Kashmir has touched a raw nerve again in the wake of the death of three civilians who were protesting at the scene of a military operation against a militant in Chadoora town on Tuesday, in which security forces also killed the militant. Since then, angry television anchors have been shouting down any dissenting voice and branding an entire alienated population as seditious. One thing is clear, India and Pakistan have never been out of a state of war, at least in the TV studios of New Delhi. A euphoria of war has been created, which has engulfed a nation that once embraced ahimsa (non-violence). Now, it goes into a frenzy at the mere mention of surgical strikes. The macho nationalist brigades are on the march and the minorities are scrambling for cover.
In Kashmir, the Muslim majority is struggling to make sense of the new India.
Kashmiris have by and large remained unimpressed by the tall promises made by successive rulers in Delhi. But one such promise that hooked Sheikh Abdullah, former chief minister and founder of the National Conference, to Hindustan is now defunct – the Idea of India. Its tenuous hold over a vast section of the state’s population seems to have snapped.
Before their anger turned to frustration, the Kashmiri people voted the Peoples Democratic Party to power in the 2014 Assembly elections, as it promised to not only keep Hindutva forces at bay but to also provide a “healing touch” to assuage their long suffering.
But the party reneged on its promise and entered into an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Perhaps, the architects of the alliance misread the minds of the new BJP leaders and failed to sense the pulse of the Kashmiri public. The Peoples Democratic Party has since stopped parroting its healing touch mantra.
Religious zealotry begets religious zealotry. The march of the BJP into Muslim Kashmir, in its new avatar as champion of Hindu dominance, ignited fires in 2016 that devoured its alliance partner. The Peoples Democratic Party, which played the soft separatism card deftly and ascended to power, now plays second fiddle to an increasingly belligerent BJP-led central government. The alliance has not only eroded the party’s core base but it has also created a vacuum filled now with angry, unruly youngsters who even dictate terms to the separatist Hurriyat Conference.
When Army Chief General Bipin Rawat declared in February that youth who stand as hurdles in the way of military operations against militants will be dealt with as militants themselves, the Peoples Democratic Party’s silence was taken as an endorsement of the statement.
Thousands of Kashmiris, mostly young boys, rush out of their homes to stand as shields for militants whenever the Army and police lay siege to their hideouts. At least 15 civilians have been killed and hundreds have been injured near gunfight sites in Kashmir since February 2016, police records reveal. There have been more than 14 instances when government forces operating near encounter sites have fired at civilians. The trend shows no sign of abating. Why is it that unlike in the 1990s, when people ran away from encounter sites, they are now rushing towards battle zones?
The answer to this question is not complex.
Boys in Kashmir have limited patience. But the same is true for boys elsewhere. They tend to be restless, want quick results, and that’s absolutely normal.
But what is not normal is the treatment meted out to such young people in Kashmir. Born into a political conflict not of their making, and which despite their desire to the contrary is not amenable to an easy solution, they feel pushed against the wall. A bleak future stalks them and they romanticise new methods to lash out at this, some even suicidal.
On Tuesday too, as contingents of Army, paramilitary and police personnel engaged the lone militant, Tauseef Wagay, holed up in a house in Chadoora for 10 hours, they perhaps ignored the bitter reality that his resistance was fuelling anger within countless angry and frustrated young men watching the gory spectacle.
They did not realise this even after three young boys threw themselves between the military and the militant to allow him to escape, throwing away their lives in the process. What did Wagay, a 19-year-old boy from a distant village in South Kashmir, mean for the youth in a village in Central Kashmir? Did they see him as one among them who was fighting their battle? It is not really a difficult answer to find. Incidentally, when Wagay’s body was recovered from the rubble of the building, they found a single pistol on him.
Why have things come to such a pass?
The government’s response to the Chadoora incident was along familiar lines. The police half-heartedly talked about ordering an investigation. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti once again urged restraint and expressed grief over the loss of lives, her vocabulary all too familiar. Since the months-long unrest in the Valley last year – set off by the killing of young militant commander Burhan Wani and resulting in the death of around a hundred people and the blinding of several hundred others by the security forces’ pellet guns – the chief minister’s statements have only stoked anger among her people. Her calls for restraint and dialogue have attracted scorn and ridicule on social media.
The reason is that her government is following in the footsteps of her failed predecessor, the National Conference-Congress alliance, and relies solely on the security apparatus to bring calm to the streets. With no political initiative in sight, it resorts to security restrictions to pre-empt the venting of genuine public rage. It may work for some time, but the anger cannot be put down for long. This, according to an editorial in Kashmir Observer, has created a law and order culture where lives in Kashmir are seen as dispensable in the rush to impose normalcy.
One is inclined to believe that both the state and central governments are dangerously complacent about the situation in Kashmir, which is drifting towards another hot summer. Deaths during protests in recent months, including the Chadoora incident, have only strengthened this belief.
The reason many believe the state government is complicit is because it has repeatedly failed to fix responsibility. For example, there has been no action against security personnel responsible for last year’s deaths and blindings. Similarly, no accountability was fixed for the death of around 120 youth during the summer protests of 2010, or for the scores more who died in between the two periods of unrest.
Aggravating matters further, Delhi has done absolutely nothing to start a process of dialogue and reconciliation, while retaining its focus on killing militants one by one. It even squandered the opportunity provided by the winter months that saw some semblance of normalcy in the Valley.
When we are sitting on the brink of another year of unrest, the conditions that are important to a cosmetic engagement, let alone a meaningful dialogue, remain absent. For any meaningful engagement with both Kashmiri stakeholders and Pakistan, an ideal political atmosphere is the pre-requisite not as much in Kashmir as in the rest of India.
Since India has taken a decisive turn to the right, and this turn is primarily fuelled by hate against certain sections of society and by anti-Kashmir and anti-Pakistan discourse, this makes dialogue with Kashmiri actors or Pakistan an unattractive political proposition for the BJP.
However, Delhi will still want to talk to moderates in the Hurriyat camp, but it will be more of an ornamental exercise than a process geared to achieve a tangible political outcome. And the moderates know it. So, whether they would like to be a part of such an engagement remains to be seen.
The China-Pakistan factor
On the other hand, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that passes through disputed Kashmir’s Baltistan province has introduced a new factor in India-Pakistan relations. India may have yet to make up its mind about the mega project – made up of transport and energy projects and the development of a port offering direct access to the Indian Ocean – but it has certainly raised the stakes by fast-tracking hydropower projects worth $15 billion on its side of Kashmir in recent months, despite Pakistani reservations.
Is another cold war looming over the region? Will Kashmir yet again become casualty to the geo-political machinations of the regional players or will it force rapprochement between them? We can only wait and watch.
Sajjad Haider is Editor-in-Chief of the Kashmir Observer.