Wajahat Habibullah: My life’s mission to win over Kashmiris for India is irretrievably lost

We have failed to earn the trust of the youth – educated, talented and consumed with hatred of the Indian state.

On December 13, 1989, Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of the man who was India’s Home Minister at the time, was released by her captors, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in exchange for six jailed militants. Kashmir erupted in celebration. The exchange was seen as capitulation by the Indian state, as Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had warned it would be.

The abduction marked the outbreak of full-scale insurgency, sparked by what the public perceived as the rigging of the 1987 Assembly election to put Abdullah’s National Conference in power with the support of the Congress, then ruling at the Centre. Governance in Kashmir collapsed.

On January 21, more than 100 unarmed protestors were gunned down by the Central Reserve Police at Gawkadal in old Srinagar, though the official figure is 54. The massacre threw Kashmir into a destructive spiral of violence, suspicion and dread. Thousands of young men crossed the Line of Control into Pakistan for arms training. The moment was Pakistan’s to seize, and it did.|

Soon, the conflict born out of fury at aborted democracy, corruption and police excess was given religious colour by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence. As a consequence, the Pandits came under attack – from both the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, whose manifesto was essentially secular, and the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, which supported accession to Pakistan – triggering the Hindu minority’s mass migration from the Valley. Many of them remain in migrant camps in Jammu, enduring poor living conditions and state apathy.

It took nearly two decades for the situation to return to a semblance of normalcy. But now, the state is on boil again. The big question we are faced with is this: do Kashmiris see themselves as Indian as Malayalis, Bengalis, Gujaratis or Punjabis do? Such sub-nationalisms are the moorings of India’s triumph as a nation. This inclusion underlined India’s effort at integration in Kashmir as well, but it floundered with the uprising of 1990.

Testing times

In January 1990, not long after Governor’s Rule was imposed, I was posted to Kashmir as Special Commissioner of Anantnag. A few months later, in June 1990, Girish Saxena, who had succeeded Jagmohan, appointed me as Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, overseeing the Valley and Ladakh. The state administration was pulverised. Non-Kashmiri officers were compelled to stay in the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, travelling to and from the office under army escort. Kashmiri officers, including in the police, faced threats and extortion, and many virtually abandoned their posts. The fear and distrust climaxed in a total strike by the entire administration from August to November, 1990. I, the state’s sole representative outside the besieged secretariat, sat in the Commissioner’s office with only my Gujar jamedar as support.

As divisional commissioner, I led an administration whose functionaries were either sympathetic to the militants seeking to establish a presence in town and countryside or paralysed by fear. The ordinary citizen going about his business constantly looked over his shoulder. Srinagar shut down by early evening even without a curfew, plunging into darkness with fitful power supply.

I was the instrument of the Intelligence Bureau and the Military Intelligence, and indeed the Union home ministry, to engage the separatist leadership in dialogue and negotiate release of hostages taken by the militants. In the course of my duty, I faced stoning and gunfire. Kashmir’s towns were silent, except during spasms of violent demonstrations and retaliation by the security forces. The rural people lived in fear, bludgeoned by the cordon and search operations of the army and unprotected from the terror of the militants, whose ranks were increasingly swelling with foreigners.

India has become 'synonymous with a military bunker or a police vehicle'. Photo credit: IANS
India has become 'synonymous with a military bunker or a police vehicle'. Photo credit: IANS

After 1996, when elections were first held after the outbreak of the militancy, democracy only waxed with increasing public participation in electoral processes and governance. There was even high-level dialogue with the separatists after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reached out to them in the early 2000s. That separatist and mainstream groups were discussing various forms of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union as a solution enabled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare in 2013 that separatism had been overcome. He was seemingly vindicated the following year when Sajjad Lone, the scion of a leading family of separatists, joined mainstream politics and went on to became a minister in Mufti Sayeed’s government.

But just as the situation was getting better after nearly two decades, the heavy-handed retaliation by the security forces to the mass protests of 2008 and 2010 turned the page back. Children, active participants in the protests, were the worst sufferers. Remedies were available within the system to contain the situation, but they were not applied actively.

Then came militant commander Burhan Wani’s killing on July 8, 2016. After a cacophony of argument and indignation in the media, visual and print, a pall of silence descended by the 17th day, even though blanket curfew across Kashmir continued and the number of dead and injured rose relentlessly.

Uncertain future

I had been in Kashmir only a few months earlier, in March 2016. I travelled by taxi and took the shabby train to Baramulla in the north, lamenting the unplanned and unauthorised expansion of palatial houses on prime agricultural land – but completely at peace. I wandered unaccompanied through villages and bazaars in Kulgam, Sopore, Anantnag and Baramulla. I had never felt so at peace in Kashmir since 1982.

Reflecting on that visit and all that has transpired since, I am convinced, as I enter the twilight of my life, that my life’s mission to win over the people of Kashmir for India is lost, irretrievably.

As a young Kashmiri bureaucrat noted last year, “Ask teenagers in Srinagar and they will tell you...how India has become synonymous with a military bunker or a police vehicle or a ranting panelist on prime time television. Is this the idea of India which can win Kashmiri hearts?”

There is no doubt that Pakistan has taken advantage of the situation in Kashmir, and exacerbated our discomfiture with every means at its command. But why is Kashmir our Achilles Heel? Why is it that the killing of Kashmiri protestors by security forces and the blinding of children is never referred to in our media and drawing rooms as the killing and maiming of fellow Indians – despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cry that they are our own?

There can be little doubt that the insurgency of 1990 has run its course – nothing illustrates this better than the marginalisation of the separatist leadership. But we have failed to earn the trust of the youth – educated, talented and consumed with hatred of the Indian state – who will lead Jammu and Kashmir into the future.

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