The uncertainty following the arrest of various players in the Kashmir Valley has given the Bharatiya Janata Party and the militants a space for a new experiment. Having delegitimised the political apparatus that had evolved over seven decades, the Narendra Modi government has tasked the BJP to create ‘new politics’ in Kashmir. A party that has little credibility in the Valley, and which never had a member elected to the assembly from the region.
Creating a political culture with competing parties is a long process, even more difficult in a conflict zone. Ideally, it could be easy for any party to spread itself in the absence of competitors. Not for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
An overwhelming majority of Kashmiris hates them; BJP members, despite all security, cannot move freely for the fear of militants – even the public may heckle them. A lot of ground-level BJP members in Kashmir villages who recently joined the party believe that it’s the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that calls the shots. The BJP is just a face; it can’t even get them inducted as special police officers (SPOs).
Worse, Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley also oppose the Narendra Modi government, and say they feel more vulnerable than ever after 5 August, when Article 370 was diluted to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
BJP’s target groups
The BJP has identified two groups — less-educated, unemployed youth who are being lured with the promise of jobs, and tribes like Gujjars that have been largely disregarded by the Kashmiris. They are considered as second-class citizens, with even the word Gujjar seen as an abuse in Kashmir. They are now the prime beneficiaries after the arrival of the Forest Rights Act and the SC/ST Act post-5 August.
The BJP’s choice is easy and tactical – pitch one Muslim against the other. Around 99.3 per cent population of Gujjar and Bakarwal practise Islam, as do nearly 90 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s tribes. Yet, such is their alienation with Kashmiris that Gujjars and Bakarwals once demanded a linguistic minority status, even a separate state.
They accept the economic loss after 5 August, but have no other complaint against the Modi government’s decision to snatch away the state’s autonomy. “There is a fault line between Gujjars and Kashmiris. We don’t usually support militancy or azadi, which is driven by Kashmiris,” says a Gujjar student at the Government Degree College, Dooru, Shahabad, Anantnag. BJP spokesperson Altaf Thakur calls the tribes “nationalists” whom the party will use for “nation building”.
As per the 2011 Census, Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute 11.9 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s population, with Gujjars constituting 7.8 per cent of J&K’s population and 65.67 per cent of the total tribal population. Bakarwals, the second-largest tribe, comprise 7.58 per cent of the tribal population. Gujjars are caught in the conflict in the same way that the Adivasis of Bastar in Chhattisgarh are. They are the prime informers of both the Indian Army and the Kashmiri militants. Living on the higher altitudes, they act as guides for militants. The Army too has been using them. It was Gujjars who had informed the Army about the intrusion in Kargil.
A Chhattisgarh model
The BJP once successfully used the STs in Bastar for its political gains. The results may not match in Kashmir, but the game is on.
The Narendra Modi government recently wooed them by reserving as many as 69 ST seats in J&K for the block development council elections held in October, the first instance when electoral seats were reserved for the tribes in Kashmir. With the J&K assembly’s delimitation expected soon, there could be up to 15 SC/ST Vidhan Sabha seats in the Valley alone – a number not big enough but sufficient to ensure the BJP a foothold given that the districts of Ganderbal (20.53 per cent) and Bandipora (19.22 percent) in central Kashmir and Anantnag (10.75 per cent) in south Kashmir have a substantial share of STs.
The other group is of jobless youth. Such are the expectations that they are joining the BJP amid hopes of getting inducted at least as special police officers. On a November morning, many men from Baramulla reached the BJP’s Srinagar office complaining that despite the recommendation letter from the party’s state general secretary Ashok Kumar Koul, the senior superintendent of police (SSP) turned them away. The party sent them back with a reassurance.
These are obviously temporary measures. They may fetch the BJP a few thousand members, but are insufficient to carve out a new political system. Unless the political vacuum is filled and troops sent back to their barracks, the alienation of youth, aided by the economic distress, will increase, giving militants an opportunity to gradually exploit the situation.
And that’s because militants still lurk around; they find place in every conversation. People insist that they be called militants and not terrorists. This is in stark contrast with Bastar, where there is a sufficient dislike for the Naxals among a section of Adivasis; even a battle fatigue has crept in. In Kashmir, people have not tired out a bit; they are prepared for the long haul. They are also extremely politically aware. A fruit merchant in Qazigund believes that if the US pulls out of Afghanistan, the Taliban may enter Kashmir and change the game.
Fresh lease of life for militants
Militants too have realised their new power after the Balakot air strikes. Having raised the bar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot go back. A minor fidayeen attack, militants now know, can bring India and Pakistan to war and draw the world’s attention on Kashmir. Yet, they may have to find new ways to counter the BJP’s Hindutva. If their fight is for Kashmir, a land that Kashmiris unfailingly point has a history of 2000 years, then it can’t possibly be under the banner of Islam. The overarching Islamic stamp on the militancy gives the perfect foil to the Sangh Parivar.
The Naxal insurgency is also a fight to save their land and forest but it’s a secular struggle, whatever the word means. The religious foundation doesn’t, of course, delegitimise the Kashmir militancy, but it restricts its catchment area and makes it vulnerable to the genuine claims of non-adherents. Significantly, in its entire history, except some stone-pelters, the militancy has not had a single woman cadre. Unlike in Dandakaranaya, where armed women cadre constitutes some 40 per cent of the Maoist force. A people’s movement is characterised as much by its capacity to inflict violence as by its composition and constitution. How the militants and their supporters confront these questions may define their course during Modi’s tenure.
But my most defining image of militancy is this. One evening, already dark, I took a bus from Khanabal, just across the DIG office. A charming Class VIII boy was next to me. For the next hour, we conversed over Kashmir. He knew the intricacies of Article 370 and 371, the finer distinctions between the LeT, JeM and Hizbul Mujahideen, and could name the militants operating in his area — and that’s when he said that the communication lockdown actually benefitted the militants. They visited the villages frequently, stayed with the local people because informers could not contact the police. The militants made strategies, he said, giving me another insight: there were fewer encounters since 5 August because the Army couldn’t receive the information.
Delhi doesn’t realise what it is facing in Kashmir.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.