Uncomfortable Questions?

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While people were seeking answers in the wake of the horrific Lethpora attack, the subsequent situation threw up more questions for Delhi and Srinagar, writes Masood Hussain

PM Narendra Mdoi

The Lethpora car bomb attack was a display of horror and unprecedented in the history of Kashmir militancy. Though there are instances when Jammu and Kashmir witnessed the killing of more than 100 civilians, there is no incident in last more than three decades of violent history when such a large number of security-men were killed. The attack falls only next to the April 10, 2010 incident when 76 security men, mostly from CRPF, were killed in a Maoist ambush in Raipur (Chhattisgarh).

The follow-up to the incident was also unprecedented. Quickly a new situation emerged across India, initially in the cow belt. It remained in the belt though there were some small instances of hate attacks also. Students, traders and professionals were identified, in certain cases humiliated and beaten, forcing a larger chunk to return home. While only sections from the Parivaar were behind the hate campaign, the crisis magnified as the majority exhibited an indifference towards what was happening on the streets.

“We had hoped he (the Prime Minister) would keep politics aside and say something. If the PM was busy, at least the home minister could have said that such things won’t be allowed and assured strict action against those who harass Kashmiris,” Omar Abdullah, NC Vice President, told a news conference later. “People were expecting to hear two words of sympathy and moral support from Congress. We regret the Congress has not raised its voice against these forces effectively who are targeting Kashmiris. These are the same forces the party says it is fighting against.”

While the people were seeking answers to what was happening in Kashmir and to Kashmiris outside the Valley under Delhi’s direct rule, months ahead of the general elections, the crisis threw up many questions instead.

In Kashmir, it is being seen as a political issue. But for all these years, it was deliberated and addressed in Delhi as a security issue that linked diplomacy, defence policies and the home security concerns. In a way, the politics of the place was also an outcome of this paradigm. While it would be based on what Islamabad, Beijing and the US were doing, this concept would take care of the minority-management, accommodation, developmental well-being and an over-emphasis on democracy debate at home front.

The follow-up to the Lethpora crisis suggested as if Delhi has moved from treating Kashmir as a security issue to being an emotional issue. The streets from Dehradun to Delhi and Mohali to Mumbai exhibited a response – duly recorded and broadcast on social media, which overtook the formal governmental response. The formal systems remained calm until the hate gangs ensured to hit the target and forced a harried lot of young boys and girls to head, some in trying circumstances. In certain cases, the teaching institutions were forced to make public announcements that they would no more enrol Kashmiris.

The failure of the states and the central government in ensuring the safety of the Kashmir residents quickly – help did come everywhere after the initial phase was reported, has now led the Supreme Court to issue directions (in a PIL) to 11 states to protect the people of Kashmir. The crisis erupted even in Jammu, the winter capital of the state, where the governor’s administration waited to react till the TV screens were on fire. Given the entire administration stationed in Jammu, it was possible to prevent the snowballing of the anger to reach the extent where it resulted in selective targeting of the property, as Omar argued.

Omar Abdullah addressing a press conference in Srinagar. KL Image

That the civil society in India has not seen Kashmir beyond a marginal producer and a consumer is too old an argument. In fact, it has been adversely reported as the major tax-money guzzler. It has acknowledged it to be a space for romance and luxury only.

“The irony of the situation is depressing,” Congressman P Chidambaram tweeted, years after being the iron man who did his bit in denting Kashmir as Home Minister. “We want Kashmir to be part of India, but we do not want Kashmiris to be part of Indians.”

“The hounding of Kashmiris in last two days across the country vindicates what I wrote in 2007 & spoke in 2018,” tweeted Dr Haseeb Drabu, the economist-politician, the author of the PDP’s Agenda of Alliance with BJP. “It is the civil society of India that has not owned Kashmir, Kashmir society & people. It is the civil society, more than the India state that needs to introspect.” Interestingly, it was his speech in which he insisted Kashmir was more about a societal issue rather than politics that cost him his job as Finance Minister.

Whether the street theatre was let loose to bolster the official stand or the vice versa, the new question that this situation throws up, is: what are the implications for Delhi’s Kashmir policy? Letting streets respond to a security issue and permitting gangs to take the law into its hands may eventually create a parallel power centre but will Delhi always talk to the streets in India before talking to Kashmir?

That is not the only question. At least two governors reacted to Kashmir situation.

“An appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army: Don’t visit Kashmir; don’t go to Amarnath for the next 2 years. Don’t buy articles from Kashmir emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri,” Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy tweeted. “I am inclined to agree.”

“The time has come to scrap Article 370 as it encourages separatists. This, in turn, poses a threat to the country’s unity and integrity. Jammu and Kashmir will largely benefit from scrapping Article 370,” Rajasthan Governor Kalyan Singh told media in Aligarh, a day later. “Nobody else (other than Prime Minister) is capable enough of doing this. We are sure that he will take stringent action against terrorism. Our Army is very capable, we are sure they will teach Pakistan a lesson.”

It triggered a fierce reaction. “People like Tathagata want Kashmir but without Kashmiris. They’d sooner see us driven into the sea. He’ll be best placed to know he can’t have one without the other so what’s it to be?” Omar Abdullah tweeted. Mehbooba Mufti demanded Roy’s immediate removal. “Deplorable statement coming from the Governor of Meghalaya. GoI must sack him immediately. If they fail to do so, it means he has their tacit approval and is using it as an election ploy to polarise the situation,” she said on Twitter.

Even the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded sacking of Roy over “outrageous” boycott call.

So the question is: are the governors of various states also the stakeholders in the Kashmir policy and can they be so public about what they feel? And if the centre does not take their statements seriously, are they doing Delhi’s bidding? So many are asking questions: Has Kashmir been federalised to the extent that now states will have their own view?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first public address after he presided over the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs said that the armed forces have been given a free hand to tackle the threats. In Srinagar and within the security community, there are questions: had the central government tied the hands of the armed forces for all these years? When they enjoy the free hand to tackle Kashmir, what are they expected to do? This question is being asked in the wake of the fact that the counter-insurgency grid enjoys literal immunity from the law, and all the top generals who have served Kashmir have insisted that for any improvement in situation political intervention is required.

All these developments are taking place at a time when the Lok Sabha elections are around the corner. This situation which was painted as full of gloom and despair by Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister, is also posing a set of questions to the political class. He suggested patience and avoiding “getting into their trap” when asked how the people who are visibly isolated on social, political and economic spheres must respond.

With governor ruling the state for Delhi directly, the tensions are visible. The recent phenomenon that alarmed the political class was the withdrawal of security to a number of political beings. While withdrawing security to the separatists may help the BJP in polls, what is it expecting in return by withdrawing the security of a political class that has historically represented Delhi in Kashmir?

This decision-making is fraught with serious risks. Omar Abdullah indicated that it was done bypassing the established system of gauging the threat perception. Two top separatists’ leaders have lost their lives, incidentally both when right-wingers were in power. Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq when Jagmohan was governor and Abdul Gani Lone when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The withdrawal of security was even resented by Sajad Lone.

The questions being asked are: Is the government enforcing immobility on the political class in the wake of the Lok Sabha elections? If that is true then some more measures might be on way. Then Kashmir can have a Lok Sabha polls on the Municipal Election model with possibly the same outcome.

The crisis has exacted more costs from the political class. People within NC and PDP admit that their influence in Delhi has vanished as they are not being taken seriously by the policymakers. Is it paving way for the launch of new politics that many BJP leaders have been talking about? Is the situation being boiled to a level that it becomes viable for introducing national politics in the state? Omar Abdullah was visibly shocked, regretting that neither the Prime Minister talked nor the opposition.

Elections apart, the larger question that is dominating the social media space and within the political class is what will happen to thousands of students who have returned hurt, if not injured. Some of them are genuinely frustrated. “They had left this place for studies and now they are back because they were singled out,” one former minister said. “What if some of them throw stones in anger,” Omar asked. Today, educated youth, boys, girls and scholars are being tortured and humiliated in different parts of the country, I want to ask one plane question that where will these assaults lead and where will it push these young Kashmiris,” asked JKLF leader Yasin Malik.

Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

Within a day after the students started returning home, the leaders of the private education sector have been running a literal campaign that the policymakers must permit the entry of the private sector in higher education. They have been always saying that the restrictive and regressive policies in the state involving all political parties have prevented the private sector from investing in education, big time.

Kashmir is an ideal stop for education and it has not been permitted to grow. All educational initiatives were bulldozed for one or the other reason. This has reached a level that only for Kashmir a committee exists that grants permissions to even raise tuition fees. The education department that has most of its schools running without water, toilets and other basics is seeking almost a dozen facilities in all private institutions.

While a section of the youth will eventually return to complete their degrees, cautious parenting will eventually encourage the creation of educational infrastructure in the state. If the policymakers get in between, it will be the new social tension in the state. But are investors ready to chip in?

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