First Person | Hope in Times of Fear

On the escalatory ladder of violence, suppression is met with defiance

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Hope is an insanely and illogically obstinate feeling. Nothing comes in the way of its unchained flight from time to time – not past experiences, not present pronouncements and certainly not the future projections. Putting aside everything it simply soars on the wings of whimsy; and sometimes sheer desperation. After all, what else is there if not even hope?

And so when the government of India accepted the plea of the government of Jammu and Kashmir to declare a unilateral ceasefire, ‘cessation of combat operations’ in military parlance, assumptions were made about softening of the State’s position on the Kashmir issue. Parallels were drawn with the first Bharatiya Janata Party Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who had made the similar Ramzan gesture during his tenure and followed it up with the ceasefire on the Line of Control with Pakistan in 2003.

For good measure, assorted government spokespersons claimed the high moral ground for extending the supposed olive branch to the people committed to violence and self-annihilation.

Interestingly, within days of cessation of combat operations, several riders appeared in the media. One, the security forces reserved the right to retaliate if attacked. Two, the onus of maintaining peace and calm was on the people of Kashmir. If they want peace, they should refrain from provocation. What this meant on the ground was shown on the second Friday of Ramzan at the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, where police and paramilitary was deployed during the zuhar (afternoon) prayer.

Post namaz, people trooped out of the mosque and as has been happening in downtown Srinagar for decades, some started shouting anti-India slogans. This provoked the paramilitary into retaliation, and they tried to break-up the crowd, which increasingly assumed the shape of a procession. The crowd started pelting stones and police/ paramilitary had to resort to teargas, baton and firing in the air. When the smoke cleared, nearly 50 people were found injured, including a couple of police men. So much for peaceful Ramzan!




To be fair to the Union government, it never pretended that it had any intentions of resolving the Kashmir issue politically. Those who continued to nurture hope that there will be a change of heart eventually were, to say it gently, optimistic fools. Yet, even the realists expected that the government will employ a carrot and stick approach to manage the ground situation and to control escalating (and avoidable) violence, as has happened in the past. Last two years have belied those expectations too. Seen dispassionately, even this was written quite boldly on the wall of invincibility that the government has built around itself.

Sometimes in 2011, when the national security advisor was only the retired Intelligence Bureau chief, in an informal conversation he underlined the importance of State’s power. According to him, the State’s power should not only be visible, but feared too by the people, otherwise there would be anarchy. At that time, he was talking in the context of Left Wing Extremism and how the Maoists needed to be dealt with firmly. If the government is accommodative, it appears weak which emboldens the opponents.

Of all the democratic institutions in the country, the popularly elected government is the most powerful. Despite supposed checks and balances in the form of the executive, judiciary and, well, media, the government has the capacity to roughshod over any or all of them. It is because of government’s enormous powers that it becomes critical that this power be tempered with sagacity, magnanimity and grace.

It looks like national security advisor’s thinking has been internalised by the government. Or probably it was always the meeting of minds. While Kashmir may be an extreme case, in the last few years, State’s governance has largely been expressed through brute power. Whether it is extra judicial killings in Uttar Pradesh, fake encounters of alleged Maoists in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, police high-handedness in Tamil Nadu or the free rein to the army in Kashmir, the room for dialogue has increasingly been squeezed out of the national narrative.

The most worrisome aspect of this hard power being used towards its own people is that the citizenry has been co-opted in this exercise. There has been a systematic militarisation of the society, which not only condones use of violence against fellow Indians, it lauds it and sometimes even participates in it under the garb of a mob. For a land professing non-violence, it is ironical that we have even forgotten the fundamental principle of violence — that violence begets more violence.

Coming back to where we started, even if the government is firm that Kashmir does not need a political resolution, it can still show sagacity and magnanimity by reaching out in a manner that brings down futile bloodshed on the streets. Its own security agencies have come up with a study that shows that each encounter killing is increasing the rate at which youth are picking up arms. According to the study, in 2017 alone, while 80 militants were killed, 131 joined militancy.

Clearly, violence will not bring peace in Kashmir. Worse, the fear of the State is also vanishing. What happens when the State shows its teeth and people don’t get scared? On this escalatory ladder, won’t more suppression be met by more defiance? If we celebrate our martyrs, won’t they celebrate their? Shouldn’t this be a reason for pause and a rethink? No matter how small the room for dialogue becomes, there is always a tiny window somewhere. Shouldn’t we open that and reach out?

There, after all this, even I have released my white balloon of hope.