It is easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees in a warzone like Kashmir’s, and the state police appear to have done just that over the funeral of Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Abu Qasim on Thursday. He was killed earlier that day in an operation led by the Rashtriya Rifles.
Senior police officers said this one killing had broken the back of militancy but seemed oblivious to how vividly the funeral demonstrated mass alienation. Those who attended the funeral or were in the vicinity spoke of their shock at the level of mass hatred against India which they witnessed.
Some estimates put the number of mourners at 20,000. Many young people drove from Pulwama and Shopian districts to the funeral site in Kulgam district. Observers noted an almost murderous zest in their emotions. Militants joined the boisterous crowd and fired volleys as a salute when Qasim was buried. Funeral prayers were read twice at different locations and people from the three districts argued over where the body would be buried.
After the funeral, the police’s handling of the highly strung public smacked of a counterproductive ego battle. They damaged a large number of returning cars and locked up scores of boisterous young men. This sort of robotically repressive response tends to turn a battle victory between militants and counterinsurgency forces into a mass uprising that could change the contours of the war – to the forces’ disadvantage.
A senior police officer was quoted as saying that, after Qasim had killed `super-cop’ sub-inspector Mohammed Altaf Dar earlier this month, it had become not just a professional duty but a personal one to kill Qasim. Taking umbrage at this remark, Hilal, an angry resident of Shopian, asked why it had not been the police’s duty to kill Qasim as long as his targets were army or para-military soldiers. He added bitterly that the police force was so incensed over Altaf’s killing because his successes used to bring them large amounts in reward.
Such high-pitched support for a slain militant has been uncommon since about 1991, particularly for a Pakistani. Until relatively recently, people by and large did not quite identify with ‘guest militants’, and were wary of Lashkar’s blinkered religio-militant zeal. About a decade ago, people generally avoided sheltering or aiding them.
Several factors have come together to change things so much. They need to be taken seriously, for this is a dangerous trend.
One, Qasim assumed a larger-than-life heroic image after he ambushed and killed S-I Altaf. Senior police officers’ projection of that killing was directly responsible. Instead of quietly looking after the interests of his family, they made public the achievements of the slain covert operative, whose skill at applying data-processing dealt severe blows to militancy. That publicity not only put his family in harm’s way, it caused a lot of young people to take high-pitched posthumous sides as if Altaf and Qasim had been gladiators at a Roman spectacle.
Two factors that have been strongly at play in recent weeks helped to push public empathy towards a show of almost hysterical support for Qasim. One, Kashmiris have been appalled at the targeting of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities across various parts of India. Those trends have roused deep-seated fears about Kashmir’s association with India.
Two, disappointment with the Mufti-led coalition government has risen to dangerous levels. People initially focused on the lack of flood relief and other ‘packages’, which the PDP had cited as their reason for allying with the party in power at the Centre. But, in light of Hindutva-oriented trends across the country, people now bitterly accuse the Muftis of betraying an essentially anti-BJP mandate. Subliminally, the post-mortem hero-worship of Qasim – and the implied acceptance of Lashkar’s ultra-Islamist ideology – reflects resentment against Hindutva.
Such is the mood in Kashmir today that the prime minister’s monetary ‘package’ for the state, which is being touted again, would most likely be received with contempt even if it does materialise. As a measure to win hearts and minds, it is not only too late, it will not even begin to heal the damage that the beef-related violence, including the Dadri lynching and the burning to death of a Kashmiri truck cleaner at Udhampur, have done.
In combination, the two factors have popularised the idea in Kashmir that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was right to have posited the Two-Nation Theory and to have warned Muslims before the Partition about the dangers of accepting composite nationhood in a Hindu-majority India.
(David Devadas, an expert on political and international affairs, is the author of In Search of a Future: the Story of Kashmir)