Rural Remilitarisation

After unprecedented poll cancellation, the government is still clueless about how to halt the slide that could push Kashmir into yet another crisis. The muscular policy that Delhi wants its ally to implement on ground is gradually devouring the middle ground that had evolved over decades, Tasavur Mushtaq reports

“It is really very difficult for an officer to say no to holding polls,” a top bureaucrat told Kashmir Life. “If we tell the situation honestly and say elections cannot be held, it eventually becomes part of our service record.”

There were instances within the state in which the “plain speak” by some officials led them to be “haunted” by the instant remarks. In the run-up to 2014 assembly polls, when an officer said the September floods could impact turnout, an innocuous reaction by ECI officials led to Deputy Commissioner’s literally resorting to an e-bay auction: 60 percent, cried one, 69 per cent shouted another!

The results were instant: more than nine killings for less than eight percent of polling in central Kashmir.

So when all political parties conveyed the abnormality in situation to ECI, there was no officer who could second it. “Nobody wanted to ruin his career,” admitted the top officer. The results were instant: more than nine killings for less than eight percent of polling in central Kashmir. It led PDP candidate to seek postponement, a demand that threw the ball rolling.

But the situation after Central Kashmir’s mayhem forced everybody to be honest with the ground realities. As detailed by the long  ECI order, that cancelled the polls for the first time in three decades, officers were very objective, even though some political parties were keen that election must happen. Former Chief Secretary B R Sharma, now adviser to Chief Minister, told the ECI that the May 25 polling “might witness not only large scale violence but can also result in an even lower voter turnout.” An Additional DGP rank officer told the Commission that “overall situation is scary and not very conducive” in south Kashmir as “candidates, police, civil staff on election duty are vulnerable.”

In a formal report, the state government conveyed the “separatists and anti-national elements, in addition to anti-election campaign, have launched extensive campaign on social media for mobilizing the youth and also threatened the general public against participation in polls by way of targeting political workers and families of police officers.”

Sources privy to twin meetings of chief minister with her legislators and party workers told Kashmir Life that workers were adamant on poll cancellation. “They said no election could be held in such a scary situation,” sources said. “Even Mehbooba conceded that space of PDP in particular and mainstream in general was shrinking.”

For securing the entire exercise spread over four districts, the state police sought 687 companies for 1117 police stations. But the Home Ministry said they can give 250 companies in addition to 54 already retained by the ECI in the state. In addition to the “prevailing ground situation and non-availability of sufficient security forces”, the Commission took note of the approaching Ramzan, the Muslim month of fasting, the Amarnath Yatra and continuance of the Model Code of Conduct at the “peak period of festivities and tourism” would “adversely affect” the people. “Therefore, deferring the elections further also does not seem to be a feasible option,” the Commission said, and cancelled the exercise.

It is a strange state of a new uncertainty. Nobody knows what happens and when?

Though the plain speaking by the state administration led to quick decision-making, the fact is the situation in south Kashmir is more serious than what is officially stated. “You may say it is the situation of 1990s but I say it is beyond that,” one resident from Yaripora said. The fear is so grave that even a petty rumour triggers tension. “The state of rumours has gone to a new high,” he said. “Now people talk of peculiar operations in which drones will join robots as soldiers would remote control both.” These rumours have started walking after the government cracked down on the social media. “It is a strange state of a new uncertainty. Nobody knows what happens and when?”

A series of bank robberies have reinforced the fear. Since October 2016, there have been 13 robberies involving Rs 92 lakh. While the frequent reporting of robberies conveys a real insecurity to the businesses within and outside Kashmir, the devastating consequences of this were on display when an empty cash van was ambushed killing five cops and two private security guards.

Are the bank robberies and the attack on cash van linked, nobody knows. While Hizb ul Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for attacking the cash van’s security detail, it insisted that it is not involved in the bank robberies.

The domestic situation of the two private guards, Javed Ahmad and Muzaffar Laway, who were killed near Pombai, belonged to under-privileged families. Both were orphans and came from marginal farming background. Javed, an erstwhile carpet-weaver, married with two minors, has been a private security guard at Rs 6000 for many years now. Laway tried his luck in army, suffered a leg injury and landed in private security. Married with two kids, he was the sole bread earner for the family. Both the families, already struggling to make two ends meet, are now sure to witness more hardships. This collateral damage is being felt by the population that has already raised a generation of destitute since 1990.

But the new generation is completely different, devoid of any fear and the consequences. They see inspiration in the fatigue-wearing, Kalashnikov holding rebels, who sing songs of freedom in the remote forests and broadcast it through social websites. Unlike rebel of 1990s, the post-Burhan militant does not want to hide in shades. In a latest video, these rebels are giving a punitive haircut to a couple of young men. It followed a high definition video that displayed as many as 29 militant’s ascend in a jungle.

Are the bank robberies and the attack on cash van linked, nobody knows. While Hizb ul Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for attacking the cash van’s security detail, it insisted that it is not involved in the bank robberies.

In a state run higher secondary school, a teacher said, a senior student conducting the quiz asked: ‘what is the operational code of a local militant’. “Shock was on everyone’s face but no questions were asked,” he said.

Militants might be far and few between. But they are holding the sway over the entire region. “What my assessment is that the present day militant is more of defiance than a fight,” one south Kashmir based official said. “I am aware of the instances in which they simply fire in a belt only to convey their presence.” Seemingly, their emphasis is on hollowing the instruments of fear by challenging the might of the state.

“Is it worse than in 1990? My answer is yes and no,” former RAW chief A S Dulat who served Kashmir in 1990s said in an interview. “It is worse in terms of atmospherics. Because of alienation and the anger of youth, young Kashmiri minds have gone out of control. There is a sense of hopelessness. They aren’t afraid to die. Villagers, students and even girls are coming out on the streets. This has never happened in the past. However, that terrorism, that intensity of violence and militancy that we saw in 1990 is not there now. There were more guns then… Actual militancy was more then, but today the situation is scarier.”

At the same time, however, militants still have targets. Security set-up apart, they have been frequently raiding the homes of the political activists and the police officials. In a few cases, they opened fire to kill as well. PDP lost two and NC at least one worker in recent days. So were the tension and the fear on ground that in none of the three cases could the party leaders drive down south for condolences. Not even Chief Minister who, however, managed consoling the families of the two guards by making a quick, low key visit to Kulgam. Silently a migration is going on. Political workers do not want to come on record to admit that the absolute insecurity has restricted them to Srinagar. A close aide of senior minister said, for the last few months the families of workers who have migrated, are being taken care of by the minister.

State’s desperate attempts for engaging youth have not worked as violence and hatred is emerging as the sole communication. “The medal mantra and khelo campaign are not working at all,” Mushtaq Ahmad, a retired employee, said.

While there is a strong possibility of re-militarising the region, the army has already started moving. Last week, nearly four thousand soldiers, paramilitary men and cops moved and took a vast belt in siege. Police sources said there was no input about militant presence. The real idea behind getting in and start combing, newspaper reports suggested was to reinforce state’s writ.

While the daylong attention remained on the five villages, where the youngsters engaged forces in stone pelting – in which at least 20 persons were injured, the fact is in most of the other score odd hamlets, the door-to-door searches were carried out. There were instances of damage to the houses and household items. At a few places, there were arrests as well.

Army chief General Bipin Rawat who had been in Srinagar and the LoC for a day explained the exercise. The “combing operation”, he said, “is to make sure that situation is brought under control”. “Banks have been looted, policemen have been killed,” Rawat said. “That is why today’s combing operation is taking place. We are taking measures, have beefed up our counter infiltration posture to take care of the situation.”

The daylong “combing” ended in another civilian death when militants fired at one private vehicle that left four persons injured near Kiloora in Shopian. While three of them were army men, the fourth was a civilian, the driver of the vehicle. Off late, the army has resumed asking local commercial transporters to stay around the garrisons.

But the larger question that is being asked from all sides is whether Delhi’s “muscular policy” will eventually help create a semblance of ‘normalcy’. Cutting across ideological affiliations, political beings say that it is almost impossible unless Delhi makes a political move, both with the people in Kashmir and with Pakistan. That is the point Chief Minister has reportedly made when she briefly met the Prime Minister Modi last month. She has been conveyed to do it at her level as far as engaging Hurriyat is concerned!

On Pakistan, Delhi is formally mum though certain feeble contact is going on in back-channel. Interestingly, use of force and denial of justice continues.

Delhi’s Kashmir handling is not going to lead to any change in coming days. But North Block would maintain Nagpur line in which PDP will feel increasingly chocked on its home turf.

“The right wing has succeeded in understanding one thing that Kashmir pays politically outside Kashmir,” admitted one NC lawmaker, who wishes to stay anonymous.

“If keeping almost six million population under siege and turmoil helps a party to consolidate a 70 million population elsewhere, it is not a bad bargain.” He said a renewed militancy offers lot of leg room to Delhi in reinforcing the infrastructure that was created in last 25 years.

For PDP, it is vice-versa. Whatever happens in mainland India, affects PDP in Kashmir. “Kashmir is sensitive place,” a scribe working for non-state publication said. “Policy of BJP is to tighten minorities but in Kashmir it goes to PDP’s account.”

Mufti’s only son Tasaduq understood it better when he said: “it seems everything is being done against PDP.”

Interestingly, what was earlier seen as south Kashmir centric crisis is actually emerging pan Kashmir. But the uncertainty created by the situation has already started impacting the ground. As durbar moves back to Srinagar, for the half a year sojourn, markets are not looking up. The bedecked houseboats and the varnished hotels are still not having the occupancy they have been waiting for since July 2016. The mishandling of the campus tensions have become a new crisis for the society as it has started impacting education and the market. Though Ms Mufti has “toned down” her “statesmanship” but things seem to have gone out of hand. This is happening at a time when separatists are in no mood to push the situation to spiral down into next crisis.


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