It’s been a year since Jammu and Kashmir lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood and the region got separated into two union territories — Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. What has changed in the restive region since August 5, 2019?
The ground facts are completely altered and so is the socio-political landscape. There is a spine-chilling silence in Kashmir. And a climate of fear persists. Apart from the absence of politics, a leadership vacuum, suspension of civil liberties, unprecedented gags on media and control over the counter-narratives on social media space, the political uncertainty in the Kashmir Valley continues unabated.
In the words of Waheed Parra, the president of the Youth Wing of People’s Democratic Party (PDP), “On August 5 last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi served rounds of insult and humiliation to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. With just one stroke of the pen, the saffron party finished the political mainstream in Jammu and Kashmir.”
“We were disgraced,” he said.
Parra was detained for six months, first at Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) and then at the Member Legislative Assembly (MLA) hostels. He continues to be placed under house arrest for the last six months now.
Speaking to The Federal, Parra said that “those who made sacrifices for principles of democracy and secularism in Jammu and Kashmir are in a state of mourning. We have been punished for believing in universal concepts of democracy, peace and dialogue. We have been silenced, but our silence is our protest.”
Quite in tune with Parra’s sentiment, J&K’s former Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu in one of his recent articles argued that it ought to have been realised by now, but hasn’t been, that abrogation of Article 370 has not hit at the separatist political ideology; quite the contrary.
For them, it has been an “instrument of control” rather than a “guarantee for autonomy”. It has provided them with a renewed justification. But, more than that, it has strengthened the sentiment of separatism among people. How this will find expression in local politics is a big imponderable. A year down the line, it appears that a while slaying a shadow, the silhouette has been sharpened.”
The entire pro-India camp, which is referred to as Unionist and participates in electoral processes, is feeling “humiliated” and “insulted”. Unionists argue that the Centre punished the very people who believed in Constitution and sold the idea of democracy and development to the people of Jammu and Kashmir; against the popular political sentiment and at great personal risks.
They say that parties like the National Conference, PDP and Congress have lost about 7,000 individuals in the last three decades while defending the idea of democracy in J&K.
Iltija Mufti, daughter of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, drew a parallel between the treatment given by the Indian and Pakistani nation-states to its loyalists in the Kashmir Valley.
Last month, Pakistan’s upper house of parliament unanimously passed a resolution extolling the “relentless” struggle of the 90-year-old pro-Pakistan Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Pakistan is all set to confer Nishan-e-Pakistan, its highest civilian award, to SAS Geelani. The resolution was jointly moved by both the government and opposition benches.
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The Pakistani Senate recommended the government to confer upon Geelani, Nishan-e-Pakistan, the country’s highest civil award, for “his struggle to settle the dispute in the light of UN resolutions”.
Iltija argued that, on the contrary, the Centre was jailing its loyalists in Kashmir. “As Pakistan intends to confer the highest civilian award on Geelani Sb (Sahab), GOI’s (Centre’s) busy discrediting & demolishing mainstream leadership in J&K that fought for (the) idea of India since 70 years. Concerted effort to wipe out any mainstream voice of dissent is plain spiteful,” she wrote on Twitter.
After complete silence for about eight months since August last year, the unionist parties began making some noise. While the National Conference chose the safety-first approach the other parties have not been shy of using strong words occasionally in their statements.
The general perception among vast sections of the populace is that another former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has perhaps made a “secret deal” with the BJP to participate in the electoral process once the J&K’s statehood was restored. Abdullah’s recent article and his tweets have not gone down well with large sections of the population. Perhaps he has lost a golden opportunity to redeem himself.
On August 5 last year, Omar had said that “This is an aggression against the people of the State. The scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A raise fundamental questions on the State’s accession because that was done on the very terms enunciated in these Articles.”
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In his latest article that he wrote for The Indian Express, Omar argued that he won’t contest assembly elections if J&K remained a union territory. The tone of his piece was apologetic. The bitter fact though is that his party’s three MPs from the Kashmir Valley did not resign to even register a token protest against the “unilateral and undemocratic” abrogation of Article 370.
Mehbooba Mufti on August 5 last year had said that “Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy,” adding that the “Decision of J&K leadership to reject two-nation theory in 1947 and align with India has backfired. Unilateral decision of the government of India to scrap Article 370 is illegal and unconstitutional, which will make India an occupational force in Jammu and Kashmir.”
She continues to be placed under house arrest. Even after twelve months, the J&K administration extended Mehbooba’s house detention under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) for three more months.
Her detractors say that she is the same person who stitched an “unholy alliance” with the BJP in early 2016, soon after her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s demise on January 7 that year. Her party’s partnership with the BJP was described as a “partnership in crime” by Tasaduq Mufti, Mehbooba’s younger brother. And, the three-year-long coalition proved to be a political suicide for the PDP.
For now, the only political space that has shrunk is that for unionist politics. They concede they are running out of arguments. They have nothing more to sell to their voters.
On July 31, another Kashmiri unionist Sajad Lone was released from nearly a year-long detention. In his first statement, he sounded resentful. “Finally 5 (five) days short of a year I have been officially informed that I am a free man. So much has changed. So have I. Jail was not a new experience. Earlier ones were harsh with usual doses of physical torture. But this was psychologically draining. Much to share hopefully soon,” he wrote on his Twitter handle.
Well-informed sources in his party, People’s Conference (PC), say that Sajad is “a changed man”. A source told The Federal that there would be no compromise from Sajad anymore.
Sajad, son of slain Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone, had once referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “friend of Kashmiris” whom he found “down to earth” and like his “big brother”. This was when Sajad had met Modi in New Delhi in November 2014, only two weeks before the J&K legislative assembly elections. He was derided in Srinagar as many called him the “BJP’s poster boy”.
Sajad’s proximity with Modi didn’t rescue him when the August 5 abrogation happened. Those who were detained along with him at Srinagar’s SKICC, located on the banks of the Dal Lake overlooking the picturesque Zabarwan mountain range, said that there were times when “Sajad shed tears” in detention. He felt dishonoured.
The story of Kashmir’s celebrated bureaucrat Shah Faesal is no different. He spent over six months in detention. In one of his co-authored articles that were published in The Indian Express in January last year, Faesal had argued that “At the root of the political problem in Kashmir is the paradox that those who represent the sentiment do not participate in the electoral process and those who participate in the electoral process do not represent the sentiment.”
He had pointed out that “the elected representatives are either a disempowered lot, a group of helpless ‘daily-wagers’ with the Government of India (Centre) or that the elected representatives are misrepresenting their electorate by not speaking out about the basic Kashmir issue.”
Inspired by the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s brand of politics, Faesal had resigned as a civil servant and in March last year formally launched his party, J&K Peoples Movement.
At the time of his resignation, he claimed that he would “manipulate the system to his advantage” for he “knows the system well” and that it was about time to employ a new “political vocabulary” in J&K’s electoral politics. By that, he implied that unionists should stop lying about Kashmir’s ground reality, peoples’ sentiment and political aspirations.
After his famous interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk in August last year, he too was detained and then a stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) was slapped against him. After experiencing first-hand how the system treated him when he tried to speak as a ‘free’ man, Faesal, according to one of his close aides, now sees J&K’s unionist politics as “a brothel never to be revisited”.
However, both Sajad and Faesal remain very unpredictable and are referred to as “wild cards”.
A year before the reading down of Articles 370 and 35A, the narrative pushers in the J&K Raj Bhawan (Governor House) manufactured a narrative. That the Kashmiri Muslim elite holding position of power and responsibility was corrupt, the unionists were dynasts, the Hurriyat was corrupt and the chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Bank was dishonest. The narrative was mostly about corruption.
Satya Pal Malik, the region’s then-governor, on a daily basis would deliver prolonged monologues and sermons on transparency and corrupt practices. As if not a single Kashmiri was earning a living by honest means. And, he was a messiah sent by God to Kashmir to save Kashmiris from all evils.
Then, in June 2018, the BJP walked away from the alliance partnership that it had forged with the PDP in early 2015. The widely held perception in Kashmir is that the operation to disempower Kashmir and neutralise the political centrality of the Kashmir Valley began in mid-2018.
According to a unionist politician who understands the ground and the pulse of the people, “Kashmiris have not given up”. The politician argued that mourning was not inaction. He believed that Kashmir will respond at the time of its own choosing after calculating all pros and cons of both internal and external factors.
Another unionist said that he was yet to reconcile with the August 5 decision. “Did it happen or was it a nightmare?” he told me while he was still placed under house arrest in Srinagar. He said he would be the one offering hope to thousands of people in his pockets of influence but remains clueless what to do or what to say to the people now. “I feel helpless.”
According to Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a prominent human rights body based in Srinagar, about 300 persons have died in the restive region from January to July 2019.
In its bi-annual Human Rights Report, JKCCS said that “the first six months of 2020 witnessed at least 229 killings in different incidents of violence. This includes extrajudicial executions of at least 32 civilians, besides killing of 143 militants and 54 armed forces personnel.” The report said that “Children and women continued to be victims of violence in J&K as three children and two women were killed in the first half of 2020.”
Similarly, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI)’s President Sheikh Ashiq told The Federal that “around four lakh jobs were lost in J&K while the region’s economy lost over INR 40,000 Crore due to successive lockdowns since August last year.
Clearly, neither the violence has stopped nor has the economic activity improved in Jammu and Kashmir.
Silence and mourning continue, though!