Jammu and Kashmir

Sullen silence on Kashmir's horizon

Print edition : October 25, 2019

An empty Dal lake in Srinagar reflects the sullen silence of the Valley. Photo: SUVOJIT BAGCHI

An aerial view of Srinagar, where everyday life has been paralysed since August 5. Photo: ATUL LOKE/NYT

Shaheena (second from left) and her relatives grieve for her son, 17-year-old Asrar Khan, who they say died on September 3, a month after being fired upon and seriously injured by paramilitary soldiers in Srinagar. Photo: PARVAIZ BUKHARI/AFP

A watershed looms ominously on Kashmir’s horizon.

A group of about eight men were oblivious of our presence. In their long, dishevelled kurtas, they sat in the boulevard, opposite the entrance of Sadder police station in Anantnag, south Kashmir.

“They have picked up six boys from area Bulbul [a neighbourhood in Anantnag]. All locked in here,” said a man with beard, dyed mildly with henna, reluctant to share his name. The middle-aged men have been walking about five kilometres daily to wait in the searing sun in front of the police station. They return home by nightfall to console the mothers of the boys. The routine, they said, started in the end of August.

Nearly all police stations have men in soiled shirts waiting outside. Following the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, their boys were picked up on the pretext of preventing flare-ups like the ones in the past. The men from Bulbul waved release orders from the district magistrate, but the police insist that they bring in guarantors.

“For each boy, they require 50 men with a written guarantee that the boys will never be involved in stone pelting.... Imagine how difficult it is to get 50 men to come and sign bail bonds,” said another man, a little older. A senior official from the State police said that such a move is “legally tenable”.

“The responsibility of the villagers will be more if they sign the petition for the release of these boys. They will stop the boys from pelting stones,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.

Stone-pelting is what the administration fears and many of the officials do not deny their helplessness “when young girls and boys throw stones”. The police cannot fire, and photographs of pellet injuries “generate bad press”. The Bulbul boys may have been released by now. Yet, as one set of boys are released, another set is detained or arrested in what is now referred to as a “revolving door mechanism”.

Sometime in mid September, I was having my early morning girda (the Kashmiri bread) and nun chai with a friend, sitting opposite Khan Masjid at Gojwara in downtown, which usually turns hostile faster than other areas. The friend said he was enjoying the calm: “Isn’t it so peaceful without Internet, mobile phones, vehicles or even shops?”

Naag & Genie

Perhaps. It is a liberating experience to walk by the Dal Lake or the lane adjacent to Bund by Jhelum in unruffled quiet. One or two carts sell breakfast, a snack shop half-opens its shutters to sell almonds and aloe vera juice. In one corner, before Press Colony, Hilal Khan sets up his newspaper stand on Residency Road. Ever since my first visit to Srinagar, I have been buying newspapers from Khan’s agency. This time he shared an old Kashmiri two-liner, which perhaps is worth putting on record. Discussing life in Kashmir, he asked if I knew what a Naag was. “It is like a point from which water gushes out from the earth,” he said. “It seems a genie has put its foot on the Naag. Now, whether the Naag explodes first or the genie removes his leg remains to be seen.”

Khan, a keen observer of Kashmir politics, would not say who the Naag was or who the genie was. But his metaphor rang true as one entered the Valley. It appeared that all dissent—notwithstanding the stereotype of the quintessential argumentative Kashmiri—had disappeared, every debate was pushed under the ground. As Khan said, a genie had its foot slammed on the Naag. “And the water is simmering inside,” he added.

An eerie calm

Other than some incidents of stone-pelting in north Srinagar or south Kashmir, there is a complete pact of silence in the Valley, described as “eerie” by everyone, from civil servants to civilians. In the last decade Kashmir witnessed many shutdowns—over the Amarnath Yatra in 2008, the Shopian rape and murder in 2009, militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016 and Sabzar Bhat’s death in an encounter in 2017. On each occasion the Valley flared up, the Naag blurted out; there were many marches, and many deaths. But in 2019 it is quiet.

As we were about to finish drinking our tea, a man on a red motorbike appeared—Md Ashraf Rathar, a Jammu and Kashmir bank contractor and a member of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), whom I had met earlier in the sprawling conference room of the chamber. “I saw you entering downtown,” he said. He brought out the passport photograph of a boy in school uniform. “My son Yasir Ashraf Rathar,” he said.

He was one rare father who did not insist on anonymity. His son was picked up earlier “for very minor protests” and made to sit in the police station from dawn to dusk. This process to “impart discipline” is referred to as “counselling”, another of the Valley’s metaphors for detention: boys are made to wait in the police station for the cops to “counsel” them. Soon after a moderate protest in the second week of August, Yasir was “permanently detained” and Rathar lost contact with his son following his last meeting with him in jail “around August 20”.

“Please talk to someone higher-up,” pleaded Rathar, a man in his 60s. “I promise to lock him up so that he can never take part in any protest.” His voice choked. Rathar, one of the 1,500-odd members of the main business chamber, is not an ordinary man; he represents a class that has connections.

Business losses

“Wheat and chaff are not separated, unlike in previous years—all are arrested,” the nun chai seller said. KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, who chose to display Kashmir’s now obsolete red-and-white State flag in the conference room, argued on similar lines.

“Many prominent people are arrested, including members of the chamber. The focus this time is on civil society and mainstream politicians,” said Ahmad, deeply upset with the business losses as the chief of the main chamber.

“The Internet is shut and thus we could not connect and coordinate with overseas buyers, lost the Christmas and New Year sales. [We] also lost on handicrafts sales during the festivals and [carpet and handicrafts] put together the loss will be over one thousand crore,” he said. The shawl industry is in the red, too, while job loss is another worry.

“In the tourism sector, the expected job cut is about one lakh; about 50,000 in the weaving sector,” Ahmad said.

Driving up north about 50 kilometres to Sopore’s gigantic apple market—second only to Azadpur of Delhi—to check the volume of apples coming in and going out proved futile as the mandi was closed. Hundreds of empty lorries stood stranded. The chief of the market, a government employee, ran away seeing two men with writing pads. A short man with a deep voice, who introduced himself as a mulazim, or employee, of the cooperative, however gave a one-liner: “If Sopore was catering to 90 markets nationally last year, it is catering to nine markets now.” All “markets”, however, have not collapsed.

Bilal Ahmed, a barber from Hyderpora in north Srinagar, had too many clients to talk to a nondescript man with a writing pad. “Come tomorrow at 8:30, don’t be late,” he said. Ahmed is from Bijnor in north Uttar Pradesh. Bijnor barbers rule the trade in Kashmir. But they—the Uttar Pradesh Muslims—were the first victims following the release of a security advisory on August 2, when outsiders were asked to leave. Ahmed’s business started growing, but not without a cost.

“I am here for 16 years and my father, a supplier, for 35. Now, the locals fear that we may settle here [as the constitutional bar on property acquisition is gone].” Ahmed looked at the mirror and continued: “But we are settled here.” As he spoke, his clients objected: “If you go, who will cut our hair. You sit quietly.” Yet the fears of a change in demography rules Kashmiri minds owing to abolition of several sections and subsections of various land and property Acts of Kashmir, legalising transfer of land in Jammu and Kashmir.

The land question

Sheikh Abdullah’s policy of land reform, which turned “700,000 landless peasants [to] peasant proprietors” between 1950 and 521 and the special status of Jammu and Kashmir influenced a bouquet of State Acts over decades prohibiting transfer of land to non-Kashmiris. With the revoking of Kashmir’s special status, those provisions stand quashed, accentuating the fear.

This fear is the reason why every other day the State government releases full-page advertisements in local newspapers underscoring its view that there is “no threat to land and property” and there will not be any change “in ownership due to removal of Article 370”2. But neither the advertisements nor the amendments are adequate to reduce Ahmed’s worries. He has convinced his father, a Kashmir resident for over 35 years, to leave Srinagar.

However, there appear to be bigger victims. One of them is the Kashmiri press. On the night of September 9, a few junior reporters and university students were strolling in front of the Kashmir Press Club when their identity cards were snatched by the police. As I was drinking my fifth round of milk tea, they—all in their twenties—came running inside the club premises. The police asked them to go to Kothibag police station for questioning to recover their cards.

“See, that is the how the fate of Kashmiris change, bolts strike from nowhere,” said a senior journalist. He looked pensive and asked if I had read The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer.

“Hemon said that Bosnians exported two things to the world, used cars and sadness. Kashmiris exported two things, too—apples and sadness,” he said, as we were sitting on the sidewalk opposite the police station, waiting for the boys to return with the cards.

I returned to the Press Club next day. The boys—I was told—got their cards back the very night but the harassment of the journalist continued. The Kashmir Press Club issued a reasonably strong statement condemning “harassment of Kashmiri journalists and pressure tactics adopted by the government”.

The statement regretted the government’s approach to ask the journalists “to reveal [their] sources” and urged to allow journalists “to work without any coercion”.

However, newspaper editorials continue to publish pieces on the sudden surge in plastic use but not about the silence across the Valley. The owners and editors refuse to meet journalists from India, unlike in any other State, and even the sidekicks of political leaders, who are usually ready to share a chai, are silent.

Blurring of political links

Sometime in the middle of September, I took a long walk on the road set like a necklace on the east of Dal Lake, leading to the historic Centaur Hotel overlooking the Zabarvan range. In 1990, Rajiv Gandhi was forced to stay indoors in Centaur by formidable pro-Azadi groups. In 2019, an entire league of mainstream leaders are locked up here by the government, and a handwritten note in Urdu pasted on the gate says that leaders’ families can meet them only at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays. A young man, associated with Hakim Yasin, an imprisoned leader, said he could not talk as “we are being watched by close circuit cameras”.

A local journalist queuing for a quote laughed, breaching the silence: “Imagine, this Yasin has always been a pro-India leader, and he too is locked up with anti-India factions.”

An old man with pointed, long, white beard, took a deep breath when asked by the journalist if his leaders were from the National Conference (N.C.) or the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). “Aab kya N.C. kya PDP, sab ek ho gaya,” he said. (No difference now, all are together.) In this togetherness the thick line between the separatists, whom Delhi rejected long back, and the mainstream politicians—who used to talk to the Valley on behalf of Delhi—has blurred, leaving the police to talk to the people. The policy is not working.

“Shopkeepers are not opening shops, parents are not sending kids to school, drivers are not keen to drive—what do you [as police] do?” said a mid-level officer of Srinagar police. Meanwhile, one incident became a cause célèbre when the entire security management, from the Army to the police, claimed that the death of 18-year-old Asrar Ahmad Khan was caused by pelting of stones, whereas medical reports and X-ray confirmed that he was hit by “multiple pellets” in his “head and eye”.

Another member of the Central forces had a problem to share: “Our phone is in the white list,” he said while driving me to a senior officer’s bungalow one chilly night. “But I can’t chat. If people see me chatting on phone [while they cannot] they will lynch me.”

The preparation before August 5

There is a celebration in the opposing camp as many administrative measures have worked in 2019. The administration expected an outburst in the Valley surpassing, perhaps, the one in 1990. Yet a little over half a dozen people have died, and the police cannot be blamed for all the incidents. The police claim that out of 111 police stations in the Valley, “commotion” was reported from only two police stations between August 5 and the second week of September.

The credit for this “achievement” goes to the Indian Police Service officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre, Swayam Prakash Pani. He was promoted to the rank of Inspector General (I.G.), Kashmir, about one and a half years ago. Pani, an Odiya, learnt the tricks of his trade while serving in the National Investigation Agency and the Intelligence Bureau for about a decade. He thus focussed a lot more on actions based on information using technology and human intelligence. An officer at the forefront of the operations provided a few pointers to the reasons for the the low death toll.

“Burhan Wani was killed in 2016; the situation spiralled out of control within the first 36 hours when 16 persons were killed. Why...” he paused, “because we lost the battle in those 36 hours, over the next months we were only reactive.” But this time the forces were “proactive” and since Pani took over as the I.G., plenty of thinking went into the handling of a flare-up in Kashmir.

“Firstly, the Internet had to be shut,” the officer said. Kashmir has the highest “density of mobile phone and data usage”. Voice clips or videos of leaders drag students onto the streets in minutes and the situation spirals out of control. Secondly, the administration clearly differentiated the “wheat from the chaff”.

“Earlier we branded every voice against India, every rally, as terror. So the whole counter-insurgency mechanism was geared to combat terror. But everything is not terror.”

This realisation, largely driven by Pani’s experience in intelligence-gathering, initiated a change in policing. The Jammu and Kashmir Police realised that the majority of localised unrests can be quelled by civilian methods such as arrests of dissenters in anticipation of trouble, on the basis of prior intelligence inputs and “also [by] initiating a process of prosecution”.

Traditionally, this is the tactic used by many Indian States to keep the rank and file of the opposition engaged in long-drawn-out legal battles, preventing them from on-ground mobilisation.

“If a person has to get bail, he has to move court and legal process would take their course,” the officer said. It is not that such methods were not applied in Kashmir earlier. But they have been fine-tuned in 2019 and the slapping of cases under the Public Safety Act (PSA) has been better orchestrated.

“As many as 37 cases are slapped under the PSA on the separatist leader Masharat Alam. It indicates that the investigation was sloppy. It gave bad press while there is enough evidence [against Alam] to probe and prosecute,” the officer said.

However, activists working on individual cases allege that “no due process of law was followed” while making these arrests. Key leaders were detained or arrested along with young stone-pelters indiscriminately, the activists said. Officials think otherwise. Acknowledging that the process was “occasionally harsh”, officers said that without such large-scale arrests “things would have gone into the hands of militants and separatists” and resulted in many deaths.

But the flip side of large-scale arrests are wild guesses about the number of arrests under three categories—regular official arrests and prosecution, detention in police stations for the day or weeks (involving the revolving-door mechanism and counselling) and the arrests of political leaders under the PSA. The arrests are in “tens of thousands”, claimed many. Officials challenged the figures.

“These last two categories, including [slapping of] the PSA, recorded not more than 700 arrests [from August 5 to September 10]. Altogether about 2,000 people are arrested,” the officer said around the middle of September. By then, more than 250 haebus corpus petitions had been filed challenging the detentions.

In addition, as part of measures to control any large-scale uprising, congregations were not allowed and a detailed list of “mosques and their managements” were drawn up3; imams were asked to adhere to a guideline while giving sermons, any assembly was promptly diffused, sensitive hamlets—known for stone-pelting or quick flare-ups—were identified and additional Central forces were posted in consultation with the State administration.

The key issue, however, is that of the deployment of Central forces.

“It is perhaps the highest in the history of Kashmir,” another senior government official said. A group of policemen or a tiny squad of paramilitary personnel in nearly every lane on the morning of August 6 shocked Kashmiris but, unlike in earlier years, also kept them indoors. Many of the soldiers of the Central paramilitary forces, mostly on the roads from early morning to nightfall, told me that they are moved from south Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-dominated areas to the Valley and there is no word of their relocation anytime soon. The administration also had an advantage in the preparatory stage.

“There was no major crowd-pulling militant like Zakir Musa, Burhan Wani or Sabzar Bhat this time. There is only one Riyaz Naikoo, who has gone silent,” said the officer.

Deafening silence

The silence in the Valley, however, is deafening. Is it the tranquillity before the storm, or have Kashmiris accepted the change? Arguments on both sides—even within the security establishment—underscore two viewpoints.

One section believes in what former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief A.S. Dulat has said: that Kashmiris take a lot of time to react. The elections, for example, were manipulated in 1987 and Kashmir exploded in 1990. Those who believe in this theory believe that the Valley may not be a safe place in future for pilgrims, tourists and even men like Bilal Ahmed. Sources reveal that the “launch pads on LoC [Line of Control]”—used by militants to enter Kashmir from Pakistan—“are full” and it is a matter of time before countermoves are made.

The other view is that only about 20 to 25 per cent of the Kashmiris are genuinely anti-India was endorsed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh when he said “more than three-fourths” of Kashmiris wanted the State’s special status to go. But if that is true, if the Kashmiris have really accepted the change, why are the shops locked, classrooms empty, communication shut and soldiers on the streets after nearly two months of special status revocation?

The answer came from a plumber, Abdur Rahman, based in Srinagar’s upmarket Rajbagh. He was waiting in the stairs of Athrout, a medical NGO, when I caught up with him. “You are from the Indian media?” he asked and continued, realising I was: “Don’t you have shame… this city has collapsed and you write everything is normal in Kashmir….”

He got up and raised his fist, his body shaking as blood oozed from the bandage on his neck, covering an arterial pathway created for his kidney dialysis. His wife, Zubeda, tried to calm him down, and I could see two paramilitary jawans looking at him intently on an empty street. He took some time to calm down.

“Take my photos, publish it and write below it, if you dare,” he said. “We will not give up, we will not forget our deaths, [we] will fight till you leave us.” He reminded me of Hilal Khan.

Will the Naag explode first or will the genie call the quits? Either way, a watershed looms ominously on the horizon.

References:

1. Sumantra Bose, Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, page 27. Vistaar.

2. Rising Kashmir, September 6 and Greater Kashmir, September 12, 2019. Page 1 advertisement.

3. District Police Headquarters Srinagar notification dated 28.07.2019.

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