The Valley will accept a client regime no more

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Kashmiri youth’s abjuring of guns has conferred moral ascendancy on separatism, and drawn attention to the rage against injustice that must be addressed.

Prem Shankar Jha
Senior Journalist

KASHMIR IS in the early stages of an intifada. The home minister dismissed the upsurge of anger in the Valley in June by accusing the Lashkar-e-Toiba of being behind the stone pelters. What no one seems to have realised is that the decision of Kashmiri youth to abjure the use of guns and throw stones instead has conferred a moral ascendancy on the separatist movement that it never enjoyed before. In 1990, most Kashmiris had not approved of the boys’ decision to pick up guns. A significant proportion were therefore prepared to concede that the State might have resorted to violence in selfdefence. By exchanging stones for guns, today’s generation of militants has deprived India of this shield at one stroke. As a result, each fresh death of a boy at the hands of the police or paramilitary is feeding a rage the Valley has never known.

Stone throwing is a time-honoured tradition in Kashmir but until just two years ago, it was, with rare exceptions, a ritualised way to express animosity between rival sects of Muslims in the Valley. It developed into a protest against Indian rule after the crackdown ordered by the Manmohan Singh government over the heads of the Kashmir governor and civil administration on August 22, 2008. Today it has been refined further into the most potent threat to the legitimacy of central rule that the Indian State has ever faced in Kashmir. With no pressure from public opinion, the government has been perfectly willing to let a sleeping dog lie. For, to admit it has a problem means having to answer the question “Where did we go wrong?”

Delhi’s self-delusion began in December 2008 when, to its surprise and delight, there was a 52 percent voter turnout in the Valley despite the re-imposition of President’s Rule. This was 22 percent more than in 2002. The hawks in North Block therefore felt vindicated, thinking it proved that Kashmiris were tired of living in fear and wanted to resume normal lives.

If the stone-pelters are so disorganised, why are they so highly motivated? Only an anger that is beyond control can overcome the instinct for self-preservation and make one throw oneself in death’s way. Such rage is not born out of poverty, but out of a profound rebellion against injustice. In Kashmir it is embedded in the collective unconscious of its youth. Seven out of 10 Kashmiris are below the age of 25. Not one has known a day when the talk among elders was not of death — of relatives and acquaintances killed or arrested, of classmates who had crossed over into Pakistan, of rapes, custodial killings and deaths of innocents in crossfire. Today their animosity towards India is set in stone.

Seven out of 10 Kashmiris are below the age of 25. Not one has known a day when the talk among elders was not of death

Javaid Malla was only 19. He had a job in a bag manufacturing factory. But he had not known a day’s peace in his life. He was both a friend and (if newspaper reports are accurate) relative of Muhammad Rafiq Bangroo, who was severely beaten by the police and declared dead on June 19. What pushed Malla over the brink that fateful Sunday was the police’s refusal to let Bangroo’s funeral procession proceed to the martyrs’ graveyard at the Idgah: this was one injustice too many.

For more than 40 years, the National Conference (NC) was the main beneficiary of this corrupt and clientelist system. As those whom it favoured grew richer, and Delhi showered more and more largesse on the state, they became more and more determined to stave off challenges to their power. In the eyes of political dissidents, this new class and the party that had spawned it became inextricably associated with the rule of New Delhi over Kashmir.

Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had applied a healing touch, and empowered Kashmiris within the Indian democratic system

This is the crucial difference between the government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (2002-05) and that of Omar Abdullah today. Mufti Sayeed is an astute politician who is remembered for the healing touch he applied. But the real reason for his success was that during his term Kashmiris for the first time felt the stirrings of empowerment and began to believe that they could take control of their future within the Indian democratic system.

Contrary to the fears of the security forces, Mufti did not put a brake upon their counter-insurgency operations. But he did insist that the militants be treated as human beings while in police custody, and given every chance to be rehabilitated. He secured the cooperation of the army and police in bringing down the number of custodial deaths, made them investigate every questionable use of power that led to civilian deaths and, personally or through his daughter Mehbooba Mufti, apologised to the bereaved families.

Contrary to expectations, Mufti did not launch a vendetta against either the NC or the officials known to be close to it. Nor did he discriminate against Kashmiri businessmen on this ground. Instead, he promoted Kashmiri officials to senior positions and concentrated on bringing a degree of accountability into governance in Kashmir. He passed a Right to Information Act, personally held senior officials responsible for specific programmes. He forcibly evicted all those who had grabbed large swathes of land around the Dal and Nageen lakes and, perhaps most importantly, stalled repeated attempts by the builders’ lobby to grab forest land on the Amarnath pilgrimage route.

Finally, Mufti and his daughter pushed through Kashmir’s first local government election in decades. The high turnout was a precursor to the 69.02 percent turnout in three highly politicised constituencies in the Valley in the Assembly bye-election of 2006. This was only 2 percent short of the turnout in Kashmir’s last free and fair election before the insurgency in 1983.

All this went into reverse gear within months of Mufti’s replacement by Ghulam Nabi Azad. Azad’s first move was to reverse Mufti’s efforts to withdraw the armed forces and paramilitary from policing functions and return these to the Kashmir police. Through his tenure, several hundred vacancies in the police, including scores of vacancies at the level of superintendent and deputy superintendent of police remained unfilled. The immediate result was a dramatic change in the behaviour of the paramilitary forces and a rise in custodial and encounter deaths.

Early in 2007 he brought into force the Jammu and Kashmir State Lands (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act. Passed in 2001 by the NC government and dubbed the Roshni Act. It had legalised all squatters who had occupied government land before a certain date on the pretext that the revenues generated from doing so would help finance power projects. This Act had been stalled by the Mufti government, which realised that its real purpose was to deliver all remaining government lands into the hands of the Kashmir builders’ lobby.

AYEAR LATER, it was Azad’s government that, through a PDP minister, also transferred 40 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and set off the explosion of unrest that precipitated the disastrous crackdown in Kashmir.

It was into this seething cauldron that Delhi threw Omar Abdullah, in the naive belief that his youth, decency and sincerity would somehow suffice to give India a fresh start in Kashmir. He never stood a chance. The Shopian incident accelerated the timetable of alienation.

Thus, quite suddenly, the stone-pelting youth have become the spearhead of a new movement gaining support day by day. And New Delhi has no answer.

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