The Valley is witnessing an unprecedented spell of protest and violence, which is unlikely to abate unless the BJP-led Centre embarks on an earnest effort to resolve the core issue of Kashmir’s autonomy as envisaged in the constitution.
Is something different happening in the Kashmir Valley this time round? This is the key question that seasoned watchers of Kashmiri politics are mulling over even as the Valley remains shut down, with the army, police and paramilitary forces imposing strict curfew. Of course, cynics argue that Kashmir has seen the cycle of violent protests, security crackdown, curfews and eventual return to normalcy umpteen times before, most recently in 2008 and 2010. Thus, they say, 2016 will be no different.
However, a visit to the Valley gives one an intuitive feeling that 2016 may well turn out to be very different in many ways. One can sense that the mass anger and outrage is unlikely to subside easily this time round. It is nearly six weeks since the region saw mass protests erupt on the streets followed by the brutal crackdown by security forces, which has left over 65 dead, thousands injured and hundreds partially or fully blinded by pellet guns. Yet, there appears to be a different level of motivation amongst the Kashmiri bourgeoisie to prolong and sustain the agitation initially spearheaded by the faceless stone pelters mostly in the age bracket of 12 to 18 years.
What is most striking this time is that large sections of the Kashmiri bourgeois elite – as represented by members of the High Court Bar Association, traders and manufacturers association, and the university teachers association – have unanimously resolved to fight a long drawn battle, even if it means shutting down all economic activity, for the core issue of Kashmir’s autonomy as envisaged in the constitution at the time of its accession to India. The Kashmir traders and manufacturers association members say they will follow the roadmap of agitation laid down by Hurriyat leaders, mostly under house arrest, and will not resume economic activity even if it means suffering losses for a longer period. An office bearer of the association said this is harvest season for apples and other horticulture products, and the current sentiment suggests the farmers are unlikely to harvest and market their produce as a mark of protest.
Don’t forget this the the first time that the mass protest has spread to rural Kashmir. This is another big difference between the current episode and the ones witnessed in 2008 and 2010, which were confined to urban areas. The medium term political response of rural Kashmir is still an unknown phenomenon as it has no precedent.
So if the farmers carry out their threat of not harvesting their produce, it will be a rare mode of satyagraha practiced at the political level by rural Kashmiris. Of course, the Centre is indulging in a game of political brinkmanship and has kept mostly silent in the last 45 days assuming the Kashmiris will automatically return to routine economic activity out of sheer compulsion. But the NDA government has been surprised by the new resilience shown by the Kashmiri society. Even after so much time has elapsed, there is little sign of the mass movement showing any sign of dissipating.
It is possible the Centre had initially assumed that things would normalise within a few weeks, as it had previously. However, the Centre seems to have realised there is something different happening now. Consequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke for the first time Monday (August 22) to a visiting delegation of opposition leaders from the state emphasising the need for a dialogue to find a permanent solution to Kashmir within the constitution. After 45 days of silence and no reference to Kashmir in his Independence Day speech, the prime minister finally expressed his “deep concern and pain” to the delegation of Kashmiri leaders. This itself is a recognition by New Delhi that the core issue of Kashmir autonomy needs addressing, with urgency. Most Kashmiri leaders and citizens this writer spoke to were deeply hurt by the “cynical” reference to Balochistan and no mention of the pain experienced by Kashmiris, especially the young pellet victims, in Modi’s Independence Day speech.
As part of a group of journalists and social activists who visited Srinagar last week, this writer met a large number of different civil society groups such as lawyers, teachers, businessmen and bureaucrats, all of whom were unanimous that the core issue of Kashmir autonomy must be addressed with a sense of urgency. Zafar Shah, a former president of the High Court Bar Association in Srinagar, said,”What is happening in Kashmir is a consequence of historical problems which have not been addressed. We have to urgently address the root cause and not the consequences which manifest as eruption of violent protests every now and then”. This sentiment is echoed by Mohammed Hussain, the president of the Kashmir University Teachers’ Association, who said the youth has totally taken over the movement for ‘azaadi’ which is spreading all over rural Kashmir now. “Our children are not willing to listen to us anymore. And we see this tendency all around, even among students in the University. So the root cause needs to be addressed urgently”.
Teachers best understand their pupils. If you were to believe the teachers, the current protests are a different ball game altogether. New Delhi’s lazy reading that throwing more money and jobs at Kashmiris will quell the current unrest is farthest from the truth. A bureaucrat working in the revenue department said the state government has advertised for about 15000 jobs in the police department and the rest of bureaucracy but there is minimal response in the form of applications. Can you imagine this happening in any other part of India?
Clearly, a form of civil disobedience is currently gripping Kashmir, which both the central and state governments did not anticipate. Former chief minister and leader of the opposition Omar Abdullah was forthright when he told NDTV,”Not one MLA in Kashmir has the courage to visit his constituency today”. Most mainstream parties are losing their relevance in Kashmir in the current situation. The separatist Hurriyat Conference has been brought centre stage as one entity with whom New Delhi can start a dialogue. Ironically, both the BJP and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who run a government in Jammu and Kashmir, had written off the separatist Hurriyat Conference as irrelevant in recent times. In a strange twist of events, the Centre may have to start talks with Hurriyat leaders in whom the Kashmiri civil society seems to have reposed much faith, at least for now.
It remains to be seen how the mainstream political parties in the state respond to the emerging situation. Both the National Conference and PDP have formally endorsed some form of autonomous self rule in their own political manifestos. Will they be forced to revive those, if only for their survival? The BJP-PDP alliance agenda document also specifically mentions the need for a sustained dialogue with all political entities in Kashmir, including the Hurriyat and Pakistan, to resolve the core issues relating to political autonomy. Will Modi honour the alliance agenda commitment? Only that can possibly save the BJP-PDP alliance which is otherwise surely likely to unravel sooner or later. Kashmir appears to be in a deep churn and its complexity is still to fully unfold.