It was perhaps a fitting coda to Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir.
On October 25, the police booked students and staff at two medical colleges in Srinagar for celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in the recent T-20 World Cup match. They face charges under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, an anti-terror law, for allegedly “crying and dancing” after Pakistan won the match. Students and staff have been booked under Section 13 of the law, which prosecutes people who take part in or abet any unlawful activity.
It is not clear how supporting a particular sports team – a personal choice beyond the remit of the state – constitutes unlawful activity. Of course, right-wing politics has long demanded the support of a country’s national team as proof of patriotism, especially from communities regarded as suspect. In 1990s Britain, it was immigrants of Indian or Caribbean origin who were required to support the English cricket team over India’s.
In Kashmir, it is Kashmiri Muslim youth who must perform their loyalty to India, especially after decades of an armed movement for secession. Not doing so has been cast as seditious by the state.
A broad spectrum of activities can now draw terror charges in Kashmir. In the two years since August 5, 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost statehood and autonomy under Article 370, at least 2,300 people have been booked under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act. A father demanding the body of his teenaged son and a photojournalist who had taken pictures of anti-government protesters were booked under the law. A 15-year-old charged under Section 13 for allegedly chanting “anti-national” slogans suddenly found himself arrested.
This is not the first time cricket has drawn UAPA charges in Kashmir – last year, a group of youth were booked for playing a cricket match in memory of a militant killed in 2018.
Yet Amit Shah, in his first visit to the region since August 5, 2019, spent the weekend enlisting Kashmiri youth in a project to “strengthen the democracy”. The administration had extended “a hand of friendship”, he said, addressing representatives of youth clubs in Jammu and Kashmir. While the government claims thousands of youth have joined these clubs, they seem to exist largely on paper.
In Kashmir, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government has branded many of its undemocratic impulses as projects to strengthen democracy.
The spectre of the ‘three families’
For instance, Shah reiterated that Jammu and Kashmir was now liberated from the reign of the “three families’’ – the political dynasties that ran the Congress, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party. These were apparently the main obstacle to economic development. But none of these parties has been in power in Jammu and Kashmir for over three years now. The BJP ensured that as it walked out of a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party, bringing Central rule to Kashmir in 2018. The Central administration then mounted a crackdown on regional party leaders, implicating many of them in corruption cases.
The spectre of a corrupt opposition was then used to justify some of the BJP’s most authoritarian actions in the region. The taint of criminality was eventually extended from the leaders to the politics of regional parties, which supported Article 370 and the protection of special status. It was a politics that propped up rotting power structures, the BJP argued. Not surprisingly, in 2019, corrupt dynasties were invoked as a rationale for removing special status and statehood from Jammu and Kashmir, placing the region under lockdown and imprisoning almost its entire political class, separatist as well as pro-India. Any real opposition to the government was stamped out overnight.
In speaking of the three families now, the BJP fights with shadows. In Hindu-majority Jammu, it is the BJP that has replaced the Congress as the party with the biggest support base. Since the loss of special status under Article 370, there has been mounting anger against the BJP for various reasons, including economic anxieties. In Muslim-majority Kashmir, all pro-India party politics has steadily lost ground. The main focus of public anger is the Central administration, currently under the aegis of the BJP.
Having demolished any party politics that opposed its own, the Centre vowed to strengthen “grassroots democracy”. Legislatures were replaced with local governments who may not address larger questions of identity and autonomy but deal with quotidian problems such as roads, water and electricity supply. Instead of party leaders, Shah met panchs, sarpanchs and district-level councillors on his visit to Jammu and Kashmir.
The Centre’s strategy of reaching out directly to the grassroots through a powerful bureaucracy, bypassing the contestations of party politics, is reminiscent of Ayub Khan’s ill-fated experiment with “basic democracy” in Pakistan. Then, as now, the avowed goal of the experiment was “dramatic progress toward economic development, social equality and political democracy”. But Khan, who had captured power by declaring martial law in Pakistan in 1958, was a leader of authoritarian instincts. According to commentators, his objective was to “institute a system that could be guided at the will of the rulers”.
In Kashmir, the system of local government is beset with its own problems. Angry electorates boycotted panchayat and municipal elections so many seats were left empty or won uncontested. Candidates, under attack from militant groups, remain holed up in fortified locations, unable to return to their villages to do the work of panchayats.
The Centre introduced a third tier of local government, the district development councils, and held elections to them last year. These elections were fought on party lines and a normally retiring electorate turned out in larger numbers to vote – to keep the BJP and its allies out. But even these elected representatives, beholden to bureaucrats, can only make minor interventions.
The ‘bitter pill’
More eloquent than any of Shah’s speeches were the circumstances that surrounded his visit. The Centre has maintained the myth of “normalcy” in Kashmir since the legislative changes of August 5, 2019. What then stopped the home minister from visiting in these two years? Arguably, a security situation that has shown little improvement, despite the Centre’s claims to the contrary.
In the run up to Shah’s visit, the Valley saw targeted killings of civilians, including minorities and migrant workers. A group called “The Resistance Front”, which first surfaced in the aftermath of August 2019, claimed responsibility for most of the killings. The group branded itself as an “indigenous resistance”, although security agencies claim it is an off-shoot of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.
For ordinary Kashmiris, daily life got just a little harder. The killings, as well as Shah’s visit, meant a massive security crackdown. Hundreds were imprisoned, several under the stringent Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law. The internet was shut down in many parts of the Valley, two-wheelers were confiscated in Srinagar, doors were removed from auto rickshaws, and civilians were stopped and frisked. As Shah travelled, parts of Srinagar were also closed to the public. While he spoke of economic development and democracy, a 20-year-old civilian was shot dead near a paramilitary camp in South Kashmir.
No matter. As Shah explained, the lockdown post August 5, 2019, was a “bitter pill that saved many lives”. The new batch of restrictions, detentions and terror charges were presumably to be taken in the same spirit. Going by the home minister’s logic, to strengthen democracy, Kashmir must lose it first.