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Valley on fire

Print edition : Aug 27, 2010

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Rapid Action Force personnel patrolling the streets on the eighth consecutive day of curfew in Srinagar, on August 6.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Rapid Action Force personnel patrolling the streets on the eighth consecutive day of curfew in Srinagar, on August 6.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

The State government watches helplessly as the youth vent their ire on the mainstream political parties and snub the separatists.

EIGHT weeks after Jammu and Kashmir was caught up in a fresh spiral of violence, the use of force seemed to be the only option the government had to bring normalcy back in the State. But at a heavy price. Ever since June 11, when 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo was fatally hit by a teargas shell, the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have made desperate attempts to break the cycle of protests. By the first week of August, 49 civilians had died and hundreds of people, including police personnel, had been injured, many of them severely.

Kashmir has never seen such fierce political unrest, with thousands of protesters virtually forcing the police and the CRPF to retreat. They set fire to police stations, government buildings and vehicles and in the process exposed the absence of the administration on the ground.

Political dissent has been at the centre of developments in Jammu and Kashmir since 1947. Those who have seen the ups and downs of politics in the State recall the 1963-64 agitation after the holy relic of Prophet Mohammad was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. It was seen as a revolution; people were on the roads for about a month in the chilling cold, and refused to budge. But the present agitation has surpassed everything, said Mohammad Amin, a retired teacher, who was 30 years old at that time.

In 1953, widespread protests followed the dismissal of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as Prime Minister of the State. Three decades later, in 1984, there was turmoil again when Ghulam Mohammad Shah unseated his brother-in-law Farooq Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah's son, as Chief Minister. Curfew was enforced for several weeks. During all these political turnarounds, Kashmiris felt that New Delhi was going against their wishes and thrusting its own people on them.

It is widely believed that the 1987 elections, in which the Muslim United Front (MUF) was pitted against the National Conference-Congress alliance, were grossly rigged. Analysts believe that the MUF might have cut no ice with the people, but the way in which the Farooq Abdullah-Rajiv Gandhi combination forced its writ to rig the elections pushed Kashmiris to the wall and made many lose faith in the Indian democracy.

Since the seeds of alienation and secessionism were part of the political inheritance in Kashmir, Pakistan used them craftily to arm the youth who had lost faith in the Indian system. A good example of this was the conversion of a ballot-friendly Mohammad Yusuf Shah to a bullet-friendly Syed Salahuddin (his nom de guerre), now commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chairman Yasin Malik, who was among the first to resort to armed rebellion in Kashmir, was his election agent.

History stands testimony to the fact that in 1947 and 1965, Pakistan tried its best to woo the youth with arms. Perhaps it was the respect for the mighty leadership of Sheikh Abdullah that led the people of Kashmir to continue to cast their lot with the Indian Union, though with the condition that Kashmir will retain its distinct identity. However, the erosion in the autonomous character of Jammu and Kashmir's relationship with the Centre laid the foundation for a simmering discontent, which continues to this day.

With armed rebellion taking centre stage in late 1989, Kashmir passed through a painful period of violence and destruction. Thousands were killed or maimed and property worth billions of rupees was destroyed. In the direct confrontation between the militants (first indigenous and later foreign elements) and the government forces, the civilians, too, got trampled. In fact, the support of the Kashmiri population sustained the armed rebellion to an extent.

With militancy losing its sting, the Government of India tried to bring in a democratic character to its rule in the State by deciding to hold Assembly elections in 1996, ending a long spell of Central Rule.

By 2002, the separatist movement had stepped into a non-violent mode. The peace initiatives between India and Pakistan, followed by confidence-building measures and talk of out of the box solutions and Insaniyat ke dairai mein (within the ambit of humanity) by former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee injected a sense of optimism all round. This was the time when people hoped that something serious was happening on Kashmir and they gave it a chance to succeed, said Tahir Mohiuddin, a senior journalist. Negotiations were also opened with moderates such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who leads a faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, and Yasin Malik.

However, the efforts came to nought around 2006 when the Manmohan Singh government failed to break the ice and, instead, took recourse to Round Table Conferences, which were termed a useless exercise and were attended by mainstream political parties. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who was then in the opposition, expressed his reservations, saying that the Centre should also reach out to those who had problems with accession.

Land transfer issue

A new phase of political turmoil began with the issue of land transfer to the Amarnath Shrine Board. The whole of Jammu and Kashmir virtually burnt on communal and regional lines in the summer of 2008, forcing Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress to resign as Chief Minister after the People's Democratic Party (PDP) withdrew support to his government. What happened on the streets in 2008 was reminiscent of the uprising in the 1990s and dealt a major blow to the fragile peace. The agitation, which was triggered by the land transfer, culminated in the larger goal of Azadi.

However, later in 2008, in a surprising turn of events, 67 per cent of the people (though mostly in rural Kashmir) lined up at polling booths to choose a new government under the Indian Constitution. This baffled almost all Kashmir experts, but the people who voted were clear about differentiating between governance and the issue of political aspirations, which they believed were deeply rooted in the right of self-determination.

New government, new hope

By all accounts, the government led by Omar Abdullah's National Conference and supported by the Congress heralded hope for the new generation. The National Conference's manifesto contained promises to provide a clean government and to work for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Addressing human rights violations was made the core part of governance.

The Chief Minister succeeded in sending a strong signal when he got an Army camp relocated in Bomai village in north Kashmir. The soldiers at the camp had been held responsible for the killing of two youth. But the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian in May 2009 marked the start of Omar Abdullah's troubles. Protests over the incident made it a summer to forget for Kashmir. Tourist inflow, which had showed signs of revival, dwindled and the economy crumbled. Soon, the cries of Azadi grew loud once again, but just when the agitation seemed to be picking up, it all but died out, perhaps in the hope that 2010 would bring a change to Kashmir's bruised landscape.

As a Kashmir expert pointed out, all it needed was a spark of disillusionment to ignite a more volatile phase of agitation. It came in the form of a fake encounter in the Machil sector of Kupwara. The Army, allegedly for rewards and promotions, killed three young boys from Rafiabad, dubbing them terrorists. This was enough to kick-start a new uprising. But from the way the fire has engulfed Kashmir in the past two months, it is not difficult to say that the political drift in Kashmir is almost complete. Notwithstanding the fact that the political problem in Kashmir is beyond Omar Abdullah's diagnosis or treatment, it cannot be denied that the mishandling on the part of his government played a significant role in the deterioration of the situation.

Except for tough measures like calling in the Army and getting reinforcements from the CRPF or calling for the Rapid Action Force, attempts at finding a political solution did not seem to be working on the ground. Also, for the first time since militants made their appearance in Kashmir, the rank and file of the Jammu and Kashmir Police started feeling unsafe in their own State. This has been the worst crisis I have seen in the past 20 years, a senior police officer said. Police stations and other government property were pulled down in broad daylight and the houses of police personnel became the target of mobsters who took everything into their own hands.

The police, too, felt demoralised by the government. Some police officers in the field question the government's announcement of judicial inquiries into incidents.

The same people who are controlling the situation and getting brickbats will have to face these inquiries, a police officer told Frontline. At least 20 officers above the level of deputy superintendents of police have to prove themselves innocent before two retired judges of the State High Court.

The anger on the streets is necessarily the manifestation of a larger political disillusionment, but the State government's handling of the mobs has only widened the gap between the rulers and the ruled. While many people disapprove of the burning of public property, the insensitive approach towards the killings has angered the masses. The hard posturing by the Chief Minister asking people to cooperate with the security forces, enforcing curfew and not condoling the deaths or reaching out to people soon enough dented his credibility severely. His own police force seemed helpless, with senior officers refusing to join duty.

Members of mainstream political parties did not dare to venture out of the security zones. After Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram asked Omar Abdullah to reach out to the people, his Ministers fanned out to the districts, but only in helicopters as agitators had taken over the roads. In south Kashmir's Anantnag district, the police sought the Army's help to evacuate Ministers from the Dak Bungalow which people had surrounded to teach them a lesson.

According to official figures, as many as 872 incidents of stone-throwing took place in June and July, in which 1,456 police and CRPF personnel were injured. In just six days, from July 30 to August 4, the situation took a turn for the worse as a large number of public and private property was destroyed. In the wave of anger that consumed the Valley, nine police stations, police posts and SOG (special operations group) camps, eight government vehicles and a coach of a train, one railway station, two houses of political activists and 13 government offices were destroyed.

The hatred with which the people had dismissed the mainstream parties in the Valley poses a big challenge for New Delhi as it tries to establish its writ over Kashmir. The violent protests that went out of anybody's control signalled a much larger trouble on the streets. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, considered to be moderate voices, did not muster courage to call for a refined and people-friendly agitation calendar. Syed Salahuddin had to retract his statement that people's problems be taken into account while issuing a calendar for strikes. His effigies were burnt in Srinagar and Sopore, almost making the powerful militant commander irrelevant.

The calendar of agitation throughout the two months has been the domain of the Syed Ali Geelani-led Hurriyat and his lieutenant Masrat Alam and Dukhtaran-e-Millat chief Asiya Andrabi. Sometimes, however, the situation looked as if it was out of even Geelani's hand.

What made the protests and strikes relevant on the ground was the continued cycle of killings by security forces. Without using any other option, they straightway opened fire. What can you do when a group of stone-throwing youth is determined to lynch you? asked a police officer, who was injured several times. They are taking on the country and we are to face their wrath. It is not a simple law and order problem.

In the past few weeks, no police personnel was ready to come on record, fearing reprisal from the agitating crowds. In fact, mainstream politicians also have been targeted for being on the Indian side. Some political workers, fearing for their lives, joined the protests. Minister for Agriculture G.H. Mir's ancestral house in Tangmarg was spared by arsonists, thanks to the intervention of guards posted there and some local people.

It is not a question of any government failing, said Noor Ahmad Baba, who teaches political science at Kashmir University. It is the state which has failed. As far as the State government is concerned, it is working in synergy with the Central government, the Congress is part of the coalition, and New Delhi is backing Omar Abdullah. What else do you need? It is the system which has collapsed.

He accused the government of letting the situation to worsen by reimposing curfew and not allowing people to breathe. The Government of India should accept Kashmir as a political problem and not tag it with any other issue and then take some initiative, he said. However, he maintained that to come out of this situation was a big challenge.

With the violence unabated, the last hope was enlivened when Geelani, who was released after being in detention for a month, called for a peaceful agitation (see interview). It remains to be seen how far Geelani will go in enforcing discipline. But after his statement on August 4, there were four more deaths in two days. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a teacher at Kashmir University, sees the much- publicised statement of Geelani on TV channels as the government's desperation to see peace return to the Valley. To transform this violence into a meaningful political process will take time and is conditional on peace, which can only be achieved through people-friendly strategies. According to historian Siddique Wahid, the problem will remain until Delhi refuses to address it politically. They have to recast New Delhi's relationship with Srinagar, he said.

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