Four weeks after Article 370 was abrogated, Kashmir's protesters believe time is on their side

Praveen Swami

Below a great Chinar tree, surrounded by saffron fields, the poets who had gathered at the birthplace of the poet Habba Khatun, mourned the great tide of blood that tore through Kashmir after the killing of jihadist Burhan Wani. Following the defeat, in 1579, of Habba Khatun's husband, the king Yusuf Shah Chak, Kashmir was reduced to a province of the Mughal empire. Yusuf Shah was forever exiled; the peasant girl who had become a queen wandered Kashmir's villages.

Perhaps some found it odd that the words of pain and loss spoken that evening in November 2017 were tempered by kahwa brewed in a Kandkari Samovar, along with rista and phirni €" but no-one was impolite enough to say so.

Later that year, Kashmir's government announced the village, Chandhar, would become one of several living repositories of Kashmir's unique ethnic-religious identity. For élite Kashmiris, Habba Khatun's story was a key part of the narrative that underpinned their case for a the state's special status. The signboard on Chandhar's bus stand, obscured by graffiti proclaiming "India is great", points visitors to the Habba Khatun heritage village. The memorial promised to her that winter, though, was never built.

The absent building a shrine to an idea that has died.


Kashmir's state flag was quietly lowered at secretariat building in Srinagar this month, and has been stored in a simple wooden box €" perhaps to one day hang in a museum. Inspired, the story goes, by the bloodstained shirt of a protester shot by the Maharaja's troops in July 1931, the red flag, with three white stripes and a peasant's plough, had marked Kashmir's special status, ever since the state adopted its own Constitution in 1957.

Few young Islamists now mobilising in Kashmir against the removal of Article 370, though, are mourning that flag, or what it stands for. "Khudmukhtari hai gaddari, autonomy is treason," one slogan of the young Islamists leading protests goes; to them, that red is the colour of treason.

"Like worship," the Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani said of the anti-India political campaign he forged in 2008, "like the recitation of the kalima, like the offering of namaaz, like the paying of zakaat like the performance of Hajj." Geelani's movement was built on on the claim that Hindu India was preparing to 'alter the demographic character' of the state. "I caution my nation," he warned, "that if we do not wake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our land forever."

The imagination of a generation of young Islamists has been shaped by the events that followed €" and is influencing the course of events today.

Elected on the eve of the 2010 crisis in Kashmir, which saw murderous battles between stone-throwing mobs and police, then-chief minister Omar Abdullah sought to build legitimacy by making peace with the Islamist ascendancy in the countryside. Large numbers of young people arrested through the course of murderous clashes with the police were released; Islamist leaders like Geelani were allowed free rein.

In one bizarre case, intelligence sources say, key Lashkar-e-Taiba organiser Muhammad Yusuf Dar made a deal with the police, betraying fidayeen attackers sent in from Pakistan in return for his organisation being allowed to exercise power in its south Kashmir strongholds. Lashkar chief Abdul Rehman, also known as Abu Qasim, endorsed the agreement:

Even though Abdul Rehman was killed in 2013, his successor, code-named Abu Dujana, inherited the agreeement. Dujana married Rukayyah Dar, the daughter of a farmer from Harkipora €" and began holding court among the young rural Islamists who emerged from the 2008 crisis.

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For a time, the deal seemed to work: From 2008 to 2014, government data shows, killings of civilians, jihadists and terrorists all fell, and clashes between mobs and police declined €" allowing the chief minister space to claim he'd brought peace to Kashmir.

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Then, in 2016, the arrangement fell apart. The killing of Burhan Wani unleashed a tide of rage, led by Islamists who believed then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had betrayed their cause by allying with the BJP. Dujana emerged, at Wani's funeral, as public figure €" leading the crowd's demand for an Islamic State.

In his book, Rudad-e Qafas, Geelani had prophesied just this: "It is as difficult for a Muslim to live among non-Muslims as it is for a fish to live in a desert." He would later explain, "In the absence of an Islamic polity, it is difficult for Muslims to lead their lives entirely in accordance with the rules of Islam."

For Habba Khatun, that claim would have been meaningless. For a new generation of Islamists, it's the plain truth.


In a hairdresser's salon in Srinagar, as a queue of brides-to-be wait for his attention, Arshid Lone attempts to explain his deep resentment against India's de-operationalisation of Article 370. "I know India took away much of the power Article 370 gave our legislative Assembly decades ago," he says, "and I know that little will change here, in terms of law or ground realities." But, he continues, Article 370 was important "as a symbol that India understood, and respected, our identity".

"The prime minister has trampled on our honour," he says, "I don't think Indians understand that."

Kashmir's red flag, though, isn't the insignia of those spearheading anti-India protests. Srinagar's Soura neighbourhood, the one area that has seen demonstrations on a significant scale, has protesters flying the flags of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Islamic State, and even Pakistan €" but the one symbolising Kashmir's special status was nowhere to be seen.

In Budgam this week, local residents who were allowed to march to commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib €" the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and, in the view of Shi'a Muslims, his rightful successor €" shouted slogans hailing the memory of the jihadist Zakir Ahmed Bhat, also known as Zakir Musa, who was shot dead in May.

Even though Bhat led the Ansar Ghazwa'tul Hind €" an affiliate of the Al-Qaeda, which in turn views Shi'as as heretics, and had been responsible for a series of genocidal attacks on them €" he was valourised as a hero who fought Hindu hegemony.

Promises of jobs and development €" made by successive governments since 1997 €" are met with scepticism. "Even if the government hires tens of thousands of people," says unemployed engineering graduate Mushtaq Ahmed, who works as an auto-rickshaw driver, "We're going to be competing for those jobs with people from across India, now."

For him, the notion that development and governance might temper hatred of India is an illusion. "The truth," says Ahmed, "is that India has declared war on Islam. There is no choice for us but to fight."


In the spring of 1990, two young men walked into a home in the small village of Keegam, near Shopian, and shot dead the elderly gentleman sitting reading in his living room at point-blank range. Abdul Sattar Ranjoor, a poet and communist activist who had fought for Kashmir's independence, was targeted because of his long-standing opposition to Islamism.

He had written:

"The order of the world will turn, and hunger will disappear; The poor should keep heart, for there is a new paradise being built in Kashmir"

Few of the young men in Keegam today know of Ranjoor, or his corpus of work. They do tell the stories, though, of Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, shot dead by police during 2016, and of Bilal Bhat, a local Hizbul Mujahideen jihadist killed this summer. The battle between Indian troops and Ansar Ghazwa'tul Hind jihadists Shaukat Ahmad, Azad Ahmad Khanday, Suhail Yusuf and Rafi Hassan Mir, is told with the dramatic verve of a medieval passion.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Kashmir policy is built on the assumption that development, governance and order will, in time, consign its Islamist impulse to the dustbin of history. Kashmir's young Islamists are just as convinced that both time and god are on their side.

Also See: Four weeks after abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Islamists threaten to seize political high ground

Month after abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Indian Army and terrorists wage 'poster war'

Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahauddin calls for Pakistan military intervention in Jammu and Kashmir

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