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Operation Kashmir

Print edition : Jun 21, 2019 T+T-
People throwing stones at security forces near a site of encounter at Tazipora-Mohanpora village in Kulgam.

People throwing stones at security forces near a site of encounter at Tazipora-Mohanpora village in Kulgam.

People collecting money from visitors for a person whose house was damaged during a gunfight.

People collecting money from visitors for a person whose house was damaged during a gunfight.

People  collecting money for a person whose house was destroyed (right) during a gunfight in Tazipora-Mohanpora.

People collecting money for a person whose house was destroyed (right) during a gunfight in Tazipora-Mohanpora.

Engineer Rashid,  the independent MLA from Langate and Shah Faesal, bureaucrat-turned politician.

Engineer Rashid, the independent MLA from Langate and Shah Faesal, bureaucrat-turned politician.

Shah Faesal, bureaucrat-turned politician.

Shah Faesal, bureaucrat-turned politician.

PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti  and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.

PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah.

Mohammed Yusuf  Tarigami, CPI(M) leader.

Mohammed Yusuf Tarigami, CPI(M) leader.

After its massive victory in the Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party plans to capture Jammu and Kashmir on its own strength, and it is expected to be an operation with no holds barred.

ON the afternoon of May 23, as itbecame clear that Narendra Modi was headed for a massive victory in the general election, many in Srinagar’s newsrooms and political circles switched off their television sets and resigned themselves to listening to grim commentaries from perturbed friends and colleagues who tried to make sense of how this sweeping mandate for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would alter the course of Kashmir’s politics.

The discussion was unavoidable since a major component of the BJP’s nationwide polarising game was to whip up sentiments against the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, virulently reject the political aspirations of its people, and vow to do away with the constitutional safeguards guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir. The election results established that this trenchant nationalism had resonated well in the Hindi heartland and no less in Jammu, which voted decisively for the saffron party enabling it to retain both the Jammu and Udhampur constituencies and lead in 28 Assembly segments, three more than its all-time best tally of 25 in 2014. The common refrain among Srinagar’s political observers was that the BJP was now all set to make its anti-Kashmir manoeuvres with more belligerence across the Pir Panjal, rendering Jammu an unopposed hunting ground for it and guaranteeing its emergence as an indispensable shareholder in any future coalition government in the politically fractious State.

Kashmir’s local newspapers were rife with editorials drawn around this refrain. An article in Greater Kashmir titled “All roads lead to whom?” said: “The fears of political surrender and the challenge of according a sense of belongingness to Jammu have grown deeper.” Kashmir Observer was more candid in underlining the Sangh Parivar’s thickening Hindutva plot in an op-ed aptly titled “Next Stop J&K”. “The Hindutva party has ambitious plans up its sleeve, seeking even to become a majority partner in the new government,” it said. However, what Kashmir’s local press has failed to factor in so far is that the Sangh Parivar has smelled the opportunity for a far bigger leap in Jammu and Kashmir than simply being a partner in government.

BJP’s 35+9 formula

A conversation with several BJP leaders and their election strategists based in Jammu underscored the point that the party is planning to capture Jammu and Kashmir on its own strength by executing a “35+ 9 formula”: a minimum of 35 seats from Jammu and Ladakh, which elect 37 and four legislators respectively, and nine from the Kashmir Valley to secure a majority in the 87-member State Assembly. The BJP’s phenomenal success in the general election has reinforced its conviction that fomenting and aggravating the fear of the “Muslim other” and minting an implicit slogan of “Hindu first” have the capacity to effect an unprecedented consolidation of majority community votes. It plans to repeat that experiment in Jammu by seizing on people’s unease with the influx of Rohingyas—5,700 Rohingya refugees are settled in Jammu and 7,664 in Ladakh, as per the Jammu and Kashmir government’s estimate—and weaponising the pending citizenship issue of West Pakistani refugees as a “betrayal of Hindus”. In the 2019 election, the BJP’s vote share in Jammu and Kashmir increased to 46.4 per cent from 34.4 per cent.

The press in the State is abuzz with the news that the government is mulling a delimitation exercise to redraw the size and boundaries of existing constituencies and reserve more seats for the Scheduled Castes; currently, seven seats are reserved for the S.Cs, all in the Jammu division. This reported action plan has met with stiff resistance from Kashmir’s political leadership since the erstwhile Farooq Abdullah government froze delimitation in 2002 until 2026 by amending the Jammu and Kashmir Representation of the People Act, 1957, and Section 47(3) of the State Constitution. This amendment was challenged by Bhim Singh, Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party chief, in the State High Court and subsequently in the Supreme Court; on both occasions his petition was turned down. When Ghulam Nabi Azad was Chief Minister, the Congress proposed the addition of 22 constituencies in the State. The government’s latest gamble has made the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the National Conference (N.C.) and the Congress uneasy as increased reservation for Gujjars, Bakerwals and Gaddies, who form 11 per cent of the State’s population and are identified as Scheduled Tribes, is expected to increase the saffron party’s tally in the State Assembly. Jammu has a history of distrust and division that dates back to the days of Maharaja Hari Singh. Horace Alexander, a British chronicler, says: “If the Maharaja’s government chastised the people of the Kashmir Valley with whips, the Poonchis were chastised with scorpions.” During the Second World War, of the 71,667 citizens of Jammu and Kashmir who served in the British Indian Army, 60,402 were Muslims hailing from Poonch and Mirpur. After the war, Maharaja Hari Singh, alarmed by the agitations against his government, refused to include them in his army. In the spring of 1947, when a “no tax campaign” erupted in Poonch, he forced his Muslim subjects to surrender their weapons. When the same weapons landed in the hands of Hindus and Sikhs, major communal tensions ensued. In the days following Partition, the Maharaja’s Dogra troops are believed to have terrorised Muslim villages in the neighbourhood of Jammu. This is recorded by Ian Stephens, the then editor of The Statesman (Calcutta). He wrote: “About 200,000 just disappeared, remaining untraceable, having presumably been butchered or died from epidemics or exposure.”

In 1952, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee-led Praja Parishad launched an agitation seeking the complete merger of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian Union. As Jammu reverberated with his popular slogan “ Ek desh mein do vidhan, do nishan, do pardhan, nahin chalega, nahin chalega ” (In one country, two constitutions, two flags and two chiefs will not work; will not be tolerated), the sense of alienation among Muslims grew. The polarisation games continued in successive decades, though not with much success until militancy in Kashmir turned existing fissures between Hindu-majority Jammu and Muslim-dominated Poonch, Rajouri and Kishtwar districts into full-time hostility. In the early 1990s, when selective killing of Hindus by militants was reported in these districts, the government sanctioned the formation of village defence committees, a kind of Hindu militia. With the passage of time, these committees resorted to selective targeting of Muslims, a practice that has continued to the present day and is responsible for keeping the communal flame alive.

Fanning communal tension in Jammu

The BJP leaders’ recent statements and actions suggest that they are set to play up these divisions of the past. Last year, while observing Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s death anniversary in Jammu on June 23, BJP president Amit Shah (now Union Home Minister) made the outlandish claim that “the Congress party’s frequency matches with that of terror outfits”. On April 14 this year, Modi lashed out at the Congress for overlooking atrocities committed on Kashmiri Pandits for the sake of “appeasement politics”.

Frontline spoke to several leaders across the political spectrum in Kashmir. They all had one apprehension: that “there could be untoward developments in Jammu before the Assembly election, including an enforced economic blockade, like in 2008, or revival of attempts to transfer land to the Amarnathji Shrine Board, which would most certainly provoke outrage in the valley, or some sort of disruption of the Amarnath yatra that is bound to [cause] passions to flare up in Jammu and bring windfall gains for the BJP.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, who was a legislator from Kulgam four times, expressed the same fear. “The BJP’s policy vis-a-vis Kashmir is expected to be more hawkish in the next five years. The BJP was successful in distracting people from pressing issues such as unemployment and economic stagnation by centring its campaign around Balakot and essentially used Kashmir as a vehicle to further its bellicose nationalism. It does not suit their narrow, divisive political agenda to resolve Kashmir [issue] or withdraw the policies that have worsened the situation in Kashmir.” He added: “If the BJP tinkers with Articles 370 and 35A, it will be a great disservice to the nation’s unity as it will lead to disintegration of the State of J&K from India. It will certainly amount to eroding the Kashmiris’ sense of unity with the nation.”

There is also the fear that the BJP will be able to register victories in the Muslim-dominated Pir Panjal and the Chenab Valley, riding on the Hindu vote and benefiting from a divided opposition. The arithmetic looks attainable. Despite the PDP and the N.C. not fielding any candidate from Udhampur, which has a sizeable Muslim population, the BJP’s Jitendra Singh defeated the Congress’ Vikramaditya Singh by 3.57 lakh votes, the highest margin of victory for any candidate in Jammu and Kashmir.

In Kashmir, the BJP is aiming to win a minimum of nine seats. A covert pact with Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference (P.C.), which has poached influential PDP legislators in north Kashmir and finished second in the Baramulla constituency, is expected to help the BJP make up any shortfall in the numbers. The boycott factor proved to be of tremendous advantage to the BJP in last year’s panchayat and urban local body elections. In the urban local body elections, the turnout plummeted to between 3 and 8 per cent in the Kashmir Valley, with the result that 231 candidates were elected unopposed in Kashmir, 70 of them from the BJP. The saffron party gained control of four of the 20 civic bodies in the militancy-infested south Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian. The PDP and the N.C. stayed away from the electoral fray, ostensibly to protest against the Centre’s unclear stand on the State’s special status. In reality, they were unable to find candidates. Their cadres were on the run, fearing for their lives from homegrown militants whose first targets were those who identified themselves with mainstream politics.

‘Election boycott part of the BJP’s plan’

There is a feeling among N.C. and PDP leaders that the BJP is deliberately vitiating the climate by launching a vitriolic campaign against Articles 370 and 35A and stepping up security operations that are bound to steeply increase civilian deaths, trigger panic and crystallise into a resolve to shun elections. During an interview with Frontline before the election result came out, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah came close to suggesting that. When asked whether the row over Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was dissuading people from participating in elections, the N.C. leader not only responded in the affirmative but expressed the hope that the BJP’s departure from power would end the volatile political situation in Kashmir. “It does obviously have an impact on the election climate. But the point we are making to potential voters and potential participants is that no government is there in perpetuity, and we are hoping that this general election will throw up a different dispensation, one that will be more open to the idea of a political dialogue,” he had said.

The BJP intensified its anti-Kashmir rhetoric ahead of the general election. Its sankalp patra (manifesto) read: “We reiterate our position since the time of the Jana Sangh to the abrogation of Article 370.” This was followed by the banning of civilian traffic on the Udhampur-Baramulla highway on Sundays and Wednesdays, a decision fiercely resented by Kashmiris. Throughout the five-phase election in Jammu and Kashmir, from April 11 to May 6, encounters continued, with little regard to the profound negative impact they had on the minds of the electorate. Most notable of them was the one in Pulwama on May 3, barely three days before Pulwama and Shopian were to vote. On that day, the forces launched an ambush in Wachi and gunned down the Hizbul Mujahideen militants Lateef Ahmad Dar, Tariq Ahmad Sheikh and Shariq Ahmad Nengroo. At least 19 civilians suffered injuries as they clashed with the security forces. Expectedly, the turnout shrank to a mere 2.81 per cent in the twin districts. PDP insiders alleged this was part of a “conspiracy” to damage the prospects of Mehbooba Mufti, who was contesting in Anantnag. “The encounter was engineered to keep voters away,” said a senior former MLA of the party. “Why else would they [the BJP-led government at the Centre] give the green signal for an encounter 72 hours ahead of polling?”

Militaristic policy to continue

While Mehbooba Mufti lost the election, trailing behind the winner, Hasnain Masoodi of the N.C., and the runner-up, Ghulam Ahmad Mir of the Congress, the boycott gave the BJP its first ever lead in the valley, in the militancy hotbed of Tral. Sources in Srinagar’s power corridors believe that the BJP is likely to pursue this effective “estrange the voter” strategy in future elections. The ground is being prepared. On May 29, at a time when the valley was simmering after the killing of Zakir Musa, the chief of the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and the poster boy of militancy, the security forces launched one of their biggest operations in south Kashmir. A joint team of 9 Rashtriya Rifles, the Central Reserve Police Force and the Special Operations Group raided the Tazipora-Mohanpora village in Kulgam, after getting a tip-off about the presence of militants. Even as the insurgents managed to flee, helped by human shields, the forces fired indiscriminately at the villagers, leaving 60 injured—some with bullet wounds, others with pellets. This was perhaps the biggest casualty of civilians in a long time, but far from exercising restraint in the aftermath of the incident, the forces carried out a second offensive on the same day, at Gagloora Pinjoora in Shopian. It left over 20 protesters injured, including two young women, and claimed the life of one youth, Sajad Ahmad Parray.

The cumulative effect of encounters, civilian deaths, protests and the BJP’s aptly timed exhortations that it planned to do away with Jammu and Kashmir’s special status meant that not only did voters keep away from the polling booths but political workers became the natural target of militants. This leads to a systematic weakening of the election machinery of the Valley-based parties and, consequently, the very structure of electoral politics. The May 19 killing of PDP worker Mohammad Jamal Bhat in Kulgam, barely three weeks after Kulgam went to the polls, is a case in point.

Sources in the BJP’s Jammu office told Frontline that they had identified at least five constituencies in Kashmir where election boycott could translate into a victory for the party. The BJP’s State brass, the sources said, had been holding parleys with some former PDP MLAs and independents who had pockets of influence in these constituencies. Among them is an individual from Gulmarg, an ex-renegade from Bandipora, and a former PDP Minister who had prominence in the erstwhile PDP-BJP government. The party is eyeing the Habba Kadal constituency, which has 16,000 migrant (Kashmiri Pandit) votes, and Pahalgam, where its leader Sofi Yousuf has pockets of influence. Yousuf polled 10,225 votes in the Anantnag Lok Sabha election. The party also plans to launch a campaign to seek election in at least eight of the 24 seats reserved for areas under Pakistan’s and China’s occupation.

The BJP’s alliance with the P.C. is continuing covertly. In north Kashmir, several former MLAs of the PDP have crossed over to the P.C. Imran Raza Ansari from Pattan and Abid Ansari and Abbas Wani from Tanmarg are notable examples. Although the P.C. candidate Raja Aijaz Ali could not win the Baramulla constituency, he polled an impressive 1,03,193 votes, finishing second to the N.C.’s Akbar Lone, who polled 1,33,426 votes. Although the Lok Sabha election result translated into only two Assembly leads for Sajjad Lone’s party, in Handwara and Pattan, informed sources said the P.C. could pull off a win in the event of a low turnout in Zadibal, Hazratbal, Budgam and Sonawar, where there are a good number of Shias. The P.C.’s Shia candidate, Irfan Raza Ansari, polled 28,773 votes in Srinagar in the just concluded parliamentary election.

The P.C. is likely to attempt to cause more defections from the PDP, in particular in the south. Frontline revealed in one of its previous reports that the P.C. was working in conjunction with the BJP to weaken the PDP. A very senior leader of the P.C. had admitted as much on condition of anonymity. The leader said it was by virtue of his party’s nexus with the BJP that it had emerged as a formidable player in two parliamentary constituencies (Srinagar and Baramulla). Sitting inside a closed antechamber, where at least two dozen party functionaries were present, he boasted about the P.C.’s moves to splinter the PDP. “ Yahan to pura toda usko, har jagah todenge [Here, we splintered it completely; we will do that everywhere]” (“ Common Enemy”, Frontline , April 26).

At least two ex-MLAs of the PDP who spoke to this correspondent were certain that Mehbooba Mufti’s defeat in Anantnag was scripted in Jammu with the blessings of New Delhi. “A massive encounter that left three militants dead, only three days ahead of the polling in Pulwama and Shopian, where a major lead for us was guaranteed, was done to sabotage us. It may have been planned months in advance,” one of them said.

Insiders in the N.C., the PDP and the Congress fear that the administration may be working on the direction of the BJP to keep the turnout at a minimum. The clubbing of polling booths during the Lok Sabha election and the obvious lapses in law and order enforcement made them suspicious. Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of the N.C., raised some pertinent questions. “What was the rationale behind clubbing of polling booths, which essentially meant that a voter had to walk several kilometres to cast his vote? Who would be willing to take such risk when there was a general resentment against voting?” Dar asked. He questioned the heavy presence of the armed forces inside polling booths. “I travelled across Kulgam on polling day to oversee our party’s booth management. What surprised me was that the security forces had assembled inside the polling booths, whereas the city had been left unprotected. There may be an underlying design aimed at voter suppression.”

The State J&K president of the Congress, G.A. Mir, voiced a similar concern in an interview with Frontline . “There was total intelligence failure on polling day. People were ready to vote, but all of a sudden, between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., disruptions started across the district, at Dooru, Kokernag and Bijbehara. There was no tactical handling of the stone-throwers. The forces started shelling and retaliatory firing, and this led to people confining themselves to their houses,” Mir said.

Shah Faesal, Rashid are dark horses

The BJP’s plans risk being scuppered by the quickly emerging alternative fronts that have their axis around Shah Feasal, a bureaucrat-turned politician, and Engineer Rashid, an independent MLA from Langate. Faesal is said to be hobnobbing with prominent PDP rebels, including Altaf Bukhari, an influential Minister in the erstwhile PDP-BJP government, to increase his footprint in and around the Lolab Valley in the north, where he comes from. Rashid proved his mettle in the Baramulla election, finishing a close third to N.C. and P.C. candidates and polling over one lakh votes. His surprise ascent in the electoral map beyond Langate indicates that strong opposition to pro-unionist parties, a staple of his politics, can act as a magnet in this tidal wave of uncertainty in Kashmir. Rashid and Faesal are said to be exploring areas of agreement with the hope of coming together. When Frontline asked Tarigami about this emerging axis, he said: “There is scope for dissenting voices in the upcoming Assembly election. Like-minded people must put more effort to safeguard the constitutional provisions with respect to J&K and develop a larger understanding, if not unity, to come together to offer resistance to the BJP’s agendas in J&K.”

A senior politician from Kashmir who is not a part of the N.C., the PDP or the Congress, confirmed that Rashid and Faesal were indeed talking and that Tarigami himself was a part of that emerging coalition. The source confirmed that Altaf Bukhari too had held parleys with these leaders and that Haseeb Drabu, another former PDP MLA, was being “approached”. If this front materialises, it is bound to attract an outpouring of support across the Valley. And yet, there is fear that the BJP can checkmate them all by effecting a large-scale election boycott.