'Restore Democracy March'

Debris of democracy

Print edition : February 14, 2020

Youths protesting against the suspension of Internet services in Srinagar on December, 19, 2019. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Journalists using the Internet facility at a government-run media centre in Srinagar on January 10. Photo: Danish Ismail/REUTERS

A farmer packing freshly harvested apples in boxes at Gund village in Budgam district in central Kashmir on October 20, 2019. The clampdown in the aftermath of the August 5 decision has affected trade in apples, almonds, walnuts and other items. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The overarching impression gained from a march from Jammu to Srinagar is that the people are hit hard by anguish, a sense of betrayal, uncertainty, loss of rights, financial distress and lack of accountability on the part of the authorities.

“Jab har saans mein bandook dikhe toh baccha kaise bekhauf rahe? (How can a child be fearless when she sees a gun in every breath?)” remarked Anwar, a gardener from Srinagar, when asked about the situation in Kashmir. The special status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked by abrogating Articles 370 (which provided special status to the State) and 35A (special rights and privileges to permanent residents of the State) without any consultation, on August 5, 2019. Civil society members from various States recently attempted a “Restore Democracy March” from Jammu to Srinagar. The marchers were not allowed to interact freely with the press or with the local community in many places. The police stopped the march at Ramban, midway between Jammu and Srinagar. Indeed, a police vehicle followed us (we were among the marchers) and ensured that we crossed the Ramban district border on the way back to Jammu. Nevertheless, six of us continued our journey to Kashmir the following day from Jammu.

Even as the Government of India pushed a patently discriminatory Act—the Citizenship (Amendment) Act—down our throats in December 2019, the sense of betrayal and alienation in Jammu and Kashmir, the poster child of subversion, was haunting. We discuss three aspects of the crises that we witnessed. First, the ministry of fear that Jammu and Kashmir has become and the complete decimation of civil liberties as a consequence. Second, the massive economic fallout of August 5. Third, the stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s political identity, which has resulted in political uncertainty and created a vacuum that rightist politics is attempting to usurp.

Ministry of Fear

On November 30, 2019, we walked through the iron gate of a public school located in a quiet neighbourhood of Srinagar. It was 11 a.m., the hour when typically every school is abuzz with activity. Not here, though. We were met with an eerie silence as we walked past locked classrooms to the staff room. There were 10 teachers. The teachers of this school, and those of other schools and colleges we met, told us that no classes had been held after August 5. When we tried to take a photograph of a locked classroom, the teachers panicked. They came running towards us and would not let us leave until we deleted the photograph from our mobile phone. “You will have us killed. The government will be able to identify the school from the photo of a locked classroom. And once they do, they will not spare us,” said a teacher from Jammu. We realised that the 98 per cent attendance that Union Home Minister Amit Shah talks about is that of teachers and not students. Amit Shah also said that schools in Jammu and Kashmir had conducted examinations. The reality is, teachers took the question papers for all examinations, except Board examinations, to the homes of students and brought the answer sheets back to schools. Parents now spend up to Rs. 5,000 a month to provide private tuitions for their children at home.

Imran, an apple trader of Kulgam district, recounted the horror his friend faced on November 23. The friend, a taxi driver, was returning to Srinagar from Banihal after sunset. He was made to wait in his taxi for over four hours outside the city limits as an Army convoy was to pass that way. The Army personnel at the check post asked him to turn on the light inside the car but the light did not work. The mechanical glitch in his car became the reason for the Army men to beat him up brutally. The driver returned home with blood spurting from his nose and forehead. Feroze, a baker from Ramban in the Jammu region, was threatened with arrest for asking the local authorities to repair a broken bridge. Sounding exasperated, he said: “I did not raise any anti-national slogans. I merely asked them to build a bridge.”

Several youths continue to be detained every day in Kashmir. They are released on the condition that some community members should sign a bond promising that the person being released will not speak against the abrogation of Article 370. “Effectively, for every detainee, 10-15 others are held as virtual hostages,” said Khurram Parvez of the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies. “Kashmir has been a laboratory for military adventurism for the sake of winning elections. Has India been able to win the hearts of even a single Kashmiri with the barrel of a gun?” he asked.

Another senior Kashmiri said with a mix of pain and agony:“Unofficially more than 40,000 innocent civilians are languishing in jails without trial. After being subjected to such harsh injustice, how does the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] government expect them to support India? The majority of the people in Kashmir have turned against India after August 5 [the decision of the government]. Even I am deeply hurt by the decision as it is akin to snatching away my identity.” This sentiment was not limited to Kashmir. Anand, a Kashmiri Pandit in Udhampur, employed with a telecom company, said: “Article 370 for the residents of Jammu and Kashmir was like the peacock feather on Krishna’s head. It was our crown. By scrapping Article 370, the BJP government has snatched our crown. Now we have been reduced to being slaves of Delhi.”

According to reports, there are fewer than 400 “militants” in Kashmir. For counter-militancy operations there are eight lakh military and 1.5 lakh police personnel. This roughly translates to one security person for every 10 civilians and close to 2,700 security persons for every militant. Ghulam Mohammad Mizrab, regional secretary of the Communist Party of India, Shopian, who referred to himself as an “Indian at heart”, said “the Government of India spends Rs.3 crore extra a day in the name of security, excluding the salaries and the maintenance cost.”

Close to 500 security persons have reportedly committed suicide following the traumatic psychological conditions of their job. While a few Army men we spoke to said they saw their work as “duty where right and wrong don’t matter”, others openly expressed their annoyance at the manner in which their deployment has happened. A few of them used unflattering expletives to describe Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Some of them were apparently deployed in Jammu and Kashmir before August 5 temporarily on the pretext of election duty. But now they have been ordered to stay until the situation becomes “normal”. This contradicts the government’s claim that the situation in the region is normal.

Government employees were coerced into signing an agreement within a day on the choice of their service in either of the two Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir or Ladakh, by which they would implicitly endorse the government’s decision. Ordinary people, reportedly, have to sign a similar agreement saying that they abide by the government’s decision on Article 370 even to get a broadband connection for their homes in Kashmir. Cable channels are barred from broadcasting local news. Some college students in Jammu expressed much anguish about the disruption of Internet facilities. They are not able to apply to other places to study, and some of them had to go to Punjab to download their admit cards.

About five lakh migrant labourers were sent back to India before August 5. “It may not be a surprise that after some time Kashmiris may be blamed for this just like they are blamed for driving out Kashmiri Pandits, even though they were evacuated then, initially only for several months, on the pretext of some planned action against militants, both of which have now prolonged,” said Khurram Parvez. Near Pulwama, we saw vacant houses belonging to Kashmiri Pandits; that is, the option for their return is kept open. We also saw a colony established for Hindu government employees here. As Mizrab said with an air of pride, “There is no problem among common Kashmiris to live together irrespective of religious affiliation as our culture is Kashmiriyat; inclusive and syncretic.”

Jammu and Kashmir is enveloped in a ministry of fear. The overarching impression everywhere was one of anguish, uncertainty, loss of rights, and financial loss. Mir, an elderly man, speaking eloquently about the history of the region, remarked angrily: “I have lived all my life here. Everybody knows me and yet some outsider in uniform from Chennai, Mumbai or Delhi comes and asks for my identity?”

Everybody we met in Kashmir was scared of being recorded on video or audio, lest they be arrested under the Public Safety Act. A young Kashmiri provision shop owner said: “Don’t record me. There may be drones everywhere that might identify me.” The presence of drones may or may not be true but the fear psychosis is amplified. On our way back from Srinagar to Jammu, we were stuck in traffic for nearly five hours in Qazigund. Amidst heavy Army patrol, vehicles were made to move in a single file so that if required, an Army convoy could pass. A jeep tried to overtake and occupy an empty spot behind a stationary lorry. This angered an Army man who broke the window and shattered the glass pane of the jeep. A taxi driver standing there asked, “Does this happen in the rest of India?”

Economic Distress

Many civilians from Jammu to Kashmir are in severe financial distress. While Kashmir has experienced much more economic distress in the past four months, Kashmiris were overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal.

Shops in Srinagar remain open only for about four hours a day while Internet services continue to be shut down. The absence of transportation in the past three months has affected every single business. A cloth merchant said in an anguished tone: “The extent of financial loss is so severe that we can’t even quantify it.” Naseer, a daily wage labourer in Srinagar, who earned Rs.500 a day for 25 days a month before August 5, now barely gets a week’s work. Basheer, an autodriver in Srinagar, has lost more than Rs.1 lakh in four months. Munir’s grocery shop in Srinagar has suffered a huge setback. Absence of tourist footfall has meant that small hotels and restaurants have retrenched two out of every three employees. A dhaba owner in Qazigund said he reopened his shop in November but his sales dropped to 10 per cent. Early onset of snowfall has damaged apple trees. It will take another decade for new trees to grow. With worry lines furrowing his forehead, Naseer said, “Kashmir is completely finished now.”

According to I.D. Khajuria of the Jammu and Kashmir Forum for Peace and Territorial Integrity, hotel, fruit and transportation businesses have been affected severely since August 5. “Revenues of 300 hotels and 1,240 taxis in Jammu have dried up. More than Rs.3,000 crore worth of business between Jammu and Kashmir has been affected.”

People’s testimonies in the Jammu region present a compelling picture. Jaspreet Singh, a transport businessman in Udhampur, said: “I used to do many orders on WhatsApp and do online bank transfers. All that is gone in the past four months. The business is down by 75 per cent.”

Ram Manohar, a Kashmiri Pandit contractor, said: “Contractors do not have the kind of work we had before August 5.” Kailash, a daily wage labourer, said he could earn at least Rs.500 a day before but now he is barely able to earn Rs.200 a day. Kailash borrowed about Rs.10,000 from moneylenders in October, which he is unable to repay. Anand, an employee of Jio, did not get his salary for three months and not even the Deepavali bonus. Mohan, a small restaurant owner in Udhampur, shut his shop and was sitting idle on a Wednesday afternoon. Deeply perturbed, he said, “A month or so before August 5, food app companies such as Swiggy and Zomato had started their food delivery services. Then, suddenly, the BJP government stopped the Internet. How will people go to a restaurant when cash at hand is low?” Jaspreet chipped in, “How can they take a decision about us without asking us? Also, now we have been rendered voiceless as they have arrested our political representatives.” Asha, a provisions shop owner in Udhampur, demanded Rs.10 lakh as compensation for the business losses she suffered.

While some Hindus expressed shock and anger at what happened on August 5, some Hindu traders were more charitable in their remarks about the BJP. Some of them said nothing had changed for them. However, when asked specifically about the prices of goods and employment opportunities, their responses were similar: “Things have become very expensive. There is no employment opportunity for the youths now. If people from the rest of India come [and reside in Jammu and Kashmir], they will take away our jobs.” It appeared that even those in the Jammu region, who welcomed the decision to scrap Articles 370 and 35A, were afflicted with a feeling of xenophobia.

Ashfaque, a fruit seller in Ramban, offered us tea. Army men were standing 100 metres away from him. He recounted the losses he suffered since the August 5 decision. On August 3, he bought 20 crates of mangoes, 20 kilograms of papaya fruits and several kg of tomatoes. The entire town came to a sudden standstill and his shop remained closed for a while. The fruits began to rot. He had to throw them away. He incurred a loss of at least Rs.60,000 in a week after August 5. The losses kept mounting over the next three months and the accumulated loss since then is at least Rs.1.25 lakh. Despite incurring such massive losses, Ashfaque said, “It’s true that I have lost so much. But I am still in the Jammu region. I am more concerned about my brothers and sisters in Kashmir. They would have lost at least three times more than what I have lost.”

During his 2018 Independence Day speech, hailing “Digital India”, Narendra Modi had said that common service centres providing digital services to people were “rendering ‘anytime-anywhere connectivity’” to every citizen in villages through “optimal utilisation of information technology”. Vinod and Javed run small shops in Ramban for services such as photocopying, printing, scanning and selling mobile phone accessories. Before August 5, they offered other online services such as submitting college application forms and applying for certificates online. “Most of my work was online and for over 100 days my business has been completely down,” said Javed. A college student in Ramban said students were not able to download admit cards or application forms. Javed said, “I had voted for the BJP but never thought that they would be so unkind to us.”

Junaid runs a small tea shop in the Jammu region. He had taken a loan of Rs.1.20 lakh from the J&K Bank to start a dairy farm. Since his shop reopened only recently, he has not been able to save and repay the monthly instalments of the loan. Now, he may have to pay a fine in addition to the monthly instalment.

Yasin, belonging to the Gujjar community, is a seasonal schoolteacher, who used to earn Rs.4,000 a month. He has not been paid for the past six months and has resorted to grazing sheep. He said: “We don’t know whom to approach about our pending salaries. I can’t even find and apply for jobs online.” Referring to a broken bridge over the Chenab river, he said, “When building a small bridge takes them three months, setting up industries for the local community in hilly terrain such as this is a joke…. The government has not recruited any person from the local community for the highway construction work.”

Work on the proposed highway between Jammu and Srinagar has been undertaken by the National Highways Authority of India. Its completion has been delayed by four years. Bilal, a journalist, said: “crores of rupees have already been spent.” Speaking about the lack of accountability and the environmental hazards the road project has created, he said, “When they break the mountains, the debris must be deposited at a designated site. But that doesn’t happen. All the chemicals from blasting the mountains have been going unchecked to the Chenab river, polluting it. The Ramban region had a fishing community that depended on trout in the Chenab. But trout have gradually vanished, leading to a loss of livelihood for the fishing community.”

Tariq, a postgraduate from Jammu University who now runs a grocery shop, talked about the environmental impact of the highway. He said: “When the government has become unaccountable, we can’t imagine what will happen if big companies start work here.” With the dissolution of the State Assembly, the administration’s accountability has diminished.

Most of the newspapers stopped publication from Srinagar after August 5. The problems were threefold. Journalists could not move around freely, there was a clampdown on all mediums of communication and news was censored. Anuradha Bhasin, editor of Kashmir Times, said she was not aware of the whereabouts of her correspondents in Srinagar and was unable to bring out the Srinagar edition for quite some time after August 5. There was one media control room in Srinagar with four computers and one landline phone. All journalists were supposed to send their news only through the control room, which was monitored by the government. A journalist would have to wait for her turn for two or three days. Most newspapers are carrying government advertisements and apolitical news even now. Kashmir Times, the only newspaper that dares to take an independent stand, has been denied government advertisements, depriving it of a major source of revenue. It is also being punished for approaching the Supreme Court on the clampdown in the aftermath of the August 5 decision.

Tourism (religious and otherwise), and trade in apples, kesar (saffron), almonds, walnuts, shawls and carpets have been broken and will take years to recoup.

Political Crises

The State Assembly was dissolved in November 2018. There were four occasions when a new government could have been formed but the BJP government at the Centre has not bothered to install one. Immediately after the fall of the BJP-Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) coalition government in June 2018, the PDP, the National Conference (N.C.) and the Congress were willing to come together to form the government. However, Governor Satyapal Malik imposed Governor’s Rule on June 20, 2018, as a pre-emptive measure. Elections should have been held within six months. Instead, the Governor dissolved the Assembly in November and President’s Rule was imposed from December 20, 2018. When the general election was held in 2019, it was expected that the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly election would be held along with four other States that went to the polls subsequently. But, it did not happen and President’s Rule was extended for another six months in July 2019.

This, in retrospect, was a deliberate ploy. Had the Assembly been operational, the Centre would have had to seek its approval. Instead, a Governor, handpicked by the Centre, acting at the behest of the Central government, recommended the abrogation of Article 370, bypassing the participation of elected representatives and the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Most shockingly, Dr Farooq Abdullah, a N.C. Member of Parliament from Jammu and Kashmir, was not allowed to attend Parliament. The Union Home Minister brazenly lied to the nation that Farooq Abdullah was unwell and that “he couldn’t bring him to Parliament at gun point”. He was held at his home under illegal detention. Vaiko, the Rajya Sabha member of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from Tamil Nadu, filed a habeas corpus petition in September 2019 seeking the release of Farooq Abdullah, but the Supreme Court dismissed the petition, Soon after, a case was filed under the Public Safety Act against Farooq Abdullah so that he could not be released by a court order. N.C. leader Omar Abdullah and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, both former Chief Ministers, continue to be under illegal detention in their homes, and so are a number of political leaders, including Shah Faesal, who recently floated a political party.

As if this humiliation were not enough, the Prime Minister and the Home Minister have accused three political families of looting Jammu and Kashmir. While this may be true, corruption is endemic among Indian politicians and not unique to Jammu and Kashmir. In the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, local government is a subject under the State List. Despite that, the Centre went ahead and conducted the Block Development Council elections in October/November. The Congress and two major parties of Jammu and Kashmir boycotted the elections. This presents a dangerous scenario. The BJP was the only party that contested the block-level elections. The BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), have been building a “One Nation, One Constitution, One Language” narrative and this may be a harbinger of autocratic “One Party” rule, killing the very essence of a thriving multi-party democracy in India. The opposition parties play a vital role in providing checks and balances in case the ruling dispensation goes astray. Jammu and Kashmir is turning out to be a laboratory for such unconstitutional moves.

Long-time political agenda

It is unsettling that while the BJP has implemented the long-time political agenda of the RSS by abrogating Article 370, it is preventing other political parties from carrying on their political activities. The Supreme Court, while allowing politicians from outside to visit Jammu and Kashmir, placed a condition that they should not resort to political activities. This bizarre condition has come as the death knell for democratic engagement.

With the downgrading of the State to Union Territory status, the bureaucracy and military establishment have emerged as dominant political players. This has meant that officials do not feel accountable to the people the way a people’s elected representative would. For instance, during our visit, a man from Trang-Suri panchayat in Ramban said, “We are without light for the past one and a half months and when we approached the authorities, they said they did not have transformers. There is lack of clarity regarding who is responsible for it.” A vegetable salesman, Hari, said, “We want our special status back. Earlier, there was at least a doctor in the hospital, but now they say it has become a Union Territory, so talk to officials.” He also said that sometime after August 5, an accident victim had to be taken to Jammu for medical help since there were no doctors here.

Hence, the BJP government at the Centre is ensuring the decimation of political alternatives in Jammu and Kashmir or any voice demanding democratic rights for the people. It undoubtedly wants a police or military state in the region and is coercing everybody to accept this point of view. We have been told by BJP politicians and RSS leaders in the past four months that people in Jammu and Kashmir are happy with the decision taken by the Centre on Article 370. The reality is quite the opposite. People of Jammu and Kashmir feel that their alienation is now complete. “The government has completely killed Kashmir,” said a labourer while Mir, an elderly man, said “this is the biggest betrayal we have faced in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble peacably, to form associations or to move freely. These fundamental rights have been crushed in Jammu and Kashmir. Contrary to the Home Minister’s oft-repeated claims about “normalcy”, Jammu and Kashmir continues to be under a well-curated siege. We had a direct experience of this during our Jammu to Srinagar march between November 26 and December 1, 2019. A case in point is that we were not allowed to interact with the local community and the press. The Centre does not seem to have a road map for creating even a modicum of normalcy. The most important ingredient for the restoration of normalcy, dialogue, is something in which the BJP and the RSS do not believe in.

Democracy and restrictions on fundamental rights facilitated by the heavy presence of security forces cannot go hand in hand. The Union government must consider a phased withdrawal of the Army and the lifting of the restrictions on fundamental rights for the revival of the political process. There could be turmoil and the situation may turn very messy, but people’s will cannot be suppressed for long if democracy is to survive. Assembly elections for the undivided Jammu and Kashmir should be held as soon as possible and if the Centre claims that the people of Jammu and Kashmir concur with the decisions taken by it, then the decision should be approved by the Assembly; only then can it be considered legitimate. Otherwise, the situation that existed before the bifurcation should be restored and the agreement the Government of India entered into with the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of the latter’s accession must be honoured. In addition, an attempt could be made for dialogue with the Government of Pakistan to reunite the two portions of Jammu and Kashmir, currently with India and Pakistan, and a system of joint management of the united Jammu and Kashmir could be worked out by the two countries. As things stand, numerous people in Jammu and Kashmir feel that they have become scapegoats for the political gains of the ruling elite in India and Pakistan.

Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Sandeep Pandey, winner of the Magsaysay Award, is a sociopolitical activist with the Socialist Party (India).

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