Tabinda Gani’s body was laid out in the shade of the apple orchards that cloak the of the great blue mountains towering over the north Kashmir town of Langate. Her killers had raped and battered the 12-year-old, before slitting her throat with a kitchen knife, leaving her to slowly bleed to death. Even in violence-scarred Kashmir, the savagery inflicted on the child’s body had the power to shock.
“Shaheed Tabinda zindabad”, the thousands who gathered for her funeral chanted. “Long live the martyr, Tabinda”.
Now, as migrant workers and businesspersons from elsewhere in India are being executed by jihadists in Kashmir, Gani’s 2007 murder holds the keys to understanding just what is happening, and why. The murders, it is important to understand, aren’t only a means; a tool to disrupt everyday life, or cripple the government’s plans. They are an end; a partitioning of peoples through terror.
The terrifying truth is that it is working. In Kashmir, and elsewhere in India, blood now has two distinct colours: Ours and theirs.
Two weeks after Gani’s death, Abdul Kalam was dragged out of his rented room in Drawani, near Shopian and south Kashmir, and shot through the head. The migrant worker from West Bengal’s Malda had ignored jihadist calls issued after Gani’s murder, for outsiders to leave the region. Kalam lay bleeding for several hours before he died; his landlord, Farooq Ahmed Dar, was too scared to call for help.
No-one came to mourn Kalam: Not even local politicians ostensibly hostile to the jihadist killers.
In the summer of 2007, Kashmir’s jihadist movement stood militarily defeated. Terrorist violence had fallen to negligible levels. In secret negotiations, then prime minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf had hammered out the broad contours of a peace deal. “I think the agenda is pretty much set,” secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said in one interview. “It is September 2007,” he continued, “that India and Pakistan are looking at.”
But the Manmohan-Musharraf negotiations stalled — and Kashmir’s religious Right seized the opportunity to rebuild.
Gani’s murder was a critical moment in the rise of Kashmir’s New Islamist movement — a movement that cast India, Hinduism, and secular-modernity as an existential threat to the region’s peoples. Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, immediately blamed migrants for Gani’s rape, and demanded they leave Kashmir.
Terrorist groups now had a new cause. The Jaish-e-Mohammed described the presence of migrant workers in Kashmir as part of “a well-planned conspiracy to destroy its economy and society”. “The involvement of non-state subjects in criminal activities is increasing almost every day”, a Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson had said, “and is pushing the Kashmiri youth to all kinds of social evils.”
Prosecutors have since secured convictions against four men charged with Gani’s rape — two migrant workers, and two local ethnic-Kashmiris.
From the late-1990s, as the long jihad in Kashmir ebbed, migrant labour had begun to arrive in Kashmir, feeding, in the main, a booming construction sector. The risks were not small: In August 2000, the Lashkar-e-Taiba killed 28 migrant workers in southern Kashmir. Twelve brick-kiln workers from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh were killed at Sandu, near Anantnag; while six Nepali workers were shot dead at Lasjan, near Srinagar.
Islamists cast the arrival of migrants as an Indian plot to undermine Kashmir’s religious culture: Local newspapers were flooded with accounts that the outsiders peddled alcohol, facilitated prostitution, informed on jihadists, and engaged in petty crime.
Like so many ethnic-religious chauvinisms, claims that outsiders were threatening Kashmir’s social fabric are ill-founded. Firstpost analysis of census data shows not only that out-migration from Kashmir is greater than in-migration, but that the region has a lower migrant population, in percentage terms, than other states with special-status protections, like Nagaland and Manipur.
For Geelani and his New Islamist lieutenants, though, the presence of the migrants proved excellent fuel for stoking xenophobic religious nationalism In 2006, the uncovering of an alleged prostitution racket in Srinagar, Geelani alleged that the Indian Army and non-government were collaborating to “promote immorality and obscenity”.
“Lakhs of non-state subjects,” Geelani claimed, “had been pushed into the Valley under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris”. He concluded, “The majority of these non-state subjects are professional criminals and they should be driven out of Kashmir."
Early in 2008, the Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. An Anantnag schoolteacher was also attacked after a video of a group of his students dancing to pop music on a school was circulated.
In summer 2008, matters came to a head after the state government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. Geelani claimed this was a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region: the authorities were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the state.”
“I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”
Eighteen years ago, one sunny September afternoon, a football soared over the playing field of the Government Degree College in Rajouri, and slammed into a student standing on the far side. The student who was hit was Muslim, the player a Hindu; perhaps it was the other way around. Either way, buildings began to burn inside the hour. Four people were killed before the rage stilled.
The killings of migrant workers came in the context of a wider communal war. The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is well known; the far-larger killings of Hindus in rural Jammu isn’t.
In 1994, terrorists shot dead 16 Hindu bus passengers at Sarthal village, near Kishtwar. From 1996 to 200, over 131 lives Hindus were killed in communal attacks by jihadists. Finally, between May and August 2001, terrorists carried out a series of four massacres around Kishtwar, in which 32 Hindus were killed. Hundreds died in similar attacks in Poonch and Rajouri, too.
Local tensions often fed this carnage. In 1997, the marriage of Manzoor Hussein, a Gujjar Muslim schoolteacher, to a Hindu, sparked violence. Hussein’s mother was beaten; his wife kidnapped. The police chose not to help. The school-teacher approached the Hizbul Mujahideen for vengeance. Eight members of the families involved were shot dead.
For the most part, local politicians encouraged these social rifts — knowing they yielded electoral gains. Hindu nationalist politicians encouraged religious reaction. In 2015, ethnic-Kashmiri truck driver Zakir Bhat was burned alive by a Hindu nationalist mob, amidst claims he was smuggling cattle. In 2017, a Gujjar family was attacked in Reasi; several members suffered serious injuries. There have been dozens of smaller incidents.
Politicians in Kashmir, for their part, chose not to act against the New Islamist leadership, hoping to appropriate its causes and ideological cachet. The National Conference released young people charged with rioting, and even reinstated 440 teachers who lost their jobs when schools linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami were closed down in 1990.
In turn, the Peoples Democratic Party reached out to the Jamaat-e-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen, seeking alliances with the religious right in an effort to expand its constituency.
Long before the de-operationalisation of Article 370, Kashmir politics had reached a place of grim impasse: Hindu sundered from Muslim; Kashmir from Jammu, the state from India. The killings the state is now seeing are a symptom of a profoundly rent political and cultural fabric — one no-one seems to know how to stitch together again.
Perhaps this was predictable. Kashmir’s Muslims watched the Partition massacres in Jammu — and looked at India with fear. “There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur", Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah said. Kashmiris, he recorded, “fear the same fate lies ahead for them”. Abdullah worried that the Hindu right-wing would one convert India “into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised”.
At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular State.
Liberals sometimes imagine Jammu and Kashmir as a kind of Islam-coloured Shangri-La: A place where Sufi mystics have melded faiths, and temple bells chime in time with the azaan. It isn’t: Hate is the state’s norm, the warp and weft everyday life is woven from.