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A week in Kashmir

July 14, 2012

A WEEK’S visit to Kashmir revealed the same deep sense of alienation among the people, the same system of repression, a continuing political vacuum, and a culture of impunity and denial of accountability, all capped by a feckless Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who never ceases to demonstrate his utter unfitness for the office.

Maturity was demonstrated after a fire razed to the ground on June 25 a 250-year-old shrine in Srinagar’s Khanyar locality built in memory of the revered saint Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani who is buried in Baghdad. The shrine in Srinagar housed some of his relics which are fortunately safe.

The Kashmir government ordered its reconstruction. In this task it will receive sound professional advice from “the heritage man of Kashmir”, Mohammed Saleem Beg, former DG of tourism and now convener of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. He had extensively documented the details of the shrine with precise drawings and digital photos. With a digital map of the shrine, he hopes substantially to restore it to its original grandeur.

As happens in such cases, fire tenders arrived late, were handicapped for reasons more than one and incurred public wrath. It was all contained the same day. The Hurriyat’s leaders of old called for a shutdown the next day on Tuesday. It passed off peacefully.

But the Omar Abdullah government sensed an opportunity and took recourse to a device which is used only in Kashmir: an ‘undeclared curfew’ imposed without the authority of the law. The police arbitrarily seal places for unspecified terms. That Omar Abdullah justified this drastic remedy was bad enough. Far more revealing was the language he used on June 28 on Twitter: “Why don’t you blame the stone-pelters? If I was so keen to ‘curfew you’, I’d have done it without the stone-throwing”. To the taunt that CM stood for curfew minister he responded “Enjoy yourselves. You have to find something to amuse yourselves, so have fun.” Teenagers use more sophisticated language.

The situation calls for united resistance to repression. Umer Maqbool of Greater Kashmir reported on June 22, that 3,400 persons were detained in the last two decades under the draconian Public Safety Act, 1978. The police have registered as many as six cases of stone-pelting against the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel since 2009. Besides, in 2010 as many as seven cases were registered against the paramilitary force in Sopore alone for unprovoked firing. Yet between 1990 and 2011, not a single case against a police official or army officer received the requisite sanction for prosecution from the local or central government.

These figures of arrests emerged thanks to the labours of human rights activists who invoked the Right to Information Act, 2009. This writer participated in a conference on good governance and panchayati raj at a rural resort Yusmarg, organised by the Centre for Rural Development, the J&K RTI Movement and Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti. Its moving spirit was Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat aided by a band of young RTI activists.As well as the Right to Information, participants discussed the shortcomings in the Jammu & Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 and in its implementation. Sarpanchas and panchas elected last year participated and voiced their grievances. Chief Information Commissioner G.K. Sufi disclosed that the Right to Information Act, 2009 was being invoked by “people from rural areas ... more than the urban population”. That they seek information about arrests and cases of misfeasance proves that they are as committed to azadi as the politicians.

This has been the fundamental mistake of Hurriyat leaders of all shades in the whole of the last two decades. They saw a conflict between the cry for azadi and the demand for good governance and reduced themselves to men who merely called for strikes, crippling life and inflicting hardship on the people. Even on the Kashmir question not one has a creative idea; all voice old slogans. The Muslim League and the Congress had their respective committees on economic planning even before independence. Truth to tell, the separatist leaders were at sea, afraid of creativity oblivious to the gains that would accrue if the cry for azadi was coupled with a demand for good governance and if a united movement was launched for the right to protest.

On June 18, Geelani Sahib warned that the youth were “considering other options” in the face of denial of this right. He has moderated his stand significantly; witness his five-points, his condemnation of stone-pelting and his call to treat tourists fairly. He has been very largely under house arrest since 2008. The main door of his house is barricaded; a narrow lane enables visitors to meet him. He is not permitted to say Friday prayers in a mosque.

A precarious peace prevails, as Shujaat Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir pointed out after the fire at the shrine “The potential of even a smaller incident to turn into a full-fledged ‘war for azadi’ has always been there. That is why to see the peace through bubbling tourism is always a wrong assessment to make. Political alienation in Kashmir is a permanent lesson, which New Delhi refuses to learn. That is why even an ‘accidental fire’ is the spark to kick-start an unending unrest. This time, however, both people and the separatists’ leadership has shown maturity in dealing with the situation. But how long?” How long, indeed.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.