FIGHTING PEOPLE

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Kashmir is going through a crisis which the government is trying to define and tackle in a manner that tends to aggravate it.  Kashmir Life discusses the impact of the approach that pushes people to the wall.

It is over a month now, that Kashmir has been gripped by protests which started with the killing of Tufail Ahmad Matoo by a teargas shell.  What followed was a cycle of killings and protests, where authorities seemed to assume that they could kill protests by killing protestors.  People died, 15 of them mostly teenagers, but protests did not. In fact these only intensified.
With every killing came a promise of restraint and harsh action against  guilty police personnel coupled with a warning to protestors.  The promises of restraint and action against police were never kept, but action against protestors and by extension against the whole population kept intensifying.
While the government kept blaming one party after another for the continued protests, it chose to overlook that things could have been brought under control much earlier, had the provocations not been repeated.
Had Rafiq Bangroo not been beaten to death soon after Tufail’s killing, had Sopore not followed Srinagar, had police not chased and killed three youth in a residential compound in Islamabad, had a young boy not been beaten, as alleged, to death by a legislator’s escort.
How many of these incidents were avoidable. Apparently most, if police and paramilitary had in reality the orders to exhibit restraint or use only the deterring force.
Instead they seem to act on orders to using maximum force against dissenting youth.
Even today, when the government is grappling to bring things back to normal and appealing people to cooperate, police parties are barging upon localities during night and arresting children and youth.  According to some reports more than a 1000 are behind bars.
Most of the administrative measures thus aimed at suppressing the problem are in turn aggravating the crisis.

1.  Shrunken Space
Notwithstanding the Azaadi demand, the ongoing crisis has two vital ingredients – (a) right to life for a new restive generation that was born and brought up in the shadow of the gun (b) shrinkage of space for the dissent. In fact it is the later, on which the first factor rests.
Going by the statements emanating from governments in Delhi and Srinagar, Kashmir is in a “post conflict phase”. The fall in the militant violence, they point out, is the main indictor. It, however, is debatable.
But for a flashpoint like Kashmir that has gone through hell in last more than 20 years and lacks any sense of achievement in physical and psychological terms, a space to give vent to the feelings is must. Even the medical doctors will suggest the same for a society that has a huge population suffering from psychological and psychiatric problems generated by the turmoil.
But nobody is willing to give that space. While Mufti Sayeed tried to devour the separatist space by “seperatising” the so called mainstream, thus making separatists irrelevant for the time being, his successors resorted to the old politics – dominate every inch that is available. This leads to a sense of suffocation which adds to the crisis and occasionally erupts with devastating impact. It has already devoured Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Congress government and has pushed the incumbent one to the wall. Omar’s government survives because New Delhi does not want to sacrifice another elected government to what they call “street protests”. Anyway they don’t have an option.
Denial of space for dissent is directly proportional to the scale and quantum of street violence. The system, as JKLF chairman Yasin Malik has repeatedly said, should accept the transition of resistance from violence to non-violence – from gun to stone pelting and more recently to sit-ins, which police permitted at many places and disallowed at many other places in Srinagar. The system may not acknowledge dissent but it should not deny it the space it needs.

2   Blame Game
Regardless of the debate whether it is good or bad, stone pelting is neither Kashmir specific nor was it ever absent from our recent history. It has remained a way of protest in all regimes including more recent ones especially when security forces were used to prevent protests. But the incumbent coalition targeted it and almost launched a Jehad against the stone pelters. Hundreds were rounded up included a number of minors.
Government did initiate certain measures to manage it by other means using ad-hoc appointments in police, involving local communities and area elders, getting a decree issued against it from friendly clergy and even sending some of them on tours outside the state. It somehow did not help.
Finally the government started accusing people for it. The allegations came from the most sensitive seats of power and almost everybody was bracketed. Initially there were some kerosene dealers and a major business house. Later it was opposition PDP. Finally Pakistan’s secret services were termed to be behind the phenomenon and more recently it was Lashkar-e-Toiba. Even the stone pelting was linked with the commerce and the phenomenon was projected as an industry, which may or may not be a fact. The state and the central governments were in unison in labelling the practice.  
There was no effort to understand the phenomenon. Mobs usually do not come out and resort to stone pelting. They actually wait or seek a provocation to which they react. There was another interesting trend in the state response. Stone pelting was termed to be a phenomenon existing in select areas in Srinagar – “five police stations” that are now caged almost perpetually. Then came Sopore and it was justified as being the centre of separatist gravity. And when the trend moved to Baramulla and Islamabad it was termed as an Opposition machination! Nobody in the government understood that these disturbed areas make most of Kashmir.
It added to the provocations. Now stone pelting trend has a wide dispersal – Chowkibal, Uri, Shopian, Kakpora, Pampore, Handwara, and in Srinagar Chanpora, Rambagh, Bye-Pass, Barzalla, Batamaloo. The reality that the youth who resort to stone pelting belong to everybody NC, PDP, Congress, and the separatists.
Stone pelting has led to two deaths, according to government, one in Baramulla and another in Srinagar – in which a kid and a state government employee was killed. CRPF says they have over 1600 of its personnel injured (since it replaced BSF) in stone pelting but there is no data about the total number of civilians who were injured so far.  

3.    Crackdown
Invariably, after every incident of protest or stone pelting, the respective locality has to face the consequences. They have to be punished either by beatings or simply by breaking their windowpanes. “Last week, a few police gypsies halted in our locality,” said Abdul Rashid of Rambagh. “They asked the addresses of some of the people and surrounded them. They had stones in bags and within five minutes they broke almost every window pane of the house and returned to their barracks.”
Arrests have remained a continuous phenomenon. Around 1000 people have been detained in recent months. Right now, even by the admissions of the government (its advocate general informed the court in Mian Qayoom case) jails are occupied beyond their capacity. Srinagar central jail has capacity of 430 and there are 480 already. The last batch of inmates was sent from the Dal lake only two days back. There are scores who are being held at the level of police stations. The best method of detecting the crisis is to roam around the city police stations in the evening when the relatives of the detained come to them with dinner. Now this trend can even be seen in up-town belts as well where one detects luxury cars carrying mothers of the ‘hi society’ kids now facing attempt to murder charges for stone pelting.
There are a number of minors who have been rounded up. The state government lacks centres for rehabilitation of the juvenile ‘prisoners’. It has already set up a few in Jammu but in Kashmir where it is using Public Safety Act against minors, it seems not in the mood. This essentially angers the society regardless of the ideological divide they live with.
Punishment seems to be the policy now. For almost a month now, the “five police stations” of the old city are under curfew, formal and informal. What is happening to the population that lives in that vast belt of the city? Nobody knows. It has changed the life style of the area. Now it opens briefly for breathing after 8 pm – for barely an hour.

4.   Inaction
Every time there was a civilian killing, there was a protest. And invariably there was an announcement of incident getting investigated either by a magistrate or by a commission. But when situation is explosive it needs immediate investigations. The series of killings in Sopore is about to get forgotten and the commission of enquiry that was announced to probe it is yet to start its work. The commission has genuinely said that it can start work only when the situation is conducive for its working.
But that does not stop government from working and at least identifying the personnel who are behind a particular incident. Government has long arms and it has the capacity to know things. In Islamabad, where cops who killed the three young men after getting hold of them and registered a case against “unidentified gunmen” were transferred.
The striking case of government inaction was the Gungbug, Batamalloo killings. A minister visited the area late in the evening to sympathise with his voters, some of whom had their windows broken in CRPF overreaction. As the minister’s highly secured cavalcade started leaving, a police man thought some of the young men may attack so he gave them a chase and actually beat one of them. There are witnesses available suggesting the boy was killed in the attack and was later dumped in the local stream.
Protests over the killings were fired upon killing one more and later a third person, this time a young girl, died in what was termed to be a stray bullet. Blockade of the funeral procession by police fetched Kashmir the goriest picture of the year. It shows how absolute power can destroy a human being. Ideally the minister should have put in his papers but if he is indispensable for the beleaguered government, even then some heads should have rolled.
In the all party meeting of the unionists that was held last week, a resolution suggested an independent enquiry. The process should have begun but there is no visible movement.
Instead of action, big bosses in the government exhibited non-seriousness. In Noorbagh case, the Chief Minister said the boy was “suicidal” as he tried to set afire a security vehicle. This, his opposition said, nullified the requirement of an enquiry. Even in the Gangbug case, Chief Minister said on TV why the two boys (who accompanied the one who died) did not save the boy from getting drowned. “Does he (chief minister) know what the chug (scurrying after a police charge) is all about? Has he ever seen its impact?” asked a middle rung officer in the civil secretariat. This has added to the trivializing of the situation and negating the impact of the routine decision making.

5.  Locked
Kashmir obviously is a battle between two ideologies – unionists and the separatists. But a number of people in the unionist camp are unwilling to accept that separatism is Kashmir’s new mainstream. As stone pelting became a norm, and the separatists called for protests, police started arresting them.
It started with the aging, ailing hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani who as extreme reference point to separatism is most respected right now. He was taken into custody, booked under Public Safety Act and shifted to Sub-jail Cheshmashahi. He is not alone. Apart from most of the separatists who make Geelani’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, police arrested Shabir Shah, Nayeem Khan, Yasin Malik and many others. This has left nobody out except Mirwiz Umer Farooq. He took hard postures but skipped from taking the lead role. He announced civil disobedience movement and lead two major processions in the old city.
This has created a situation that nobody in Kashmir separatist block is in a position to withdraw the striking system. It was from week to week and now it is for almost nine days. They fear that fiddling with the strike system may end up hitting them instead, given the 2008 experience when many felt they were closer to Azaadi but the strike was called off!! Those who run the strike programmes lack any accountability which may not be true with their seniors like Geelani. The government has destroyed the bridges. They may not be mandated enough to negotiate with Geelani over the future of Kashmir but they can talk to Geelani, Mirwaiz and others who matter to prevent a complete paralysis of the system.

In fact, rounding up almost everybody who preaches separatism may help the all India parties like BJP and Congress to get more votes but it kills regional forces like NC and PDP. Now there are rumours that some of Geelani’s aides have bounty on their heads! Undoing some of these detentions may become problematic for the coalition now because it will have ramifications at the central level especially after the talks fiasco between India and Pakistan in Islamabad.

6.  Initiated Inertia  
Right now Kashmir is in chaos and almost closed for a month – either under curfew or under strikes and the impact is being felt in Jammu. There has been no initiative. Army Chief V K Singh was candid enough to reveal that Kashmir needs political intervention. “I feel there is a great requirement for political initiatives that take all people together,” General Singh was quoted saying. “Militarily, we have brought the overall internal security situation in J&K under control. Now, the need is to handle things politically.”
But these advises are rarely heeded to as the politicians in Srinagar and Delhi rely too much on the security grid, which comprises of various security and intelligence agencies including the army. The security agencies have their own interest in keeping the pot boiling. It is directly linked to their power and commerce. They even control the decision making in J&K forcing political executive to play second fiddle to them.
The advice of the security grid might have been responsible for Chief Minister’s panic calls for army. He is understood to have made as many as five calls to the Home Minister and when Chidamabaram put his foot down, Omar called Prime Minister. It was only after that call, the central government agreed to give him a few columns to be used as “deterrents”.
But, policemen can not fight commoners who are unwilling to go home from the street.
As going gets tougher, policy makers start talking about the ‘talks’. But Sajjad Lone has made it clear that these are aimed at hoodwinking rather than actually doing anything. But right now, many think, there is no requirement of asking separatists to the table. Given the explosive situation at home and in the backdrop of their handling by New Delhi coupled with the talks fiasco in Islamabad, they are unlikely to agree. But there are five sets of recommendations that various Working Groups on Kashmir, appointed by the Prime Minister, have drafted. These are all based on the suggestions of the unionists who were part of the Roundtable Conference on J&K. Why cannot some of the most pressing of them be implemented?
Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a major issue. Already, there was a debate over it in Delhi as government was battling with its defence appendage. A number of districts across J&K can be de-listed under Disturbed Areas Act.

7.  Over To Delhi
This has been the most disturbing development that took place in recent days. Though, insiders said, the MHA has been remote controlling the regime for a long time it was evident recently when Home Secretary G K Pillai assumed the job of an assistant commissioner and relaxed the curfew without informing the state government. In fact, the state government was sitting in a meeting to decide over the curfew relaxation on July 9 when the Pillai jolt shocked them.
But that was just a trailer, insiders say. The central government in the Cabinet Committee on Security meeting and outside it was never happy with the system of governance in J&K. Some Congress leaders went public saying Omar does not sit in Srinagar. This forced the chief minister into creating a record of sorts because he has not taken off to Delhi for almost a month now. But on Friday evening he left for Delhi, apparently on a damage control exercise. he is expected to return tomorrow.
This necessitated the CCS meeting to advise Home Minister of “playing his (Omar’s) big brother” and consulting the “wise man”. Now under the new scheme of things all the security agencies, including police, are in direct contact with the MHA. It has created another parallel chain of command which hurts not only the decision making but hits at the centre of the larger unionist demand of more devolution of powers. “It is autonomy working actually in the reverse gear,” a senior officer of the government quipped.
After CRPF killed a youth in Sopore on June 27, Chief Minister’s office authorized Law and Rural Development Minister to speak to the press. At a very short notice, reporters were driven to Sagar’s residence where he urged Home Minister P Chidambaram to “rein in” CRPF which was “defying the Chief Minister’s orders and killing civilians.” He genuinely said the series of civilian killings are creating a crisis which will force a stand off between the government and its own people. Apparently based on the inputs of the police from the besieged town, Sagar said the firing was uncalled for and unwarranted.
“Only yesterday the Chief Minister ordered constitution of a commission, headed by the SHRC chairperson, to probe the killing of two civilians in Sopore last Friday. The commission is yet to begin the inquiry that another killing in the town has taken place,” Sagar said. Admitting that he was speaking on behalf of the government, Sagar asserted that CRPF was “unbridled and undisciplined force” and seems to have lost command and control.
It triggered a controversy within the coalition and brought in enough of pressure. It was the state government that was reined in. It fell in line and the chief minister announced in a press conference that “various anti-national forces and vested interests have come together to create trouble” by “exploiting the emotions and vulnerability of the youth”. Omar refused to blame the security forces for killings because “it takes two hands to clap”. He asserted that security forces can not be expected to “show restraint constantly” while they are being engaged day in and day out. And Chief Minister’s aides ensured Sagar sits in the same news conference and is clicked in the same frame!! Barely an hour after Omar’s crowded news conference, state government circulated Home Minister’s statement – a ditto of Omar. Sources told Kashmir Life that talking points of Omar’s news conference were literally dictated from Delhi.

8.  Subverting Institutions
This became the hallmark of the ongoing crisis. Kashmir’s docile media became an instant target. When curfew was imposed and state authorities were discussing giving permissions to all the essential services and the process was almost started, just a phone call from Delhi led to their cancellation.
This was not the first instance when media operating in J&K was gagged by withdrawing certain things that are key to its operations. But what was tragic was the superimposition of the Delhi’s electronic media over the space that was created by the gag at the local level. They were also not issued curfew passes but their field visits were facilitated. This has reinforced the belief of the people that it was done with mala fide intent. They felt vindicated when sections of Delhi media (obviously not the print) started makeover of the regime after reporting the crisis initially. Subsequently when thousands of people were out on roads on peaceful sit-ins, there was no mention of it anywhere.
Indirectly even judiciary got impacted. The government rounded up Bar Association president for his ideology and helping the detained. This triggered boycott of the courts. It is gradually contributing to the civil disobedience movement that Mirwaiz launched. If at all Kashmir opens, people who have wards imprisoned would go to court and they will get no pleaders. It will add up anger and bring in more frustration and chaos. The government deliberately opened up many fronts without assessing its capacity of managing the system.
Inaction against the cops in, for instance, Gungbug case has created a situation in Batamaloo that people are showing hatred towards the police. It is almost similar to what is happening in Islamabad. This hatred is adding to the demoralization of around 100 thousands cops including SPOs which will be more damaging than the assumed demoralization it will have if some cops accused of crimes would be dealt with sternly. If the hatred is pushed further it could lead Kashmir towards a civil war.
The new system that the state government has evolved in the name of crisis management committees is yet another problem that will have long time repercussions. Now we will have a district level committee that has its members drawn from all the security agencies and the civil administration. The system functions at district levels informally. Making it formal is actually implementing the blueprint that the former governor Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha had drafted for Kashmir. He had offered the plan to Assam which they rejected.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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