Jammu & Kashmir: Seething Valley

Print edition : December 20, 2019

During a shutdown in Srinagar on November 23. Most shops and business establishments remained closed for at least four days. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The site of an explosion in Srinagar on November 26. The police said at least three civilians were injured in the blast outside a restaurant. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

National Conference president Farooq Abdullah and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti during an all-party meeting in Srinagar on August 4. Photo: PTI

Sajjad Lone (left) in 2015. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha speaking to mediapersons after a three-day visit to the Valley, in Srinagar on November 25. Photo: PTI

Nearly four months after the abrogation of special status, Kashmir simmers with rage, frustration and fear.

BAKSHI Ghulam Mohammad’s despotic 10-year rule beginning in August 1953 is emblematic of the steady erosion of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. Although he allowed the nominal existence of other political parties, their leaders were detained at the slightest provocation. Voices against the State’s accession to India were crushed by the Peace Brigade, an institutionalised group of musclemen who used force to enforce calm. They would assemble at Srinagar’s Patthar Masjid every evening after the last prayer of the day and then parade around the city, picking up anyone who they suspected to be a dissenter.

Mir Qasim, Bakshi’s political opponent of the time, described those tyrannical years thus: “The government agents forced hot potatoes into the mouths of their opponents, put heavy stones on their chest, and branded them with red irons.” Newspapers writing against the regime were banned. These included The Voice of Kashmir, edited by Prem Nath Bazaz. Elections were decided by New Delhi. The 1962 elections were so evidently rigged that the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had to issue a note of caution to Srinagar, stating: “In fact, it would strengthen your [Bakshi’s] position much more if you lost a few seats to bona fide opponents.”

These disturbing anecdotes from history have currently filled the minds of Kashmir’s political fraternity and the masses alike as the past is increasingly becoming the turbulent centre of the present. “Will they push us back to 1953?” asks the son of a veteran National Conference (N.C.) leader in a crestfallen tone. He had been in hiding for over a month to escape detention.

The question resonates everywhere, from universities to local press circles, from traders’ bodies to the living rooms of people in towns and villages.

Despite the appearance of calm, the people’s determination to wage a long-drawn battle against the abrogation of Article 370 has not wavered. “It is good that we are not hastily reacting in the street and dying,” said a restaurant owner at Srinagar’s Residency Road. His guests bellowed: “Kashmir is more internationalised now than it had been in many years. We won’t miss this opportunity.”

The Narendra Modi government’s defence in the Supreme Court for stripping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was the oft-repeated line: “It aided terror and hurt investment.” But people scoff at the explanation. “The whole thing is predicated on a lie,” said a university professor. “They want to control our lives, our political prerogatives. How tragic that they enjoy the passionate approval of most people in India.”

It is unlikely that the Centre’s focus on good governance will assuage the public’s fear and anger. On November 15 and 16, a two-day regional conference, Replication of Good Governance Practices in UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, was held in Jammu to promote citizen-centric governance, innovation and capacity building. But economic largesse cannot compensate for threat to identity, as Prem Nath Bazaz had said decades earlier.

“...Before long when India wakes up as it must someday in the near future, if not today, it may be too late. No liberalisation of policy may be able to repair the damage,” he had said as Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad unsuccessfully used economic doles as a bait to stop dissent in the 1950s and the 1960s.

The developments since August 5, and in the months that preceded the abrogation of the special status, an exercise that now virtually everyone in Srinagar believes had been planned months in advance, have made the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) intention clear: to absorb Kashmir into a Hindutva-driven ideology and swamp its entire culture and political voice.

Political observers in Srinagar suspect that the decision to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories was guided by that design. By creating conditions for a Hindu Jammu to dominate a Muslim Kashmir and a Buddhist Leh to dominate a Muslim Ladakh, the Centre is working to prevent, under any circumstances, a Muslim population of any salient size in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir to be in control of their destiny.

Rumours of Hindi replacing Urdu as the official language in Jammu and Kashmir and landmarks to be renamed after Hindu leaders fly thick and fast. And that begets the question for Kashmir’s baffled political players and beleaguered people: What next?

Realignment under way

The strategic thinking to find an answer to it has begun. This reporter learnt from a reliable source that on November 24, close to 50 people met on the outskirts of Srinagar at the residence of a civil society member to chalk out strategies to maximise the world’s attention to the prevailing culture of human rights abuses, suspension of political processes and irreparable damage done to the education sector.

Those who attended the meeting, which lasted over six hours, came from diverse walks of life. They focussed on finding avenues for democratic expression of dissent while avoiding loss of lives and arrests. At a time when there is never-seen-before surveillance on social and political activities, this meeting assumes significance. “That’s terrific, unbelievable,” a well-known academic in Srinagar exclaimed when the source apprised him and this reporter of the development.

Both the source and the academic are of the view that landscape in Kashmir will be entirely different by the summer of 2020. “Kashmir is in a state of realigning. I don’t see any reconciliatory approach from New Delhi. It is not just centralising politics but also concentrating power and acting with imperial hubris. They [Kashmiris] will never swallow this [abrogation of special status],” the academic said.

In private conversation, Army sources said things would get worse before they get better. The possibility of a sharp rise in infiltration bids is not ruled out by them. There have been reports that a sizeable number of militants have begun to gather at seven or eight staging points north of the Pir Panjal region. On October 15, the Army said it targeted four launch pads across the Line of Control in the Tangdhar and Keran sectors.

Rise in grenade attacks

Inside the Valley, there is a perception that the underlying objective of the August 5 action was to ultimately realign the demographic composition of Kashmir. This has cemented the resolve to not just offer resistance but also, as a close inspection of the developments of the past four months suggest, “fight to the finish”. There has been a spate of grenade attacks in Kashmir in spite of the 24x7 vigil by security forces.

On November 26, two people were killed and seven injured in two blasts in Srinagar and Anantnag. On November 4, a vendor from Uttar Pradesh was killed and 38 persons were injured when militants lobbed a grenade in the posh Hari Singh High Street in Srinagar. A week earlier, on October 26, six paramilitary forces personnel stationed in the capital city suffered injuries in a similar attack. On October 28, as many as 20 people were injured when a grenade explosion ripped through a bus stop in Sopore town in northern Kashmir.

Local scribes in the Valley have a foreboding that darker days lie ahead. Former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha, who arrived in Srinagar on November 22 along with a five-member delegation, is of the same opinion.

“For the moment there is restraint. But it is difficult to predict how long that restraint will last. There is an atmosphere of fear; there are horror stories of how people are being treated by the administration, the police and the Army. There is also a feeling that there is perhaps no recourse available to this. Therefore, there is an unpredictability [regarding the eruption of violence],” he told Frontline in an exclusive interaction.

He and his delegates were restricted by the administration from travelling to Pulwama to take stock of the situation.

To amplify its narrative of normalcy in the Kashmir Valley, the Centre is selectively pointing to the withdrawal of Section 144 from all 195 police station limits, the steady supply of medicine, and 99 per cent attendance in Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education examinations. However, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said that although students took the board exams, they had shown steadfast resolve to not attend school.

Home Minister Amit Shah claimed in Parliament recently that there had been a drastic fall in stone-pelting incidents. But Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha that between August 5 and November 15, there were 190 incidents of stone-pelting and law and order violation, an increase from the usual number of such incidents, despite the deployment of additional military units.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry presented a grim account of the state of economic affairs in Jammu and Kashmir. It claimed a loss of Rs.12,000 crore since the abrogation of Article 370. As against 2,140 ceasefire violations done by Pakistan in 2018, there were 950 such violations done in three months alone, from August to October 2019.

Pessimism among politicians

There is not much optimism in political circles. Leaders across the political spectrum believe that this is a new era of political uncertainty in Kashmir, one in which all elements of liberal democratic processes such as individual freedom, rational thinking and public deliberation and debate would be under assault, rendering the option of “abstaining” wholly unviable. But they have no clarity on how they might launch themselves again.

“It is essential for a leader to raise hope, inspire confidence and pledge to work for the fulfilment of a common aspiration. We have none,” the veteran N.C. leader’s son, quoted earlier, said. Indeed, the N.C.’s and the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) politics were premised on political idioms such as autonomy and self-rule, respectively, which have become redundant.

An influential Minister in the PDP-BJP government, who is also immediate kin of a PDP leader, said: “The choice is going to be between New Delhi’s stooges and those who represent the voice of Kashmir. Whether the PDP and the N.C. can be that voice without being in power is something that the leadership of the two parties will have to decide. What I can say at this moment is that I had never experienced so much loss of hope and loss of prestige, and that feeling resonates everywhere.”

The uncertainty and despair are compounded by the fact that the rank and file of the N.C. and the PDP and other political parties operating out of Kashmir have not been able to establish a line of communication with their respective leaders. “I heard Dr Farooq Abdullah’s phone is working, but I am not sure he is at liberty to take calls. I tried his number once, the call went unanswered,” said an N.C. leader.

A reliable source said that N.C. president Dr Farooq Abdullah recently sent a message through an emissary to the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC), where most of the political detainees were lodged before being shifted to the decrepit MLA Hostel, to not succumb to the Centre’s pressure.

According to media reports and independent channels, New Delhi offered the detainees freedom in exchange of a bond that would virtually require them to abandon politics. Dr Abdullah, said the source, cautioned politicians Sajjad Lone and Shah Faesal and leaders of his own party against signing the bond and asked them to stick to the Gupkar Declaration of August 4, agreed upon by them along with Mehbooba Mufti. Among other things, the Gupkar Declaration 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”.

Dr Farooq Abdullah’s position hints at a confrontationist attitude. This would likely attract more repression from the Centre and prolong the politicians’ detentions, but it also conveys that the N.C. patron is not giving up on politics yet and believes that there will be some way to persuade people to vote in elections.

A senior person, who is close to the erstwhile power centres in Srinagar, said that Omar Abdullah, unlike his somewhat hopeful father, was “hurt beyond words” and showed “absolute reluctance to be a part of future political processes”.

The observations match with Omar’s reticent behaviour, starkly in contrast with Farooq Abdullah’s cheerful disposition as he flashed a victory sign when a 15-member delegation of N.C. leaders met them on October 6.

The pain and humiliation, and the belligerence stemming from it, are perceptible in others too. A family member of a senior PDP leader said: “We were never patriots. But we had always offered to mutually work with New Delhi on areas of agreement rather than remain fixated with antagonistic sentiment. Why should we now?”

Shehryar Khanum, the daughter of detained PDP leader Naeem Akhtar, said: “India always criticised Pakistan’s politics where unknown elements dictate who is fit to be in power. Strangely, it has now taken a leaf out of Pakistan’s rulebook and is deciding who is a soft separatist or an antinational or a patriot. That the BJP had had political partnerships with the PDP, the P.C. [People’s Conference] and the N.C., whose loyalty to the nation they now question, adds to the irony.”

Third front

There is also the apprehension that the Centre may not release the mainstream political leadership anytime soon because their free movement might attract the alienated masses waiting to spill on to the streets and also because it is grooming a new crop of leaders to act as the Centre’s pliant conduit in the Valley, as Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and G.M. Sadiq did in the past.

Leaders across the political spectrum underscore the point that New Delhi is giving shape to a political conglomerate that mostly comprises PDP defectors and is headed by Muzaffar Beigh and Altaf Bukhari.

Usman Majid, Amin Bhat and Abdul Rashid are some of the other names doing the rounds as possible constituents of a New Delhi-installed regime. There are murmurs that elections could be announced as soon as winter ends.

Reliable sources in the N.C. said that efforts were on to lure former legislators as well as those who had joined it before August 5 when their prospects of winning the next Assembly elections were bright. “Abdul Majeed Padder, ex-MLA, Noorabad, may join the ‘third front’,” said an N.C. leader. “There are reports that the PDP’s Rajya Sabha member, Nazir Ahmad, may switch over.”

Belligerent PDP, undecided N.C.

The N.C. is in a dilemma. There is an understanding that ceding space to a proxy regime waiting to take control of Jammu and Kashmir will be imprudent. Additionally, its leaders suspect that the PDP may have an understanding with the Centre to occupy the opposition’s space.

“How else can Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter and the kin of other PDP leaders hammer at the government every day from every platform available?” asked a perplexed N.C. spokesperson. Iltija Mufti, Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter, has taken over her mother’s Twitter handle and has been lashing out at the government. “We are living in times when 3 ex J&K CMs who swore allegiance to Indian constitution have been illegally detained since 5th August. Meanwhile MLAs are being purchased like onions in a supermarket. Happy Constitution day,” she tweeted on November 25.

One wonders what the composition and character of the impending “third front” regime will be. The culture of acquiescence that is being imposed gives a hint. Several bureaucrats and administrative officials converged on one line of grievance while speaking to Frontline: “We are so scared of surveillance that we don’t talk of Article 370 amongst ourselves.”

An insider in the Governor’s regime said: “When the Home Ministry issued the instruction to book Farooq Abdullah under the Public Safety Act, there was a hue and cry from his loyalists within the bureaucracy. ‘This would be crossing the line,’ some protested. ‘Let us think of something else to justify his arrest in the Supreme Court,’ some others pleaded. But the man in New Delhi bluntly shut them up.”

The local press has become slavishly submissive, after a spate of National Investigation Agency (NIA) summons to a senior editor set the alarm bells ringing. The Srinagar-based journalist and author Gowhar Geelani said: “The fear is so palpable that leading English and Urdu dailies published from Srinagar do not publish editorials and op-eds, or write about the health benefits of apricot, cucumber, carrot, radish and walnut but do not dare to talk about the prevailing political situation in Kashmir.”

Will this Kashmir be acceptable to its people? A journalist who works for a United Kingdom-based publication said that posters mysteriously appeared at a mosque in Srinagar warning leaders of serious consequences if they joined the “BJP-facilitated third front”.

There are apprehensions of Kashmir’s drift towards a bloody summer. The Centre seems determined to realise it in retrospect.

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