The chief minister should take the tough call on DAA and AF(SP)A
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Srinagar/Sopore/Kupwara/Tangdhar: After three days of continuous shut-down, jointly called by the two factions of the Hurriyat Conference to protest against the assassination of president, Kashmir chapter of Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees, Maulana Shaukat Ahmed Shah, Srinagar roared back to life on Tuesday as if nothing had happened, prompting one local to quip, “Kashmir is a strange place. One day people will be out on the streets pelting stones, next day they will close their shops in protest and the third day they will be back to business.”
And business it is — market places thronging with shoppers, pavements lined with school-going children, streets overcrowded with bumper-to-bumper traffic, drivers honking merrily to announce their arrival or departure, the bus cleaners yelling out their destinations for potential passengers, jay-walkers zipping across the road, dodging the cars which move in spurts and halts and the traffic policemen almost somnolent in manner, ignoring some violators and hauling up some. On days like these Srinagar, bulging at seams with traffic which continues to increase with each passing day resembles a chaotic provincial Indian town. “The traffic policemen are the lowest grade of humankind,” mutters our driver, crawling in a jam. “They sell their souls for a mere five rupees. If you want to leave your car in the no parking zone, just give five rupees to the policeman and forget about the traffic jam. One even has to pay them to ply commercial vehicles in certain areas of the town.”
The driver doesn’t realise perhaps, how reassuring these complaints of traffic and street corruption are. It suggests a kind of normalcy which is not easily associated with the beleaguered Valley, especially after three consecutive summers of anguish, anger and violence. But normalcy returns to Kashmir quite frequently and sometimes stays for a few weeks or even months before collapsing in a spasmodic heap of historical angst at the smallest rumours. Yet, sometimes, even the blood on the streets does not move the people. Kashmiris have short memories of immediate events, but extremely good recollection of events in the past, which pile on one another as a collective burden of history to be carried from one generation to the next.
“It is all in the mind,” says Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, president, Muslim Conference and a member of the Hurriyat Conference, squatting on a sofa in the visitors’ gallery of his office cradling a kangri (a small earthenware pot holding hot coals) close to his chest. He is still recovering from flu, but ill-health seemed to have only sharpened his tongue. “To understand the Kashmiri mind, you have to see him through the twin prisms of psychology and history,” he says employing expansive Persian analogies and random Urdu verses. “The collective character of the present-day Kashmiri has evolved through years of internalising their experiences. Kashmir has never been a hegemonic state; it has always been defeated, whether by the Pathans, Sikhs, Mughals or independent India. Yet, the irony is, it is not a defeated race. It has learnt to adjust according to its changed circumstances. And it has unceasingly nursed its dreams of freedom. Despite years of suppression, that sentiment of the Kashmiri remains alive.”
Unseasonal rain and snowfall in the mountains have pushed summer back by a few weeks. But the trees in the Valley are unaware of the truancy of the weather. Apples, cherries, walnuts all are in bloom; soft hues of white and pink interspersed with the golden mustard fields create gentle bubbles of peace and joy. Far, in the distance, the snow-tipped mountains complete the picture postcards of Kashmir, cleverly masking the tremulous anxiousness that hovers just below the bubbles. Summer may yet be a few days away, but it is already weighing on everyone’s mind.
Early this year, someone coined the slogan, ‘khoon ka badla June mein lenge,’ (we will avenge last year’s killings in June this year), the media picked it up and it turned into a serious warning meriting a retort by the government. One retired bureaucrat, who does not wish to be named, says, “Once a member of government reacts to such sloganeering they lend credibility to it. Unnecessary unease has been created by giving credence to such slogans, which should have been ignored and allowed to die a natural death.”
The bureaucrat believes that this summer will not be a repeat of last year, at least, not in the intensity that was seen then. “People are tired of these constant shut-downs and agitations,” he says. “They want to get on with their lives. Azadi (freedom) cannot be a trade-off for the future of our children, who are already way below par compared with children their age in other parts of the world, having lost so many academic years.” A school teacher who teaches in a prestigious all boys school reinforces this, “We have to complete the academic year. What choice do we have when there are continuous strikes, agitations and curfew? We have to reduce the syllabus.” With the world coming into their living rooms, Kashmiris are increasingly conscious of what they have lost and continue to lose every day. Sloganeering is fine, as are dreams of freedom, but after a while the reality of life hits you.
If one needed an evidence of this fatigue then Maulana Shaukat’s assassination provided that. As the news of his killing by a precision IED planted near the gate of the Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees mosque which the Maulana used to go to spread through Kashmir, there was a deafening silence in the Valley broken by sporadic incidents of stone-pelting. The unknown gunmen, as Maulana Abbas Ansari, a Shia leader and a former chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, says, had struck once again. Many thought that once the people overcome their shock and grief they will pour into the streets. Some members of the Hurriyat did try to get the people out to protest, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani who did not see eye to eye with the Maulana in his lifetime. People did come out but only as part of the funeral procession. At the funeral prayer, when Mirwaiz Umer Farooq rose to speak he was heckled by the people. Subsequently, attempts were made to circulate rumours about the potential killer, ranging from Hindu extremists and the Indian security agencies, but none converted anger into violence.
Professor Ghani, who a few months ago for the first time said that the Hurriyat leaders need to introspect about the killing of leaders like Mirwaiz senior and Abdul Ghani Lone, says, “I speak the truth. Our own have killed our leaders. I have to say the truth because my honour is involved in this. If I don’t speak out now I will be held complicit in the falsehood. A concomitant of conflict is haze, which is comforting; so small people who are pushed into playing bigger roles prefer the haze to remain.” Talking in suggestions, Professor Ghani also prefers some haze to remain, but that perhaps is another reality of Kashmir, where killing is no longer the last resort, but the first one to get rid of the person you do not like. And few people like Ghani.
However, like the retired bureaucrat, there are others also who believe that this summer will be different. And the reason is not fatigue alone. The other reasons are: disunity and confusion among the Separatist leaders, and general disenchantment of the people towards them. Even though last year’s agitation to a large extent appeared leaderless, it was not rudderless. Neither was it as spontaneous display of anger as it was made to be. Given the limited options that they always have had, Kashmiris historically have never hesitated to pour out on the streets to protest, even if it meant facing guns. The first martyr’s graveyard in Srinagar came up way back in 1931 to honour those who were killed by Maharaja Hari Singh’s troops when they opened fire on unarmed people protesting prejudice and persecution during his reign. Since then, Kashmir has seen several protests and several martyr’s graveyards commemorating those protests. Similarly, over the years, stone-pelting in the downtown area of Srinagar had become something of a Friday ritual. Youth returning home after the Friday afternoon prayers would pelt stone on anybody or anything that represented India.
It was this tradition that started the summer protest last year, but it was soon usurped by those who wanted to see if it could be converted into a full-blown revolt. It did not help that the police and the CRPF played right into the hands of those controlling the strings of the protestors by giving them a martyr every other day. Once the anger boiled over and the protests spread out of traditional hotspots of Srinagar, Sopore, Shopian and so on, the state government released Geelani who was in the prison hoping that he would be able to control the protest cycles, which were set in motion by his protégé Masarat Alam. Threatened by Alam and to put him in his place, Geelani was forced to ride the protest wave, which he subsequently compounded by issuing a weekly calendar of protests and shut-downs.
According to a senior Kashmir police official, Geelani was not happy in this role, which was imposed upon him. Though he revelled in the idea of issuing protest and shut-down calendars (it gave him a sense of control over the daily lives of the people), he was not happy with the accompanying violence which was being deliberately orchestrated by terrorists elements and over ground workers by manoeuvring the mobs into direction which would invite fire, for instance, CRPF camp or a police picket and so on.
Now with Masarat Alam out of the way (he was arrested late last year), Geelani can operate at his own pace. According to one Kashmiri journalist, Geelani wants to pave the way for his son, who has apparently returned from Pakistan to take over the leadership of his faction of the Hurriyat Conference, which Masarat Alam was trying to usurp last year. Geelani would prefer a peaceful and popular transition.
The other Hurriyat camp which tried in vain to helm last year’s the protests in spurts (Mirwaiz march to Lal Chowk on Eid Day which saw the worst instances of arson), is in near disarray. The usually media-savvy Mirwaiz could not find time to meet FORCE in the entire week we were in Kashmir. Clearly, Maulana Shaukat’s death and the subsequent arrests by the police of the alleged assassins, has been a huge setback. According to the retired bureaucrat that FORCE spoke with, “Mirwaiz has been vacillating a lot since last year. Despite his charisma and potential, he has not been able to inspire much support for himself because he does not take a firm stand. In popular perception, he is now seen as lacking courage. This contrasts sharply with recent comments of Prof. Ghani and Abbas Ansari.”
Hence, some police and army officers say that even though they have intercepted messages from Pakistan urging a repeat of last year, there does not seem to be many takers of that in the Valley for the moment. But nobody is taking any chances, not the least the security forces. With the idea of keeping the potential trouble-makers off the streets, the army and the CRPF have separately planned a series of cricket tournaments through the summer running into autumn, when apple harvesting in any case keep the people out of the streets and in their orchards.
While a peaceful summer is most desirable, the worry is that Kashmir will once again fall off the radar screen of the government of India. Maulana Ansari’s jibe has a sting when he says, “The government of India only wakes up to Kashmir whenever there is trouble. How many more will have to die before it is convinced that Kashmir needs a resolution and not an economic package.”
Making light of various economic packages that the government has been giving to Kashmir, Bhat says, “Kashmir has traditionally been an agrarian and a handicraft industry society. Conflict did not really impact upon the economic life of the people. On the contrary, once trouble started there was an unprecedented flow of money from India, Pakistan, European Union and other countries. A lot of people have made money in these years, assets have been built. Yet none of this bridged the alienation that the people have always felt. If anything, this alienation has deepened, because more and more people realise that the government of India still does not understand them.”
The problem with the government of India is not of lack of understanding but lack of political will, which is why the only constant in its policy on Kashmir has been inconstancy. Periodically, the government announces new initiatives and forgets the old ones. Following last summer’s turmoil it appointed three non-political interlocutors to talk with the cross-section of the Kashmiri people. All the earlier initiatives, not only of the NDA government in which L.K. Advani (as deputy prime minister and home minister) held talks with the Separatist leaders, but also of the UPA government like the three Round Table Conferences (RTC, which Ansari ridicules as road transport corporation because of the choice of people invited to participate in those meetings) under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the creation of five working groups to look at various aspects of Kashmir resolution, like Centre-State relations, economy and job creation, inter-state affairs and so on, were thrown in the dustbin.
When all efforts start afresh, it is natural for the Kashmiris to feel frustrated, because everything that has happened in the past gets negated. For instance, a few years ago, the government asked the Hurriyat to submit their vision for Kashmir resolution. A member of the Hurriyat and leader of People’s Conference, Sajad Lone put together a comprehensive document, titled Achievable Nationhood. Nothing more was heard of it. Lone complains bitterly, “I did not even get an acknowledgement of receipt.” But then there is nothing new in that. When the National Conference returned to power in 1996, it came on the plank of autonomy. Subsequently, the state assembly passed a resolution in favour of autonomy which was trashed by the government of India without discussion. Later when PDP came to power, it came up with self-rule proposal in 2007. But even that languishes. Talking to FORCE in August 2009, National Conference’s Member of Parliament Mehboob Beg, who had at that time spoken on the resolution of Kashmir in Parliament, said that he understands that no Union government can accept the Autonomy Resolution passed by the J&K assembly as it is. “When are we insisting on that? All we want is to sit with the government of India on the table and discuss it. That is the starting point. At least, this beginning should be made.”
Once again, interlocutors are travelling across Kashmir meeting people to get their point of view to present it to the government. It does not take genius to see that this yet another stalling activity. What is it about Kashmir that the government of India does not know and will learn from the interlocutors? One cannot really blame the Separatist leadership for refusing to meet them, because they understand that it is nothing but an exercise in futility. One peaceful summer and everything will be forgotten. And God forbid, if there is trouble then the government will appoint yet another committee.
Says the former bureaucrat, “Today, when everyone is talking about the resolution of Kashmir, from mainstream Kashmiri politicians like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti to the Union home minister P. Chidambaram, how can you blame the youth in the streets when they demand a resolution. When the government has given legitimacy to resolution, by allowing its members to talk about it openly, this dragging of feet obviously will lead to more anger and raise questions about government’s sincerity.
” Starting a political process is not very difficult, seeing it through is. The trouble with the government of India is that political compulsions and party politics put serious restrictions on the seeing through part. Yet the bitter truth is that years of exposure to violence, torture and death has brutalised the Kashmiri society. And brutalised youth can build neither their lives nor the nation. Perhaps, a bit dramatically, but Bhat sums up the current anguish by saying that, “The Kashmiri is more alienated today because he feel anger over the indignities that he has been subjected to, he nurtures memories of collective discontentment and there is an element of uncertainty in our collective political lives. When we talk of freedom, what does it mean,” he asks rhetorically. “Freedom is an expression of my right to self-determination. What is so wrong in that?”
Given the realities of today and also the limitations of talking with Pakistan, the best course for the government is to give a little more free hand to the state government. More importantly, it should make good on its various promises (release of political prisoners, selective withdrawal of troops and so on) being made for the last few years. For instance, chief minister Omar Abdullah has made several public statements that this government wants to revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from certain towns. When he made the recommendation to the Centre, he was asked to first review lifting of the Disturbed Areas Act as a precursor to the revoking of AF(SP)A. The chief minister is now consulting senior army officials along with state bureaucrats to see if this can be done. Obviously, it cannot be done.
No army officer will ever advice the chief minister to revoke AF(SP)A even selectively. Like last year, once again already there are talks that hundreds of terrorists in the camps on the other side are waiting for the snow to melt so that they can infiltrate. With these grim predictions, it will take a very brave politician to take this call. But Kashmir needs courage and calculated chances, partly by the state government, but largely by the government of India. It is, after all, a matter of national security.