The Bloody Quarter

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Amid street expectations that a protracted bloody strike would force Delhi talk to Islamabad and Srinagar, it took an inverse turn towards the more serious confrontation between the two countries, instead. But Kashmir will require a lot of effort to address the consequences spiraled up in last three months

 

Kashmiri angry youth throwing stones at Paramilitary soldiers after Eid-ul-Azha at Batmaloo area of Srinagar. (Photo: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

Kashmiri angry youth throwing stones at Paramilitary soldiers after Eid-ul-Azha at Batmaloo area of Srinagar. (Photo: Bilal Bahadur/KL)

A few days ahead of Nawaz Sharief’s UN speech, four unknown militants barged into a highly-protected military base in frontier Uri on September 18, killing 20 soldiers. On September 30, Delhi made public its preemptive action, envisaging a “surgical strike” at five militant launch-pads “along the LoC” that killed a “significant” number of militants ready to infiltrate.

The twin actions brought the two nuclear neighbours literally on the brinks of war. As heavy artillery is moving to forward areas, evacuated already, on both sides of the LoC and parts of Punjab-Jammu border the two media are engaged in a serious verbal war to prove each other wrong. Pakistan has taken no responsibility for the Fidayeen attack in Uri. They do admit an exchange of mortars on each other’s positions but have ruled out a surgical attack.

Both the sides are so aggressively taking the stated narratives forward that now they are engaged in all kinds of exercises to prove each other wrong. As Pakistan flew journalists in 16-choppers to forward areas, closer to the LoC, to assert that there was nothing sort of air strikes, a Delhi news channel tape-recorded an alleged PaK police official revealing the details of “that night”. Rival armies are preventing each other from hitting their credibility and the visual medium in the two countries have walked the talk far away.

The ‘surgical strikes’ have become so important that these have became the new signposts of valour, decision-making and power, the key ingredients that BJP is so keen to use in the upcoming elections in UP, Gujarat and Punjab. Chest-thumping, BJP leaders have already gone to people with the “distinction’ they made in governing India. Posters have already appeared almost on the pattern of post-1971 when Indira Gandhi was projected as the new Durga. This has started irking the political class that has gone aggressive in UP seeking evidences to “counter Pakistani propaganda that strikes did not happen.” Though the government has lodged police cases against those seeking evidence as it hurts the armed forces, the demand for evidences and proofs has not fell silent.

It was in this din that Kashmir’s vocal lawmaker Engineer Rashid threw his hat by claiming that the armed forces are filming a fake video of the strikes in Leepa valley, a remote belt that, interestingly, falls in his constituency. There was no reaction to his utterances, so far.

Whether or not the air-power was used and if at all the LoC was crossed, the fact of the matter is that the rival armies have a long history of attacking each other using artillery and going after each other in covert operations. There are countless cases involving the LoC in which the bunkers were attacked, soldiers butchered and their organs taken as trophies for public display and to satisfy regimental honour. Civilians living on the other side of the LoC have paid their bit in these operations as, unlike India, Pakistan has not prevented civilian life closer to the LoC.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with his Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Friday

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with his Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Friday

Diplomacy is at the work that the two nuclear countries should not get into a larger escalation. Third parties at their own levels have intervened after feeling the inevitability that evacuations on this side of the divide and arming of civilians on the other side demonstrated. War is still not ruled out even though there are less-harsh statements coming from both sides.

But the already precipitated situation has hit certain targets in Kashmir.

Though the cross-LoC travel and trade is operational, the aggravated situation on the LoC has already hit a vital achievement – the ceasefire. It was a rare gain that J&K got in November 2003, for the first time after 1989. Tens of thousands of people who had migrated from their homes or were living in dungeons returned home and had a peaceful decade. When the ceasefire agreement came into effect, hundreds of people in forward areas of IB and LoC arranged special “house-warming” functions and returned with beating drums. They resumed tilling their fields, revived the sheep and animal husbandry and restructured the old small economies.

With war clouds around, some of these people have started migrating again. Hundreds of people ran away from a vast belt in Poonch when shells rained, destroying homes, shops and the infrastructure. Unlike IB, LoC is still less affected as a result of which there are more migrations in plains than Kashmir. Evacuations and migrations are pushing people to seek help; reducing output as the spaces they leave see a new use.

The already three months long Kashmir unrest is considered to be the key factor that pushed policymakers in Delhi to take the response to the level of near-war with Pakistan. Thought process in Srinagar was that Delhi would fast-forward the implementation of the Agenda of Alliance, talk to the separatists and even engage Pakistan positively. Nothing of that sort happened because BJP can not afford any climb-down on its historic position at a time when it is facing elections in UP and Gujarat.

What happened instead was that Kashmir was again internationalized. The unrest in Kashmir created a situation that countries holding some stake in the region or the world peace had to take a position. While most of these statements were basically reiteration of the known positions of different countries, it did trigger tensions within the SAARC.

These developments did convey to the streets in Srinagar that entire world was watching, a belief that seems highly doubtful. The only net gain, however, could have been the visit of UNHRC, had it been permitted by Delhi. It would have given Kashmir a chance to get the state of its human rights documented by a third party. That is unlikely to happen even in near future.

But the costs that have gone into the unrest are simply mind-boggling. With 93 dead and more than 12000-plus injured, 51 are completely blinded and 50 others have optic nerve injury, the costs are quite huge. Nobody has so far been able to offer an idea of the social costs that Kashmir will have to pay for issues like closed schools for 90 days, a particular section of society that normally lives hand-to-mouth feeding on charity and the costs that the fiscal infrastructure will have to pay for not doing anything for all these months. Private sector is literally decimated.

Pellets in eyes and conflagration of the paddy are the two distinct milestones that history is unlikely to forget. Incidentally, 2016 unrest is perhaps the only major event in recent history of Kashmir that got the vale back to the global news. News organizations had forgotten the Kashmir beat and some had even downsized their operations in last few years.

Right now there are around 7000 people in custody, of whom 415 stand booked under Public Safety Act. Warrants, chases, arrests and dossiers are a routine 24 x 7 process. At certain levels, allegations of people making money are being whispered around.

An aerial view of main historical business hub of Lal Chowk Srinagar on Sunday after the united-separatist leaders announced a relaxation call after nine days for public movement after 2pm. PHOTO BY BILAL BAHADUR

An aerial view of main historical business hub of Lal Chowk Srinagar on Sunday after the united-separatist leaders announced a relaxation call after nine days for public movement after 2pm. PHOTO BY BILAL BAHADUR

The brisk business that normally happens during the “relaxations” that separatist calendar offers and abrupt halt in movement of people later indicates the crisis in which a commoner lives. This heart-versus-mind challenge is pushing people to a serious mental morbidity now. The continued closure of the manufacturing facility is contributing by way of flight of capital and renewed dependence on imports. The cumulative economic situation is leading Kashmir towards a situation that banks will have more stressed assets than ever.

Amid hopes of Kashmir getting normal, the long term crisis has started indicating itself. The security grid has reported that almost 100 boys have disappeared in south Kashmir alone. It suggests that they could get into bigger violence as around 30 weapons have already been snatched in the belt. This would mean more militancy, re-militarization and more government control in coming days.

This all has made 2016 unrest completely distinct. In fact, Kashmir is chasing to compromise its own record in strikes. The agitation over land row in 2008 is already past as it continued only for 61 days. Right now, compromising 2010 record is barely a fortnight away. Then there are other records: either because of curfew or strike Kashmir was closed for 198 days in 1990, 148 days in 1992, 139 days in 1993 and 207 days in 1991. Precisely for nearly 2000 days, Kashmir was closed since 1990.

Kashmir’s records in misery, in actual and metaphoric terms, are so towering that nobody can even come closer to.

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