Conquer hearts, not the valley!
When someone smiles reassuringly, to suggest everything is just wonderful in Kashmir--do not believe this. Because, it is not true! It simply does not happen, like that, and is just foolhardy to expect that normalcy could have been restored in Jammu and Kashmir, in only a month particularly, after the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, had done away with J& K's special status.
This would also be against the wishes of what some people, would like you to believe, that Kashmir is bleeding profusely. Nor, should we be misled to accept that the people are running helter-skelter, to escape the bullets and pellets, reportedly, flying in all directions--in the townships of Kashmir.
Truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Kashmir is tense, almost on the edge. People are upset, morose and rebellious. Are there any people left in Kashmir who support the Centre's move on Article 370? None, almost. I read the interview of one such supporter--the state BJP minority wing chief--out of over a hundred people, who were interviewed, in Srinagar and Anantnag, three weeks ago.
That guy was holed up in the Police Colony in Anantnag, not daring to leave the heavily guarded campus to even visit his wife, who has recently gone through a major surgery.
One must appreciate the self restraint of India's security forces, now deployed in the troubled valley. They have borne the brunt of criticism, barbs and attacks from everyone who has claimed to have a stake in Kashmir--including the peaceniks, the activists, the commentators, the 'conflict zone' reporters, the liberals.
The junta would never oppose the abrogation of Article 370 publicly, and India's naive politicians, so long they felt that Narendra Modi's image is that of a strong, decisive Prime Minister and statesman. And, without any doubt, they would take a sure beating, if there had existed any absence of normalcy in Kashmir.
In just over a month, there have been over three hundred incidents of stone-pelting--but the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) claims it hasn't fired a single shot. Remember, only last February, CRPF had lost 40 personnel in the Pulwama terror attack.
One has to see it to believe in the degree of public anger and provocations the CRPF personnel have to deal with. As a senior security official puts it: 'Those (from outside India) who have conveniently forgotten the existence of Guantanamo Bay, are curious about Kashmir today.' Who can write this statement off?
There were about 40 deaths in the first week after the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016, says a senior functionary in Srinagar Raj Bhavan. There has been none in the first four weeks since the revocation of Article 370, except a shopkeeper who was killed by militants. This credit must go to the country's security forces.
Those on the front line in the Valley are taking confidence-building measures--a job India's politicians should be doing, but were unable to do so. Indians must take the case of Abhinav Kumar, Inspector General, Frontier Headquarters, Border Security Force, Srinagar. Anxious to counter the 'propaganda' over the 'disarming' of Kashmiris in forces, he makes it a point to travel around with a well-armed Kashmiri Muslim for his personal security. Security forces are under instructions to 'maintain restraint' and let the people (the stone-pelters) vent out their frustration and anger, as long as there is no threat to their own lives.
However, the security forces can do only this much. The political vacuum shouldn't be allowed to persist for long. Back in 1971, Pakistan's military leadership had committed exactly the same blunder, allowing the vacuum to reign in for three quarter of the year in the erstwhile East Pakistan. By this time, a lot of water had flown under the bridge. The damage was irreversible. The largest Muslim country was truncated.
The security establishment's hope now hinges on agitated Kashmiris wearing themselves out, sooner than later and accepting the abrogation of Article 370 as a fait accompli. Kashmiris are also expected to be mollified by a central development package and promises of jobs and investment.
A reporter from India Today, who was travelling back from Anantnag to Srinagar last week, had decided to stop by to talk to villagers about the state-turned-UT's development - much advertised by Governor Satya Pal Malik in national newspapers - in the last one year.
The village was named Sursana, about 45 km south of Srinagar. Some youngsters at a saw mill smiled derisively, at the questions as an elderly person burst out: 'Is it the time to talk about development? We have been blown to bits. Please leave'. Just when this visit seemed to be turning ugly, with a group of agitated villagers following them to the highway, the CRPF personnel deployed across the road intervened, advising the reporters in simple Hindi 'nikal jao'. We must understand the situation, without giving vent to our wishes. Again, they broached the subject of development near the National Conference office in Srinagar, leaving a group of youngsters laughing.
'You guys are from Delhi, aren't you? You think Kashmiris are poor and Modi can buy us. How much do you pay an unskilled labourer - Rs 350 a day? We pay these migrant labourers (mostly from North India) Rs 750 a day. Have you seen any beggar here? Keep your development and your jobs'. They could be boastful though. In the middle of the agitation that erupted post-Burhan Wani killing, 15,000 applicants had turned up for 100 vacancies in the state.
There may be a lot of pessimism in the Valley today but one can't draw any conclusion about how the future will unfold. The Centre may still be proved right if the Kashmiris decide to let bygones be bygones and start everything all over again. But for that to happen, the Centre, especially the ruling party, must be ready to make a few compromises.
With the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) rendered irrelevant--by design or by default--and the Congress being a marginal player, the BJP can fancy a shot at power on its own in Jammu and Kashmir. As it is, there is a big question mark on the participation of the mainstream parties in the polls that the government had planned to hold, sometime next year.
The NC and the PDP chiefs are still in detention, and the Centre lacks any program to release them in immediate future. Even after they are released, would these former chief ministers, who are already reviled as 'pro-India' leaders in the Valley today, choose to participate in the polls and vie for the post of a UT CM with no real powers? In the event of these parties staying away from the elections, the constitution of a defanged Legislative Assembly of Jammu & Kashmir union territory would be a travesty, with the BJP candidates virtually getting a walkover as seen in the local body elections, last year.
Remember the consequences of a farcical assembly election in 1987? It was rigged only to re-install Farooq Abdullah as the chief minister, with the Muslim United Front crying foul. It was the trigger for the bloodshed in the Valley in the coming years. Incidentally, Yusuf Shah a.k.a. Syed Salahuddin had contested the 1987 election on an MUF ticket but lost. He went on to head militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen.
A farcical election, even if it installs the BJP as the ruling party in Jammu and Kashmir UT, is likely to do more damage than good. At this point in time, one doesn't see any alternative political leadership emerging in the UT as envisioned by Prime Minister Modi.
What the Centre can, meanwhile, do is to replace Governor Malik with an LG who understands Kashmir--someone like Wajahat Habibullah. Or, the Centre may think of breaking the convention of the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor being from outside the state/UT. In the absence of a local political leadership, an LG from Jammu or Kashmir would probably connect better with a fellow Kashmiri.
That would be a sacrifice by the BJP for the larger national interest. The second sacrifice the BJP must make is not to rub salt on Kashmiris' injured ego, with their state (now UT) being stripped of the special status. Although spin doctors in the government claim that Modi has instructed ministers and MPs not to go overboard with celebrations over Article 370, the party has a different plan.
The BJP has launched a month-long mass contact drive in the coming week, over Article 370; it will hold 35 mega rallies and 370 outreach programmes across the country. Such display of 'victory' by the ruling party would alienate Kashmiris further.
The third sacrifice the BJP should make for larger national interest is to ask its leaders or workers to stop talking about how all Indians can now purchase land in Kashmir or marry Kashmiri women.
When you talk to ordinary Kashmiris about what really hurts them, they don't talk about the finer points of Article 370. It's more of a generic, emotive issue of how their special status has been taken away (without obtaining their consent).
The hurt sentiments may still heal over a period of time. What seems to gnaw at them is their belief that 'outsiders' would be brought into Kashmir in a planned way to divest them of their rights and privileges and effect demographic changes. The Centre doesn't have to restore Article 35A. Just the replication of laws, which restrict purchase of properties in Himachal Pardesh, Uttarkhand and northeastern States of India.
Perhaps, this can go a long way in allaying apprehensions of people in the Valley. Let's hope good faith wins over the hearts of Kashmiris.
The writer is a former educator based in Chicago