The Fear Factor

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For the last 10 days, there have been intriguing developments all around which have triggered panic in Kashmir. Despite the denials by the high offices, every new order issued by the government adds grist to the rumour mills generating a fresh round of speculations. Everyone believes that something is happening, but no one knows what that is, a Kashmir Life report

Overcrowded petrol pumps during the recent Kashmir-panic. KL Image by Aamir

After using therumour as part of its strategy for centuries, Kashmir is caught in its own web. For the last 10 days, Kashmir is busy managing the unprecedented quantum of “rumours” that are apparently set by the systems to manage Jammu and Kashmir. The situation is not very different from what happened in Kashmir in the prelude to Balakot attack in February this year.

The enigmatic aspect of the story is that while one arm of the system issues orders, the other side denies. Even officials are being transferred for putting in the public domain the orders that have details of “deteriorating law and order” situation. These developments followed the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s statement on July 20. “Problem of Kashmir will get solved,” Singh said after inaugurating the Ujh Bridge constructed by the Border Road Organisation (BRO) in Kathua. “No power in the world can stop it. If somebody does not want a solution through talks, then we know very well how a solution can be found.”

It all started on July 26, the twentieth anniversary of Vijay Diwas. The president of India Ram NathGovind, also the Supreme Commander of the armed forces, flew to Srinagar with the three service chiefs to pay respects to the soldiers who laid their lives during the Kargil war in 1999. The visit came a day after the National Security Adviser, AjitDoval, had flown to Srinagar, ostensibly, in his personal capacity for a darshan at theAmarnath. He is known to be a Shiv Bhakt. What was not adding up with this was that the heads of India’s internal and external intelligence agencies were also in Srinagar around the same time. It is then that alarm bells started ringing. And these haven’t stopped since. If anything, these have grown louder by the day.

Later that day, a deployment paper (dated July 25) about 100 central paramilitary companies issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs and addressed to the State Chief Secretary appeared on social media. De-inducted in Delhi and some other places, these additional companies were deployed in Kashmir with immediate effect.

The paramilitary forces have been flying to Kashmir since the local body polls were announced last fall. Reinforcements came in the wake of Balakot build-up, again in the wake of LokSabha polls and then in anticipation of the yearly Amarnath yatra. Fresh deployments came at a time when the counter-insurgency operations had gone down and the quantum of routine protests had thawed to a large extent.

“Centre’s decision to deploy additional 10,000 troops to the valley has created fear psychosis amongst people,” former Chief Minister and BJP ally Mehbooba Mufti tweeted. “There is no dearth of security forces in Kashmir. J&K is a political problem which won’t be solved by military means. GOI needs to rethink & overhaul its policy.”

“No one knows why this sudden mobilization of forces is being done,” Dr Shah Feasal, former IAS officer who now has his own political party, said. “Rumour is that something sinister is about to happen. Article 35a?”

Already, a series of decisions within and outside the administration had created a situation indicating that the new government in Delhi is unwilling to push the spotlight away from Kashmir. The management of the national highway is a huge pointer towards this. The BJP has already made certain commitments to its electorate on Kashmir aimed at undoing the special position of the state. At the same time, Imran Khan’s US visit brought Kashmir back to the newspaper headlines with US president Donald Trump showing a willingness to help India and Pakistan in settling the issues. Within the state, the governor’s administration started singling out institutions and the political class to carry on its anti-corruption campaign.

Munir A Khan, Additional DGP, and IG CRPF DrRavideepSahi, both talked almost the same language.

“Reality is that 200 training companies of paramilitary forces were in Kashmir since the commencement of Urban Local Body elections,” Khan was quoted saying. “In the first, 100 companies will replace the training companies, and in the next phase, another 100 companies will replace the rest of the training companies. These apprehensions related to Article 35A are totally unfounded.”

“Induction (of forces) is a continuous process and as and when the need is felt to strengthen the law and order grid and also anti-militancy front (more forces are inducted),” Sahi told reporters. “In the past, we also had an induction. It is a routine induction and nothing special in it.”

Even these statements fell short of the expectations. This led Kashmir society to feed on rumours, it started minting. Unlike past, this time, there were official orders on the basis of which the politically-conscious population started working. What is remarkable about rumour-mongering societies is that they mint it during the day and start believing in it the same night! This gave birth to panic and Kashmir is yet to come out of that.

These “rumours”, however, were linked to the recent past and a number of cases that are pending before various courts.

One ‘rumour’, a potentially very strong one, was that the government of India has decided to take a stand on the Article 35A that has helped Jammu and Kashmir retain its demographic composition. The case is already in the Supreme Court and the central government has not responded to the court notices, so far. One grapevine is that the government will respond and make its stand clear that the inclusion of the Article was done through illegal means. The other ‘rumour’ is that it will be struck off from the constitution. And yet another is that the husk of the Article 35A shall remain but there will be three amendments: (1) bestowing the state subject status to West Pakistan refugees; (2) granting state subject to the non-local men who marry Jammu and Kashmir women, the same way this right is being extended to the daughter-in-law; and (3) permitting the IAS and IPS officers to have residential homes in the state. A TV personality in Delhi has indicated DrFarooq is willing to make some changes in Article 35A but wants the assembly to take the decision.

The second set of ‘rumours” is that to integrate the Jammu and Kashmir State fully with the Union of India, the new government in Delhi will do away with the Article 370, the bridging article between the two. The government believes that Article 370 is temporary in nature and the President has the authority to abolish it. Seemingly, this is far-fetched.

The third set of the rumour was about delimitation. It would suggest that the government is planning to improve the number of seats in the state assembly to the regions of Jammu and Ladakh. This, the ‘rumour’ would suggest will help Jammu to get as many berths in the House as Kashmir has. But the delimitation is a formal process that requires setting up a commission. Nobody is even willing to see these niceties.

Yet another ‘rumour’ is that the government would re-organise the state by making Jammu a full state and the remaining two regions – Ladakh and Kashmir would be Union Territories like Delhi.

Some people even feel that the government may arrest some politicians in corruption cases. Indian Express even said that the governor’s administration is working on celebrating the Independence Day on the grand scale at the Panchayat level and that may require more people to offer security.

These ‘rumours’ are in the air for the last many days and the situation is that every person is seeking a tail to construct the animal of his or her liking. This has created a lot of panic.

Elsewhere in the country, there is a talk that Kashmir is being used to divert attention from a slackening economy. This along with the daily hearing on Ayodhya dispute from next week are seen as two major issues that can keep the masses busy. It is hoped that the nationalistic issues will subsume the economic failings.

There are expectations that the government would respond to these ‘rumours’. Instead came an order that Railway officials had issued. The July 27 order asked the railway staff to have rations for four months, water for at least a week, pithus to be stuffed with eatables; vehicles should be fully filled and hidden at safe places; no negotiations with mobs; leave to staff restricted to emergencies; non-local officials should avoid retaining their families in Kashmir; local staffers should take their families home for safety; and all officers must pass the decision to their subordinates.

“It’s easy to blame valley residents for fear-mongering but what are we to make of such official orders which forecast a deterioration in the law & order environment and even predict disturbances lasting for an extended period of time?” Omar asked, using his twitter.“Why is the Govt silent?”

It was on July 31 that the Governor Satya Pal Malik tried to set the records right. “A lot of rumours are spread here. Do not pay any heed to them. Everything is fine, everything is normal,” Malik told reporters. He said the Railway Protection Force has clarified that the officer who issued this order was not authorised to do so.

“If any small incident happens in LalChowk, I get news at Governor House that a blast has occurred in LalChowk,” Malik said. “Such is the rumour-mongering in Kashmir.”

“It will not be every time for the government to rebut social media rumours,” K Vijay Kumar, an adviser to Governor told reporters.

It was in the backdrop of these reports that political class suggest an all-party meeting. Mehbooba actually requested DrFarooq Abdullah to convene a meeting. There was not any response. However, two days later DrFarooq Abdullah and Omar were seen in a meeting with Prime Minister NarendraModi.

The meeting triggered a lot of tensions within the political class. The move was criticised, but at the same time, some politicians said that it was better that somebody from the political class met the Prime Minister. But what transpired in the meeting is still not known. At the time of filing this report, there were reports that the meeting may take place tonight on Friday.

But well before that, the state home department issued advisory asking tourists and the pilgrims to restrict their stay in Kashmir because of the reports about an impending attack. Yatra, this year, has remained incident-free. This followed the joint press conference of Army, police and CRPF in which they announced the recovery of a Pakistani ordinance landmine and a Pakistani sniper rifle. They said the attack was aimed at the pilgrims and the recoveries were made in anticipation of it.

These developments added to the fear. There are wild rumours in circulation as this report is being filed. There is  jam on petrol stations and the departmental stores. Even most of the ATMs were running dry by Friday evening. LalChowk was deserted early on Friday and the government had to issue a statement that schools are going to work normally.

“What “on-going situation” in Kashmir would require the army AND the Air Force to be put on alert?” Omar summed up in one of the series of tweets.“This isn’t about 35A or delimitation. This sort of alert, if actually issued, would be about something very different.” What it could be? Any guesses?

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