There used to be lots of Kashmiri handles on my Twitter timeline: learned, angry, ironic, or just gazing at other parts of the Muslim world. Clearly, however, over the past three years, their participation has dwindled to almost zero. It feels eerie.
The weeks and months that followed August 5, 2019, when Kashmir’s constitutional status changed, saw much commentary and video-posts of spontaneous “hidden” protests and of the high-handedness of the state machinery. Kashmir was locked down almost nine months before the rest of India was. Those days echoed the days after Burhan Wani’s death in 2016, when protests were put down with a liberal use of pellet guns: lots of hospital stories, except after August 5 getting to the hospital or even getting medicines was near impossible.
Then COVID hit. Perhaps, we were too busy watching videos of thaali-banging to notice the moment when Kashmiris began to disengage. I have mentioned this silencing of the Kashmiri voice to friends in the National Capital Region (NCR), but no one else seems to have noticed. Then, I met a Kashmiri friend who said Kashmiris have simply stopped talking, even to each other.
Kashmiris now do not express political opinions, not even in private gatherings. The op-eds in local newspapers have dried up completely. Kashmiris have been careful since the 1990s, when at the height of militancy many suspected one another of reporting to a government agency, either Indian or Pakistani (or both). Two Kashmiris would never talk about “the movement” if a third was present. Now, this “vow of silence” is complete. “People are only concerned with day-to-day living,” my friend said. “Individuals must be thinking but without expression it is difficult to know what their thoughts are.”
Less seriously, I asked my friend: what about former Congress party courtier Ghulam Nabi Azad? He told me a story from the early 1970s. Azad’s family was from the outskirts of Bhaderwah in Doda, and his father was a labour contractor for timber contractors, one of whom caught hold of the senior Azad and wanted an accounting of his Rs.30,000. The senior Azad wailed: “What to do Sir, my son lost it all fighting elections.” Ghulam Nabi had lost his deposit. He never won an election in Jammu and Kashmir—he entered the Lok Sabha from a safe Congress seat in Maharashtra—until he was made Chief Minister and victory in the seat he contested was a foregone conclusion.
How can Azad play a role the BJP’s plan for a Jammu and Kashmir election in a polarised electorate? Hindus will vote BJP, the others for the National Conference and other old parties of the erstwhile State. Azad will not be a future Chief Minister. So did he leave the Congress, roundly abusing Rahul Gandhi, merely to retain his Lutyens bungalow?
“He should have stayed khamosh.” Yes, discretion is the hallmark of politicians, particularly darbaris. Azad was perhaps told, unambiguously, to noisily depart the Congress. And this badmouthing comes at a juncture when two things are happening in the party: the October election for party president and Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Because of Azad’s belated “perestroika”, the lack of transparency in electoral rolls is an issue as is the mysterious yatra. I wanted to join the yatra; it might produce a mine of stories. (Nothing beats reporting from the ground, even after 35 years.) However, trying to pitch the idea to Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle was like running continuously into a wall. One said there was already a team—to live-tweet or write press releases, one supposes.
Azad in an interview pooh-poohed the yatra, saying it would stay on the main road instead of going from village to village. A news report said that a contingent of 117 yatris, all youngsters, had been selected. The facts are not in question here, but the lack of access to even the periphery of the inner circle of a party that made its mark as a mass movement does not seem to concern the “high command”. And what harm can an outsider do when the party has more than one snake lurking within?
Hopefully, Rahul does the entire 3,500 km distance and, as per plan, concludes it in Srinagar. Perhaps, he can give Kashmiris their voice back. That would be a substantial political accomplishment, if his coterie would allow it. The BJP must be in stitches.