Kashmiri students, who have seen the brutal side of Indian State up close, have over the years managed to open up space in some university campuses to forthrightly discuss their stifling conditions and political aspirations back home. Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi is the foremost of them, where solidarities based on core democratic values have been forged among a diverse student community.
But three back-to-back events in New Delhi in a week, starting from JNU, and the State’s response to them, have brought to the fore the Narendra Modi government’s willingness to run roughshod and forcefully discourage any substantive discussion on Kashmir.
By arresting JNU Student Union president Kanhaiya Kumar on Friday for allegedly raising anti-national slogans at an event on campus and Kashmiri professor SAR Geelani on sedition charges on Tuesday for the proceedings at another event at the Delhi Press Club, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has sent the Kashmiri students into a panic and sought to impose a silence on dissenters who may be interested in spreading an understanding of the Kashmir issue.
Under the radar
While resistance to the deployment of State power in the service of Hindutva nationalism is struggling to take a form in urban India, the weight of this intensifying climate of Hindutva hegemony is being acutely felt in Kashmir, where not many people expect solidarity from the Indian intellectual sphere.
As it is, student unions and politics have been banned in Kashmir for years, and no one seems to have noticed.
Sushil Aron, Associate Editor of the Hindustan Times slipped this reality into his column on Tuesday, writing, “…it isn’t easy to bully JNU ‒ it is not Kashmir, for example, where the State can aim to end student activism and impose surveillance without too many noticing or objecting…”
Alongside the arrests, encouraging this hegemony by overlooking its strikes inside courtrooms and beaming insults and jingoism live from many TRP-driven TV studios, the government has also sent a signal to Mehbooba Mufti, who continues a covert engagement with the BJP in an effort to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir despite being in a Catch 22 situation.
Governor NN Vohra rules the state as Mehbooba Mufti refused to take over after her father and chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed died early January.
Interestingly, none of the Kashmiri students who may have been a part of “anti-national” sloganeering at JNU or Delhi Press Club were arrested. As intelligence leaks to media outlets make us believe, they stand identified, perhaps for later action, or no action if that helps the BJP-People’s Democratic Party coalition in Jammu and Kashmir.
Many observers say Kashmiri students in Delhi are on a slightly long leash right now only as a little sop to Mufti because the BJP is talking to her PDP, using the climate of fear to arm-twist her into bringing the saffron party back to power in the state.
PDP insiders say Mufti is ready to re-energise her party’s coalition with the BJP after all the posturing for her voters in Kashmir. By delaying government formation, she may have managed to tone down the BJP’s aggressive politics in the state, but the saffron party is playing a long shot by using the Delhi incidents to bring her in line.
“A consistent policy, whatever party may be in power at the Centre, has always been to make the Kashmiri political parties accept their subservient status to New Delhi,” said an old guard Kashmiri politician, who has been a member of both Congress Party and the National Conference. He asked to remain unidentified.
However, Mufti appears caught between a rock and a hard place. Disappointment and anger has been steadily rising in Kashmir since her father allied with the BJP last March. Many youths from well-to-do backgrounds have been taking to arms again against the stifling status quo. Thousands of residents at a time have often rallied behind the militants during gun battles with government forces, and more have attended their funerals in recent months. It is no secret that armies of stone-throwing youth now come out openly to help militants escape during cordons and gunfights.
People who voted for the PDP in the last elections have declared that they have been betrayed by the party. In this situation, the BJP and its affiliate groups are using Kashmir to escalate national tension and confrontation in anticipation of having to face the Parliament during the upcoming session where the government’s economic underperformance despite low oil prices will come under focus.
In the process, an ecosystem that has slowly evolved in some university campuses where the Kashmir issue had started finding a voice is now being directly disrupted.
All this is likely to produce a situation where Kashmiris imagine themselves faced with more criminalisation and an end to organised avenues of free expression they have fought for. Mehbooba Mufti, her late father and her party are already being accused of helping bring this on. The PDP, a party that built its base and reputation on promises of self-rule and wresting dignity for the people, is being seen in Kashmir as a group that has given up on its voters for the sake of survival and power.
Still, the PDP’s apparent loss of its voter base may not translate into gains for the rival National Conference in future elections. These two political parties sustain a political dynamic, separately and together, that has for long served to legitimise repression inside Kashmir in the name of democracy or law and order.
The BJP has come along to wipe out the space for these so-called mainstream parties in Kashmir that allowed them appropriate a certain separatist rhetoric and embrace ideas of “soft separatism” or “autonomy”. This has again given rise to a perception that Kashmiri political parties are ever more powerless.
Sense of powerlessness
“Political parties like PDP or NC who represent us [Kashmiris] are even more powerless than common people here,” said Mubashir, an angry university student who gave only his first name. “I don’t expect them to ever stand up for us. They can’t come together with each other but will join hands with BJP, a party that openly wants to take away whatever little rights we have to our land.”
This aggravating sense of powerlessness appears to be yielding a situation inside Kashmir similar to that of 1987, when resentment to New Delhi received a big impetus following a rigged election. It is hard to say, with the experience of the last 25 years of facing military-style repression, what form this degree of public resentment and right-wing belligerence surrounding Kashmir will take inside the Valley.
For now, the families of Kashmiri students and businessmen living outside the state are in panic and worried about their safety. “Every time something about Kashmir comes up in Delhi I feel our children are hostages there,” a visibly anxious parent said.