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OLD ISSUE
FROM JAMMU & KASHMIR
A New Season
For the local people, demilitarisation would be a new beginning
By Ghazala Wahab
Freedom is no longer the most favourite word of the Kashmiris; for most, it is already relegated to the vocabulary of nostalgia. Replacing it are words like izzat, honour, self respect and others of their ilk that lace every alternate sentence, irrespective of the speaker’s age, economic background and political persuasion. So as a taxi driver talk of shame and the businessman of his honour, the underlying sentiment remains the same: while there may be relative peace in the Valley and the blooming tulips in Srinagar may have made national news, the disproportionate presence of the security forces, especially the army, is robbing the people of their self-respect. Compared to the frenzy of the Nineties, this may seem like a mild, non-violent emotion, but probe a little deeper and the disconcerting potential is revealed.

There are a lot of people on the streets of Srinagar nowadays; everyday people, going to work, returning from school, housewives buying provisions and youngsters loitering around. And the more people on the streets, more they encounter the security forces, everyday, every hour at every corner. Whether it is the army convoy of 300 vehicles passing through the busy road thereby stalling all civilian movement for close to three-fourth of an hour, or a para-military party sitting inside their bunker on the side of a street or simply a cordon on the main road. And sometimes when you do manage to avoid bumping into any security personnel you drive or walk past a burnt-out building whose black visage stands testimony to a security operation, which may or may not have spilled innocent blood.

“I am a very moderate, pragmatic man as long as I am sitting in my office,” says Bashir Manzar, editor, Kashmir Images. “But when I leave in the evening to drive to my house in Tangmarg on the outskirts of Srinagar, I am a changed man. I am stopped every few minutes at check-points. I am asked to get out of my car and stand on one side. My car is thoroughly checked and sometimes I am frisked. On good days this happens only once or twice during my drive home, on bad days it happens four to five times. By the time I reach home I am seething with rage. At that point I wish I had a gun and I could hit back at people who humiliate me like this.” Our taxi driver echoes the same sentiment but with an air of resignation. “Our lives are meaningless. We have no honour. Even the lowest of the soldier can stop me anytime, push a barrel of the gun against my neck and ask me to bend. When you have your family with you, your wife and your daughter, you just want to die at that moment out of shame.”

The tragedy in Kashmir today is that everybody speaks in different languages and nobody understands what the other is saying. Since the Kashmiri society is so steeped in politics, every word seems to have a motive and a meaning other than what is being said. While the army laments the inconvenience that its convoys and its presence cause the civilians, the people seethe at the loss of their self respect. “Every day they challenge my self respect,” says Manzar. “And this when I am a reasonably known man. You can imagine what unknown people go through.”

Whether driven by the desire for self-respect or political gains, People’s Democratic Party’s patron Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s demand for withdrawal of the army has found resonance across the political spectrum. Despite accusing him of political opportunism, his detractors, whether in politics or among the separatists, cannot but support his call as nobody wants to be seen on the wrong side of self respect. Hence, everybody agrees that the army must go back to the barracks. Former National Conference leader and now the state secretary of PDP, Sadiq Ali gloats with good reason, “The PDP has rendered Hurriyat and the National Conference redundant. Now Hurriyat has been looking for a face saver and they don’t have it.” In this turmoil everyone is coming up with their own version of what withdrawal of troops ought to be mean. While Mufti has been clarifying that in the first phase he is only asking for the security forces to vacate the private properties like the orchards, schools, playgrounds and homes of individual people, the larger issue of the removal of Rashtriya Rifles (army in the counter insurgency role) has also started circulating causing both euphoria and concern in various quarters.

Ironically, right now, only one face of the army is visible to most people, perhaps because it helps in building the case for troops’ withdrawal: Rashtriya Rifles. It does not help that the recent incident of fake killings in Ganderbal, in which both the army and the police stand accused is the biggest talking point in the Valley. Despite its involvement in the fake killing of innocent men, the police emerged less hurt from the scandal primarily because it blew the whistle on its own personnel and is now spearheading the investigations, unlike the army which was accused of protecting the guilty. Hence, by withdrawal of troops, most people mean withdrawal of the RR. “It is common sense. More army means more human rights violations. If the government of India thinks that the situation is moving towards normalisation, then shouldn’t it give evidence of that on the ground by reducing the number of the troops?,” says Shabir Ahmed Shah of the Democratic Freedom Party who prides on being something of a lone ranger in Kashmiri politics.
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