Union Territory of Kashmir: New beginning amidst old fears

A woman shows medical documents to a security personnel, in Srinagar on Saturday. Photo: PTI

Like a blank canvas kept in the middle of an enclave of painters, Kashmir gets coloured in different hues every few months. Spring bursts forth with the rainbow painted by the evanescent tulips, and just when their red-yellow-purple-pink petals begin to fade away, the Valley turns lush green with the colours of monsoon, its sky rouge of the ripening apples. November is the month of the bronze, painted by the chinar leaves that float around in the air before falling on its Mughal gardens and meadows before the snow falls, making the canvas white again.

Several Novembers ago, 1947 to be precise, India’s then home minister Sardar Patel had made an emergency visit to Srinagar, afraid that the Valley’s bronze roads may be painted red with the blood of Indian soldiers fighting the tribal militia sent by Pakistan to invade Kashmir. For the small contingent of the army being airlifted under the command of Brigadier LP Sen, Patel had a simple message: Defend Kashmir at all cost. Within a few days, the Indian army had scythed through the militia at the Battle of Shalateng on the outskirts of Srinagar, and then chased the invaders right up to the banks of the Neelam River in Muzzafarabad.

On the cusp of another November, another home minister is flying to Kashmir, ostensibly to celebrate Kashmir’s complete assimilation into India, this time as a Union Territory stripped off the special status through a Constitutional provision drafted by Patel’s team. But, this
time, instead of the bronze leaves, dark colours of fear, uncertainty and an uneasy premonition hang heavy in the Valley’s air.

For more than a decade, Mushtaq Ahmed (surname changed) followed a similar routine every day. As dusk swept through the peaks of the Zabarvan hills, splashed around on the waters of the Dal Lake and crept up on its Boulevards, Mushtaq would his Srinagar office for his home in Magam, a few miles ahead of Gulmarg (the Valley of Flowers).

Mushtaq, a strapping young man who once dreamt of being a cricketer, was till recently what people in Kashmir call an “Indian.” A few years ago, when terrorists shut down Kashmir after the death of a militant in south Kashmir, Mushtaq was almost lynched for his insistence on defying their diktats. Now, he is no longer certain of his loyalty to the Indian side. “They betrayed us, people like me have no argument left to support the Indian policy in Kashmir,” he says.

The ride back home has now become perilous. Two days ago, as a delegation of parliamentarians from Europe visited Kashmir, the locals shut down the markets, kept their vehicles off the road and pelted vehicles with stones. On his way back to home, Mushtaq got caught in the middle of youth intent on violence and destruction on the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway. “I thought they would kill me for defying their call for a curfew. But, somehow I escaped,” he says.

Mushtaq’s story could be a metaphor for Kashmir several months after the Narendra Modi government revoked its special status and downgraded it into a Union territory. Like Mushtaq, all of Kashmir is revaluating its ties with and feelings for India, as everywhere around them anger and resentment finds sporadic release in the form of violence and protests. If the Modi government believed its decision to read down Article 370 would make Kashmiris willing participants in the India story, events have defied its initial hopes. Instead of moving forward, Kashmir now looks more and more a state ready to return to the 90s, when anger against India and support for an uprising were both rising.

Till a few months ago, tourists and outsiders were welcomed by Kashmiris — their fight, limited to just a few pockets, was with the Indian state represented by its jackboots and guns. The spate of killings of labourers from outside — on October 30, five were gunned down in Kulgam — shows this dynamic is changing. With frequent attacks on outsiders, terrorists are now trying to headline the theme of the unrest: Kashmir is only for Kashmiris.

The impact of this new strategy is visible on the streets, where Indian security agencies, eyewitnesses claim, have dug up new bunkers. While guns and stones have made a comeback, tourists have disappeared, turning the hotels on Srinagar’s Boulevards and resorts in Pahalgam and Gulmarg into depressing reminders of the business that was booming till Article 370 was in place.

Kashmiris have responded to the new life in their own way. They go about their business of life with calibrated defiance — the roads are packed with vehicles, the markets open every morning and evening (and shut down during the day) and not many go to schools and colleges in spite of state-sponsored guarantees of security and veiled threats of disqualification. Kashmir is moving around as if in mourning — attending to only what is necessary and then going back to its bottled grief.

The biggest silver lining — since we started by assuming Kashmir as a canvas — in this dark image is that there has been no large-scale violence on the roads. Protests against the government have been limited to a few localities — Shoura and downtown areas near Khanyar — and have not led to anything that may have worried the Indian government.

Soon after the special status was withdrawn, there were fears that it may trigger an intifada of a scale that would be difficult to counter. So far, the fears have remained unfounded and an uneasy calm has prevailed. The government has gradually restored communication lines, rolled back restrictions on movements and wound back some of the rolls of concertina wires that locked down the former state. With every additional step the government has raised the white flag of normalcy, and the truce has held.

The government has done exceedingly well on another front — neutralising Pakistan and its propaganda. After months of rants, threats and nuclear blackmail, Imran Khan has thrown up his arms in both surrender and dejection; he has realised that India is a much bigger and important player on the world stage and even Pakistan’s allies understand that Kashmir is India’s internal issue. The danger, thus, is internal.

In 1947, when Patel had sent his secretary VP Menon to discuss Kashmir’s accession to India, he had found workers of the National Conference (NC) patrolling the streets of Srinagar with sticks, eager to drive back the tribal intruders. When the first batch of Indian army landed under Colonel Diwan Ranjit Rai in a Dakota flown by former Odisha chief minister Biju Patnaik, the vehicles and fuel were arranged by the NC stalwart Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.

Today, those who helped India liberate Kashmir that fateful November, are in jail for fear of supporting an uprising. They have been herded in detention centres with hundreds of youth, Kashmiris allege. By abrogating Article 370, the government has erased the line between the mainstream and the separatists, the pro-India lobbies and those seeking a separate homeland for Kashmiris.

Jails and detention centres, history has proved, change people, and most of the times not in the way governments intend. They harden their resolve, stoke their anger and make them radical followers of ideas and philosophies that may have remained passing fads but for their incarceration.

The next threat to the peace in Kashmir will come when the gates of these detention centres are opened, when hundreds of people come out of them with new contacts, learnings and bonds forged in dark, damp corners of desperation and anger.

Three months is just a speck of time in the life of people, especially in a volatile place like Kashmir where history has seldom been at peace with its past. If only the colour of its subsequent Novembers remains the bronze of fallen chinar leaves, and is not stained by the crimson of blood, we would know India has painted Kashmir in its image.