The Death of Riyaz Naikoo Brings New Life to Kashmiri Riots

The Killing of Riyaz Naikoo

Riyaz Ahmad Naikoo was a school teacher long before Kashmiris and Indians alike knew him as a rebel. That was over a decade ago, before Naikoo left his quiet life and wandered into the forest. After his disappearance, many feared him dead. That was far from the case. Naikoo reappeared on social media in videos surrounded by military equipment and weapons demanding India withdraw from Kashmir. Since then, Naikoo had risen to the top of the anti-Indian militant group Hizbul Mujahideen. He was a senior leader, commander, and public face of the group. Alongside his fellow Kashmiris, he fought to make Kashmir independent, a territory that has long been fought over by Pakistan and India. The Indian military killed him on Wednesday, 6 May 2020. They found him hiding in a village in Pulwama. Indian forces killed at least two other militants.

Naikoo claimed in a 2018 interview with Al Jazeera that his motive for turning towards militancy was Indian security forces killing a family member. Naikoo embraced violence but claimed it was not the goal of the movement. Now, with his death, Kashmir is in a state of unrest. He was an almost messianic character in this region’s fight for independence. He used social media to publicize his triumph and travelled Kashmir gathering a following. In public, Kashmiris would rush to him in throngs just to touch him. Many considered him to be the most powerful military leader in Kashmir at the time of his death. Because of this, his passing has left a massive power vacuum in Kashmir, breeding instability and uprisings. Massive protests ensued.

The Protests That Followed

At this time, the size of the protests is hard to measure across the region. But they have run rampant with violence. In just a few days, over 50 people were injured and one was killed. Government forces are responsible for the deaths and at least half of the injures, with around 25 people with bullet and pellet injuries. They are injuries from shotgun pellets and tear gas aimed at protestors to stop them. Many protestors are marching towards Naikoo’s home in the village of Baighpora in south Kashmir. In response, the government imposed restrictions on movement within the region, targeted at preventing any protestors from getting to Naikoo’s house.

Experts also see these protests as manifestations of long-standing tensions that have been boiling over in Kashmir for some time. These heightened tensions come from a move from the Indian government in August 2019, in which they revoked the region’s partial autonomy. This effectively made Kashmir an Indian police state, with business and schools closing, and the military roaming the street. The move caused widespread protests, leading to the government again firing pellets into crowds, causing numerous injuries.

The Future Of Kashmir

Naikoo’s death could be a turning point in the movement for Kashmir’s independence. Aijaz Ahmad Wani, a professor of Political Science at Kashmir University, says the protests could nose dive. Without anyone to lead the young rebels, the movement could fizzle out. Others, however, predict that Naikoo’s death could be the spark that leads to more momentum for the movement, resulting in larger spats of violence and rebellion. No matter how Kashmiris choose to react, India has a duty to protect those that it claims are part of its country. If India truly wants to treat Kashmiris like they’re Indians, then some steps must be taken to remedy the violence.

First and foremost, the Indian government must ensure the right of Kashmiris to protest peacefully. That includes not regulating their movement or policing crowds and demonstrators, especially with violent methods like pepper spray and shotgun pellets. That will stop the violence in the interim, but it is not a long-term solution to unrest within Kashmir. To help quell tensions and backlash over the killing of Naikoo, India must give back Kashmir’s special status and partial autonomy. This would be seen as an olive branch from the Indian government to the Kashmiri people, and could be the first step in a much longer peace-making process.

Christopher Eckert