Confusing signals

Published May 18, 2015

THE newly formed PDP-BJP government in Indian Jammu & Kashmir started with a big bang. On the very first day as chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, set the cat among the pigeons by thanking the Hurriyat Conference (an amalgamation of pro-freedom parties in India-held Kashmir), militants and Pakistan for allowing a smooth conduct of elections.

This greatly rankled TV pundits and the right-wing in New Delhi. There were embarrassed faces in the BJP and the Twitter outrage-brigade felt equally mortified. Realising the import of his inaugural statement as a freshly minted chief minister, Mufti Sayeed — ever a canny politician — let it be known that this was an effort towards building bridges along the political fault line in Kashmir.

Shortly afterwards the government released Masrat Alam, a pro-freedom leader known for his ingenuity in organising street protests. Technically (under court orders) the government was bound to set Alam free from prison where he had been languishing for the last five years on charges brought under the draconian Public Safety Act.

Is it a battle of ideas or battle against ideas in India-held Kashmir?

To his credit, Mufti Sayeed could have simply taken a leaf from his predecessor’s book and continued with Alam’s incarceration but he didn’t. Again the talking heads in TV studios saw red, angry howls came from the BJP and social media erupted. Mufti held his ground.

In an act of stagecraft, the chief minister attempted to silence his critics by suggesting that his government does not believe in stifling dissent. Alam’s release, he pointed out, was part of a philosophy called ‘battle of ideas’. Overnight, Kashmir had a new slogan.

Mufti has a penchant for this political stage show. In his previous stint as chief minister (2002-2005), he coined the slogan ‘healing touch’. It was meant to be his government’s policy of going soft on those who espoused slightly different ideological stances.

Ten years on, Mufti Sayeed, now in an alliance with India’s main right-wing Hindu party, attempted to take it to another level. His latest policy was viewed with a degree of scepticism by many. While trying to make a political gesture, the chief minister’s weak position, vis-à-vis New Delhi, could prove to be his undoing, they reckoned.

The sceptics were spot on. In the forests of Tral in south Kashmir, Khalid Muzaffar, an economics graduate was killed by the Indian army on April 13, 2015. Efforts to justify the killing by dubbing him an OGW (over ground worker), affiliated with militants, were rubbished by even the police.

Khalid’s family, friends and neighbours maintained he was innocent. The killing sparked a chain of pro-freedom protests in various parts of the valley. Hurriyat’s efforts to go to Tral to express solidarity with the bereaved family were foiled by the government.

All important leaders were placed under house arrest and their movement restricted. Curbs put on dissenting voices were now flying in the face of Mufti’s olive branch policy; his statements of conciliation rendered meaningless.

Barely a month after the much-talked about ‘battle of ideas’, the government seemed to abandon it. In a huge procession held in Srinagar to welcome Syed Ali Geelani, the chairman of Hurriyat Conference, several people unfurled the Pakistan flag.

There was sloganeering in the procession with Masrat Alam in the lead. The cycle of remonstrations began. Indian electronic media, which practises a very shrill and puerile brand of nationalism, cried foul. Promptly Alam was arrested and restrictions imposed on Geelani’s movement. ‘Battle of ideas’ was now out on a limb.

There was killing in the days ahead. On April 18, 2015 police fired on a group of young boys protesting in the Narbal area of north Kashmir. Suhail Sofi, a class 10 student, was killed. News of his death drew hundreds to join the protests.

Soldiers tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. Clashes followed. Columnists writing in Srinagar-based papers denounced the harsh tactics deployed by the government, which belied its own claims for an open exchange of ideas.

Mufti soon shifted gears. Statements emerged that the ‘battle of ideas’ comes with certain restrictions. That was akin to saying: you can come to the race but without your shoes on. If the beginning is any indication, the first quarter of the PDP-BJP rule has been a mix of confusing signals and paradoxes.

The issue in Kashmir isn’t as much about dominance of one set of ideas over another. It is about allowing competing narratives to emerge. There have been many instances of Pakistani flag-waving in the past. At the same time, one can’t overlook the turnout in the last assembly elections, for which Mufti actually thanked the pro-freedom camp.

If you acknowledge the pliancy showed by one side, why deny it from your end? That is the question Mufti must battle with.

The writer is a prominent Kashmiri blogger.

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2015

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