Kashmir remains in a state of shock. Ever since Home Minister Amit Shah on August 5 announced the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two Union Territories, people in the Valley have been struggling to come to terms with the new reality: a reality where their identity and the demographic composition of the territory is no longer shielded by law. There is now a sense of paranoia about what might be in store.
The continuing lockdown has only heightened the uncertainty. People have suddenly been transported to a pre-communication era. There are no phones and no internet. Landlines are of little use as their penetration is negligible compared to cell-phones. People can move within the interiors of their localities and some private transport does ply too but only up to a short distance. In many cases, a place just ten kilometres away seems like another country, reaching which involves crossing many security barricades and possibly stone pelting by knots of protesting youth.
Information black hole
The air is rife with fear and rumour. There are unconfirmed reports of large-scale demonstrations being occasionally held here and there in Srinagar. There is little information flowing in from other parts of the Valley, more so from North and South Kashmir. Reports often float around of some killings having taken place during protests but the government vehemently rejects these, acknowledging only some minor injuries.
The daily briefings by the government at Srinagar’s Media Facilitation Centre that had become the only source of information about the situation for the people have petered out, though there is some skeletal reporting by some television channels. Even though local newspapers are published daily – albeit reduced to a few pages only – they mainly regurgitate the government version of events. Their content largely comprises reports of official functions dished out by the state’s Information Department besides some agency stories on the evolving situation in the state. In the absence of the internet, the papers store and transfer content through pen drives. In a telling comment on the state of affairs, local newspapers often skip editorials, choosing rather to give more space to opinion pieces on apolitical issues like environment and health.
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The drift of the official discourse that so dominates the scene is one of a gradual progression, towards normalcy when the situation on the ground presents a contradictory picture. People are in a state of enforced ignorance about the situation. It is only crumbs of information, sometimes a mix of reality and rumour, that are floating around. Government has largely drained the public sphere of all the news except the one it wants people to know.
But this hasn’t made much of a difference to the public sentiment. An initial sense of shock over the hollowing out of Article 370 of the Constitution that guaranteed the state’s special status is giving way to alienation and anger. But it hasn’t so far bubbled up to the surface with the force that it otherwise did in the past. Last unrest in the Valley broke out in July 2016 as a spontaneous reaction to the killing of the militant commander Burhan Wani. It lasted until the end of the year and left around a hundred people dead and several hundred either partially or completely blinded as a result of the widespread use of pellet guns to quell the protests. Earlier, three successive summer unrests until 2010 had claimed scores of youthful lives, around 120 of them in 2010, the year which also witnessed the introduction of pellet guns as part of Jammu and Kashmir Police’s riot control gear.
The long haul
Will things go the same way again once the lockdown is lifted? So far all signs are pointing towards this outcome, a reason the government seems in no mood to loosen the curbs. Apart from the claimed restoration of landlines and some selective easing of movement of private transport, the communication blockade and the security clampdown remains very much in place. And there is no indication that this state of affairs is going to change anytime soon. The government, officials say, is prepared for a long haul and won’t relax its grip on the situation unless there is some certainty of the prevalence of peace. The understanding is that the Kashmir Valley will go through its “stages of grief” to finally get used to the new reality.
But will the people be reconciled to the situation? There is no easy answer to the question. The prevailing dominant sentiment in Kashmir points towards a deeper alienation with New Delhi. And it is unlikely this reality will change for a long time to come.
“Kashmir hasn’t got used to New Delhi’s rule over the past 70 years,” said Naseer Ahmad, a columnist. “ It is least likely this will happen now. Now, there is a grievance far bigger than there was at any other time in the past.”
According to Ahmad, Kashmir is protesting right now and the lingering lockdown only attests to this fact. If there is an unprecedented security lockdown across the state, it only shows that some large public response is sought to be curbed and prevented from unleashing itself, observers said. The longer the government continues with this exercise, the deeper the public unhappiness is.
For political commentator Gowhar Geelani, the situation in Kashmir now goes beyond any overt expression of the discontent. “The scrapping of Article 370 has fundamentally altered the situation,” he said. “It has, at once, put the identity and the demographic composition of the state on the line, something that has always been unacceptable to a predominant majority of the people of the state.”
He added: “This has introduced a new factor in the situation, something that has made reconciliation with New Delhi almost impossible. One can be sure of a new potential phase of uncertainty, turmoil and the violence.”
Many Kashmir observers also foresee intensification of the militancy in the state. Kashmir has already been reeling under a three-decade-long militant struggle. Besides, Kashmir could also witness an increased influx of militants from across the military line of control which will substantially raise the level of violence in the state, some keen Kashmir watchers fear.
There is one more post-clampdown scenario being bandied about in Kashmir: and it is the response to the situation by the state’s pro-India politicians currently under detention. Also termed as the state’s political mainstream, these politicians include three former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Ministers – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. They have bitterly opposed the repeal of the state’s special status and vowed to fight for its restoration. In the run up to the hollowing out of the Article 370 on August 5, all mainstream parties had closed ranks against such an occurrence but to no avail.
Once released, these politicians could also decide to unite and launch a mass movement for the reversal of the Article 370 revocation, observers say. Considering the mood in Kashmir, such a movement is likely to witness an significant public participation.
Should this happen, the long-running separatist movement will gel with the struggle for the restoration of special rights under the Constitution. For once, both separatists and unionists may define their politics in adversarial terms to New Delhi, if not sharing the same platform. And this can pose New Delhi its biggest challenge in Kashmir. For the first time in 70 years, it may find no Kashmiri leader is on its side in the state.