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On the boil

Print edition : Sep 10, 2010

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Conciliatory gestures from the Centre fail to douse the flames of anger in the valley.

in Srinagar

EVEN after two months of strife, during which 60 civilians were killed, Kashmir is restive. Businesses, educational institutions and most government offices remain closed. Every week, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, head of the hard-line faction of the Hurriyat Conference, announces a one-day protest plan, and the government promptly imposes a curfew to stall it. This brings life in the valley to a complete halt. The people in general tend to follow Geelani, disregarding appeals from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

There is a near-complete breakdown of the system in the valley. Anger on the streets, especially among the youth, is increasing. The death of 60 people in firing by the State police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has further distanced the people from the government.

The hope that the month of Ramzan would bring some respite to the situation has been shattered with the killings, as people have turned more aggressive than before. Nocturnal protests in mosques and daytime demonstrations on the roads continue despite strict orders against them from the government.

A whiff of public anger was seen at the Independence Day celebrations in Srinagar. Shouting We want freedom, Abdul Ahad Jan, a head constable of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, hurled a shoe at Omar Abdullah. The Chief Minister pardoned him later, but Jan was hailed as a hero by the people.

With thousands of people rallying behind him, Jan announced his resignation from the State police service saying that freedom was the only solution to the Kashmir problem and that Geelani was his leader. Without going into the antecedents of the suspended head constable or the motive behind his attempt to humiliate the head of the government, people blindly showed solidarity with him. The social networking site Facebook was swarmed with special pages on Jan, and the number of fans for the pages crossed hundreds within minutes.

It is simply a reflection of people's alienation from the state apparatus, otherwise without knowing Jan's motive how can thousands of people support him like this? said Tahir Mohiuddin, editor of Chattan, the largest-selling Urdu weekly in the valley. They [people] actually look for an opportunity to take on the government and this was one. The developments in the valley in the past eight weeks have changed its political landscape to a large extent. The leaders of mainstream parties keep away from the people's fury and do not often take the risk of coming out in public. Meanwhile, Geelani is calling the shots with his brand of separatism. His protest programmes are being implemented in letter and spirit. Before his release from jail, his confidants Massarat Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi were leading the protests. Though there are reports of differences between Geelani and Alam, that has not affected their plans. The moderates in the separatist camp such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Yasin Malik (who is undergoing treatment in a Delhi hospital) have been marginalised to the extent that they are left with no option but to endorse the calls given by the hard-line faction.

The closure of businesses and educational institutions has led to a simmering discontent. Many people are worried about its adverse effects on the economy and the education system. The government has put out advertisements in newspapers drawing people's attention to the losses to the economy and education. Affluent families have started trying for admission of their wards in institutions in Jammu and other places. There is, however, little space for voices that openly oppose the strikes. Even if the leaders of the agitation programme consider relaxing it, the recurring instances of killings are holding them back. The Geelani-led Hurriyat offered respite to the people on August 14, Pakistan's Independence Day, but the killing of three youth that day forced it to call for a valleywide strike.

Surprisingly, the people on the streets are refusing to buy any theories this time. The mindset has been moulded in such a way that Kashmiris, especially the youth, think that it is a now or never game. For them, it is time to get freedom from India or else it will never come. Their leaders further cement this perception. Geelani, for example, has said on many occasions: The movement [for freedom] has reached a turning point.

On August 18, addressing a large gathering in Narbal village in central Kashmir at the fourth-day ceremony of 17-year-old Mohammad Umar (who was shot dead by CRPF personnel when he went to the market to see his father at iftaar), he said: We will perish but will not surrender before India. Until the last Indian soldier leaves Kashmir, we will continue the agitation. He also rejected the line that Kashmir was an integral part of India. Geelani has set three conditions for entering any dialogue with New Delhi withdrawal of troops, New Delhi's acceptance of Kashmir as a disputed territory, and the unconditional release of all political prisoners.

These conditions, apparently, are not acceptable to New Delhi as such, which has made it impossible to initiate a genuine political process. Most people in Kashmir have taken Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's offer of autonomy with a pinch of salt.

At this juncture, a process of reconciliation seems far away. Restoration of normalcy is the first and foremost challenge before the government. Then there is the need to open up channels of communication with all political parties in the State. Administrative measures taken to restore people's faith in the system have failed.

While the security forces need to observe maximum restraint, New Delhi needs to understand the situation on the ground. It is far worse than in 1990 when gun-wielding militants ruled the roost. Unlike the militants who could be neutralised with the use of force over the next 10 years, the stone-pelting youth of today are determined to take on the government forces and demolish any symbol of the state that comes their way. Restoration of Kashmir-specific dialogue with Pakistan and revival of confidence-building measures with Pakistan and with the people of the valley are the key issues that need serious consideration by the government.

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