Jammu & Kashmir

Simmering Valley

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Protesters clash with the police during the byelection in the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency on April 9. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

At a polling station at Chadoora in Budgam district on April 13. Repolling was held in 38 polling stations in the district as the April 9 byelection was marred by violence. Eight civilians were killed when the police opened fire at protesters who had stormed the polling stations. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

The Lok Sabha byelections in Kashmir bring out a new face of resistance, raising fears that the Valley is slipping out of the Centre’s hands.

A FEW people, including former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, have flagged the apprehension that India is on the brink of losing Kashmir. Although such voices are in a minority, the reality dawned on the nation after Kashmir said an emphatic “no” to elections.

The voter turnout in the April 9 byelection to the Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency was a meagre 7.14 per cent, marginally higher than the 5 per cent turnout in the November 1989 elections to the Baramulla and Anantnag parliamentary seats. Boycott of elections was possible in 1989 because militancy had just taken birth in the Kashmir Valley, but the violent disruption of the polling exercise in some pockets of Srinagar constituency in April 2017 showed the people’s resistance to the democratic process, a process in which they had participated in 2002, 2008 and 2014.

Former Chief Minister and National Conference (N.C.) president Farooq Abdullah won the Srinagar byelection by a wide margin of more than 10,000 votes. The election was necessitated by the resignation of Tariq Hamid Qarra of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He resigned in September 2016 in protest against what he called the brutality of the state against protesters in the Kashmir Valley. Qarra subsequently joined the Congress. In 2014, Qarra defeated Abdullah. In this byelection he campaigned for Abdullah as the N.C. is the Congress’ alliance partner.

Such was the impact of the violence outside polling booths in Budgam, in which eight civilians were killed, that it led to the postponement of the byelection slated for April 12 in Anantnag. (The Anantnag seat fell vacant after Mehbooba Mufti, who is the State Chief Minister, relinquished it after she was elected to the State Assembly.) Tasaduq Mufti, the ruling PDP’s candidate, requested the Election Commission of India in a letter that the election be deferred to “avoid further human loss”. It was to have been the electoral debut of Tasaduq, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother. Following a word from the Union Home Ministry and a push from the State government, the Election Commission postponed the byelection to May 25.

Obviously, the decision to defer the election was the direct fallout of what happened in Budgam. Notwithstanding the fact that the separatist Hurriyat Conference has been calling for the boycott of elections since 1996, Kashmir has always recorded a good voter turnout. The voting percentage in the 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014 Assembly elections was 53, 43, 61 and 66 respectively and it was 35, 39 and 50 in the 2004, 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The voter turnout prompted New Delhi to claim that the people of Kashmir had reposed faith in Indian democracy, and that in a way it “authenticated the State’s accession” to the Union. However, even mainstream parties such as the N.C. and the PDP have tried to delink people’s participation in the elections from the political issue and argue that the elections were a success because of issues of governance such as “bijli, sadak and paani” (electricity, roads and water). The biggest surprise by way of people’s participation came in the 2011 local body elections when the turnout was nearly 80 per cent in some places.

The likes of the Hurriyat have always challenged this narrative to maintain that the people’s mood vis-a-vis the political issue has not changed. The April 9 election in a way endorsed that view although the boycott was not completely in response to the call given by the separatists. There was simmering discontent, essentially rising from the unrest in 2016 when cries for “aazadi” rent the air, drawing new battle lines in Kashmir. The majority of the voters did not want the “sham” election to take place in Srinagar. It is a fact that violence played a role in keeping the voters away from the booths, but the writing was already on the wall. The anger against the system, especially among the youth, had reached a crescendo. Also, there was a fear that the Valley may see a repeat of the prolonged agitation that took place from July 2016.

The involvement of Pakistan and militants in not allowing the poll exercise is nothing new for Kashmir, but the fact that this time it was the people’s will that disrupted the process cannot be ignored. Snapshots of the popular mood were already blazing on the horizon, with people putting up resistance to the presence of security forces during anti-militancy operations. In the last week of March, when a militant was trapped in Budgam district, people took on the security forces by pelting them with stones in order to help him escape. The militant was killed and three youths were also gunned down. Such incidents have become common in Kashmir and herald a new change on the ground.

Journalists who have covered Kashmir since 1990 would point out that those days people would run away from an encounter site, but today they run towards the encounter site. New Delhi has lost whatever space it had gained.

This fiasco brings out the abject failure of the administration. For a long time, the administration was aware of the situation, but mishandling Kashmir has become its hallmark. Given that there is no accountability, the first option is to fire the bullet to kill protesters, not to scare them away. The impunity with which the police and the paramilitary forces have responded to situations in Kashmir since 2008 has helped them to become indispensable because the political leadership has always shielded them.

Militancy

The agitation and the anger following the killing spree have formed a dangerous combination that is pushing the youth towards militancy. In the past few years, there has been a steep rise in the number of local militants. Earlier, the ratio of foreign militants to local militants was 70:30. Today, according to officials, it is just the reverse. According to official sources, the number of youths who joined militancy in 2010 was 54. It decreased to 23 in 2011. There was a further decline to 21 and 16 in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but the number went up to 53 in 2014 and rose drastically to 66 in 2015 and 88 in 2016.

In 2017, informed sources say, 19 youths joined the ranks of militants until March. Security officials admit that the hanging of the 2001 Parliament building attack case convict Mohammed Afzal Guru in 2013 was a turning point as far as pushing the youth towards militancy is concerned. Kashmiris found themselves completely pushed to the wall following the hanging of Afzal Guru.

With the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016 and the romanticism that his life story infused among the youth, more and more youths started joining the militancy. But that is hardly a concern on the ground as the youths who are taking on the security forces with stones are proving to be more dangerous than the actual militants. The youths, who once told former External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that they did not fear death, have the capacity to put the forces on the back foot to the extent that the forces have lost their balance in dealing with them.

That the Army and paramilitary forces have failed to tackle the problem is clear from a video that has gone viral showing a young man being tied to a jeep and dragged through several villages, covering a distance of 22 kilometres. More such videos showing abuse and violence and forcing people to shout “Pakistan Murdabad” have gone viral. Lt Gen. H.S. Panag, former Army Commander of the Udhampur-based Northern Command, admitted that the video would haunt the Indian Army and the nation for a long time to come.

A day before the video went viral, national television channels ran a video clip in which some youths were shown heckling a paramilitary jawan, and a lot of time was devoted to discussions on the video grab. But the video showing the youth dragged by a jeep completely overshadowed it, putting the Army in the dock. This incident not only shows that the forces have run out of options to deal with a crisis that is essentially political but also puts a question mark on the projects worth several crores of rupees being implemented under “Operation Sadbhavna” in Kashmir. The distance between the people and the Army has further increased. The police registered a first information report against the Army, but the damage had already been done.

Whether policymakers in New Delhi agree or not, postponing the election following what happened on April 9 is viewed as “surrender”. The argument that the postponement had saved many lives may be valid, but whether the government will be able to conduct the election on May 25 is a big question. Apparently, this decision will embolden those who have been challenging the writ of the government.

The Joint Hurriyat Conference, which spearheads this new face of “resistance” (irrespective of whether it holds the key), has claimed a moral victory and rightly so. New Delhi’s surrender before the agitation by voters has made it vulnerable. Until now, it had been positioning itself differently and selling to the whole world the idea that democracy was flourishing in Kashmir. After the April 9 byelection and the postponement of the Anantnag election, it will have to explain what this turnaround means. Even leaders such as Farooq Abdullah, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Congress State party president G.A. Mir have admitted that the political mainstream has lost the ground completely.

What is important to realise is that Kashmir has not been averse to any democratic process that helps address the political issue. The period between 2003 and 2007 stands testimony to the fact that Kashmiris believe in a process that is aimed at finding a solution to the problem. However, the past eight years have shown that the Centre only wants to make itself strong in Kashmir through the barrel of the gun. Threats and provocations in the past two years have complicated the situation.

The anger on the streets is the culmination of the Centre’s dictates on cow and beef, its move to do away with the State flag, the setting up of a separate township for Kashmiri Pandits and also a Sainik Colony, and the Sangh Parivar constituents’ decision to go to court to get Articles 370 and 35 A scrapped.

Today, an average Kashmiri thinks of rising against this onslaught, and disrupting the elections was one way of registering his anger. The message that Jammu and Kashmir is a law and order issue has not gone down well with the people. Obviously, the absence of political engagement has made New Delhi pay a heavy price. But if the political grapevine is anywhere closer to the truth, the Central government does not think in terms of a political solution but believes that in the event of unrest, it is only a Kashmiri who loses his life. The election boycott and the violence that forced the Centre to postpone polling in Anantnag is a huge political statement, which can be hardly ignored.

Of late, militants have started increasingly targeting mainstream political activists. The ghost of “unknown killers” seems to be returning to the Valley. The killing of a PDP worker in Pulwama and a lawyer affiliated to the N.C. has shaken these parties. Moreover, the Jammu and Kashmir Police are on the back foot after militants started targeting the families of its personnel. Although civil society actors fear that this might lead to a “civil war” since thousands of families are associated with the police, there is no word from the separatist leadership, which always weighs all the options. Given the police’s role in countering the unrest, people have been promoting disaffection towards them.

“We are doing our job,” said a police officer. But social media users have been criticising the way the police are in the forefront of quelling the protests. The Director General of Police, S.P. Vaid, asked his men to avoid going to homes for some time. This has further complicated the issue and is seen as drawing new lines between the police force and the people.

The local police were given the credit for rooting out militancy with their active involvement, but the new-age militancy seems to be proving too difficult for them. It is the increasing ground support to the militants that has changed the dynamic of relations in the Valley. In the absence of a political engagement, the problem on the ground has been left to the security grid for resolution. But that is not going to work. That is why people are anxious about the coming summer.

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