, and asked Azad to prove his ruling majority on July 7. On July 1, the Azad government revoked the Government Order 184-FST thereby withdrawing the terms and conditions for transfer of land to SASB. A fire storm of public disgust hit the streets of Jammu.

The ACALT called off their demonstrations on the same day, even though a day earlier they had announced a new 5-point agenda to keep their agitation going. Both Hurriyat factions and PDP declared victory. On Wednesday, July 2, the market activity in Srinagar was so normal that a visitor would have been hard pressed to believe that the city had witnessed ten successive days of utter turmoil and anarchy that had ended barely a few hours earlier. The uprising was over.

On July 7, the Azad government announced its resignation ahead of the Assembly vote. Previously on July 5, the NC had indicated that it would vote against the Congress government. NC was in no mood to be left behind and also claimed victory citing their meeting with the Governor as being crucial to the withdrawal of land transfer to the SASB. The Governor dissolved the J&K Assembly on July 10, and on Friday, July 11, Governor Narender Nath Vohra took over the charge of state affairs. The state was once again under direct rule from the Center.

History will judge this entire episode with utter disdain because it brought down Kashmir politics to a gutter. Everyone that I have spoken to from the valley tells me that the outcry was not against Hindu pilgrims or even the SASB, but simply an expression of political freedom that has been denied to Kashmiri people.

That still however does not do justice to the manner in which the public opinion was molded by the civil society and various political parties in the valley. This incident brought out an ugly truth about the Kashmiri separatist movement and one has to question if Kashmiri nationalism can be sustained without religious bigotry. During the uprising, valley demagogues had to concoct daily conspiratorial theories and rumors about the “Islam in danger” scenario to get people rattled enough to bring them on the street. Sadly and without a good reason, a few unfortunate young people lost their lives for what was actually a tempest in a tea cup.

Then there are those who believe a positive fall-out from the agitation was the unity among Hurriyat. It is very likely that unity in various APHC factions greatly influenced the tempo of the agitation and the apparent unity of purpose among various political tanzeems encouraged people to march on the streets. And once the two Hurriyat leaders patched up, the agitation was over. But will the unity last? After all, an enemy of an enemy is never a real friend but usually a co-conspiring opportunist who can not be trusted in the long run. A common resistance program that builds on harnessing unspoken public fears is not an inspiring vision to rally around for the long haul. It remains to be seen what Hurriyat unity will signify in the long-term and how various resistance groups will join the political process. Of equal significance is how Pakistan based organizations like the UJC and the LeT, who count on Pakistani public and government help to bend the resistance movement towards turning Kashmir into a Taliban-like state, will react to Hurriyat’s political engagement with India, if and when that happens.

Many participants and commentators have related the summer 2008 uprising with the winter 1990 turmoil, but in reality the two events are very different. The 2008 uprising was totally organic in its evolution, and could have been a “perfect storm” had it been based on political logic rooted in nationalism devoid of religious bigotry. The uprising came and went with the speed of lightening. The initial spark was ignited by the PDP and the final douse was thrown by the ACALT. The ease with which a few politicians are able to exploit public passion and emotion for personal gains exposes an inherent weakness in Kashmiri nationalism.

The mayhem in winter 1990 was not organic in nature. In fact there are numerous eye witnesses still in the field who can personally attest to the role of Pakistani government and its intelligence services in arming, training and orchestrating the turmoil in the valley. While separatists like the APHC and pseudo-separatists like the PDP are still riding on coat-tails of the HM and other terrorist groups, the fact is there will be no waning of the spirit of the winter of 1990 until the gun culture in the valley is not forcefully and uniformly denounced. Continuing attacks on civilians by terrorists is drawing mixed response from the civil society. Where it affects the pocket-book, like the recent blast at the Gulmarg bus stand, everyone shakes up with anger, and when the blast hits children or foreigners, it is always blamed on “Indian agencies.”

Who are the winners and losers among the principal actors in the valley? Clearly, the PDP and the Mufti dynasty scored a great success, repeating the toppling of Gul Shah Government in February 1986. The other winner was Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It would seem that he inflamed the entire population, resulting in needless deaths, injuries and destruction simply to provide a convenient cover for his reconciliation with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq without giving the appearance of a let down to his cadre.

Chief Minister Azad and the State Congress Party were losers and will pay a heavy price in the Jammu region. Azad precipitated the problem by disposing the SASB file efficiently, whereas his predecessor, if he were still the chief minister, would have buried it. Azad’s problem is the same that every elected government suffers in Srinagar – those pulling levers in the Delhi Darbar usually see politics as buying and selling. Unfortunately, where other exceptional regional leaders may turn such opportunities into a road map for development of their state, in Kashmir it has historically worked in the opposite direction leading to poor governance, massive corruption, increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and increased alienation because entrenched oligarchies are reluctant to give up their power and find it easy to blame India for all (not some but all) its problems. It is not the first case where the very hand that feeds is also the hand that gets bitten.

Kashmiri Pandits are losers too. At the peak of the uprising, leaders from NC to APHC asked that running of the SASB be turned over to Kashmiri Pandits. This news came as a surprise to Pandits since they have been trying for the last two years – without success, I might add – to get a Bill passed in the State Assembly to establish a consolidated temple management body to prevent unscrupulous sales and wanton destruction of Pandit temple properties in the valley. Indeed, there is a glaring shortcoming in the SASB because of the absence of Pandits on the Board. The first temple reorganization bill was introduced as a “private member bill” by a NC legislator, but the coalition government did not back it as they wanted to present their own version. Finally, in January 2008, a State Gazette notification was issued that such a Bill will be introduced in the Assembly but it never made it. Azad government had already marginalized Pandits by ignoring their political constituency in the selection of cabinet ministers, and for the first time, Pandits were without a political berth in the State Cabinet. The “disappearance” of the Temple Bill was the last straw. Even though valley based Pandits met with a cross-section of separatist and mainstream political leaders in the spring of 2008, none would publicly support their cause. And yet when it became convenient to use or abuse the Pandit name during the latest agitation, no one hesitated. And once the uprising was over, so did any references to Pandits.

It can be argued that apart from a short lived euphoria, the majority community of Kashmiri Muslims has also lost something, though they may or may not agree with that conclusion today. The deceptive nature of “normalcy” in the valley can not be seen as conducive to real peace and prosperity in the valley. Kashmir’s development can not be sustained by relying entirely on financial payback to the accession from the Indian Treasury. True economic growth will come by creating quality educational system, dedicated and trained work force, high productivity and local laws to attract private capital. None of those things can be impeded by India if Kashmiri nation is serious in its efforts. Instead we have a political culture where calls for “hartal” can be given by one and all. Economic losses from such shutdowns run into crores of rupees for every day of work stoppage.

There can be no nation building in an atmosphere of anarchy. The passion that was whipped up against the SASB needs to be translated into tackling more serious environmental and ecological issues such as dying lakes and depleting water tables, deforestation, rapid rezoning of paddy fields into housing plots and haphazard growth of urban infrastructure. Again, it is up to Kashmiris and not New Delhi to make it their primary mission in order to preserve state’s resources and beauty for future generations. Indeed, an enduring legacy from the summer 2008 uprising would be for the state to pass a comprehensive environmental protection law to protect air, water and habitat in the state.

The article has been published by the Kashmir Observer on July 29, 2008 and by the Kashmir Images on July 30, 2008,
both published from Srinagar, Kashmir

About Me

Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.

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