Kashmir: The storm beneath the calm

Print edition : September 27, 2019

A soldier patrols a deserted road in Srinagar on August 8. Photo: DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

At a checkpoint in Srinagar on August 27. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

Kashmiri children at a protest on August 23. Midnight detention of juveniles and youths is widespread. Photo: Getty Images

At a checkpoint in Srinagar. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

While anger smoulders in Kashmir, the Narendra Modi government resorts to questionable means to prove to its majoritarian support base and also to the rest of the world that all is quiet in the Valley after the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A.

Over a month after New Delhi ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, turning Srinagar and the rest of the Kashmir Valley into a large bobbin of concertina wire and snipers, one can see only two implements in Narendra Modi and Ajit Doval’s toolbox. The first is the virulent rejection of dialogue and reconciliation and the use of brute force to exterminate home-grown militants despite evidence of the failure of such an approach—the year 2018 saw the highest head count of militants, at between 280 and 300, in a decade. The second is a kind of technocratic approach: of using income-generation and infrastructure building as a bait to stop dissent. During a recent interview with an English daily, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik said: “We will provide 50,000 jobs. You will see a million people queuing up for these jobs…. There will be no dialogue with the mainstream political parties or the separatists. How can you have a dialogue with someone who said there will be no one to hold the national tricolour?”

His inflammatory rhetoric, which is sure to give a fillip to contemporary nationalists’ darkest impulses, indicated the current regime’s belief that the traditional approach to conflict resolution and peace-building by dialogue, political engagement, force moderation and amnesty is wholly out of place and needs to be replaced with heightened coercion, centralisation of power and forceful extraction of loyalty and devotion. This position fails to take note of the actual sources and enablers of militancy, which are injustice, sociopolitical exclusion, and lack of avenues for dialogue and democratic expression. The current regime is also opposed to the policies formulated and nurtured by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who offered Jammu and Kashmir’s mainstream political leaders and the resistance camp a place at the negotiating table and accorded primacy to constructive and meaningful bilateral partnership with Pakistan. The latter approach ameliorated the situation in Kashmir—the number of militants killed dropped from 2,850 in 2001 to 84 in 2012; from 2005 to 2010, the number of active militants was believed to be in two digits.

The Modi-Doval doctrine makes the specious argument that an economic roll-out will be sufficient to persuade people to jettison their political aspirations and minimise support for militancy. This policy was experimented through the 1950s without success. Following the unceremonious ouster of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, who was installed as Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, laid out a plan to build the State economically even as he simultaneously plotted to dilute its special status. The Central government invested thousands of crores in the State and built 500 primary schools. The salaries of government servants were substantially increased and road construction work was prioritised. Yet, resistance was stiffer than ever before, and people’s sense of alienation grew in the face of their political marginalisation.

In his interview, Governor Malik repeated the well-churned out lies of an overwhelming section of the national media that is projecting things as being normal in Kashmir and citing the lack of an explosion of civilian protest as proof of people’s acquiescence to the Centre’s action. “I do agree that the common man went into a state of shock and that there is anger, but slowly, the anger will melt. The anger has not spilled over onto the streets,” he claimed.

Reports from the ground belie these claims. Throughout the past one month, street protesters in Srinagar have shown signs of people’s determination and readiness for a long-drawn battle.

The civil curfew is assuming frightening proportions. A shop owner at Parimpora locality who defied a call for a shutdown was killed recently by unidentified assailants; the Valley now wears a more deserted look than it did before. The government’s failure to ensure attendance in schools and colleges is there for everyone to see, and despite claims of relaxation, the communications shutdown continues except for intermittent and selective resumption of landline services.

In a bid to politicise a national security issue, the government blew up the foundations of mainstream politics that used a campaign driven around self-rule and autonomy to position itself as a buffer between New Delhi and the people of Kashmir. There is widespread agreement that even if New Delhi goes ahead with its plans for an economic handout to temporarily stave off a popular backlash, there will be no one to take its message to the incensed masses.

As the Valley drifts towards a frustrating uncertainty, leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party continue to mouth the rhetoric of majoritarian politics without offering an insight into how they plan to address the prevailing uncertainty. A discussion with people closely associated with Governor Malik’s regime revealed that they have similar perceptions about the developing political situation and are examining some key questions in strictly private gatherings: Did the government think beyond the first step when it abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution? If it continues to vilify, marginalise and invalidate mainstream political players, who will sell the “idea of India” in Kashmir? If dialogue and autonomy are off the table, what will be New Delhi’s message to the alienated masses?

Detention of minors

A close inspection of the actions and utterances of the government in the past one month suggests that these questions are not paramount to it. New Delhi continues to tread the path of night raids and illegal detentions. If the statistics reviewed by the Associate Press is to be believed, at least 2,300 people have been detained in the month of August. AFP, quoting official sources, presented a grimmer picture, with 4,000 detentions made under the draconian Public Safety Act. The government maintains it does not have any centralised data on the number of arrests made since August 5.

Among the arrested are an increasing number of minors. The local people at different pockets in downtown Srinagar, including Nowhatta, Natipora and Soura, confirmed to this reporter that midnight detention of youths and juveniles was widespread. Worryingly, the juveniles are being lodged in regular jails along with adult offenders. This became apparent after Frontline learnt from an impeccable source that the observation home at Harwan in Srinagar, the only one in the Kashmir Valley, had enrolled barely a dozen new inmates since August 5.

With the government continuing to accuse rights bodies and dissenters of amplifying the anti-India message of Pakistan, the State appointees for juvenile rights have preferred to remain silent. A source at the Integrated Child Protection Scheme in Jammu and Kashmir had this to say when contacted by this reporter: “Because of the communication blockade, we are unable to compile data on minors’ arrests.” Asked whether the issue of random arrests of minors had been taken up with the Governor, the source replied in the negative. In several neighbourhoods of Srinagar, people said that crowds were swarming in front of police stations; they include anxious men and women who have not heard from their children after they were picked up at night. This effectively repudiates the government’s claim of easing restrictions at 92 police stations across the Valley.

Post-Pulwama, as the government gave the green signal for the return of cordon-and-search operations, illegal detentions became the order of the day. Several people in Anantnag, Bijbehara, Awantipora and Pulwama had told this reporter in March how youths were picked up randomly in post-midnight raids. On March 4, this reporter saw a handful of village youths outside an Army camp near the Awantipora Air Force Station. Local residents said that in a raid at Malangpora village the previous night, identity cards and mobile phones of these boys had been confiscated. They were later summoned to the Army camp for interrogation. With the foreign press covering these instances of violations and excesses prominently, pressure is mounting on India. On August 23, India declined to speak at an informal session of the United Nations Security Council on safety of minorities in conflict.

Health crisis

The health sector is staring at a crisis, and there have been reports of Kashmir running out of emergency drugs. At Srinagar’s Lal Ded Hospital, an expectant mother suffered a miscarriage on August 23, barely three days before her caesarean section was to take place. There was a drop in the heartbeat of the unborn child, but that fact could not be communicated to senior doctors as cell phones were dead. Governor Malik had an abhorrent justification for continuing the communications blockade. “Who uses phone and the Internet?” he asked. “It is of little use for us but is mostly exploited by terrorists and Pakistanis.”

Omar Salim Akhtar, an eminent urologist, shared a telling account of suffering individuals. Speaking to BBC Urdu, Akhtar referred to one of his patients whose chemotherapy session had been pending for over three weeks. Another patient, he said, was not able to place an order for an emergency drug available in New Delhi, given the Internet shutdown.

The administration not only continues to deny these charges from the ground but tries to stifle them. This was manifest in the whisking away of Omar Salim Akhtar by the police barely 10 minutes after he interacted with the media. Political commentators are being targeted. One of them, Shabir Hussain, shared his predicament with Frontline: “My BSNL mobile number hasn’t been working for the last five days. The signal says ‘emergency calls only’. I sent someone to the BSNL office in Srinagar. It has been blocked for security reasons, he was told. I think it’s because I got a call from a Pakistani news channel, Indus News, and I spoke to them about Kashmir, which was aired later.”

When this reporter contacted an official at the Health and Medical Education Department in the Jammu and Kashmir government, he claimed that there was no shortage of medicines. “We have not received requests from any [public sector] hospital for additional supply of drugs. This confirms that they have enough stocks.” He said that on September 1, the District Commissioner of Baramulla and a senior health officer visited government-run hospitals in Sopore and adjoining areas to take stock of the situation. These inspections were being done everywhere in Kashmir at regular intervals, he claimed. During the course of the conversation, it was learnt that the administration had neither investigated the overwhelming and persistent reports of patients’ sufferings nor charted out an action plan for their speedy alleviation. “We are apprehensive of discussing this with them [the State government]; no one wants to risk his job,” he said, signalling how top-ranking officials have obsequiously bowed down before Raj Bhavan.

Prominent rights advocates and independent lawmakers from around the world have censured India’s arbitrary treatment of Kashmir. “The Indian government’s lengthy shutdown of the Internet and telephones in Jammu and Kashmir inflicts disproportionate harm on the population and should be immediately lifted,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on August 28. “We need de-escalation, not the hiding of what’s happening,” said Ted Lieu, a California Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders denounced India’s action as “unacceptable”. “The communications blockade must be lifted immediately, and the United States government must speak out boldly in support of international humanitarian law and in support of a U.N.-backed peaceful resolution that respects the will of the Kashmiri people,” he said.

As anger and resentment swell on the ground, the civilian curfew is intensifying. Posters asking people to stay indoors are mysteriously appearing on the walls and on lamp posts, said residents at the Rajbagh neighbourhood in the heart of Srinagar. A middle-rung officer who is currently posted at the police control room at Batamaloo said the administration was aware of this. For the people, the future looks bleak. “There looms the shadow of a possible return to the lawless 1990s,” was how a woman described her anticipation of misfortune. “The other day, while on the way to office,” she continued in a trembling voice over a landline phone from Srinagar, “the protesters stopped four-wheelers at Baghaat and smashed window panes. The message is clear: Don’t go to work.” A government official at Padshahi Bagh had a similar experience. “They [protesters] have barricaded the roads. They are avoiding bigger demonstrations, as the city is literally fortified, but there’s a perceptible resolve to not let Kashmir look normal. We sneak off to work early in the morning, do the biometric, and return before the streets turn unruly, which is usually after noon.”

A local journalist from Natipora has not been able to venture out in the past one week. “The media facilitation centre from where we file our stories currently, is barely seven kilometres away. But that’s become a perilous voyage,” he said with an air of resignation. A woman official in Srinagar was recently cautioned by a senior member of the judiciary to not drive alone to work. “The gentleman was in disbelief,” she recalled. “‘You’re moving around alone?’ he asked, before gasping out, ‘That’s some boldness!’”

Traders are easy targets. There are murmurs in Jawahar Nagar that the owner of the glitzy Cash-n-Carry departmental store, who was conducting business as usual, was warned by “unidentified persons” of a Parimpora-like reprisal.

Far from outlining a programme aimed at political inclusion, the government is busy glossing over these forewarnings of upheaval and strengthening its commitment to nationalist rhetoric and assailing opponents who critique its policies on Kashmir. “People will beat them with shoes,” said Governor Malik when asked about the Congress party’s contrary stand over the abrogation of Article 370. Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, who sought an apology from Rahul Gandhi for questioning the government’s claim of normalcy in Kashmir, almost ascribed the latter’s views to “Muslim influence”. “I feel that his mindset changed when he was elected from Wayanad,” Javadekar said at a press conference. Wayanad, a rural district in north Kerala, has a sizeable Muslim population.

Vilification of the opposition

There is consensus among political observers that such vilification of opposition leaders is part of a larger agenda to discredit them and limn an image of Modi as the sole protector of the national interest. As the government falters majorly on the economy, the subjugation of Muslim-majority Kashmir is necessary to underscore the point that it remains committed to placing the social and political hegemony of the majority on top. This emotive appeal protects it from desertions by the electorate.

A discussion with top-rung bureaucrats in Srinagar also mirrored this point of view. “New Delhi wants to rule Kashmir militarily,” said one, as he rued the government’s stubborn refusal to give Kashmiris a sense of accommodation. When asked where the conflict would slide from here, he said: “Perhaps worse than what it was in 1990.” After a few seconds, he added: “People are not fatigued; they are waiting for an opportunity.”

Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat, who served in the Prime Minister’s Office as Adviser on Kashmir from 2000 to 2004, offered similar words of caution. “The Kashmiri is very smart. He is much smarter than the average Indian…. If you threaten him, he will lie down, might even pretend that he is dead or is going to die, and given a chance, he will rise again.” He illustrated that resilience with an anecdote. “Reports of boys coming and going to Pakistan began to trickle in as soon as I was posted to Srinagar in May 1988. There was no hint of this when I had come for my familiarisation visit six months earlier; at that time it all seemed like a holiday with a grand farewell party at Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah’s residence for my predecessor K.P. Singh, who was on his way to the National Defence College, and we had vodka and kebabs by the fireside at Highland Park, while it snowed outside, during my first visit to Gulmarg. It all seemed like a picnic. Kashmir was at its glorious best. Soon I would also see it at its worst.”

The government must avoid a repeat of that fate.

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