Ground Situation in Kashmir

Kashmir’s endless agony

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Army jawans stand guard near an encounter site in the Nagnad area of Kulgam district, south Kashmir, on July 17, where three Jaish-e-Mohammed militants were killed in a gunbattle with security forces. Three army personnel were also injured in the operation. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

Jammu and Kashmir Shiv Sena activists in Srinagar on July 17 demanding security cover after BJP leader Waseem Bari, his father and his brother were gunned down by suspected militants. The government is inexplicably withdrawing the security and safe houses of politicians despite the threat from militants. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

Girish Chandra Murmu, Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

The Centre abrogated Articles 370 and 35A supposedly as a cure-all for all Jammu and Kashmir’s problems, but a year on, the economy of the region is in the doldrums, while the sense of disillusionment, frustration and alienation among the people is only increasing.

A YEAR ago, on August 5, when the Narendra Modi government ended the constitutional privileges guaranteed to Jammu and Kashmir, it floated a commanding national narrative marketing its unilateral action as the cure for militancy and people’s alienation in Kashmir. It argued that Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution not only scuppered economic development by preventing private players from investing in the Himalayan valley but also facilitated a monopolistic control of the political structure by the Abdullahs and the Muftis. “Members of the two families are still intoxicated and think that Kashmir is their father’s property,” Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) MP from Ladakh, said in Parliament. He alleged that the National Conference (N.C.) led by Farooq Abdullah and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led by Mehbooba Mufti were milking the special status.

The stress on the economy was deliberate and aimed at generating the false notion that economic frustration was the reason behind the three-decade-long armed resistance in Kashmir. This view, erroneous as it was, represents the reluctance of the Hindu nationalist government led by Narendra Modi to acknowledge that grave human rights violations and a culture of political marginalisation have long festered in Kashmir; these have been aggravated in recent years by the relaying of communally divisive messages and the deployment of militaristic policies that focus on catching and killing the insurgent without any engagement with the stakeholders in the conflict.

People in India, particularly the animated audience of Modi in the Hindi heartland who constitute his most fierce and unwavering support base, received his message with adulation. This was partly because of its fixation with anything that carries even a hint of bellicose nationalism and partly because a large section of the media showed little enthusiasm to dissect Modi’s assertions on Kashmir or ask for specifics. Article 370 accorded a semi-autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir, with exclusive rights to local people, or “permanent residents”, in terms of employment and ownership of immovable assets.

Development myth busted

A year later, there is nothing to suggest a qualitative shift in people’s lives. If anything, Kashmir’s economy lost a humongous $2.4 billion between August and December 2019 as people observed a stringent civilian curfew to convey their resentment against New Delhi’s political incursion. The much-hyped Global Investors’ Summit was postponed in October 2019.

People in Kashmir scoffed at the Prime Minister’s argument that Article 370 impeded the extension of key economic provisions to the State. Businessmen in Srinagar’s ritzy Polo View market told this reporter in August 2019 that the goods and services tax was implemented (in the State) despite Article 370 and that big business houses such as Oberoi and Taj forayed into the State without any hassle.

For decades, the core supporters of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the BJP have endorsed and participated in relentless myth-making, alleging that Hindus are losing out on opportunities because the minority communities were unduly favoured. When Modi returned to power with an inflated majority in May 2019, it became imperative for him to “reclaim Kashmir as a lost Hindu holy land”—as his critics like to frame his manoeuvres in the Valley—and prevent any desertion by a communally charged electorate that expected him to pursue a programme which gave priority to its social and political hegemony.

Disempowering the local people

“It is all about electoral politics and implementing the BJP’s Hindutva agenda in India’s only Muslim-majority State,” rued Iltija Mufti, the daughter of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who is detained under the Public Safety Act at her Gupkar Road residence in Srinagar. “Where is the question of uplifting the economy when the policies and agendas of the government are very visibly aimed at disempowering the local people?” Iltija said while speaking to this reporter over the phone from Srinagar. She highlighted some recent actions of the government to support her argument. “Ever since the State lost its special status, there has been a systematic purge of Kashmiri employees from government jobs and administrative postings. Mining contracts are being outsourced to non-locals. The Army can now take possession of land anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir and build infrastructure.”

Iltija Mufti was referring to the July 17 amendment of the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act that enables the Army to notify “strategic areas” for itself. Regional parties were unanimous in their rejection of this amendment, with the N.C.’s spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar calling it a ploy to “turn the entire region into a military establishment”. The armed forces are already in possession of over 21,400 hectares of land in Jammu and Kashmir (on July19, the Union Territory’s administration clarified that there was no decision to “either transfer any new land or declare areas outside cantonments as strategic”).

Political leaders aver that people’s alienation is at an all-time high in the Kashmir Valley. Ruhullah Mehdi, the N.C.’s chief spokesperson, said: “The idea of Indian democracy in Kashmir is hurt to an extent where it cannot be immediately repaired.” Mehdi, not unlike the disillusioned and aghast people of Kashmir, saw a parallel between the Modi government’s prerogatives in Kashmir and Israel’s treatment of West Bank and Gaza. “From empowering the Army to identify land and build infrastructure to trying to realign the demographics, it seems the Mossad is counselling them.”

Mehdi’s apprehension is not ill-founded. A new government order recognises anyone as a domicile if he or she has resided in Jammu and Kashmir for a period of 15 years or studied for a period of seven years and appeared for Class 10th/12th examinations in an educational institution there. There is an overwhelming sense that the move is aimed at flooding Kashmir with settlers from outside and depriving the indigenous Muslim population of a political voice of their own.

Certain other actions of the government also suggest that its ultimate goal in Kashmir is the extinction of independent thought by forceful extraction of allegiance. The new media policy in Jammu and Kashmir is an illustration of that. It allows the state to initiate criminal proceedings against journalists, editors, media owners and publishers over any content that it deems “anti-national”, “plagiarised” or “fake”.

The Jammu and Kashmir administration has ended the official commemoration of Martyrs’ Day (July 13), a seven-decade-old tradition. This decision betrayed its inherent uneasiness with any form of mobilisation of the Kashmiri emotion. On July 13, 1931, the soldiers of the autocratic Dogra ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, gunned down 22 protesters in Srinagar.

Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu, however, maintains that he is committed to ushering in an era of economic development in the Union Territory. In November 2015, the Centre approved a reconstruction plan for Jammu and Kashmir involving an outlay of Rs.80,068 crore. In a recent interview to an English daily, Murmu pointed out that at the end of 2018 only 27 per cent of this money had been recorded as spent, whereas expenditure had now reached the 54 per cent mark. Earlier, he claimed that an industrial promotion policy with an attractive tax exemption and land policy at its core was in the final stages of preparation.

Militancy not receding

Few Kashmiris share Murmu’s optimism. They grumble that violence and progress cannot go hand in hand; they are referring to a spate of civilian killing, more notably the recent heart-wrenching sight of a four-year-old child sitting atop the body of his grandfather whom personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force allegedly gunned down at an encounter site in Sopore (the CRPF maintains that the man died in crossfire).

Militancy is showing no sign of fatigue. In 2019, at least 119 ‘boys’ took to militancy and 173 terror strikes were reported. In the first seven months of 2020, at least 20 security personnel, including a commanding rank officer, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma in Handwara, perished in anti-militancy operations. The government, however, is emphatic in its proclamations of victory. It points to the elimination of 136 militants this year (up to July 19), including the most-wanted militant commanders Riyaz Naikoo and Junaid Sehrai, which left the home-grown Hizbul Mujahideen leaderless.

But people in Kashmir say the whole assertion of containing militancy is predicated on a lie as it does not take into account the sense of rage among the youths, who have been joining the militant ranks without training or access to arms. “The question that needs to be asked is, how many of the now eliminated militants joined militancy after August 5, 2019?” asked Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader from Kulgam (see interview). As per the security grid’s assessment, the number of home-grown militants is steady at around 120; five boys take up arms every month.

The government’s campaign to vilify the leadership of the N.C. and the PDP underlines the fact that it is far from outlining a programme aimed at political inclusion. Former Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik recently said that Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti refused to participate in the panchayat elections “under Pakistan’s pressure”. Omar Abdullah rebutted that claim, deriding Malik as “only naam ka satya not kaam ka [his name means ‘truth’ but his actions contradict that]”.

Wreck of mainstream

The N.C. and the PDP lament that New Delhi is bent on “dynamiting the foundations of mainstream politics”. Speaking to Frontline, Ruhullah Mehdi said that political and electoral processes in Kashmir were sustained at a great personal cost by the votaries of Indian democracy. It was an obvious reference to his party, which has, in the past three decades since militancy erupted, lost more than 5,000 workers, whom insurgents targeted for upholding the tricolour. “Since the BJP came to power, it has destroyed every institution and idea that was not in sync with its agendas in Kashmir. It not only stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status but, through its proxies, including a large section of the media, was successful in spreading the lie that anyone who stood for Article 370 was a threat to the security of the state,” he said.

The government is inexplicably withdrawing the security and safe houses of politicians. On June 25, Naeem Akhtar, who was Finance Minister in the erstwhile PDP-BJP government, was asked to vacate his official residence in Srinagar in five hours or face “forcible eviction”. This, despite the continuing threat from militants, as in the case of the targeted killing of a BJP district president, Sheikh Waseem Bari, in Bandipora on July 8.

The message from New Delhi is clear: political actors in Kashmir must submit to its programme of securing a direct and absolute hold on Kashmir. The creation of the Apni Party in March, reportedly with the blessings of Modi and Amit Shah, is also a hint in that direction. The party is led by PDP defector Altaf Bukhari, who, in an interview in January, had asked people to reconcile themselves to the changed realities in Kashmir. “Life goes on; we must try for things that we can get,” he had said.

All eyes on N.C., PDP

Iltija Mufti said: “Leadership and political parties aren’t start-ups that can be created through incubators.” According to her, the authorities asked Mehbooba Mufti in October 2019 to sign a bond in exchange for her freedom, but the former Chief Minister “categorically refused” to do it. “She won’t compromise on Article 370,” Iltija said. Apparently, the political prisoners who were released in the past few months were made to sign a bond pledging that they would not confront the government.

N.C. leaders downplay Mehbooba Mufti’s steely resolve in private interactions. “She has to redeem herself,” they said curtly, referring to her unpopular decision to form a coalition government with the BJP. However, they also admitted that Farooq and Omar Abdullah’s quiescent position would damage their own prospects. A recent Twitter backlash against Omar Abdullah forced him to deactivate his account momentarily; his father was berated for his nonchalant appearance at an ice-cream parlour in Srinagar.

Frontline has information from N.C. insiders that the party’s top leadership would settle for restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and participate in elections whenever they are called. “Farooq and Omar Abdullah are realistic. The BJP won’t restore the special status unless there is a seismic change in geopolitics,” is the gist of what Frontline has gathered from the N.C. This reporter has also learnt that sensing a possible rapprochement with the N.C., Modi and Amit Shah have “dumped the Apni Party”. But Imran Dar dismissed any notion of a compromise. “We are determined for a long-drawn battle over Articles 370 and 35A both within and outside the Supreme Court,” he said.

As anger and resentment swell on the ground, the situation is grim. As the Kashmiri politician and author Prem Nath Bazaz 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.”

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