First Person | The Quicksand of Kashmir

A year after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, the situation remains dire

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

On 5 August 2020, people of Kashmir ushered in the first anniversary of the day that was to change their destiny for good with a curfew. Perhaps, it was appropriate too. After all, 5 August 2019 did start with a curfew. If curfew is the fate, might as well get used to it.

Lifestyle gurus are wont to quote a line, ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’ from John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy. He probably would have never thought that his song would fit the Kashmir template so well. Change is what happens in Kashmir when the people are locked-up in their homes. Except that nothing really happens in Kashmir. Change is merely a cycle of sameness. And so, on August 5, Kashmiris ushered in the anniversary of sameness.

Anniversaries come with the certainty of response—celebration, commemoration or reflection. It is rare for an anniversary to elicit confusion. But with Kashmir, everything is possible.

So, here we are marking one year of the abrogation of Article 370—basically an anniversary of removal of pretence about who really called the shots in the state of Jammu and Kashmir—and even officially there is confusion about how exactly the year should be summed up. Nothing can describe the present state better than the Hindi proverb, jitney muh utni baatein (as many versions as people).

Ironically, in this cacophony, the voices of the primary stakeholders, the Kashmiri people themselves, are silenced. Their sentiments about the life altering change in their lives are irrelevant to the larger picture that the government of India believes it is looking at. Of course, belief has seldom to do with reality, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, in Kashmir, even the government is speaking in different voices.

Srinagar’s famous Lal Chowk after the abrogation of Articles 370 & 35A

Other Voices

While on the one hand, the Union home minister Amit Shah asserted in Rajya Sabha as early as November 2019 that the situation was ‘normal’ in Kashmir, that there was no curfew in any police station areas of the valley; on the other hand, as late as May 2020, the senior-most army officer in the valley, GOC 15 Corps Lt Gen. B.S. Raju, told PTI that, “The back of terrorism is virtually broken. Because of the success in eliminating terrorists operating in the hinterland, we expect cross-border infiltration to increase in the summer season… I anticipate more attempts to replenish the depleting cadres… All the terrorist camps and around 15 launchpads in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) are full.”

These are not the only two voices on Kashmir. In the run up to the first anniversary on August 5, Lieutenant Governor of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir G.C. Murmu told Indian Express in an interview on July 26, “We have been making (a) representation for this… I feel that 4G will not be a problem. I am not afraid how people will use this. Pakistan will do its propaganda, whether it is 2G or 4G. It will always be there… But I don’t see an issue.”

The home ministry was swift to respond. Three days later, it told the Supreme Court that 4G cannot be restored in the valley. If there is one thing that the government cannot be blamed for, it is lack of consistency. Earlier on July 21, in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the home ministry had said that the special committee formed to review the security situation in the valley has decided against restoring high speed internet. The ministry had then assured the court that it will continue to monitor the situation over the next two months.




This was in line with its approach even last year, when Amit Shah, despite claims of normalcy had told Rajya Sabha with regards to internet that ‘there were activities by Pakistan too in Kashmir region, so keeping security in mind, whenever the local authority deems it fit, a decision will be taken.’ Incidentally, 2G internet services were restored a few months ago because of Covid-19 pandemic.

Hence, while the home ministry insists that the security situation remains a matter of concern, its executive arms on the ground—the police—speaks differently. In an interview to FORCE (in this issue), director general of Jammu and Kashmir Police, Dilbag Singh says, “Security situation is well under control and we are far better today. Post abrogation, Jammu and Kashmir Police and other forces deployed in the valley have shown responsibility and professionalism in maintaining peace and order. There has been no firing to maintain law and order. The people of Jammu and Kashmir, too, have been supportive in maintaining peace.”

Despite the feel-good vibes created by the officers posted in the valley, it seemed that the government was not keen to indulge in triumphalism to mark the first anniversary. In fact, it appeared that it almost wanted to draw attention away from Kashmir by creating another landmark event on August 5—laying of the foundation stone of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The event was presided over by none other than the Prime Minister.

So, why didn’t the government want to pat itself on the back for the constitutional change it had wrought in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir that also reduced it to two Union territories?

The answer perhaps lies on the other side of the concertina wires that adorn the streets in the valley; the side that holds stories which are both unsettling and, perhaps, from the government’s point of view, infuriating. Neither have the Kashmiris euphorically accepted their full and final merger with India, nor have they been completely cowed into submission. Worse, a large number seem to have accepted their fate with an equanimity which is difficult to understand for non-Kashmiris. It leaves one perplexed. What exactly is a Kashmiri thinking? Is she scared or only biding her time?

A view of Lal Chowk in better times

This uncertainty comes in the way of a victory lap. It also comes in the way of deciding the future course of action. How much of the restrictions should be lifted and in what time frame? Not only are the government’s men on the ground unable to give a correct picture, the government itself is not confident if those voices can be trusted.

The continued incarceration of People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti, though only notional as she is now living in her own house with her family members (including her mother and daughter) on the famous Gupkar Road, has to be seen in this light. Her home imprisonment has imposed restrictions on her movement and speech. Since she lives with her family members who face no such restrictions, it could be argued that she can speak through them. And she may be speaking through her daughter who has been active both on social and mainstream media. The daughter is also seen as Mehbooba’s political heir.

The government is reluctant to officially release Mehbooba and give her the liberty to move around, given her penchant for theatrics and drama. Also, her access to the cadre of Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir increases the threat of public mobilisation. Incidentally, both the PDP and Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir share their stronghold in south Kashmir, which even today remains more volatile than other regions.

Singh says (see interview), “North Kashmir has been largely incident free… Coming to south Kashmir, the situation is very different from what it used to be. In 2020, we have had successful encounters in which a number of top commanders… have been neutralised and what is encouraging is that less locals, as compared to earlier times, as getting inspired today to join terror groups.”

Running with the Narrative

Yet, nothing shows government’s inability to control the narrative more explicitly than the faulty template that it deliberately chooses to reassure itself with. Towards the end of July 2020, Dilbag Singh gave a presentation on internal security situation to the Union home ministry. To make the case of near normalcy in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, Singh offered two comparative templates—2016, when Burhan Wani was killed and 2019, when Articles 370 and 35A were abrogated.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti with Union Minister Rajnath Singh in Srinagar in 2016

Singh quoted statistics to show how terrible the security situation was in 2016, when street protests continued relentlessly for nearly six months, at the end of which 117 civilians were killed. These were killed as a consequence of the police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trying to disperse huge crowds of protestors. In contrast, Singh told the ministry that only 196 protests broke out since 5 August 2019. “There was no element of violence… not a single civilian died,” Indian Express quoted him as saying. This was roughly the same thing that he told FORCE (see interview).

 

The other statistics that he gave the MHA was, 168 law and order incidents from January to June 2020, as opposed to 767 such incidents in the same period the previous year. The terror incidents dropped from 198 in January-July 2019 to 124 in 2020. Also, while there were 31 shut-down calls in 2019 by the Separatists and 76 in 2018, there were none in 2020.

Based on these, Singh concluded, “This is a very big improvement on different fronts despite the abrogation on 5 August 2019.”

One needs a special kind of expertise to come up with such an assessment; and a special kind of desperation to base future policy-making on such an assessment.

Even a casual glance tells the real story behind the numbers. While there was 78 per cent reduction in law and order incidents in 2020 over the previous year, the terror incidents saw the reduction of 37 per cent. If all things were equal, this certainly would have been an improvement. However, even by government’s own admission—made no less than to the Supreme Court of India—all things are not equal.

Hence, here are some alternate facts. Weeks before the decision to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A was announced in Parliament by home minister Amit Shah, thousands of Central Armed Police Forces/ Paramilitary Forces (CAPFs/CPMFs), nearly 28,000 from the CRPF alone, were deployed in the then state of Jammu and Kashmir, in addition to the existing numbers of the Indian Army, CRPF and the CPMFs like the Border Security Force (BSF) and Indo-Tibetan Police Force (ITBP).

The night before August 5, curfew was imposed, political leaders/ workers/ activists of all hues were arrested or put under house arrest. Scores and scores of youth identified as potential ‘trouble-makers’ or ‘stone-pelters’ were rounded up. Hundreds of them were bussed out of the valley into other states, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. All kinds of communication—fixed line, mobile telephony, internet, television and radio—was shut down. Rolls and rolls of concertina wires were thrown across the streets to disrupt possible movement of the people.

The impact on the ground was something akin to each house turning into a prison. People could not step out of their homes, they could not speak to anyone, not even neighbours, forget about family and friends in other parts of the city. In the absence of news, all they had were rumours. The long night of fear, insecurity and helplessness dragged on for weeks. Weeks in which ordinary citizens had no idea what was happening—who was picked up by the security forces, taken where and for how long. Who died? Who lived?

The first signs of easing appeared in early September. But these were more notional than real. The curfew was lifted from select areas, but Section 144 of the CrPC, which forbade assembly of more than five people remained in place. The restrictions on landline telephone connections were lifted, but in the age of mobile telephony and wifi, hardly anyone had the landlines or dial-up internet.

Once the government started lifting restrictions in an attempt to show that normalcy had returned, the people decided to observe voluntary lockdown in a mark of civil disobedience. More the local administration forced/ persuaded shopkeepers to open up, more doggedly they resolved to stay shut. On the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest town, the uniformed class outnumbered the non-uniformed. And that’s how the year drew to a close.

Winters, called chilla kalan in Kashmir, are unforgiving months. People nearly go in hibernation. All activity, including political, goes into near slumber for at least two months. Hence, by the time life started to stir in the valley in anticipation of spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic had become a household term. Government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown on the night of March 22. The initial three-week lockdown was thereafter extended by two more weeks, going into May. And since then, the valley, just as the rest of the country, has been under various restrictions owing to the pandemic.

Seen in this context, 78 per cent reduction in law and order incidents, which refer to public protests, and 37 per cent in terror incidents is actually not success, but failure. As far as calls for shut down by the Separatists are concerned, when everything is in any case shut, where is the need for a call?

People in Srinagar protesting the use of ‘excessive force’ and ‘mass arrests’

Beyond Statistics

Only people suffering from historical myopia would see the absence of public protests as a measure of success. Insurgencies are cyclic and Kashmiri insurgency has been no different. Since 1989, there have periods of terrible violence and deceptive calm. Even the nature of violence has evolved over the years—from bomb/ grenade attacks to fidayeens (suicide bombers) and pitched gun battles with the security forces. The closing years of the last decade saw another element of resistance: Mass public protests.

New situations call for new responses. Unfortunately, the government of India operates in the reverse mode. Since it has been unable to change its response, it creates a fiction of the situation being static. Nothing exemplifies this more than Dilbag Singh’s presentation to the ministry of home affairs (MHA). But it is unfair to blame Singh alone. Year on year, the government of India representatives have patted themselves for improving the situation in the valley. The same lines— majority being against insurgency, misguided youth, Pakistan’s diabolical agenda and so on—are regurgitated periodically. By official reckoning, normalcy has been returning to Kashmir for the last 20 years; looks like it has been waylaid by government’s inflexible responses.

Sarcasm aside, it really is amazing that New Delhi is still employing the same twin tactics of subduing and winning over the people that it has been doing for the last 20 years, when the government of India itself changed the ground situation last August. Here is how Kashmir of 2020 is no longer the Kashmir of 2019, levels of violence notwithstanding.

One, the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A has resurrected the legal-ethical argument of Kashmir’s accession to India by Maharaja Hari Singh. Along with this, all the earlier compacts on Kashmir with Pakistan (including the Shimla Agreement and Lahore Declaration), which underlined the bilateral nature of the dispute, have come undone;

Two, just as the 1998 nuclear tests by India brought Pakistan’s nuclear capability in the open and led to its blatant weaponisation, the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent creation of the Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, has brought China out in the open as the third party to the dispute. Until last year, China’s strategic interests in the region were in the realm of veiled suggestions or threats. Not any longer. Not only has China openly revealed its hand, it has gone a step further. Far from returning Aksai Chin to India, it has occupied more territory in Ladakh. It is also no longer shy of displaying its military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, erstwhile part of the Kashmir valley; and

Three, Kashmir is now truly an international issue. The Kashmiri Diaspora has been punching way above their weight and repeatedly drawing attention to Indian politics in the former state. Never before has India got such bad international press as it is getting now. And through Kashmir international attention is also getting drawn to Narendra Modi government’s other policies vis a vis minorities in India.

Worse, far from strengthening its hold, the attempt to subsume Kashmir completely into the Indian Union has made Delhi’s hold on the sentiment even more tenuous than before. It has turned the pro-Indian constituency in the valley into fence-sitters and pushed the fence-sitters definitively on the other side.

One glance on alternate statistics makes it clear that for all the feel-good claims, the security situation in the Union Territory of Jammu-Kashmir is deteriorating. Despite the crippling restrictions, including internet shutdown, which at 175 days starting August 2019 has been among the world’s longest according to Access Now (a global digital rights group), there has been very little let up in violence. The recent statistics on South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) lists 85 incidents of violence until August 1, in which 154 militants/ terrorists were killed at the cost of 34 security personnel and 17 civilians taking the total deaths to 205. In 2019, the total figure was 283 for the entire year.

These figures are more or less congruous with the half-yearly report brought out by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) and Association of Parents of Disappeared Person (APDP). According to JKCCS report, in a total of 57 encounters, 143 militants have been killed as opposed to 54 security personnel and 32 civilians. The main difference in the figure pertains to civilian and militant killings. The JKCCS also lists 107 cordon and search operations, calling some of them cordon and destroy operations as they led to destruction of civilian property, which inadvertently led to some human rights violations.

When put against these figures, the comments of GOC 15 Corps Lt Gen. B.S. Raju acquire a deeper meaning. In a June 29 interview to Greater Kashmir, he said that social media was being used to ‘propagate radical and false narratives’, both at the ‘local and international level’. “The aim of this propaganda is to instigate violence and instability in J&K… I am sure the people see through this… We have to be united to work against the efforts aiming to radicalise and misguide our future generations.”

For all the bravado, the situation is far from under control. The local youth, especially from south Kashmir, continue to fill the ranks of various militant outfits leading to a situation, which former chief minister Omar Abdullah described in an interview as, “Youngsters are willing, weapons are unavailable. So this whole bogey that was sold to the nation. The abrogation of Article 370 will end separatism and will end militancy in Kashmir is far from the truth.”

Curfew in SrinagarIncidentally, Burhan Wani hailed from one of the south Kashmir villages, Tral. His death in a joint operation in Kokernag area of south Kashmir was mourned across the valley, with a large number turning up for his funeral. At that time, even mainstream politicians, Mufti included, had criticised the government for giving a go-ahead for his killing, thereby creating a hero.

She was right. An alive Wani might have faded into oblivion, but a dead Wani became a symbol of resistance. He continues to be an inspiration. During the curfew last year when shutters were down, many had ‘Burhan Still Alive’ painted on them.

 

It’s Complicated

Nearly two decades back, the Kashmir issue had turned into quicksand which was swallowing everything that was put on it to camouflage the danger it held. That was the reason Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had famously remarked upon taking office that he wishes to untie the Gordian knot that was the Kashmir issue. Vajpayee went to Lahore and thereafter Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf came to Agra. But the knot remained in place.

Former chief ministers Dr Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah praying at the grave of former’s mother

Vajpayee’s successor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came very close to resolving the issue along with Musharraf, but his best intentions repeatedly hit the wall of resistance within his own government, members of which still carried the baggage of Jawaharlal Nehru’s obsession with holding on to Kashmir at all cost. Eventually, Musharraf’s regime started to unravel in Pakistan, and Singh was saved the humiliation of being forestalled by his own government on an issue that was dear to him.

Even if these efforts failed, at least there was a consciousness that a politically restive population cannot be bullied into submission. However, in the last six years, that realisation has been replaced by petulance fuelled by nationalism, which refuses to take cognisance of the costs involved. The cost of holding on to Kashmir was always high. Today, it is dangerous too.

 

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