Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
At 40, he is a veteran. He has seen many seasons. Season of peace. Season of fear. Season of rage. Season of hope. His favourite, of course, is the season of hope, which has been the longest so far and has yielded many fruits. Hope for a better and peaceful future for his children; hope that guns may be history now and hope that Kashmir may yet realise its dreams of azadi. He has opened his shop in central Srinagar after many days and his window of opportunity to do some business is only three days before the Friday rally in Idgah on August 22. “Who knows what will happen after that?” he says. “Like our lives, even the fate of this current movement is uncertain.” He is not a philosopher, but in Kashmir everyone spews homespun wisdom borne of experience. “Till a month ago, everyone was talking of normalcy, but I knew that peace was an illusion,” he continues in the same tone. “How can there be peace when the aspirations of the people remain unmet?” His words echo the FORCE’s conclusion from the June 2008 cover story, Changing Kashmir. FORCE had written that, ‘Violence may be dead for now, the sentiment lives!’ It just needed a small trigger to shatter the myth of normalcy.
The biggest tragedy in the current crisis is that not only was the trigger provided on the platter by the state government, but since then both the Central government as well as the state administration have been stumbling from one blunder to another. When the FORCE team was in Kashmir in May, signs of impending trouble were already there. Strays articles had started appearing in local newspapers raising questions about the ecological and environmental implications of the proposed transfer of 100 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB). The issue then was not the threat of effecting demographical changes in the state. Once the state government issued the order to divert land on May 26, after the committee formed to study the environmental hazards submitted its report, questions started being raised about the nature of transfer, whether it was permanent or for the duration of the pilgrimage. Even as the state government tried to be ambiguous about the whole issue, principal secretary to Governor Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha (retd) and the chief executive officer of the SASB Arun Kumar called a press conference on June 17 and announced that the transfer was permanent in nature. By the time the chief secretary rebuked him the following day, the damage was done.
Seizing the opportunity, everyone from National Conference to the various Hurriyat factions piled on the government (Congress-PDP coalition) demanding that the order be revoked. Once the Hurriyat upped the ante by saying that the transfer of the land to a committee comprising non-state people would lead to demographical changes in the Valley, the PDP, which was a party to the government decision panicked. With Assembly elections looming there was no way it could let anyone else take the initiative on this issue or answer the charges on giving away Kashmiri land to outsiders. Unmindful of the larger ramifications of pursuing this dangerous line, PDP’s single point agenda then was to topple the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led Congress-PDP government. Given that elections were expected in October, in PDP’s calculations this was a clever, opportunistic move that could have given it the leverage against the National Conference. Since PDP has no base whatsoever in the Jammu region, it did not matter what happened there. Azad, who belongs to the Doda district of Jammu, could not afford this luxury. NC being out of power couldn’t do much except make ineffective noises.
In the midst of all this politicking, which led to the collapse of Azad’s government, Hurriyat stole the march. Protest marches, demonstrations, stone-pelting and arson became the order of the day, forcing the newly-inducted Governor N.N. Vohra to revoke the order. Before PDP could crow victory, violence broke out in Jammu in protest against what was called the administration’s capitulation to Hurriyat’s strong-arm tactics in the Valley. Various groups, including political parties like BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena formed Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS) with Leela Karan Sharma as the convenor. Even as protestors in Jammu went on rampage, Leela Karan and other BJP/VHP leaders started talking about imposing an economic blockade on the Valley by disrupting traffic on the National Highway, which is the lifeline of the state. Some trucks were stopped, some were looted and burnt, while a few truck drivers were beaten up and rumours flew that there is a total economic blockade of the Valley. And the Valley, which was quiet after the revocation of the land transfer order, erupted again.
It has been downhill since then. Dr S.S. Bloeria, former chief secretary of the state and currently advisor to Governor Vohra and head of the Governor-appointed committee to hold talks with the SAYSS admits, “This is the first time that there are problems in both regions of the state.” While in Kashmir the issue has gone beyond the land transfer and the possibility of using it to build permanent settlements for non-Kashmiris; in Jammu, the revocation has fanned the decades-old perception of discrimination. The most dangerous is the supposedly communal agenda being followed by the Right-wing parties led by the BJP. As a senior bureaucrat in Srinagar says with barely contained frustration, “Politicians who created this situation by their foolishness and politicians who are now stoking communal frenzy do not realise how fast we are slipping. Anything that happens in Jammu will have very serious repercussion in the Valley. In a border state like J&K, we cannot afford to have a Hindu-Muslim problem, especially since we have a hostile neighbour who has been staking claims to the state purely on grounds of common faith.”
Blunders after Blunders
Jammu erupted violently when a person calling himself Kuldeep Dogra committed suicide by swallowing poison in the name of the shrine land in the last week of July. It was later discovered that far from being a Dogra, his real name was Kuldeep Kumar Verma, a Punjabi, who was heavily under debt and hadn’t intended to kill himself. According to the police, the idea was to draw attention to himself and to escape his creditors. But the plan went horribly wrong. By the time help could reach him he had died. Verma was quickly christened Dogra and accorded the status of a martyr. Rallying behind his martyrdom, the protestors indulged in stone-pelting, picketing and arson.
Once the protests took a violent turn in Jammu it was clear that political parties with eyes on the elections will not allow the issue to subside. Yet instead of coming down heavily against the protestors, the state administration allowed the arsonists to go on rampage, to the extent that two policemen were lynched. A senior Para-military officer says, “It was a mistake to allow the law and order situation to deteriorate so much in Jammu. Just because the arsonists are carrying the Indian flag does not mean that we allow them to destroy government property. This has sent a wrong message to the people in Kashmir who think that we were soft on the protestors in Jammu and harder on Kashmiris.” In its defence, the police say that while there has been a disproportionate use of force in certain instances in Kashmir, the police reaction is often calibrated by the nature of protest. “If you are carrying a Pakistani flag and shouting anti-India slogans, a policeman is bound to react differently than when you are carrying an Indian flag and shouting anti-government slogan,” says an officer. Another reason for soft-pedalling in Jammu was that the state administration thought that the situation could be controlled through political means by engaging with the BJP. Hence, the Prime Minister repeatedly urged the BJP president L.K. Advani to prevail upon the rioters. But Advani also could not let the opportunity go by, with J&K elections in October and General Elections next year.
The consequence of this was that traffic was disrupted on the National Highway. It didn’t help when the SAYSS called for an economic blockade in the middle of July and the VHP breast-beater Praveen Togadia asked for the boycott of Kashmiri goods. Workers of BJP, VHP, Shiv Sena and so on blocked the highway in several places first at Punjab-Jammu border and later at Kathua. And it certainly didn’t help at all when the government instead of taking the threat of the real or perceived blockade seriously, insisted that there was no blockade. Because the fact remains that a few trucks were reaching the Valley and those coming from the Valley were returning damaged. Even as late as August 20, when the FORCE team was in Srinagar, only a trickle of trucks was coming in. To make matters worse, one of the Kashmiri truck drivers who were attacked by the mob near Kathua by petrol bombs succumbed to his wounds on the day the FORCE team reached the Valley.
A senior police official says, “It is a misnomer that tourism is the biggest industry in Kashmir. It is horticulture. The entire economy of the Valley depends upon its fruit produce. The harvest begins in August. Thousands of trucks have to come in from the plains to transport apples, pears and walnuts back. Fruit-growers’ anxiety was only natural. Most of them take heavy loans through the year for this crop. If they are not able to reach their produce to the markets in the plains they would be ruined. In any case, most of the pear farmers are now facing starvation because the yield has rotted.” Instead of appreciating their well-founded fears, the government kept on insisting that since there was no blockade, there was no question of removing one.
According to one bureaucrat, the fruit-growers association was not interested in politics. Its biggest interest was economics and it was putting pressure on the state administration to allow safe passage of the trucks. As a pressure tactic they threatened that they would march to Muzzaffarabad. But after a positive meeting with Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Masood Samoon, who assured security on the highway, the threatened march was deferred. Though nothing came out of this promise, the fruit growers association held on hoping for a meeting with the visiting Union home minister Shivraj Patil on August 10. An official who was present with home minister in Srinagar says that Patil had back to back meetings that day. He had slotted an hour each with various people and the meeting with the fruit growers’ association was scheduled after the meeting with local political leaders. But that meeting carried on and nobody bothered to inform the members of the association that they should either wait a little longer (after a two hour wait) or come back later. And clearly, the home minister, who refers to the Constitution of India at the first opportunity, could not have realised the seriousness of meeting the fruits growers over the local political leaders.
In this vacuum entered the Hurriyat, which was propelled by the situation created by the political parties, to bury their differences and put up a united show. Even as they threw their weight behind the fruit growers, PDP also jumped the bandwagon. Blaming the Hurriyat, Dr Bloeria insists that, “Even on the day of the march, 200 trucks were parked in the Sopore mandi, but Hurriyat people did not allow the fruits growers to load them as they wanted to create the impression of rotting fruits.”
In yet another blunder, the state administration not only allowed the people to collect in Srinagar but also march towards Muzzaffarabad. It is street wisdom that there is no way to control a mob without resorting to violence and that would have only worsened the situation. As it happened the road to Muzzaffarabad goes through the army garrisons at Baramullah, Rampur and Uri. As an army officer says, “There was no way we could have allowed a mob of a few thousand to enter our cantonment.” When warnings didn’t work, the police had to resort to firing and the procession was finally stopped at Nowshera, a little short of Buniyar. Among the people who died was Sheikh Abdul Aziz of People’s League, one of the constituents of Hurriyat.
While the people insist that he was killed by the police, the police and the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan’s version is that he was killed by someone from within the crowd. Senior Para-military officers endorse this. According to one officer, “Hurriyat is completely divided. This united front is a chimera and can collapse any time,” he says ominously. “In fact, according to our information, the assassins are now going to target Shabbir Shah of People’s Democratic Front.”
Be that as it may, Sheikh Aziz’s death gave the Hurriyat a new momentum. After garnering a huge crowd in his hometown, Pampore, the day after his death, Hurriyat bettered itself at Tourist Reception Centre where an even bigger crowd collected to submit a memorandum to the UN office on the high-security Gupkar Road overlooking the Badami Bagh cantonment. While both these rallies and the one at Idgah on August 22 remained completely peaceful, the air resonated with cries of azadi and anti-India sloganeering. This worried New Delhi, and rightly so.
In Kashmir the good usually rides with the bad. While it is a matter of relief that the days of violence are over, the biggest concern is that the people have now discovered the power of the street. Hence, they are unlikely to go back to the guns but peaceful protests might continue with devastating effect. A police officer says that since the beginning of the insurgency they have seen huge crowds and demonstrations in Kashmir and know how to handle them, but something new is happening this time. “From experience we know how people will respond when we try to push them back. But this time their reactions are completely different. The mood of the people is not what we have seen before. It appears that somebody has been directing the crowd to behave in a certain manner and they are doing so,” he says.
In the Nineties, whenever people came out on the roads, they used to be violent, hence suppressing with force was not out of place. But this time, they march together, shouting provocative slogans but do not resort to violence at all, thereby forcing the security personnel to exercise restraint. This in turn is having a cascading effect all around: it is motivating more Kashmiris to shed their diffidence and join the protests; it is unnerving the security personnel who are at a loss dealing with peaceful protestors; and most dangerously it is leading to fatigue and exasperation about Kashmir and the Kashmiris in the rest of the country.
Ironically, at the time when most Kashmiris do not actually want to secede from India — with the exception of Geelani and his followers, who incidentally signed the memorandum issued by the Mirwaiz calling for the revocation of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, opening trade through Muzzaffarabad, dimilitarisation, and release of political prisoners among other things, but does not mention azadi — certain people in the Indian thinking classes are saying that it is time to let go of Kashmir.
This elitist reaction outside J&K is caused by many factors. One, people are both dismayed and angered by the images of thousands of protestors chanting freedom, anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. Two, the liberals feel that it is morally incorrect to hold on to such large number of people against their wishes, and three, in this age of galloping economy and Indo-US nuclear agreement, a rising India cannot allow itself to be pulled down by the never-ending problems in Kashmir.
Fortunately, the realities of Kashmir today are different from what appears on the television screens. It is true that an unprecedented number of people are on the streets chanting azadi, but few among them know what it means. There is a disconnect among the leaders as well on what freedom would lead to. In the perception of most common people, who have real or perceived grievances against the security forces, including the Indian Army, azadi implies freedom from them, which is why reduction of troops tops their agenda. Even a leader like Sajad Lone says, “If the government of India cannot reduce the number of soldiers, at least make them invisible, so that they are not so much in your face.” Mirwaiz has been speaking in different voices for different audience. To Kashmiri media he says that the Hurriyat leaders have worked out the viability of an independent Kashmiri nation — editorials have been appearing in local newspapers how Kashmir can sustain itself by tourism, horticulture and hydro-power. To mainstream Indian press he says that the call for azadi need not necessarily mean complete independence; and to FORCE he endorsed Musharraf’s four-point formula promised on two factors that neither LC nor status quo is acceptable.
That these protests are more for the consumption of Indians than anybody else can be gauged by the fact that all sloganeering has been in Urdu/Hindi with some smattering of English (for instance, direct translation of ‘hum kay chahte hain’). All Kashmiris, irrespective of their educational and social background, like people of any other Indian state, speak to one another in the Kashmiri language, but when they raise slogans, they do so in Hindi/Urdu. Nobody had an answer for this conundrum, including the leaders, who just shrugged. But one of the Idgah protestor has smiled slyly when asked this question and said, ‘Otherwise how will you understand.”
Unfortunately, these ill-thought off and ill-informed comments in the Indian media are only causing unease for the Indian security forces in Kashmir. Following these reports in the Indian press and a few television programmes, the local newspapers had a field day, carrying excerpts of these on their front pages. Says CRPF Additional Director General, North Zone, Karamvir Singh, “Such thoughtless articles only create more problems for us, as they put us in a negative light.”
Special Case of Kashmir
In a recent public meeting in Chhattisgarh, the BJP President, L.K. Advani, who has been advised not to go to Jammu, said that the root of the problem in Kashmir is the special status given to it under Article 370. According to him, this has given rise to the Separatists in the Valley, driven out the Pundits and has marginalised Hinduism in the state. Calling it a war between the Separatists and the nationalists, he has accused the government of appeasing separatist elements at the cost of the nationalists. Harking back to the founder of the Jan Sangha, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, he called for the abrogation of Article 370. Interestingly, when the BJP led the National Democratic Alliance government at Centre, not only had it forgotten about the Article 370 but has also conveniently accepted Kashmiri National Conference party as one of the constituents of NDA to make up for the numbers in Parliament. It probably slipped their minds that NC had won the J&K elections on the plank of autonomy, which goes way beyond what the diluted Article 370 provides the state with.
But not to go in these trivialities, Kashmir indeed has a special status in India, which no other state enjoys. Way back in 1947, the government of India accepted that it was a disputed territory when it took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations. Even today, the government of India has allowed the UN observers in stay put in Kashmir, which is why the Kashmiri dissidents have the luxury of marching up to them to submit a memorandum. Moreover, the world community in general refers to the state as Indian Administered Kashmir, in line with Pakistan Administered Kashmir, pending the final resolution of the state. Successive Indian governments have held talks with successive Pakistani governments or military rulers on Kashmir, so much so, the then Indian Prime Minister and Advani’s colleague, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had then said that he was willing to talk to Kashmiris within the parameters of humanity, as against the parameters of Indian Constitution. Which other state in India enjoys these concessions?
It is not just political doublespeak, but what is causing frustration among the security personnel in the state is the cavalier attitude with which the political parties have handled or rather bundled the situation. A senior security force officer says, “While all border states have to be treated sensitively, in Kashmir we have to be even more cautious because of the history of militancy fanned by the neighbour. If indeed communal polarisation becomes factor here, things will really go out of hand.”
Security forces, especially the state police have a lot to worry. Their cadre comes from the local stock and hence are susceptible to the mood swings in the society. According to one police officer, “Unlike the officers, men are more vulnerable because they are not trained to think and discern. If they were they would not put their lives on the line on the orders of their officers. But this strength of theirs also is their weakness because they can get swayed emotionally. Longer this polarisation between the two regions continue, more affected they will get.” The lynching of two policemen in Jammu didn’t help the matters and the officers in the Valley had to do some heavy-duty morale boosting talk to keep the flock motivated. Another problem that the local policemen are facing is the threat of social boycott by Separatist-inspired groups. Even if the policemen withstand this pressure because of their job and training, it is very difficult for their families which do not live in insulated environment.
The Central government’s approach of tackling Jammu before Kashmir may not be the most sensible one. While the problems may be feeding on one another, they need to be addressed simultaneously and quicker the political process starts the better it will be. In the last few years, young Kashmiri started developing a stake in India, with more and more coming to the mainland for education and jobs. It will be a tragedy if we alienate them as well, like we did their fathers.