Jammu & Kashmir

Kashmir: Simmering state

Print edition : September 13, 2019

Women during a protest in Srinagar on August 23. Photo: Getty Images

Throwing stones at security personnel in Srinagar on August 23. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

The fruit mandi at Batangod in Anantnag, which used to be overcrowded on any given day, wears a deserted look on August 20. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

The historic Ghanta Ghar at Lal Chowk in Srinagar has a heavy deployment of Army convoys. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

Local people wait at a police post adjacent to the residence of the District Commissioner of Khanabal to make telephone calls on August 20. Photo: ANANDO BHAKTO

A combination of political marginalisation of Kashmiris and a perceived insult to their religious sentiments cements a ruler vs the ruled perception in the Valley.

As night falls heavily on the locked-down city of Srinagar, a few men and women, with children in tow, hurry past the coils of barbed wire barricades that are the clearest signs of their being under “occupation”. They gather at an eatery near Rajbagh in the civil line area of Srinagar, which on any given day used to bustle with people and traffic. This was in the third week of August. A depressing silence has enveloped the place since August 5, when the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, in a move derided as a “travesty of democratic norms”, erased the last vestiges of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, which political observers believe will lead to resurgence of militancy.

Nabilah*, a woman in her late 20s, sinks into an arm chair that faces a wide, veering stretch of road where silhouettes of snipers prowling obtrusively, can be seen. Her husband keeps a watch on the children— four–year-old Daieb* and two-year-old Fahad*—who hop around merrily unaware of what the State has lost. They have not been to school for more than two weeks and there is little hope of the situation improving anytime soon. But that is not Nabilah’s only worry. Her children are picking up words that she and her husband had hoped they would never learn. Among them is “azadi” (freedom).

“We don’t discuss politics, never when Daieb and Fahad are around. But the other day, as they ran after each other in the lawn, the older one whooped, Musa aaya, azadi laaya [“Musa has come; he will bring us freedom”]’. I have no idea who introduced them to the language of resistance,” she sighs, petulantly tossing her head. “You can’t escape it,” her husband interrupts, “It’s in the air.” (Musa refers to Zakir Musa, chief of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and the biggest poster boy of militancy after Burhan Wani, who was killed by security forces in South Kashmir.)

He could not have been more accurate. Despite an aggressive clampdown, manifest in the suspension of all means of communication and detention of political leaders, Kashmir is showing signs of resistance. But the protests are sporadic and are held in such a way as to avoid loss of life. People everywhere, from the historic Lal Chowk in Srinagar to the heart of Anantnag, suspect that the government is prepared to deal with resistance with an iron hand. This precludes a furious uprising reminiscent of the one in the summer of 2016. The option available to them, as the local people pointed out, was to psychologically manoeuvre New Delhi—retire into inaction in the face of assault and flare up at the first opportunity to frustrate the government’s attempt to showcase “normalcy”.

A group of young men at Padshahi Bagh in Srinagar said stone –throwing incidents were common in their locality. On August 18, about 70 women, one of them claimed, took to the streets to register their protest. “The media are not telling the truth. The revocation of Article 370 is the biggest assault on our identity. We reject the implausible notion that this will uplift us,” said a middle-aged man who runs a travel agency. A resident of Habba Kadal said that the boys in his neighbourhood were targeting the Army bunkers. This reporter saw a crowd of people at Ram Bagh raise pro-freedom slogans and decry New Delhi for laying siege to the people of Kashmir. There is word-of--mouth information on spiralling death tolls and pellet injuries—people claimed that on August 17 a youth died at Qamarwari after he was hit by a tear gas shell. On August 21, there were murmurs that three people were killed during a protest at Soura, though it is difficult to ascertain these reports given the communication blockade.

The administration seems to have learnt the lessons of the past when the harsh use of force led to huge casualties. It prepared in advance to contain the rebellion in its infancy. Soon after the terror strike on the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama on February 14, raids and detentions, almost always made without regard to procedures, became a constant feature in interior south Kashmir. The Centre, instead of addressing the antagonism in the Kashmir Valley, increased the cordon-and-search operations. Several villagers told this reporter in Anantnag, Bijbehara, Awantipora and Pulwama in March-April that Kashmir was descending back to the “lawless” days of the 1990s when youths were picked up randomly in nocturnal raids.

The agencies hounded the pro-resistance camp. On the intervening night of February 22 and 23, nearly 150 people, most of them top office-bearers of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), including its emir Abdul Hamid Fayaz, were detained. Mushtaq Ahmad Veeri, vice president of the Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadith, was also arrested. The Centre imposed a five-year ban on the JeI on February 28. As feelings of religious marginalisation began to take root among a section of Kashmiris, the crackdown on clerics continued. The Jammu and Kashmir administration withdrew the security cover for the top five pro-resistance leaders, All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Bilal Lone, Hashim Qureshi and Shabir Shah. On February 26, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted raids at the residences of Mirwaiz, Naseem Geelani, son of the Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chairman Ashraf Sehrai. This systematic erosion of the space for dissent in Kashmir, besides the belittling of mainstream politicians (Governor Satya Pal Malik obliquely referred to National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party leaders as “anti-nationals”), has led many political observers to believe that Kashmir’s fate was decided in June 2018 itself when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support to the PDP and gave the Governor executive powers.

Hounding of clerics

Nocturnal raids and hounding of clerics continue. Residents of Kursu in Srinagar said that some religious leaders were detained on the eve of the United Nations Security Council meeting on Kashmir. It was found, on speaking to people at several mosques in Anantnag, that the security apparatus had sent a word of caution to moulvis that any attempt at political mobilisation or criticism of the government action on Kashmir would attract immediate detention. This was corroborated by the Congress’ Jammu and Kashmir president, Ghulam Ahmad Mir, who is under house arrest in Jammu. He told Frontline over the phone: “Everywhere, the clerics have been warned to not utter anything critical of the establishment.”

A man in his early 30s at Iqbal Market in Anantnag gave an idea of how the police were hunting down suspects. “The police called me on my mobile phone and asked me to show up. I knew they would detain me. I am a soft target since I had been previously booked under the Public Safety Act. I escaped from my place and diverted the number of the inspector who had called me. When he started texting, I changed my SIM.” Reports of late-night detention of youths are surfacing from all parts of the Valley.

A cross-section of the people in Kashmir shared the apprehension that the region was at the precipice of an anti-Centre implosion and that the government had hurt its own interest by breaking the structure of mainstream politics. Many of them fear that mainstream political players, be it Mehbooba Mufti or Omar Abdullah, will not be able to engage the electorate or urge them to vote in the foreseeable future, though opinion is divided. The common refrain is that “they couldn’t save us”.

A close look at the facts shows that the combination of political marginalisation of Kashmiris and a perceived insult to their religious sentiments, which has been a persistent and constant feature of the Narendra Modi years, has cemented a “ruler versus the ruled” perception in which Muslim Kashmir is vulnerable to all kinds of subjugation by a predominantly Hindu India in the name of pursuit of “national interests”. People across Srinagar and Anantnag belied the claims of the government that large Eid congregations took place in the Valley. According to them, the Jamia Masjid at Nowhatta, Srinagar, remained closed, and at Danger Pora and Chatapora in Pulwama, the two main venues for Eid congregations, no gathering was allowed. “How can we be Indians when even our right to worship is denied in this country?” asked a youth near Khanabal. “Only our passport says we’re Indian.”

Kashmir remains a “no signal” area despite the government claim that there was an attempt to restore communication in phases. In Anantnag, the local people complained that they had to go from the District Commissioner’s office to the Police Control Room, from there to the Deputy Inspector General’s office and finally to a police post at Khanabal to make telephone calls. A family in Pampore was expecting its son, who currently lives in Bengaluru, on Eid. He did not come. The family could not find out about his well being.

Wave of distrust

Political observers feel that this tidal wave of distrust and uncertainty has the potential to crystallise into a broader insurrection. More so when the average Kashmiri is convinced that India’s belligerent nationalist politics is aimed at the alteration of Kashmir’s demographics. A top bureaucrat, whom this reporter met at his Gupkar residence in Srinagar, alluded that New Delhi had turned everyone into a separatist. People are bound by the resolve for a long-drawn-out struggle. “It [armed rebellion] would exhibit itself gradually,” he said. He accused the BJP of “milking Kashmir for electoral dividend”, a sentiment that echoes in the power corridors of Srinagar.

Acclaimed Kashmiri author and political commentator Mirza Waheed contends that India’s reliance on the use of force to quell Kashmiri resistance would be futile. “NewDelhi knows well that it cannot win over the Kashmiri mind, and it is quite clear that India wants to manage Kashmiri resistance via military means—as it has done over the years. When you effectively put an entire population in ‘preventive detention’, arrest anyone who is seen as mildly influential socially, politically, it means one thing and one thing alone: a total suspension of basic democratic and civic norms. But at the heart of this brutalitarian policy is wilful amnesia. Kashmiris have witnessed and withstood many sieges, curfews, and, of course, unspeakable violence, including endemic torture, during the last thirty years,” he told Frontline. He hinted at an explosion of insurgency, by saying: “Being a Kashmiri under Indian rule will from now on mean living in a state of permanent humiliation and that is not a dignified way to live.”

Journalists in Anantnag were more forthcoming. They said that as the ruling BJP whipped up politics of division and hate, redefining India as inward-looking and xenophobic, a “stimulus from across the border” would send Kashmir sliding back into its insurgency years.

The warning signs are impossible to miss. A security guard from Frisal village in Kulgam said that the situation in his village was alarming. “The boys are frustrated and anyone can seize on their sense of unease. If they had access to arms, they would have become militants already.” A project manager from Pulwama, who works with a local non-governmental organisation, said the impact of the Centre’s “incursion” on Kashmir was still unravelling and it was bound to assume frightening proportions. “Half of the villagers do not know much about Article 370.

As they realise the extent of our collective loss, the reactions will become starker.” He said Hizbul Mujahideen militants were seen roaming in the far-flung areas of Pulwama, seeking new recruits. “They are distributing posters. And there is reception to it. Boys have started ‘disappearing’.”

A senior journalist in Anantnag, who visited Arwani village, the hotbed of militancy, on August 19, presented a grimmer picture of the security situation. “Five to six militants drove past the unmetalled roads of the picturesque hamlet in two sports utility vehicles. It was difficult to distinguish the combatants from the Army, given their sense of impunity,” he said. The free movement of militants has been made possible by the forces’ withdrawal from the interior terrain.

“The strategy of the Army is to station its men at least two kilometres off the hamlets, to avoid backlash from civilians. This seems to be working. A youth at Khudwani village told me that he cannot throw stones since there is no one to target. But at the same time, this has emboldened the militants to mobilise freely,” the journalist said.

At Srinagar’s ritzy Polo View market, repository of exquisite handicrafts and some of the world’s most intricate carpets, businessmen said they had suffered individual losses running up to lakhs of rupees since the “economic blockade” following the government’s clampdown coincided with the marriage season. Some suspected this could be by design. They scoffed at the Prime Minister’s argument that Article 370 impeded the extension of key economic provisions to Jammu and Kashmir. “Goods and services tax was implemented [in the State] despite Article 370. Big business houses such as Oberoi and Taj forayed into the State without any hassles,” they pointed out.

As the Valley smoulders, the people’s next move will be to intensify the civilian curfew. “We won’t let them [the Centre] delude that Kashmir is normal,” shopkeepers at the historic Lal Chowk said, vowing to keep their shutters down. The government had ordered the opening of schools [for primary section] and public offices from August 19, but parents refused to send their wards. “Our children cannot be photo-up material for New Delhi,” said one incensed parent whose two sons study at the Muslim Public High School in Rajbagh, Srinagar. At the Secretariat, the attendance was skeletal, confirmed a staff member.

For the ordinary citizens, the struggle to make ends meet is compounding. Ashiq Hussain, an autorickshaw driver in Srinagar, said he was threatened by a mob when he went to the airport to drop a passenger. “They said they would set my vehicle ablaze.” That is perhaps an overstatement, but it showed the people’s resolve for a hard combat.

*Names changed to protect their identity.