After the horrifying statistics of killings, and the maiming and blinding of protestors and bystanders, usually accompanied by the clichéd explanations of what has been happening on the ground, little of the reality in locked down Kashmir is making it to the outside world.
But Kashmir’s summer of 2016 is ending with a significant shift on the ground and only the security establishment seems to have a substantive sense of it – by virtue of confronting it at the front-lines. The middle ground appears nearly annihilated.
This is where all the pro-India politics, and the rhetoric and manipulation associated with electoral politics have traditionally been deployed to maintain perceptions of surface calm. The battle-lines are sharp again, like it was in 1990 at the start of the armed rebellion against the Indian state. On the one side is the common Kashmiri, and on the other everything that constitutes the Indian state in Kashmir, the entire institutional superstructure and the people who man it.
Picture this: On Saturday, nearly 100 activists in the southern Kashmir village of Bugam worked through the night and prepared a large empty ground for a “freedom rally”, while others kept a vigil, looking out for soldiers. Large tent shelters were erected and by dawn just as the stage was set, government forces arrived on the scene and attacked the activists with shotguns spraying metal pellets. Within an hour, the venue was in a shambles and ambulances were ferrying the injured activists to hospitals.
But just as a deathly silence engulfed the area, tens of thousands of villagers from the neighbouring hamlets, armed with stones and sticks, stormed into the ground from all directions and filled it. The show was on. Speaker after speaker pledged not to give up until Azadi. The crowds roared, returning the pledge.
Numerous similar rallies have taken place across Kashmir Valley, particularly in its southern parts, since the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8. If the armed rebellion of 1990 mainly played out in urban Kashmir, 2016 is witnessing a near total rural uprising.
And, it shows no signs of abating.
A mandate betrayed
Used to addressing people from behind razor wire barriers and large contingents of armed police, not a single pro-India Kashmiri politician has been able to venture out into the public since Wani’s death sparked the ongoing wave of anti-India protests. Their securitised constituencies have suddenly shrunk to their well-guarded homes and barricaded offices, their operating grounds taken away from them.
The political middle ground in Kashmir, in which the pro-India politicians dabble, was created over a long period, using coercive military tactics and the state police, in the aftermath of the initial suppression of the armed rebellion of 1990. Its first objective was met in 1996 under military domination, when soldiers across many constituencies actually dragged Kashmiris out from their homes and forced them to vote. This was a time when the National Conference, almost all of whose cadres had resigned from pro-India politics, was revived almost exclusively as a military operation.
All that was Indian on the ground then was the Indian army.
The National Conference may have believed in New Delhi’s promises of restoration of Kashmir’s lost autonomy, but the party found itself discredited when that didn’t come about. A middle ground came about nevertheless, but of a sub-nationalist kind, never Indian enough because of the National Conference’s history of having successfully fought against the pre-1947 Dogra autocracy for Kashmir’s rights. Following the electoral victory in 1996, the National Conference leadership thought their moment had arrived again to wrest back from New Delhi what it had won for Kashmir from the Dogra autocracy.
The grand old party of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah soon found itself grappling with the creation of the heiPeoples Democratic Party, which many still believe was the Indian intelligence establishment’s “biggest political operation” in Kashmir after the Sheikh’s arrest in 1952.
The Peoples Democratic Party, under late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter, the incumbent chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, expanded the middle ground like no one had imagined. The father-daughter duo strategically appropriated the discourse of human rights abuse by army and police, and staged something like a language heist, even stealing from the separatists the rhetoric of their patent arguments.
By the year 2002, the two pro-India parties were slugging it out in the expanded middle ground, making Kashmir look normal, as if everything here was driven by competitive electoral politics, like anywhere else in India. On the surface they made it look like “democracy at work”. But that was until the PDP tied up with the Bharatiya Janata Party after the 2014 elections.
The people of South Kashmir, epicentre of the current rural uprising, and who made up the PDP’s core constituency, felt dreadfully betrayed. Now, they seem to have made a political migration back to where the PDP had rhetorically promised to take them – self-rule, self-determination, azadi.
A changed scenario
Many commentators and politicians have described the ongoing protestation in Kashmir as “leaderless”. Some academics see it rooted in “nihilism” and “Islamic radicalism”. They see no political demands the protestors make, so there is “no one” to engage with.
The people in Kashmir read such descriptions as reflections of the State’s unwillingness to engage with “unambiguous” voices of separatist leaders who have received support from not just the representative trade and business bodies of Kashmir, but even apple growers and government employees associations.
Orchardists have pledged their crops for the “Kashmir cause” and other businesses still stand in solidarity even after facing more than 100 crore rupees daily loss to the local economy. “We have told them (government) the only way we can get out of this disastrous situation is by beginning a process for ending the Kashmir dispute,” said Mohammad Ashraf Mir, president of the influential Federation Chamber of Industry-Kashmir. “The gates of all industrial estates remain shut.”
Preparations are again afoot for sending in an all-party delegation for “reaching out” to Kashmiri people, like was done in 2010. There are attempts at changing the optics – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar met with Burhan’s father, Muzaffar Wani, only to post a photo with him on twitter, a clear attempt at signalling to the people that compromise formulae are being cooked once again.
Many of the known old hands have already trooped into Kashmir trying the same old ways of conflict management and diffusion. Home minister Rajnath Singh also visited twice, but no one of any real influence went to see him in Srinagar’s Nehru Guest House, even though his invitation “to all” to meet him had gone out from his twitter handle.
But so far, none of it appears to be working this time. It is down to the use of more force. In many of Srinagar’s schools and parks, large contingents of the Border Security Force have set up camps again after 12 years.
New Delhi’s conflict management tactics in Kashmir, and its attempts at diffusing the crisis at hand, increasingly look like an exercise in harvesting water with a wicker basket.
Common sense dictates that the ongoing violent confrontation between the protestors and the state forces, with all its naked manifestations, will end sooner or later. But this time it appears unlikely to yield to the old, discredited methods used for decades to “manage” Kashmir.
The ground for that appears to have slipped.