Switch off your TV set or flip the channel if you are being shown that everything is hunky-dory in Kashmir. It’s not. It can’t be. It’s foolhardy to expect normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir just a month after the Narendra Modi-led NDA government did away with its special status on 5 August.
You need to flip foreign TV channels and take your eyes off the websites of international publications too. Contrary to what some of them would have you believe, Kashmir is not bleeding. Nor are people running helter-skelter to escape the bullets and pellets supposedly flying from all corners.
The truth is somewhere between these two extremes. Kashmir is tense, almost on the edge. People are upset, morose and rebellious. Are there any people in Kashmir who support the Centre’s move on Article 370? None, almost. I met one supporter – the state BJP minority wing chief – out of over a hundred people I interacted with in Srinagar and Anantnag last month. He was holed up in the Police Colony in Anantnag, not daring to leave the heavily guarded campus to even visit his wife who has undergone a surgery.
Security forces facing the brunt
One must commend the security forces. They have been the butt of criticism, barbs and attacks from everyone claiming a stake in Kashmir – the peaceniks, the activists, the commentators, the ‘conflict zone’ reporters, the liberals who wouldn’t publicly oppose the abrogation of Article 370, and the naïve politicians who think Narendra Modi’s image as a strong, decisive Prime Minister would take a beating if there is no normalcy in Kashmir.
There have been over 300 stone-pelting incidents since 5 August but the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) claims it hasn’t fired a single bullet. The CRPF had lost 40 personnel in the Pulwama terror attack in February.
One has to see it to believe the degree of public anger and provocations the CRPF personnel have to deal with. As a senior security official puts it: “Those (from outside India) who have conveniently forgotten the existence of Guantanamo Bay are curious about Kashmir today.”
There were about 40 deaths in the first week after the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016, says a senior functionary in Srinagar Raj Bhavan. There has been none in the first four weeks since the revocation of Article 370, except a shopkeeper killed by militants. The credit must go to the security forces.
Those on the front line in the Valley are taking confidence-building measures, a job the political class should be doing but isn’t. Take the case of Abhinav Kumar, Inspector General, Frontier Headquarters, Border Security Force, Srinagar. Anxious to counter the ‘propaganda’ over the ‘disarming’ of Kashmiris in forces, he makes it a point to travel around with a well-armed Kashmiri Muslim for his personal security. Security forces are under instructions to ‘maintain restraint’ and let the people (read stone-pelters) vent out their frustration and anger as long as there is no threat to their own lives.
No takers for development package?
But the security forces can do only this much. The political vacuum shouldn’t be allowed to persist for long. The security establishment’s hope hinges on agitated Kashmiris wearing themselves out sooner than later and accepting the abrogation of Article 370 as a fait accompli. Kashmiris are also expected to be mollified by a central development package and promises of jobs and investment.
On my way back from Anantnag to Srinagar last week, I decided to stop by to talk to villagers about the state-turned-UT’s development – much advertised by Governor Satya Pal Malik in national newspapers – in the last one year. The village was named Sursana, about 45 km south of Srinagar. Some youngsters at a saw mill smiled derisively at the questions as an elderly person burst out: “Is it the time to talk about development? We are blasted. Please leave.” Just when our visit seemed to be turning ugly, with a group of agitated villagers following us to the highway, the CRPF personnel deployed across the road intervened, advising us “nikal jao” (leave). We could understand.
We broached the subject of development again near the National Conference office in Srinagar, leaving a group of youngsters laughing. “You guys are from Delhi, aren’t you? You think Kashmiris are poor and Modi can buy us. How much do you pay an unskilled labourer – Rs 350 a day? We pay these migrant labourers (mostly from North India) Rs 750 a day. Have you seen any beggar here? Keep your development and jobs.” They could be boastful though. In the middle of the agitation that erupted post-Burhan Wani killing, 15,000 applicants had turned up for 100 vacancies in the BSF.
Resist the temptation to rule directly
There may be a lot of pessimism in the Valley today but one can’t draw any conclusion about how the future will unfold. The Centre may still be proved right if the Kashmiris decide to let bygones be bygones and start afresh. But for that to happen, the Centre, especially the ruling party, must be ready to make a few compromises.
With the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) rendered irrelevant – by design or by default – and the Congress being a marginal player, the BJP can fancy a shot at power on its own in Jammu and Kashmir. As it is, there is a big question mark on the participation of the mainstream parties in the polls that the government plans to hold some time next year. The NC and the PDP chiefs are still in detention and the Centre doesn’t have any plan to release them in immediate future. Even after they are released, would these former chief ministers, who are already reviled as ‘pro-India’ leaders in the Valley today, choose to participate in the polls and vie for the post of a UT CM with no real powers? In the event of these parties staying away from the elections, the constitution of a defanged Legislative Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir union territory would be a travesty, with the BJP candidates virtually getting a walkover as seen in the local body elections last year.
Remember the consequences of a farcical assembly election in 1987? It was rigged to re-install Farooq Abdullah as the chief minister, with the Muslim United Front crying foul. It was the trigger for the bloodshed in the Valley in the coming years. Incidentally, Yusuf Shah a.k.a. Syed Salahuddin had contested the 1987 election on an MUF ticket but lost. He went on to head militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen.
A farcical election, even if it installs the BJP as the ruling party in Jammu and Kashmir UT, is likely to do more damage than good. At this point in time, one doesn’t see any alternative political leadership emerging in the UT as envisioned by Prime Minister Modi.
The three sacrifices
What the Centre can, meanwhile, do is to replace Governor Malik with an LG who understands Kashmir –someone like Wajahat Habibullah. Or, the Centre may think of breaking the convention of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor being from outside the state/UT. In the absence of a local political leadership, an LG from Jammu or Kashmir would probably connect better with a fellow Kashmiri. An Amitabh Mattoo, a Haseeb Drabu or some other eminent Kashmiri as the new LG would probably be a balm on the wounded pride.
That would be a sacrifice by the BJP for the larger national interest. The second sacrifice the BJP must make is not to rub salt on Kashmiris’ injured ego, with their state (now UT) being stripped of the special status. Although spin doctors in the government claim that Modi has instructed ministers and MPs not to go overboard with celebrations over Article 370, the party has a different plan. The BJP has launched a month-long mass contact drive from Sunday over Article 370; it will hold 35 mega rallies and 370 outreach programmes across the country. Such display of ‘triumphalism’ by the ruling party would alienate Kashmiris further.
When you talk to ordinary Kashmiris about what really hurts them, they don’t talk about the finer points of Article 370. It’s more of a generic, emotive issue of how their special status has been taken away (without obtaining their consent). The hurt sentiments may still heal over a period of time. What seems to gnaw at them is their belief that ‘outsiders’ would be brought into Kashmir in a planned way to divest them of their rights and privileges and effect demographic changes. The Centre doesn’t have to restore Article 35A. Just the replication of laws, which restrict purchase of properties in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and northeastern states, can go a long way in allaying apprehensions of people in the Valley.
This copy has been updated to reflect changes.