Kashmir discontent

Published April 24, 2016

MEHBOOBA Mufti has been the chief minister of India-held Jammu and Kashmir for less than a month, but finds herself caught up in a strange predicament. Public outrage over the killing of six Kashmiris at the hands of government forces in the second week after her inauguration has abruptly torpedoed her lift-off.

Kashmir is irate again, and the anger is very raw. For a long time, the security grid in the Valley had been sending out distress signals — about a renewed sense of disenchantment among the people, and a newfound disaffection with New Delhi.

In any case, it only takes a spark to flare up the powder keg that is Kashmir. On April 12, little over a week after the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP formed the government in Srinagar with the right-wing BJP, things started to come undone in the Valley.

It began with hearsay — that an Indian army soldier in the northern border township of Handwara had molested a minor schoolgirl. Given the sensitivity that the Indian army presence invokes in Kashmir, offhand protests broke out almost immediately.

The anger in India-held Kashmir is very raw.

Authorities panicked, aware that any assembly of people in Kashmir can quickly turn into an anti-India protest. Five young boys and one woman were killed over the next few days, as police and army used live ammunition to break up protests.

One of those dead was a young cricketer — Nayeem Qadir Bhat — a star performer at the state-level under-19 cricket competition.

Ms Mufti was caught off-guard, gallivanting in New Delhi during this time. She was constrained — as most elected officials in Kashmir are — to seek the intervention of India’s defence minister, to ask that the army not use force on unarmed civilians.

During this time Kashmir observed a complete shutdown, in solidarity with those killed. Meanwhile, authorities clamped a curfew in parts of the Valley. Several journalists who went to cover the fallout were roughed up.

As anger manifested on Kashmir’s vibrant social media, the police asked internet operators to suspend services, virtually cutting off the Valley, and imposed a complete information blockade. This has been a consistent pattern.

While it does little good to India’s PR machinery in Kashmir, where such acts of suppression are regularly derided, these restrictions routinely invite the wrath of respected global bodies such as Amnesty International, who have previously called internet bans in the Valley a severe assault on people’s ‘freedom of expression’.

Notwithstanding the measures to curb their expression and movement, public sentiment is on a slow burn in Kashmir. Several commentators have variously described the newfangled sentiment as “fearless”, a “dangerous new trend”, and a “huge challenge”.

The security establishment has been somewhat rattled — especially during the last one year — since it has had to deal with young Kashmiris, sometimes in their thousands, who take part in huge pro-freedom processions. Efforts to stop or discourage these impromptu rallies have yielded little to no result.

Often at the risk of their own lives people dart off to ‘encounter sites’ — areas that witness gun battles between militants and government forces. Earlier this year, two youths were killed in Pulwama when protesters attempted to distract troopers, who had trapped militants in a hideout.

Incidents such as these have become staple in Kashmir. Mass spontaneous gatherings at the last rites of militants are increasingly common. In the last year or so, people in their hundreds of thousands have attended these funerals across the Valley — in Tral, in Bijbe­hara, in Kulgam, in Pulwama, and elsewhere.

There are several reasons for this open — and renewed — approval for insurgency in the Valley. For one, India often comes down hard on the sentiment of azadi in Kashmir. Funerals of militants have therefore be­­come an outlet; a cha­n­nel for expressing collective anger and exasperation. Such processions are seen as an act of defiance, where people throw down the gauntlet.

Secondly, there is little space for resistance politics in Kashmir. Student unions are banned on campuses, while the pro-freedom Hurriyat leadership is perpetually under house arrest, and not allowed to mobilise. In a situation where the space for dissent is severely shrunk, it is no wonder that the death of a local militant quickly fills a football stadium.

Lastly, the news media in Delhi mostly toe an ultra-nationalistic line on Kashmir. Not surprisingly, the commentary on Kashmir — beamed into drawing rooms every night — finds zero takers in the Valley, where most people find it too ludicrous, too distant, too reductive, and without any nuance.

With the lack of any viable peace process, and no solution in sight for the seven-decade old Kashmir issue, sentiments are left simmering. It is hardly surprising then, that the support for the right to self-determination has begun to entice a new generation — an educated, even brilliant youth, who come from all sections of Kashmir society.

The writer is a journalist and blogger.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2016



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