A few members of the Concerned Citizens’ Group on Jammu and Kashmir spent a few days in Kashmir between July 5 and July 7. Here is the report the group released in Delhi on July 20, 2021.
The Concerned Citizens’ Group (CCG) made its ninth visit to Kashmir from July 5 to 7, 2021. The latest visit came in the wake of a meeting called by the Indian prime minister on June 24 of all the J&K political parties. While there was much expectation centred on the meeting, especially related to the restoration of statehood of J&K, it turned out to be more about the Centre seeking the support of the mainstream political parties from the Union Territory for the delimitation exercise necessitated by the J&K Reorganisation Act of 2019 and legislative assembly elections thereafter. The restoration of statehood was postponed for an undefined “appropriate time” once again.
The short visit of the CCG was to ascertain the mood of the people and the parties in the Kashmir Valley after the interaction organised by the prime minister.
The CCG is a non-official voluntary group with no government or political party association. Its visits to J&K are neither sponsored by the government nor by any political party or NGO. Each member of the group pays for his or her expenses. Ever since it was set up in the wake of the protests that erupted in J&K in October 2016, the aim of the CCG has been to ascertain the mood of the people and bring it to the attention of rest of India. In that sense, the CCG acts as a bridge between the people of J&K and the rest of the country, making the latter aware of the trials and tribulations of their fellow citizens in the benighted region. It seeks nothing more, and can do little else, except attempt to increase awareness about J&K in the rest of India.
From the very beginning the group has comprised five members: 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.
Only four members of the group – Yashwant Sinha, Sushobha Barve, Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Kapil Kak and Bharat Bhushan undertook this visit. Wajahat Habibullah could not join because of pressing personal reasons.
During the visit, the CCG members met leaders of political parties (including former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, Chief Spokesperson of the Peoples’ Alliance for Gupkar Declaration Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and former Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig, civil society activists from both South and North Kashmir, members of the Kashmir Economic Forum, representatives of trade bodies and of the Horticulture sector.
Delimitation of Constituencies
The entire political spectrum in the Kashmir Valley, notably the leaders of the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) have all along questioned the need for the delimitation exercise. Many conveyed to us that the on-going delimitation was entirely the Centre’s call as indicated by the PM’s June 24 meeting with the leaders of political parties of J&K. His enlisting their support for the delimitation of constituencies, people believed, seemed to be aimed at providing legitimacy to the exercise and pre-empting its possible reversal in the future.
By coincidence, the Delimitation Commission was in Srinagar the same time as our Group. It sought participation by the political parties in its deliberations and assured the people that the Commission would act in a “fair, transparent and judicious manner” and that before preparing the final report, a draft would be put up in the public domain for comments. But given the all-pervasive mistrust flowing from the Centre’s humiliating nullification of Articles 370 and 35A, bifurcation of the State and its down-gradation to a Union Territory all at once, suspicions and cynicism continue to persist.
Not surprisingly, Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP affirmed that “the Delimitation Commission lacks constitutional and legal mandate. There are apprehensions that the exercise is part of the overall process of political disempowerment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir…” The peoples’ worst fears are that an unjust and unfair delimitation could result in the mainstream parties being denied the numbers to form a Government. The Congress described the exercise as meaningless without the restoration of full statehood. The CPI-M termed the Commission as unconstitutional since there was a freeze by Parliament on reorganisation of constituencies until 2026. On the other hand, people in Jammu argued that the freeze created inequity for their region.
The PAGD leadership by a prior arrangement allowed each constituent to take a call on whether or not to meet the Commission. The PDP stayed away. The BJP highlighted the need for getting representation to the Scheduled Tribes (STs), most of whom live in the Jammu region. The Awami National Conference too stayed away as the matter, in its view, was in court. Two key PAGD constituents, the National Conference (NC) and Communist Party, Marxist (CPI-M), however, met the Commission. Significantly, when one of the NC members asked the quasi-judicial Commission on what basis seven additional seats had been added to the Union Territory of J&K to take the total number from 83 to 90, he was told it was a political decision! This could confirm the Valley’s worst fears that the arbitrary increase of seats is aimed to benefit the Jammu region.
The principal concerns of the Kashmir Valley political leadership on delimitation were succinctly summed up in the CPI-M’s memorandum to the Commission. “We are not against delimitation”, it said, “but want it carried out along with the rest of the country. In 2002, the J&K Assembly had amended the J&K Representation of People Act, 1957 and Section 47(3) of the Constitution of J&K and put a freeze on delimitation till the first census after 2026. Both J&K High Court and the Supreme Court had upheld the decision to freeze any delimitation.” It appealed that the “perceived apprehension that the exercise is aimed at benefitting some sections of the population should be removed.”
Though population forms the foundation of delimitation of constituencies, the Commission announced it shall “take into account constituencies’ practicality, geographical compatibility, topography, physical features, means of communities and conveniences available.” It is worth underscoring that the 2011 Census recorded the population of the Kashmir Valley as 69 lakh (area about 15,000 sq. km) and of the Jammu province as 54 lakh (area 26,000 sq km). The Valley’s fears lie in possible manipulation of the area dimension and other non-population factors. The Commission will also stipulate the number of seats to be reserved for SCs and STs in the Legislative Assembly. Although J&K already has seven seats reserved for the SCs primarily in the Jammu region, it would be a first for the STs, including Gujars and Bakarwals, mainly living in Poonch and Rajauri districts of Jammu region, to get reservations in the legislature.
The BJP’s contradictory stance is palpable. It conveyed to the Commission that using the 2011 Census alone for delimiting constituencies was flawed, alleging that it had been deliberately skewed in favour of Kashmir. Yet, the ruling dispensation at the Centre singled out J&K UT for delimitation on the basis of 2011 Census. As Omar Abdullah of the NC said, “They (the Centre) could have waited for the 2021 Census.”
Our Group learnt that the J&K Apni Party in its memorandum to the Commission drew attention to about two lakh Kashmiri Pandits who belong to the Valley but, following their tragic exodus in the early 1990s, have been residing in Jammu. Their population has been covered under 2011 census as being from Jammu but they exercise their right to vote in Kashmir. In redrawing the assembly constituencies, this component of population, Kashmiris hope, will be accounted for in the Valley, as earlier. The provision for 24 seats in the Assembly for people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir would continue as before and as envisaged in the J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, the said area (PoK) would be excluded in delimiting the territorial constituencies. For the Lok Sabha, there are two constituencies in Jammu province and three in Kashmir. These, in all probability, could remain intact.
In discussions with people across the socio-political spectrum, the impression we gathered was that nothing short of restoration of statehood, with the same powers as in other major states of the Union, would serve to calm the public somewhat. It is most unlikely that the PAGD would accept the Delhi model of statehood in which the effective power over public order, police and enacting laws is vested in the Centre and the “government” is defined as the Lieutenant Governor, not the elected Executive.
Unsurprisingly, apprehensions about the Delhi-model of statehood were raised by the Congress during the meeting of the J&K leaders with the PM on June 24. Even statehood with the rider that the Centre would retain Home and Finance would never be accepted in the Valley. Nor is it likely to resonate in Jammu and Ladakh. Within the BJP’s support base in the Jammu region, there appear to be stirrings of a demand for full statehood.
As for the two districts (Kargil and Leh) of Ladakh, Kargil had opposed the August 5, 2019 changes, with a majority of Shia leaders demanding that the district should remain a part of J&K and its special status be restored. In contrast, Leh was jubilant over the getting Union Territory status to Ladakh. This had been a long standing demand of the Buddhist leaders of Leh.
However, having attained the long-cherished UT status, the people of Leh have now described their standing as a ‘car without an engine’ in the absence of any protection for land ownership and preference in jobs. Last year, the Leh People’s Movement for Sixth Schedule (an umbrella group of all political parties and religious groups) raised the demand for a Sixth Schedule status for Ladakh. The Centre promised them a ‘Sixth Schedule-like’ status. With no progress on that assurance, now the Leh leaders have demanded raising the status of Ladakh to a UT with an elected legislative assembly.
Political and civil society leaders of Kargil in their recent talks with the Union Minister of State for Home have made a somewhat contrarian demand of full statehood for Ladakh and restoration of Article 370 and 35A!
Our Group witnessed that the sequencing of the Union Government’s three-step process of delimitation, statehood and elections had assumed pronounced salience in the State. The PAGD leadership is united in demanding the restoration of full statehood before elections. The Congress also supports this sequencing. But the Prime Minister’s statement that the issue of statehood would be considered at an “appropriate time” has met with a great deal of suspicion and cynicism.
The level of distrust is so overpowering that a respected human rights activist and civil society leader, while admitting that all elections since 2002 had been free and fair, said that given the Centre’s obsession for shifting the electoral balance towards Jammu, the possibility of a 1987-style rigging of state elections, as and when they take place, could not be ruled out.
Disconnect between politics, State and people
The J&K political parties have been jolted alive by the sudden revival of dialogue with Delhi, even though they may not be able to control the way it is unfolding. However, the mood of the Kashmiri people remained downcast. They were not enthused by either the political parties engaging with the delimitation exercise or the prospect of elections to the legislative assembly of a shrunk Union Territory.
The people’s mood was marked by lack of expectations from the State, a pervasive sense of hopelessness not witnessed by this Group earlier and deep-seated despondency in the youth.
It is a measure of their disdain for the mainstream political parties that the people show no interest in the political process which was ostensibly sought to be restarted with the Prime Minister inviting the political parties from J&K to Delhi on June 24. They seemed indifferent to the development, having concluded that nothing would come out of it. By and large people claimed that they have no contact or connection with the leaders of the mainstream political parties who they say have “cheated us in the past”. Most seemed not to care about what happens to these parties.
They were, however, against delimitation of constituencies being carried out in a hurried manner, doubting Delhi’s political objectives.
“Delhi is not coming near, it is becoming more distant,” quipped another referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for reducing the distance between the people as well as the distance to Delhi (Dil ki doori aur Dilli ki doori).” A journalist said, “When the prime minister talked of removing ‘Dil ki doori and Dilli ki doori’, I felt like laughing. We wanted India to bring back even PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) as well as parts of Kashmir that are with China. We had entrusted you to look after us and the entire state of J&K. But you failed to live up to that expectation.”
It seems that the people of Kashmir Valley now have virtually no expectation either from the people of India or from the state machinery in Delhi and Srinagar. They claim that they have stopped speaking up and talk of “death of expectations”. They have come to believe that there is no political space left for them, their rights have been taken away and that no one is inclined to listen to them.
There is disappointment even with the judicial system with people refusing to go to the courts — openly claiming that appeals to the judiciary are futile. They also show an utter lack of faith in politics. Even the separatists seem to have lost their importance in the public mind.
All social and political action, including airing of grievances, appeared pointless to the people. “Sometimes we wonder why we should speak even to you” was a refrain one heard several times. It was clear that the people of Kashmir felt abandoned and rejected even by thinking Indians.
A civil society activist asked, “Tell us why there were no protests by the civil society in India after August 5, 2019 if India cares for us. We were consigned to hell and no one even spoke up. Why is India so frightened of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)? We have been burning in hell and no one even tries to douse the fire. Why should we trust anyone then? Why should we not feel frustrated?”
Those who speak up, claim that the developments in Kashmir from August 5, 2019 are likely to be used by the BJP government in Delhi for the coming legislative elections in important states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. “We have understood the ideological and civilizational agenda of the BJP. Their agenda has not ended with changing the special status of J&K and its bifurcation on August 5, 2019. That is why even if there was no militancy in J&K, the BJP would invent it. They need it for winning elections in India. J&K has become a laboratory – things are done here and used for winning elections in India,” a Kashmiri public intellectual claimed.
The June 24 all-party meeting In Delhi was described by him as “posturing for the international community” because the BJP government had miscalculated how the geo-political situation in the region would unfold. He suggested that Delhi was now feeling the pressure of the developments in Afghanistan, the US troop withdrawal, the need for the US to woo Pakistan and the dynamically evolving situation on the Line of Actual Control with China in Ladakh. Delhi’s overture to Kashmiri political parties was a result of these developments, he suggested.
Another Kashmiri intellectual predicted that the June 24 meeting will not lead the people anywhere near a solution. “Before August 5, 2019 there was only a Kashmir problem that India faced. Now India has created four problems – one in Leh, another in Kargil, unhappy Hindus in Jammu and the continuing problem in the Kashmir Valley. Issues of land rights and the potential of a demographic Tsunami have made people in all the regions of the (erstwhile) J&K unhappy. So what kind of politics is India following?” He claimed, “India’s political, economic, and moral dysfunctionality has not only made things worse for the Kashmiris but also for India vis-à-vis the world. The message of the world seems to be — ‘Be careful about India as it is in danger in a very real way’.”
Citing government statistics that there are only about 200 militants active in the Valley, they wonder why despite the presence of nearly seven lakh security personnel to tackle them, the people of J&K are being denied their rights. “I am very angry with India. Because of 200 militants they are punishing all of us,” bemoaned a civil society leader.
An engineer from Sopore we met said, “We believed at least till August 5, 2019 that we could live with India; that it could sustain the relationship with Kashmir. It is a large country with huge resources unlike Pakistan, so we thought it was in a better position to take care of us. Today I don’t like India anymore. I feel cheated. Delhi does things without consulting us. No one asks us about anything. We are residents of J&K. Don’t we have a stake here? Now there is no pro-India sentiment here, except in the political parties which in any case have cheated us in the past.”
“We never liked Article 370. Yet it was ours. It was a link with India. Why did you take it away? We feel betrayed. We have been depressed for the last 32 years (i.e. since the militancy began in 1989-90) but we are sadder today than ever before. But we have rights and we refuse to be treated as animals,” he said.
“India has become an Orwellian state where some animals have more rights than others,” another quipped.
A social activist from Pulwama said, “Article 370 was dead like a decaying tree. The BJP kicked it and it fell to the ground. But where was the need to do that?” This, he claimed, had increased the trust deficit with Delhi even more. A colleague of his also from Pulwama said, “Kashmir will never be yours by force. We want to be a part of you but you cannot go on behaving the way you do.”
Bureaucrats rule supreme
Under President’s Rule in the Union Territory, politics has been pushed to the background. The administration is run by a Cabinet of advisors of the Lieutenant Governor and the permanent state bureaucracy whose accountability is only to their superior officers and not to the people.
Our Group was repeatedly told by the people we met that the bureaucrats in positions that require public interface were all outsiders. This, they believe, was because after the abolition of the J&K Cadre of civil servants, now UT cadre officers can be sourced from across India. Invariably they talked of the fate of Sajad Rashid Sofi, a social activist from Ganderbal, who was arrested on charges of promoting enmity between groups for telling the Lt. Governor’s advisor in a “outreach” programme that they had more expectations from the local bureaucrats than the officers from outside. The Deputy Commissioner, an Indian Administrative Service Officer from Uttar Pradesh, present at the meeting took offence at his comments and the man was arrested the same night under Section153 of the Indian Penal Code.
“This is happening because the bureaucrats in mass contact positions are all outsiders. Today the situation is that we have no contact with the leaders of the mainstream political parties and we have no contact with the bureaucrats in positions of public interface,” pointed out a business community leader.
Another businessman said, “We have ‘Baburaj’ here – bureaucrats are kings and the common people suffer. They avoid going to government offices as there is opaqueness in decision making and a lack of accountability.”
People we met said that while the Centre had claimed that after August 5, 2019, J&K would see unprecedented development this was far from the truth. “All that we have got is corruption. Earlier politicians indulged in money making and now after August 5, 2019, it is corruption by the ‘babus’. It is jungle raj in J&K today,” a journalist claimed. A civil society leader from Shopian alleged, “There is a mafia operating in each government department.”
Surprisingly, some of the businessmen suggested that corruption was much less when elected politicians were in power than under the bureaucratic regime under President’s Rule.
On June 30, 2021 the J&K administration cancelled the allotment of residential accommodation for officers who were from Srinagar but had to reside in Jammu and vice versa because of the 149-year tradition of the biennial shifting of capital between the Jammu and Srinagar. This was part of shifting of officials and files between the summer capital (Srinagar) and the winter capital (Jammu). This was ostensibly done because e-governance had made the moving of staff and files unnecessary.
This order is being seen as cancellation of the traditional ‘Darbar Move’ which locals believed provided a strong bond between two regions — Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. This has upset many even though political leaders claim that Darbar Move had not been fully cancelled as Lieutenant Governor and senior officials will still move between the two cities. Whether this interpretation is correct or not is difficult to say — although the fact remains that the Union Territory of J&K still has two capitals. The Centre has stopped short of designating one capital for all seasons for J&K.
The local anger centres on not being consulted and not recognising the importance of the Darbar Move in holding the erstwhile state, and now Union Territory, together. “This government in Delhi believes in divide-and-rule and cancellation of the Darbar Move is a part of that strategy. Now voices of resistance are coming from Jammu as well,” said a retired banker.
The rationalisation of moving the Secretariat between Jammu and Srinagar is being described by the government as cost-effective. But even that is being questioned by the people. “They say that the Darbar Move costs about Rs. 200 crore every year. That is nothing if it fosters a close relationship between Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. The real reason for the decision is that they (the Centre) think that the people who used to go to Jammu as part of the shifting of capital bought properties there and that this could change the demographical profile of Jammu. So they ended the move,” a journalist argued.
What is clear, however, is that while it might have cost the government to move capitals biennially, it helped the local economies of both Jammu and Srinagar. It is no surprise then that businessmen in both cities are unhappy with the decision of the government.
Downslide in business and trade
The Group met the members of the Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA), other trading bodies and horticulturists to assess how the local economy had been affected since August 2019.
According to the KEA, from August 2019 up to now, business was closed for 11 months out of total of 23 months – four months because of the protests against abrogation of the special status of J&K and another seven months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The estimated loss to business, the KEA claimed, was approximately Rs. 70,000 crore – of this Rs.50,000 crore was due to closures and another Rs. 20,000 crore due to falling sales as demand contraction due to falling purchasing power. The KEA saw no prospect of improvement in business and trade if a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic were to hit J&K. Although, its representatives admitted that the Central government had announced several economic stimulus packages to boost the economy, they were ineffective because of the perpetual threat of the pandemic.
What had made the situation worse for businesses in Kashmir, according to a member of KEA was that “banks no longer trust traders and businessmen in an uncertain economic environment with unpredictable incomes, preferring to give loans to government employees with regular salaries instead.”
He said, “People forget that while business in the rest of the country suffered because of Covid for one year, we have suffered for 32 years. For 8 years we have mostly seen bandhs (closures) and strikes. Nobody asks us how we have coped with this adversity and what pressures from suppliers and banks we work under.”
Bank borrowing in J&K has predictably gone down. Banks claim that they are under pressure to recover the loans they have already advanced and failure to pay by businessmen leads to forfeiture of their pledged properties. “How can we return the money we owe to the banks when we have actually used it for consumption in the face of lack of any earnings? We have not been benefited by the Covid package. Loans are not a stimulus for businesses in Kashmir because the future is uncertain. Where is the assurance that we will do enough business to repay these loans?” a businessman asked.
The businessmen complained that J&K Bank, busy recovering past loans and attaching properties, had stopped lending and other banks did not lend to Kashmiris. “The J&K Bank will not remain a bank for long but become a real estate company,” one of them quipped.
They rubbished the idea of entrepreneurs from outside J&K investing in the Union Territory. “Why should businessmen come to Kashmir, invest here to earn nothing? If we cannot make money here, how will outsiders do that?” they asked.
The Group was told that when J&K was a state, there used to be a purchase preference in government acquisitions for Kashmiri businessmen. However, after August 5, 2019, Kashmiri businesses are considered on a par with others in the rest of India. “We cannot compete with them and therefore we do not have the market we had earlier,” they explained.
Horticulturalists demanded that there be customised financial schemes for their benefit as borrowing from banks and that the government’s attitude of “one size fits all” did not work for them. They claimed that climate change was affecting their produce as winter had started lasting longer. “Flowering used to commence in March-April but now we get snow even in May. This is disastrous for us. Because of a longer winter and untimely snowfall, in the 2019-2020 cycle 30% to 40% of the apple crop was destroyed. “We need to focus on how to sustain our horticulture,” they said. A fruit grower from Shopian said, “We need special assistance package for horticulture and the transport industry associated with it.”
What upset the businessmen most was that some of them were arrested and jailed after the Centre’s policy change in J&K in 2019. “Political leaders were arrested but why us? Why were businessmen taken into custody? I am very angry with India. You say there are only about 200 militants in Kashmir and yet you punish all of us for that,” a business leader complained. He felt that instead of calling political parties from J&K to Delhi, “the government ought to invite businessmen, traders and horticulturists to discuss our issues directly with us.”
In March 2020, a delegation of Kashmiri businesses men had indeed met the Union Home Minister in Delhi. He gave them assurances that all their grievances would be redressed. “But what is happening in J&K Is exactly the opposite of what he had promised,” lamented a businessman who was in that delegation.
Militancy and radicalisation
A community leader claimed that the tendency in Kashmiri youth towards militancy had become more intense – similar to what it was in the 1990s. The only difference he suggested was that “Pakistan is not investing in militancy for now.” However, he predicted that the “new militancy will also be anti-Pakistan and there would be no one who would be able to assert any influence over the militants.”
A social worker from Pulwama claimed that youth was being pushed towards militancy because of the harassment faced by people at the hands of the army personnel. There are no jobs for the young. “They have only two options before them – militancy or committing suicide,” he said pointing to a spate of suicides by youngsters in the Valley.
A lawyer from Shopian claimed that because of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) being used even against juveniles and the courts “acting as rubber-stamp for the police”, there was anger amongst the youth. “So now you have a wide network of over-ground workers (i.e. those who work for militant organisations without wielding a gun). They would be militants if there were enough guns and ammunition available.” He also claimed that the new militants do not announce themselves on social media as they used to earlier.
A human rights activist claimed that even the armed forces did not any longer want militancy to get over. “This is linked to the misuse of secret funds at their disposal. If unchecked, it will make the state a rogue state,” he predicted.
“When we have no political space and the bureaucracy unresponsive, what are we supposed to say?” asked a community leader from Anantnag. He claimed that Delhi had closed all doors on the Kashmiris including all political routes. “After that when you kill youngsters and do not even hand over their bodies to their next of kin, how then do you expect us to tell our children not to go the militant route? They won’t listen to us,” he said.
Yet another activist warned, “Don’t worry about how radicalised Kashmir is becoming. The real question you should ask yourself is: How radicalised India has become?”
An academic claimed that while Kashmir was being radicalised, India had been possessed by, what Immanuel Kant called, “radical evil” – a propensity to embrace immorality, with people consciously choosing not to act in accordance with what is moral and good. More than Kashmir, it was India, he said that was in grave danger.
Sushobha Barve Bharat Bhushan
Wajahat Habibullah (Endorsed)