Ground Report

Kashmir under siege

Print edition : August 30, 2019

A CRPF jawan stands guard on a deserted street during the third day curfew in Srinagar, on August 7. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti at a press meet at her residence on the night of August 2, hours after the State government issued an advisory asking yatris and tourists to leave the valley. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Empty shikaras at Dal Lake on August 3. Photo: Anando Bhakto

Kashmir stands choked, resembling a battlefront, with barbed wires, army convoys and snipers everywhere.

“Death and destruction were fast approaching Srinagar, our smug world had collapsed around us, the wheels of destiny had turned full circle,” said Karan Singh, son and then heir apparent to the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, recalling the uncertain days of October 1947 when he received the news that a large number of raiders from the tribal territory of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province had crossed over to launch a “jehad” in the Kashmir Valley.

The raiders added to the enormous complexity of the situation in Kashmir. That was a time when, amidst a deteriorating law and order situation and growing unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, India and Pakistan were upping their back-channel diplomacy to create the opportunity for its accession to their respective dominions. The tribesmen clashed with the Dogra troops stationed in Muzaffarabad and by the evening of October 23 they had captured Domel. Garhi and Chinari fell over the next two days. As their main column proceeded towards Uri, and then, along the Jhelum river towards Baramulla, the entry point to Srinagar, a sinister sense of foreboding filled the minds of Kashmiris, not sure of what fate awaited them in the course of the three days between October 24 and October 26.

Seven decades later, between August 1 and August 5, Kashmir was in a similar situation, alarmed by an unusual build-up of troops and unnerved by a sense of impending doom. To understand the origin, nature and extent of this anxiety and apprehension, it is important to recall how the doctrine of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval on Kashmir in the past five years and more, notably in the run-up to the 2019 general election, altered the political battle lines in Kashmir and attempted to ruffle its social and religious dynamics, and in effect the very calculus of its struggle.

There were three salient features of this doctrine, each with its unique set of immediate repercussions and long-term impact on the conflict. One, the Narendra Modi-led Central government systematically undermined the importance of dialogue and refused to mend ties with the mainstream political players, the Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which it dumped as an ally in June 2018, and Farooq and Omar Abdullah’s National Conference (N.C.). The Centre’s decision to opt for a militaristic policy, with a focus on eliminating the violent actors from the scene by the use of brute force, precipitated the resurgence of home-grown militancy. The year 2018 saw the highest head count of militants—between 280 and 300—in a decade. From the unholy attempts to engineer defection from the PDP and prop up a Sajad Lone-led State government to the unceremonious dissolution of the State Assembly, New Delhi weakened the structure and scope of mainstream politics.

Second, the Centre cracked down on the pro-resistance leaders. Yasin Malik was incarcerated and his Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was banned. All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was placed under house arrest; he was among the leaders whom the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided. The immovable assets of several top Hurriyat leaders were attached. The incarceration of the pro-resistance leaders meant that they were no longer able to provide leadership to the alienated youths in the Valley’s hamlets; the leadership slipped from their hands into the latter, shifting the focus of their struggle, as was manifest in the emergence of jehadi terror outfits such as the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir, the Lashkar-e-Islam, and the (now slain) Zeenat-ul-Islam-led Al Badr. These are different from traditional militant outfits in that they view Kashmir as a part of the larger Islamist struggle.

Three, the banning of the socio-religious and political organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, even as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was given a free run in adjoining Jammu, incensed the youths in the Valley who interpreted the decision as an unveiled attempt to establish the supremacy of Hindutva over all other political and ideological schools of thought.

Fear of the unknown

Given the volatility in the Kashmir Valley, in particular in its hinterland, the troop build-up was set to trigger unprecedented fear and panic. People were wildly speculating not only about the Centre’s next move in Kashmir, reminded as they were of the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) persistent animosity over Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, but also how Kashmir would react to it. The troop deployment started soon after Ajit Doval’s three-day visit to the Valley ended on July 26. As per informed sources, he had met senior security and intelligence grid officers and reviewed the law and order situation in the State. By August 1, as many as 28,000 troops of the Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) were deployed in the Valley, in addition to the 10,000 troops that were deployed during the preceding week. The State administration said it was a regular exercise, done in order to replace the existing companies of the security forces. But speculation ran high that there was an underlying design to abrogate Article 35A that defines permanent residents of the State and bars outsiders from purchasing and owning immovable property. Mehbooba Mufti warned the Centre against such a move, saying, “Touching Article 35A will be like touching a dynamite, it will burn not just the hand but also the entire body will turn to ashes.” Around the same time, on August 1, a delegation led by Omar Abdullah met Modi in New Delhi and requested him not to take any step that would be detrimental to the interests of the State.

Kashmiris prepare for hard times

On August 2, soon after Chinar Corps Commander Lt General K.J.S. Dhillon and Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh held a joint press briefing in Srinagar and accused Pakistan of disrupting peace in Kashmir, an advisory was issued by the Principal Secretary to the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, Shaleen Kabra, asking Amarnath yatris and tourists to leave Kashmir. The advisory read: “Keeping in view the latest intelligence inputs of terror threats, with specific targeting of the Amarnath Yatra, and given the prevailing security situation in the Kashmir Valley, in the interest of safety and security of the tourists and Amarnath Yatris, it is advised that they may curtail their stay in the valley immediately and take necessary measures to return as soon as possible.”

Reacting to the advisory, Omar Abdullah said, “Although this unprecedented order would seem to suggest a genuine fear of a massive terror strike directed at Amarnath ji yatris or/and tourists, this will do nothing to dampen the sense of fear and foreboding that prevails in the Valley at the moment.” The news spread like wildfire and in no time Srinagar and other parts of the Valley had long queues of people standing in petrol pumps and grocery and medical stores, stocking essential commodities in preparation for an emergency situation that now looked inevitable.

Leaders suspect foul play

That night, Mehbooba Mufti called an emergency press briefing, well past 9 p.m. She had sensed the Centre was all set to finally implement the long-standing RSS project with respect to Kashmir and this reflected in both her words and demeanour. Pointing out that folding one’s hands was forbidden in Islam, she said she would still do so while appealing to the Centre not to tinker with the State’s special status. “Kashmir rejected Pakistan and believed in India’s secularism when she decided to accede to it. Special provisions were granted to us in keeping with our unique identity,” she reminded the Centre. She asked Modi, “Where is the Vajpayee model based on Kashmiriyat that you had promised to emulate?” The former Chief Minister, along with a host of senior PDP leaders, then proceeded to Farooq Abdullah’s residence and from there to Sajad Lone’s house. An all-party delegation, including her, Lone and the bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Feisal, reached Raj Bhavan (Farooq Abdullah kept his distance, citing ill health) at around 10 p.m. Governor Satya Pal Malik, who met them at short notice, assured them that there was no plan to abrogate Article 370 and 35A. Malik assured the same to Omar and Farooq Abdullah, who met him the next day after Omar returned to Srinagar from New Delhi.

On August 3, government advisories mysteriously appeared in the public domain one after the other. As people came to know that non-Kashmiri students had been asked to vacate hostels at the National Institute of Technology and the Government Polytechnic College, and that all district officers, sub-divisional magistrates and other sectoral officers and medical officers had been directed not to leave their respective stations under any circumstances, people were gripped by the fear of the unknown. Many condemned the brazen segregation of citizens on religious and ideological lines, as the government evacuated non-Kashmiris to safe havens outside the State but made no effort to assuage the deepening anxieties of the “State subjects”. There was unanimity that there could be no starker display of the “otherisation” of a population and stripping it of its legitimate right to live without the fear of physical and psychological agony.

Tourism sector condemns ‘Economic blockade’

At the Dal lake, the police raided houseboats and made sure the tourists left at once. Farooq, a shikara rower, was crestfallen. “After the 2016 agitation, we had a healthy inflow of tourists for the first time. But the government would not let us flourish. There can be no justification for engineering this uncertainty and thrusting a virtual economic blockade on us,” he told Frontline. Bilal, another rower, gave figures. “In the 12 hours since the advisory was issued, 80 per cent of the tourists have left.”

Khalique Karai and Taj Mohammad, who own the houseboats New Jehangir and Shah Palace respectively, said some of their guests had preferred to stay back but on the evening of August 2, the police came and forced them to pack the bags. “The losses are in lakhs,” said Karai. Taj Mohammad saw no hope of the tourists returning in the coming year, in particular foreign tourists. Omar Abdullah, too, said that the advisory would have a far-reaching ramification on Kashmir’s economy, with foreign nationals not mustering the courage to visit the Valley in the foreseeable future.

As night befell, masons and labourers, an estimated five lakh of whom live in Kashmir, were seen walking towards the outskirts of Srinagar in droves, from where they planned to reach Banihal and then Jammu. There was despondency cast all over their faces because they were leaving the place that had earned them their livelihood with little hope of coming back.

Local scribes explore Af-Pak angle

On the same day, as the long twilight faded into darkness, a group of journalists assembled at a coffee outlet at Sonwar, in the heart of Srinagar city. As they unwound themselves, assumptions of what New Delhi might do next dominated their conversation. Nobody expected the State’s special status to go. Most felt that West Pakistani refugees could be given the right to vote in State elections. Some thought the developments were nothing more than a red herring, invented to shift attention from the economic crisis staring at India.

There was the common refrain that India’s relegation to a virtual non-entity at the Af-Pak border and its exclusion from the Taliban peace talks had irked it to an extent that it was ready for a border flare-up to mount pressure on Pakistan and the United States. This view was shared by senior editors who helm the top local English dailies. Notwithstanding the nature of the impending threat, they prepared for the worst. Fahad Shah, whose The Kashmir Walla is published every Monday, had sent the copies to print by Saturday, August 3, to avoid any hassle. The cover page of his English weekly flashed: “Alarm Bells in Kashmir, What is Coming?” The editorial inside raised a pertinent question: “Think of Kashmiris, not just Kashmir.”

On August 4, as this reporter travelled along the Srinagar-Anantnag highway, India’s disproportionate might over the civilians and combatants in Kashmir was being paraded in public; speeding Army convoys had taken over vast tracts of land, save only the mountains and the azure sky. There were no civilians to be seen, except at the kiosks in Bijbehara, where menfolk hurriedly bought meat and vegetables.

In Khanabal, senior N.C. leader Bashir Ahmad Veeri told Frontline that he suspected New Delhi would scrap Article 370 and 35A. “The understanding given to the leadership of NC is that there is no threat to Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. The matter is also sub judice. But looking at the history of the Government of India since 1953, when the then Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir Sheikh Abdullah was deposed from office and jailed, there cannot be any sense of reassurance,” Veeri said. He highlighted how the BJP’s raucous pursuit of majoritarian politics and its continued provocations with respect to Kashmir made for a dangerous trajectory on the ground. “Let’s not hide what people are thinking at the moment. If the plan of the Government o India is to deprive us of whatever little remains of our autonomy, we perhaps made a mistake in rejecting the two-nation theory and embracing a secular India. People are saying we should have joined Pakistan; it is a Muslim country, we’d have been safe.”

In Bijbehara, Sajad Mufti, cousin of Mehbooba Mufti, told this reporter that political uncertainty would give a boost to militancy in the region and make the mainstream irrelevant. “The way New Delhi has kept the mainstream leaders in the dark, it is bound to discredit them and erode people’s faith in their leadership. This, coupled with the people’s legitimate fear that the BJP may capture power in the State, is likely to crystallise into mass mobilisation or even a broader insurrection that will push Kashmir three decades back.”

Off-the-record conversations with senior N.C. and PDP leaders in Anantnag and Srinagar further underscored the point that the larger objective of the RSS-BJP was to alter the demographics in the Valley by flooding settlers and migrants from across the country and undermine Jammu and Kashmir’s identity as a Muslim-majority State. They feared this would script an unprecedented political revolt and eventually “there would be no one to hold the tricolor”, as Mehbooba Mufti warned two years ago, in July 2017.

Cut off from the world

By the evening of August 4, the Army was taking over the roads leading to the Srinagar airport; there was word that satellite phone numbers were being distributed to police stations and at administrative blocks, and curfew passes were being hastily issued. An all-party meeting at Farooq Abdullah’s residence had culminated in the historic Gupkar Declaration earlier in the day. It had unanimously resolved that “modification, abrogation of Article 35A, 370, unconstitutional delimitation or trifurcation of the State would be an aggression against the people of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh”. Before midnight, Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah and Sajad Lone had been placed under house arrest. The mobile phones and Internet connection were taken down and landline facilities, too, were suspended.

On August 5, the “siege” of Srinagar was complete. The deserted streets had all the elements of a battlefield—barbed wires and convoys. There were snipers everywhere. At the crossing. On the pavement. Outside closed shops. Atop flyovers. The silent houses gave no hint of their occupants. Bewildered canines howled. This reporter had to walk four kilometres before he got a cab to reach the airport. The Indian state had ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, repressing its dissenting voices by marked coercion, indistinguishable from the ways of an occupying force.

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