Concerned Citizens’ Group: The Sixth Report

SRINAGAR: The Concerned Citizen’s Group led by Yashwant Sinha has issued its eighth report on Kashmir on April 15, 2021. Here is its transcript:

“The Concerned Citizens’ Group visited Kashmir from March 30 to April 2, 2021. This was its third visit after the Narendra Modi government revoked the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and the eighth since violence erupted in the Valley following the gunning down of a militant leader Burhan Wani in July 2016.

The first visit of the CCG had taken place amidst the strikes, deaths and pellet injuries to citizens young and old, in October 2016. Since then the CCG has visited Kashmir at fairly regular intervals to ascertain the public mood by meeting with a cross-section of public intellectuals, business leaders, human rights groups, civil society representatives, politicians, journalists and common folk.

The CCG is a voluntary group with no official or unofficial financial sponsorship by any government or non-government institution. Each member of the group pays for his or her expenses to maintain the integrity of the group and its reportage. Its primary purpose is to assess and articulate the public mood prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir and bring to the attention of the rest of India.

The members of the group comprise Yashwant Sinha (former External Affairs Minister of India), Sushobha Barve (Executive Secretary), Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Delhi), Wajahat Habibullah (Former Chairman of the Minorities Commission and the first Chief Information Commissioner of India), Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Kapil Kak and Bharat Bhushan, former editor and independent journalist.

The latest visit of the CCG was inordinately delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the country. The group took the earliest opportunity it could to visit Kashmir after domestic air travel opened up with Covid-protocol and precautions which included the mandatory RT-PCR test before boarding the flight to Srinagar as well a similar test on landing. Unfortunately, Yashwant Sinha could not take the flight to Srinagar at the last moment due to health reasons. However, he urged the rest of the group to continue with the visit without him. In the event, only Sushobha Barve, Wajahat Habibullah, Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak and Bharat Bhushan undertook the visit.

As in its earlier visits, the CCG met with a cross-section of representatives of civil society groups, businessmen, politicians, newly elected members of the District Development Councils, human rights activists, representatives of Kashmiri Pundits, Shia leaders and political leaders, especially those who had been released after being jailed in the wake of the developments of August 5, 2019.

Overall Impressions:

On the face of it, Srinagar seemed peaceful. People were seen going about their daily chores. Life seemed more ‘normal’ compared to our earlier visits: there were fewer bunkers and roadblocks and the deployment of the police and the para-military forces appeared slender. Thus, for example, during our three-hour up and down road trip to Kulgam from Srinagar, we were not stopped even once by security personnel. There were, however, short traffic stoppages — never longer than five minutes — to allow army convoys to pass.

Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar on July 13, 2020 when the second phase of lock down started for containing the Covid-19. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

After nearly two years of virtually no business, we found that tourist arrivals had picked up momentum. Many of the hotels and guest houses claimed that they have had a continuous flow of tourists since this winter. Branded and star hotels had an occupancy rate of over 75 per cent. This, we were told, was due to mostly high-end domestic tourists making a beeline to Srinagar — they would have normally gone to Europe or South East Asia but were unable to do so due to Covid-related travel restrictions. However, the middle and lower-end hotels did not have many takers. “It will take us at least three years to write off our losses of the last two years,” a hotelier claimed. Nonetheless, the hoteliers and others associated with the tourism industry seemed relatively happy.

Other businesses were not doing so well. “I have never seen a recession like this,” claimed a business community leader. The new industrial policy has incentivised new investors “but it puts existing similar businesses at a disadvantage,” claimed a businessman.

When asked about the apparent “sense of normality” people said that life had to go on even after two years of the lockdown – they claimed they had to work for their living and think of their children’s future. However, they were also quick to point out that this should not be taken as acceptance by them of the August 5, 2019 decisions by the Narendra Modi government.

It seemed that the anger, despair and alienation of Kashmiris that we had witnessed first-hand during our six previous visits to the Valley persisted. However, the Centre’s virtual obliteration of the political mainstream, nullification of Article 370, abrogation of Article 35A, bifurcation of the state and the enactment of the new domicile laws seemed to have increased the all-pervasive sense of fear, humiliation and hopelessness among the Kashmiri population. People were still in shock and seemed psychologically disturbed showing heightened anxiety and paranoia about the future.

It was beyond the comprehension of ordinary Kashmiris why the Modi government had dismantled the structure of the state and altered the relationship between India and Jammu & Kashmir. In taking these decisions, the Kashmiris felt that the Central government had looked upon them as ‘enemies’. Every action of the Centre, therefore, is being viewed as diminishing the Kashmiris as political entities and shrinking their democratic political space.

A common sentiment among all those we met from the civil society was of anger, hurt and unhappiness. We found a society deeply wounded. Many told us that in the past 70 years, they had not felt as hurt as after the August 5, 2019 decision. As if that were not bad enough, the speed with which the Centre has gone about issuing one executive order after another – ranging from the scrapping of the Roshni Act, granting domicile certificate for non-J&K people, and the five language policy to the delimitation of constituencies – has added to the anti-India sentiment and increased peoples’ anger. An enraged Kashmiri lamented, “A coloniser is going about colonising the natives of J&K.”

There is no space for any dissent or criticism of government policies and police action on any platform – be it social media, print or electronic media. Journalism has been virtually criminalised. No protests by civil society are allowed, nor are rallies by political parties permitted. The police do not hesitate to summon journalists and ordinary citizens and even lock them up under the Public Safety Act. Fear is palpable amongst the people, including political leaders. People are watching every move made by Delhi with deep suspicion and distrust. We had never heard so many people expressing hatred of Delhi and the Indian state as openly as during this visit to Kashmir. “A substantial number of Kashmiris felt no ‘pareshani’ (problem) with India. But that section of the population is non-existent today,” claimed a Kashmiri intellectual.

However, it is not as if there is alternative leadership emerging amongst the Kashmiris. “We do not know who to follow. We are leaderless and we do not trust anyone any more. The people of Kashmir are not with any political party as of now. This is a period of shock. It may take us time to recover and think about what to do. As of now, we have no strategy,” lamented another.

A large group of Shia youth we met saw the Centre’s policy based on takseem (division) that served to boost resentment. Every pheren-clad Kashmiri, they claimed, faced harassment. Muharram processions were disallowed ostensibly citing security concerns. Many Shia youngsters asked, “If security can be provided for the Amarnath Yatra over hundreds of kilometres, why is it denied for a comparatively minuscule Shia procession from Dalgate to Jahangir Chowk (about three km)?”

A leading intellectual bemoaned the unfortunate transformation of Kashmir and the deterioration of Kashmir’s relations with the rest of India to a level where Kashmiris have to beg Delhi for concessions. The larger question he asked was about the transformation of India itself. “India no longer has the moral capacity to speak as a democracy given how Kashmiris and Muslim citizens are treated. India’s dysfunctionality is a tsunami that will sweep Kashmir along with it,” he said.

A veteran political commentator said, “Earlier, a political module was carefully put in place in 1953. But every change of regime since has only brought about the degradation of the system. After 1953, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad ruled for 10 years and during this period Kashmir saw a lot of development. Yet all that was forgotten after his ouster and the agitation over the theft of Holy relic, at Hazaratbal. Nonetheless, there was a mechanism in place to give shape to Centre-State relations which otherwise were only security-oriented. However, the developments of August 5, 2019, have wiped out everything that Delhi had achieved in Kashmir. Whatever political outlets were there have been choked. Unlike Delhi, today there is no appetite amongst Kashmiris for politics. Despite that, however, the constituency delimitation exercise goes on as normal. It is clear however that all constitutional, political and psychological landmarks have been obliterated. There is no attempt to relay the political ground, no new rule-book or roadmaps are in existence. There are only individual orders. No one seems to know what the overall plan for Kashmir is.”

Everything, the Kashmiris claim, is now left to the mercy of officialdom. It is not as if the earlier dispensations operated ideally, they point out, but there was a system in place that ensured accountability and the locals had a sense of participation. Now, no one can express any opinion about the establishment freely. Even instances of smallest dissent – such as a Facebook post, for example – can lead to one’s arrest. In addition, the people are deeply dismayed at rising unemployment, anger amongst the young and the use of anti-terror laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act against dissenters and perceived dissenters.

Just as the attitude of the people has changed towards India, so has their view of militancy. Today, most Kashmiris openly say that violence has not helped them. Instead, they felt, it had destroyed their society and created new fault lines. Yet they admit that violence still held some attraction for disgruntled youth.

Another significant change we noticed was in the attitude of Kashmiris towards Pakistan. Earlier they used to look to Pakistan hoping that it would do something for them in their moment of crisis. That is no longer the case. Today, the Kashmiris feel that they cannot rely or depend on Pakistan or others, including liberal India and mainstream Indian national political parties, to agitate on their behalf. They feel that they are alone in their struggle and they have to take charge of their own fate.

It was also interesting to see that Kashmiris were increasingly drawing a link between the fate of Muslims in the rest of India and what the Central government had done to them. “The Kashmiris see what is happening to Muslims in the rest of India and what is being done to them. So they are naturally frightened,” said a Kashmiri business leader.

He claimed that the Kashmiris were carefully watching communal tensions and conflagrations in mainland India — especially how the Muslims were being viewed and treated – to understand their own plight. Beef-related lynching, cow politics and the so-called ‘Love Jihad’ laws being brought in the states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, police violence on the campuses of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim Universities, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and the wanton use of NSA against protestors were making Kashmiris cautious about India and Indian democracy.

People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD):

One of the aims of this visit was to see whether any nascent political processes were taking shape in Kashmir. One of the important developments in this context has been the formation of the Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD).

PAGD president Dr Farooq Abdullah and other members addressing a press conference after the meeting on Thursday. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Our group met Mehbooba Mufti, Yusuf Tarigami, and Sajad Lone. All three are founding members of the PAGD, although Sajad Lone has left the alliance now. We were unable to meet Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, as they were both in quarantine due to Covid-19 infection. In fact, Farooq Abdullah was hospitalized on the day of our arrival.

The PAGD, it might be recalled, was formed hurriedly in the midst of the political tsunami unleashed by the Centre on J&K State in 2019. On August 3 that year, unprecedented cancellation of the Amarnath pilgrimage, dire warnings to tourists to rush home (citing terrorist threat) and the airlifting of tens of thousands of additional troops to the Kashmir Valley left the mainstream political leadership in no doubt that a ‘shock and awe’ constitutional assault on J&K was imminent. To formulate a pre-emptive collective strategy, the leaders representing the National Conference (NC), Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), Peoples Conference, Peoples Movement and Awami National Conference met under the leadership of Farooq Abdullah. Their first resolution of August 4, 2019, termed ‘Gupkar Declaration’ was unanimously adopted by all 17 members who christened their political collective, PAGD.

In a united stand, these parties resolved to protect and defend the identity, autonomy and special status of J&K against “all attacks and onslaughts whatsoever” and any modification or abrogation of Articles 35 A, 370 or unconstitutional delimitation were termed as aggression against the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The constituents resolved to appeal to the leaders of other (national) political parties to “safeguard the legitimate interests of the people of the State with regard to the guarantees given to the State by the Constitution of our country.”

The Gupkar Declaration resulted in the Centre putting all the alliance leaders along with over five thousand others under preventive detention on August 4. The next day, on August 5, the J&K Reorganisation Bill was introduced in Parliament. Following the release of the Gupkar Declaration signatories after about a year, the parties, this time including the Indian National Congress, issued a second declaration on August 22, 2020, and reasserted that the constituents were bound by the status quo of August 4, 2019, and that they would strive for the restoration of Articles 370 and 35 A. Subsequent denial by the Congress of being a signatory to PAGD proclamations, and the pull-out by Peoples’ Conference of Sajad Lone in January 2021, were doubtless seen as a setback.

However, even before the two parties left the PAGD, the alliance had decided to contest the upcoming district elections. Having boycotted the panchayat and municipal elections, the PAGD decided to contest the District Development Council (DDC) elections taking the Central government by surprise.

The DDC elections in November-December 2020 demonstrated strong support for PAGD among the people. This was the first major direct electoral exercise along party lines after the reorganisation of J&K. Virtually converting the DDC elections into a referendum on the Centre’s August 5, 2019 decision, the PAGD swept the polls in the Valley, and won 35 of the 140 seats in the Jammu region. The BJP obtained only three of the 140 seats in the Kashmir Valley with very slender margins.

That the common and founding objectives of PAGD resonated deeply with the people was obvious in our group’s interaction with hundreds of people in both Srinagar and Kulgam. The PAGD declarations seemed to reflect the peoples’ hopelessness at the loss of their identity, division of J&K into two Union Territories, deep anger at the obliteration of the political mainstream and the unfathomable fear of demographic change through revised domicile laws.

In conversations with our group, the PAGD leadership shared its concerns, apprehensions and experiences of harassment at the hands of the Central investigative agencies. The denial of passports to PDP leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and her mother is a case in point. We were informed that there were 16,000 Kashmiris who had been refused passports. Both Mehbooba Mufti and her mother now face questioning by the Enforcement Directorate. Similar treatment was meted out earlier to another former chief minister and NC leader Farooq Abdullah. Many Kashmiris believe that Mehbooba Mufti and other PAGD leaders are being targeted by the Centre for their intransigence. A senior leader of PDP Naeem Akhter has been imprisoned once again after having been released earlier. He is old and also a sick man and recently he had to be taken to hospital twice because of his deteriorating health.

Even more sensational is the case of a young PDP leader, Wahid Parra, who was arrested three months ago. He got bail from the High Court but was re-arrested by NIA on charges of terrorism. Wahid Parra is not just an effective youth leader of PDP but was valuable for Delhi as well as a prominent pro-India voice amongst the youth. The case registered against him alleges that he distributed Rs. 100 crore to militants. However, hardly anyone in Kashmir believes the charge. A PAGD leader who was not even from PDP asked, “If this is what they are doing to Wahid Parra who spoke up for India, who now will side with India?”

The PAGD leaders were quite frank about their fears that the ruling party wanted to disband and destroy the alliance by chasing away its constituents through time-tested techniques of inducements, coercion and the threat of use of Central investigative agencies against them. In such a situation, the PAGD leaders claimed that they saw their unity, credibility and strength as the strongest antidote to the government’s machinations.

We were told that due to a variety of reasons, including Covid 19 pandemic, the PAGD constituents were neither able to meet often enough nor was their plan to have a full-fledged PAGD Secretariat and a multi-layered structure taking shape at the necessary pace. Both, they felt, were necessary to strengthen its foundational objectives as well as providing multiple avenues for engaging civil society, media, think tanks, academia and ethnicities—Buddhists, Kargilis, Sikhs, Kashmiri Pandits—across the regions of erstwhile J&K state.

The PAGD leaders shared with us their perceived critical need for them to stay together in these ‘politically challenging times’ marked by the Centre’s ideological overreach and unending inducements, pressures and coercion.

 District Development Councils:

Our group felt that the mandate of the PAGD reverberated with the people in J&K and that this was evident in the DDC election results. We wanted to meet some DDC members and hear from them how they were functioning.

DDC members protesting over their compromised status in the protocol in Jammu in March 2021.

The group travelled to Kulgam to meet the members of the local DDC there. The meeting was held at the Chowalgam Rest House in Kulgam on April 1, 2021. All the DDC members of Kulgam except two were present, representing the CPI (M), National Conference (NC), Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), and the Indian National Congress (INC). The meeting was conducted by DDC Chairman Mohammed Afzal Parray of CPI (M) and the Vice-Chair Shazia Jaan of the NC. The chairman of the District Municipal Corporation and some other local community leaders also attended the meeting.

Chairman Mohammed Afzal Parray opened his remarks by stating that what happened on August 5, 2019, was wrong (theek nahin hua). Life had been taken from Kashmir, before whom India’s image was shattered, he said. There had been no development initiative since the DDC elections were held, he could see no way forward and no way back. “What should we do?” he asked.

Elected Councillors, he claimed, were prevented by the security personnel provided to them from meeting the public. They were all kept cooped up in a local hotel. How were they to build public confidence in the elections, he asked? The DDC members could offer nothing to the youth, except the prospect of jail. Many stood arrested, amongst whom many remained untraced with Councillors given no assistance in tracing their whereabouts. All felt unsafe. What had happened, he concluded, was ‘worse than rape’.

DDC member Gulzar Ahmed (PDP) said he was ashamed of meeting his people because he could do nothing for them. Officials avoided meeting Councillors, for whom it was impossible to even get an electric transformer repaired. Mohammed Ibrahim (NC) also felt under siege, helpless.

DDC member Inayatullah Rather (INC) said that he was brought up believing that India looked upon Kashmir as its crown but now that crown had been trampled underfoot. He recounted the high-handedness of the security forces saying that in his village a humble young milkman, nicknamed ‘Colonel’ Sattar because of his strapping physique — he was six feet two inches tall — had been apprehended and detained in faraway Varanasi Jail. Sattar had nothing to do with any militant or militancy. This, he said, was the case with many other youngsters who had been sent to faraway prisons in other states even though J&K had a number of detention centres of its own. Councillors, he claimed, were avoided by their own families as “informers” (Mukhbir). If J&K was not entitled to Article 370, why could their land rights and employment not be protected as in many other states under Article 371, he asked?

Councillors, he said, were repeatedly humiliated by officials even in providing facilities like transport and security, which they were assured was to be provided by the Police Control Room (PCR). The public including Councillors were expected to pay the full fee for electricity connections, although supply was uncertain and erratic. A Delimitation Commission had been established but functioned out of Delhi, limiting access to the residents of J&K, Inayat Rather said.

Another DDC member, 35-year-old Abbas Rather (CPI-M), disputed India’s claim to being secular. Riaz Ahmad, a progressive young man of the INC representing the hilly constituency Devsar, complained of rising unemployment and quoted figures to support his complaint of what he saw as de-industrialisation across the UT. He described how Ladakh had been provided self-government through Hill Development Councils, but complained that even the PSOs provided to the Councillors were spies keeping the PCR informed of their activities.

Ghulam Mohammed (CPI-M) cited Kashmir’s pluralist tradition of Lal Ded and Sheikhul ‘Alam. Councillor Ruby Jaan (CPI-M) complained that education, employment, industry and internet connectivity had come to a halt. Aqib Ahmad Zargar (CPI-M) pleaded that all he had aspired to be a free citizen of a free country but this had proved elusive. “Why are we treated as second-class citizens when we go to study or work outside Kashmir?” he asked. The abbreviation DDC was translated by Mohammad Arif Zargar (NC), Chairman of the District Municipal Committee, quite cynically as ‘dumb, driven cattle’.

A Kashmiri Pandit present at the meeting, Ramesh Kumar Bhat, had been a migrant, who had returned to Kulgam in 1995. Thereafter, he had been elected as Chairman of the Municipal Committee, which he had served for a full term of five years. He obviously commanded the confidence of his political peers in the DDC, even though he was not a member of the DDC.

En route to Srinagar, we stopped at village Seerat Jagir within the jurisdiction of the Kulgam DDC. A number of village residents present there included retired government officials and teachers, shopkeepers, farmers and a number of young men — but no women at all. They described in the presence of Councillors accompanying us, including Chairman Parray, their disillusion with the inactivity of the DDCs despite having turned out in good number to vote. The hope generated that elections would ensure a return to popular government had been supplanted by mistrust, they said.

One of the CCG members, Wajahat Habibullah, had as Deputy Commissioner, Poonch (1974-77) been party to the setting up of the institution of District Development Boards, the government nominated bodies of public representatives intended to oversee the preparation and implementation of district development plans, the institutions that preceded the present institution of DDC. As the Government of India’s first Secretary of the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, he had advised the Mufti Government on converting the District Development Boards into the DDC, as they were expected under Part IX of the Constitution of India, to function as institutions of self-government. Article 243(d) reads ‘Panchayat means an institution (by whatever name called) of self-government constituted under article 243B, for the rural areas’.

Habibullah told the villagers and the DDC chairman that the 11th Schedule lists the functions to be assigned to Panchayati Raj Institutions, over which their authority was mandated to be final, with the bureaucracy simply serving as a functionary. Their election had won them the right to be seconded funds, functions and functionaries to enable them to implement their constitutional mandate. The DDC members, he said, ought to be giving instructions to the bureaucracy rather than playing a subordinate role to it.

By an order of March 30, the UT government had assigned to Chairmen of DDC the status of Mayors of Jammu and Srinagar, and to the VCs that of secretaries to the UT government and Divisional commissioners. The Lieutenant Governor of J&K in a meeting with Chairmen of DDCs at the Raj Bhawan in Jammu on March 12 is reported to have claimed that the three-tier Panchayati Raj system was established to empower the grass-root democracy.

We hope that this account should clarify for him as well as J&K citizens, that assigning status is of little consequence without the backup of authority as mandated by the Constitution of India.

All-Party Hurriyat Conference:

Our group went to call on Hurriyat leader and Chief Cleric of Kashmir, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to his residence but was not allowed to enter his residence by the police. We stood outside the gate for about 20 minutes while the police officer-in-charge of guarding his house insisted that he was not under house arrest but we could not meet him because of some ‘special circumstances’. He kept calling his bosses on his mobile phone, only to tell us in the end that there was no permission to allow any visitors. We spoke to the Mirwaiz on the phone from outside his residence. He was upset and told us that after being under house arrest for almost two years, he had been freed. His first visit outside the house was to be to Jamia Masjid to deliver the Friday sermon. A huge crowd was waiting for him there both inside and outside the mosque. However, in the end the Mirwaiz was not allowed to address the flock and he was confined to his residence once again without formally being put under house arrest. The Chief Cleric of Kashmir, for 90 consecutive Fridays, has not been allowed to go to Jamia Masjid to deliver his weekly sermons.

Non-Migrant Kashmiri Pandit Community

The group also met a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits who had not migrated from the Valley. They claimed that while Kashmiri Pandits had been designated as “True Indians” by the ruling dispensation in Delhi, they do not get any respect or response from the administration. On the other hand, Kashmiris apparently blame the Pandits for the developments of August 5, 2019, claiming that they were a ‘Trojan horse’ of Delhi and the abrogation of Article 370 was their doing. The non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits particularly blamed the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for their woes.

Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) President Sanjay Tickoo is on a fast-unto-death at the historic Ganpatyar temple in old Srinagar city for the rights of the non-migrant Pandit community of Kashmir.

They claimed that according to the 2011 census, there were 808 Kashmiri Pandit and Dogra Hindu families in the Valley. Out of these, 554 were Kashmiri Pandit families and even out of these 64 families had left since 2011, leaving only 490 non-migrant Pandit families in the Valley now. In addition, there were 3,900 migrant Kashmiri Pandits in camps who had been brought in from Jammu and elsewhere by offering them government employment.

The Valley’s non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, they claimed, were being continuously ignored in the plans of the government for the economic rehabilitation of the community. Last year, the president and several members of the Valley’s Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti went on a fast unto death twice demanding implementation of various government orders concerning their welfare and the J&K High Court’s order to give 500 jobs to their unemployed eligible youth. On both occasions, they pointed out, they had called off their fast at the request of the Chief Secretary with a promise to discuss the issue regarding jobs and implementing the High Court Order. However, several months had passed, they pointed out, but there was no forward movement, except for one meeting that was held between the Lt. Governor’s Advisor Bashir Khan and the Kashmiri Pandit group.

Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha has repeatedly claimed that the government has a “special package for Kashmiri Pandits which goes beyond their imagination”. “He has said so thrice this year already. But we don’t know what he means,” one of them said.

Meanwhile, they pointed out that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has formed yet another organisation of Kashmiri Pandits, this time amongst the Diaspora. Christened “Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora” (GKPD), it is meant to lobby international forums, especially in the USA, for a Kashmir Pandit homeland within Kashmir Valley. “What Panun Kashmir could not do is sought to be done with the creation of the GKPD. The RSS was disappointed with Panun Kashmir as they could not even open and office in the Kashmir Valley,” he pointed out.

Blaming the Bharatiya Janata Party for their woes, the Kashmiri Pandit representative said that it used the plight of the Pandits in every election, including in the ongoing West Bengal legislative assembly election. However, it does nothing for them, especially for those who never migrated out of the Valley even in the worst of times.

With the spate of several killings of Hindus in the Valley the minuscule KP community feels vulnerable, said one of them. Another rued that the Pandits were getting increasingly radicalised (referring to those in Jammu] with thousands joining the RSS. Even their segregation in camps had not helped, he said. On the other hand, he said, the few thousand who never migrated from Kashmir, have become very insecure in the last few years and fear they could be targets of a false flag operation before the next general election in India. Many alluded to the all-pervasive role of the intelligence agencies in the Valley with access to every militant group through what they called “embedded militants”.

A valley resident said that there was trouble brewing in the Valley already. Under the Centre’s Smart City project, several Hindu temples were being renovated on river banks. The Raghunath Temple in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal area is one of the temples being renovated. In all this renovation activity, there was no involvement of Kashmiri Pandits. In fact, the security forces had been given a role in identifying temples to be renovated. Last year, the Rashtriya Rifles had carried out a survey of temples in South Kashmir. “This is a dangerous thing. It makes the non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley vulnerable,” a non-migrant Pandit said.

Youth:

The people in Kashmir are afraid of the seething anger in the youth and the increasing lure of the gun. Despite ‘encounters’ and a large number of militants getting killed, the number of active militants seems to have remained the same in the Kashmir Valley for the past two years. The support for militancy is growing not only in the rural areas but also in urban areas, including Srinagar.

Kashmiri youth take part in written test for the post of constable in Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) during a recruitment (in rally Mode) at BSF Frontier HQ, Humhama in Srinagar, on Sunday 18 October 2020. Youth from 22 districts of Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh took part in the first open rally by BSF since creation of Union Territories . KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

A major cause of anger against the security forces and for support for militancy seems to be the policy of blowing up houses where militants take shelter. However, most often it is not just a particular house where militants have taken shelter that is blown up by the security forces but several adjoining houses are also damaged in the process. Even in the severest of Kashmir’s winters this year, the policy of blowing up houses where the militants were hiding, was implemented. The houses are also blown up where the militant had taken shelter, as a punishment to the house owners. A Kashmiri man asked, “After such encounters which make people homeless, why would an entire village not support militancy?”

A civil society member lamented that today’s gun wielders were the stone-throwers of 2008 and that this process will go on. A Kashmiri journalist told us that Maqbool Butt and Afzal Guru were hanged and buried in Tihar jail, far away from their home and relatives but now this had become a daily occurrence as young Kashmiri militants are buried far away from their homes. He said that people boil over in rage and grief when their wards are buried under State arrangements at a central location, far away from home. “Even mourning stands criminalised,” he lamented.

Locals point out that the youth are angry and hate India — they have witnessed violent protests on the streets repeatedly for the past decade and also brutal action by police and security forces. When they see no options, they are willing to take up the gun. Even if they do not have access to guns as of now, locals point out, they have militancy on their mind.

In an attempt to win over the youth, sports events are being organised. However, they have not worked in the past and are unlikely to be effective even now. In Anantnag, during 1990s there was a football club. All its members became militants. After the 2010 uprising, the youth focus of the civic administration comprised organizing cricket matches. The largest cricket matches were held in Pulwama. Those who played in these matches were later found to be a part of the anti-government protests in 2016. The government and the security establishment are making the same mistake again, by focusing only on sports and a few cultural events. Unless the turmoil in the hearts of the youth is addressed, they are given space to vent their feelings and they are actively engaged, state-organised sports events alone will not prevent them from getting radicalized.

Increasingly, many youngsters consider the Indian flag atop every government building, on Shankaracharya Hill in Srinagar and hanging from every lamp-post on the Boulevard along the Dal Lake in Srinagar, as a provocation. A young man remarked, “You brought down our flag, we will bring down yours and burn down these buildings one day.”

Attacks on Kashmiri students in the rest of India have shown that the propaganda against Kashmiris can lead to violence against innocents. In the recent past, Kashmiri parents were comfortable sending their children to study or find jobs in the rest of India. Today they are fearful of sending them away from home. If they have to send their children away, they say, they would rather send them abroad.

 Drug Addiction:

Drug addiction seems rampant in Kashmir, as it would perhaps be expected in a conflict zone. Medical experts claim that youth who earlier took to guns are increasingly taking recourse to drugs, starting with inhalation of chemicals but ending after a few years with heroin injections. Instances of 15-year-olds going straight to heroin injections are not uncommon now, they point out. Mercifully, addicts are not into criminal activities due to family support. Earlier, cannabis was cultivated but in the absence of a market, farmers have switched to poppy cultivation for making opium.

There are reports that with many apple orchards suffering losses due to adverse weather conditions two years ago, people are shifting to growing opium. We heard about a father telling his son, “Preserve apple trees.” But the son apparently replied, “Burn them down and grow poppy for opium and we will wipe out our debts.”

It would seem that joblessness and a sense of hopelessness are driving Kashmiri youth to drug addiction. Mental health, medical professionals told us, is taking a huge toll on Kashmiri society.

Corruption and outsiders:

The Central government has often accused the National Conference and PDP leaders of looting Kashmir. But in Srinagar today, one often heard people talk about corruption having reached its peak. They accuse government employees of demanding huge amounts of money at the slightest pretext. They give examples of how the different government employees have amassed properties in Srinagar and elsewhere.

Earlier there was some restraint on bureaucrats in terms of how much they could squeeze out of the citizens because they too came from the same society and community. This local community connect had some restraint on the Kashmiri civil servants as they knew they too had to live among the people after retirement. However, people complained that now Kashmiri civil and police officers are being side-lined and are being replaced by non-Kashmiri civil servants in the running the administration in the 10 districts of Kashmir. Some of them are novices who have come from outside and are not part of the Kashmir civil service cadre with almost no knowledge of local context and circumstances. They do what they like, people complained. These non-Kashmiri officers have no connect with the local communities.

The ceasefire along the LOC:

Reacting to the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC), some Kashmiris felt that Pakistan’s current position may well change in the future if the peace process does not move forward. This, they believe, would most likely happen not because of the internal or external pressures on Pakistan but because of New Delhi’s provocations on Kashmir. However, most welcomed the ceasefire and expressed a desire for peace and wished for a forward movement in the India-Pakistan dialogue process.

This is the Kishen Ganga (Neelum) rivulet that acts as the Line of Control between the two halves of Kashmir. Image Mahmood Ahmad

“We have received a very deep wound. We will of course welcome India-Pakistan talks and whatever relief that brings to us. But the wound that has been inflicted will remain and we will continue to demand the restoration of our identity and our state. We feel vulnerable and want to survive for achieving our larger goal,” a Kashmiri said.

Although there was large support for militancy, some considered it to be a temporary phase. However, people also said, that if space was created for another process through an India-Pakistan dialogue to resolve their situation, then the Kashmiris would support it. But a Kashmiri felt that BJP would not want to resolve the Kashmir issue as it helps the party win elections. If however, there is further “choking of political space in Kashmir” in next three years, some Kashmiris predict that a call to arms may be given irrespective of internal or external constraints.

 Conclusion

Kashmir has continued to remain disturbed since August 5, 2019. Unlike the rest of India, it went into a double lockdown – one imposed after removing the special status of the state and the other due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The former dove-tailed into the second.

People believe that the Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass and that it has not created any Kashmir-specific problems. The problem specific to Kashmir in their mind originates from the decisions of Modi government. Since August 2019 there have been changes in the administrative structure of the bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir, old political parties are sought to be dismantled and the formation of new ones is being facilitated by Delhi. It is not clear whether Kashmir will resist the changes being imposed on it or accept them with resignation. The local political leadership is either silent or being forced into silence for fear of the Indian state.

Although there is a feeling that saner voices in India ought to speak up and help de-escalate the situation in Kashmir, there is also an overwhelming sense of despondency and acknowledgement of the reality that there are no significant voices in the rest of India who can speak up for them or offer resistance to what has happened to them. They also seem to recognise the power differential between those who have brought about the change in J&K and the subjects of those changes, the Kashmiris themselves. And they feel powerless.

They bemoan the fact that they have been left alone by the rest of India. They are wary of joining or even publicly commenting on larger protests taking place across the country against the BJP government in Delhi such as the farmers’ agitation or the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests because they feel that their issues will get drowned in the larger ones encompassing India. Yet there are questions being asked about how long the Kashmiris can isolate themselves and resist the BJP government in Delhi alone. “We don’t have leaders just as India does not have leaders who have a well thought out critique of the RSS and the BJP and who can lead the people against their designs,” a Kashmiri public intellectual summed up the dilemma.

It was clear to the group that for bringing about peace and restoring the identity and honour of the people of J&K, the Central government would have to restore the statehood of J&K and start a dialogue for a fresh distribution of powers between the Centre and the State, keeping in mind the special history of J&K’s accession to India. However, it is not easy to see this process starting under the present regime in Delhi.

Under these circumstances, short of restoring status quo ante, it is very difficult to recommend a course of action to fundamentally change the situation in which the Kashmiris find themselves. We therefore limit ourselves to suggestions that are akin to applying balm on a wound to relieve the immediate pain.

We, therefore, suggest the following course of action to the state actors and the political parties in India:

  1. Address the sense of defeat and anger amongst the Kashmiris by opening up the democratic space for people to express themselves.
  2. Restore the earlier policy of restraint and preventing ‘collateral damage’ during counter-insurgency operations by the security forces.
  3. Do not blow-up the homes of hapless villagers which are occupied forcibly by the militants for shelter or for using them tactically against the security forces.
  4. Allow civil society organisations to function by holding meetings, seminars, and discussions which would allow the people to vent their emotions and relieve the psychological pressure on them.
  5. Do not criminalise journalism and allow journalists and media persons to freely report from the ground – even the state might be better informed if the press is free.
  6. Give special attention to the physical safety and economic well-being of the minorities in Kashmir, especially the non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs and Shias who have lived in peace in the Valley for centuries.
  7. Do not impose artificial political processes on the Kashmiris which seem democratic outwardly but are bereft of any democratic muscle.
  8. Allow the DDC members to visit their constituencies instead of creating hurdles in their way and make the bureaucracy in the districts accountable to the DDC.
  9. Shift the offices of the Delimitation Commission for J&K to the UT from Delhi so that the exercise is accountable and transparent.
  10. Allow the national Opposition political parties to visit Kashmir, move around freely and meet local political leaders and civil society actors.

Wajahat Habibullah                                           Kapil Kak

Sushobha Barve                                                            Bharat Bhushan

Yashwant Sinha (Endorsed)

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