Omar has failed Kashmiris. So, the stones will speak again

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LESS THAN three years ago, Kashmir was a peaceful place to live in. The bunkers of the security forces that had dotted the face of Srinagar for the better Prem Shankar Jhapart of two decades had all but disappeared. There were no curfews. The economy was booming. The number of active militants in the Valley had dwindled to a few hundred, and infiltration across the Line of Control had almost ceased. Kashmiris had had enough of violence and were looking forward to a different future. When the first disturbances caused by the Amarnath land issue broke out in May 2008, ordinary Kashmiris reacted with hostility, for the inflow of tourists was brought to a sudden halt.

An election was scheduled for October and it was common knowledge that the Hurriyat would not issue a boycott call this time. Had everything gone as expected, Kashmir would have had its first normal election in 25 years. The new government would have had an unimpeachable mandate. By then all political groups, mainstream and dissident, had unveiled their chosen futures and the large degree of convergence between them was apparent to one and all. Therefore, the path to a permanent peace would have been wide open. By now the insurgency that had racked the Valley for 20 years would have become a fading memory. But Kashmir has become a pressure cooker. Instead of opening safety valves to let out the steam, the Omar Abdullah government is closing every escape valve it can find.

Not a whisper about this campaign of repression has found its way into the national media. Not a single television channel has reported what the state government is doing. Instead, all have swallowed the official line that Kashmir has calmed down; that Omar’s popularity is once more rising; that Kashmiris are sick of violence, they have rejected the stone-pelters, and are longing for peace and good governance.

But this state of denial is only for public consumption. Behind its façade, New Delhi has quietly given the state government a carte blanche to do whatever is needed to prevent a “repeat of last summer”.

Instead of opening safety valves, the Omar government is closing every escape valve

Since the ‘Durbar’ moved to Jammu in November, hundreds have been arrested in midnight swoops that hark back to the worst days of the insurgency of the ’90s. The goal of the police is to arrest stone-pelters and send the message: “We know you. You cannot hide from us. We will come and get you.” It is also to remove potential leaders of future stone-pelting.

All this is being done surreptitiously. Officially, the government claims to have fulfilled the Centre’s promise, made on 25 September, to release all stone-pelters. As a result, there are only 195 of them left in jails, booked under the Public Safety Act. In reality, however, the total number of stone-pelters imprisoned has more than doubled, from 1,800 at the end of September to 4,294 on 20 February. The arrest of 614 of these carried out this year has been hidden from the interlocutors.

Stone-pelters are not the only ones being targeted. All the local cable television channels have been shut down. An estimated four million prepaid SIM cards are being withdrawn. SMS remains banned and newspapers that are deemed to be pro-separatist or anti- Abdullah have had their advertising cut off. Among the newspapers that have suffered are Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Monitor and the Urdu newspaper Ikhlaq. The last is owned by Shia leader Maulvi Iftikhar Ansari, who is a People’s Democratic Party member. Kashmir Monitor and Ikhlaq have lost both state government advertisements and those from the Centre’s Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity.

The state government has also arrested a number of prominent persons whom they consider to be professional foments of dissent. These include Kashmir High Court Bar Association president Mian Qayoom and secretary general GM Shaheen. In the past, both have abused their positions to consciously spread disinformation. But the association has, nonetheless, been an important safety valve for the Kashmiri people to vent their grievances. Locking them up has almost certainly done far more harm than good.

Simmering anger The government has failed to solve the grievances of the young stone-pelters
Photo: Abid Bhat

The single most self-defeating action has been taken by the Delhi government almost certainly at the behest of the home ministry. This is to prevent the return of Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the Valley by detaining him in connection with a series of hawala cases. Geelani is the undisputed leader of the Valley’s extremist youth. As he has shown before, he is also the only person in that camp who does not want Kashmir to sink into an abyss of violence, and has sufficient control over the youth to prevent it.

The government’s purpose is clear: with Geelani’s principal lieutenants, Masarat Alam, Asiya Andrabi and her husband Mohammed Kasim Faktoo already in jail, they only have to remove him to render the stone-pelters leaderless. But history should have taught it that if such action is not accompanied with measures to address the root causes of alienation, removing one set of leaders only creates space for the emergence of more hardline leaders.

Bottling up the rage of the youth over last summer’s killings would have led to an explosion in any case. But the timetable for the explosion has been moved up by the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Even as these revolutions have made an armed uprising less likely, they have made a peaceful intifada a near certainty when the summer arrives. The surest way to prevent a Tahrir Square-type uprising is to give the anger that has grown over the past 10 months a democratic channel for self-expression.

For a government that has relied on precisely this expedient to end insurgencies in Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam and Punjab, the obvious course should have been to declare governor’s rule in Kashmir and hold fresh Assembly election in the shortest possible time. A Hindustan Times poll published on the day that the all-party Parliamentary delegation arrived in Kashmir last September, had shown that 86 percent of the respondents believed this would satisfy the demand for justice and accountability for the killing of the unarmed youth. But this was the one expedient that the Congress, in its collective wisdom, decided against.

The Centre has been persuaded that panchayat polls should be held on a non-party basis

TODAY, IT has another chance to turn Kashmiris’ attention back towards democratic self-expression. This is in the panchayat elections scheduled for next month. But this time it is the Omar government that is bent upon sabotaging democracy. Not only has it refused to incorporate the 73rd amendment of the Indian Constitution (which mandates five-yearly election, a guaranteed devolution of funds and an elective leadership of panchayat bodies) into the Kashmir Constitution, but it has persuaded the Centre that the elections should be held on a non-party basis and the state government should retain the right to nominate the heads of the elected panchayats and zilla parishads.

Kashmiris know only too well that the purpose of a non-party election is to conceal the support that various parties enjoy among the people. They also know that by retaining the right to nominate the heads of panchayat bodies, the National Conference (NC) will retain control of the loot of developmental funds that has been the hallmark of that benighted state.

In short, like the rigged elections of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the panchayat elections will also be a farce. The NC will retain its zamindari and New Delhi is so frightened by the prospect of Kashmir going out of its control that it will let the NC do whatever it wants so long as it keeps Kashmir in line.

premjha@airtelmail.in

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