More than three years after a stroke of a pen not only struck down Kashmir’s special status but downgraded a once celebrated state into two Union territories, the people of Kashmir who seemed to have disappeared in despair and hopelessness, were visible again.
Photographs and videos bear witness to the fact that Kashmiris came out in large numbers to be part of Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. There have been massive public rallies before as a sort of show of strength by mainstream political parties and the cadres have been turning up. However, the Bharat Jodo Yatra this week was different.
Those present when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi entered Kashmir near the famous Banihal tunnel said the scenes were also different. There was a sea of people waiting as Rahul Gandhi came out of the tunnel cutting through the massive PirPanjal which connects Kashmir with the rest of India. Singing, showering him with almonds (a tradition reserved for a revered guest). Those lining both sides of the road were not just followers and supporters of the Congress and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who joined Gandhi in Kashmir; they were average Kashmiris without any party allegiance, who may or may not echo the sentiments Rahul started the yatra with, but perhaps wanted to give voice to their own sentiments.
As Omar joined Rahul and walked like his twin dressed, in the same white shirt, hordes of Kashmiris joined them, braving the cold and sub-zero temperatures. For the first time in the recent past, Kashmiris were not afraid to be seen. As People’s Democratic Party leader and former BJP ally Mehbooba Mufti admitted in a tweet, “Rahul Gandhi’s yatra comes like a breath of fresh air in Kashmir. It is the first time since 2019 that Kashmiris have come out of their homes in such massive numbers it. Was a great experience to walk with him.” Even Omar Abdullah that “seeing so many people was encouraging”. Both parties have held public rallies before, but they could see that the representation of the average Kashmiri was much higher here.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra began on September 7 and culminated in Srinagar on January 30.
The question is if the yatra will provide the vent that Kashmiris need. Political activity has been negligible since the BJP government at the Centre started ruling Kashmir directly after the dilution of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. It has been eight years since the last elections were held in 2014, when the BJP extended support to the PDP to form the government. The time that has passed is reminiscent of the old days when the militancy was on, when elections were conducted after nine years in Jammu and Kashmir. However after the two parties, ideologically poles apart, decided to part ways, the BJP government instead of holding fresh elections dissolved the state assembly and established president’s rule in the erstwhile state through the lieutenant-governor. The L-G appointed by Delhi was later considered to be a representative of the state assembly.
The downgraded state has been without an elected government for well over four years. The opposition PDP and National Conference have shown support for the Yatra from its very inception. Senior NC leader Farooq Abdullah joined the Yatra on two occasions previously. However, it is the reaction of Muslim-majority Kashmir to the Yatra which is significant. The 3,500-km-long Yatra which Rahul took out garnered immense support throughout the country, but the response it drew in Jammu and Kashmir was special.
The Congress has maintained that the dilution of Article 370 was done in an unconstitutional and undemocratic way because the BJP had a majority in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. “There was no discussion, no cross examination of the Bill and it was forcefully passed, as the ruling government misused its power of absolute majority,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said when the Bharat Jodo Yatra reached the erstwhile state earlier this month. However, there has been no promise of rolling back the 2019 decision if the Congress is voted to power. In spite of being repeatedly prodded by journalists, Rahul kept repeating that his position remains the same as the Congress’s official position, that statehood was important and so is starting the democratic process. But it was clear that Rahul Gandhi didn’t want to get on to the wrong side of the electorate with the mention of the forbidden words which may cause problem for the Congress outside the region.
The Gandhi scion did try to touch an emotional chord by going back to his Kashmiri roots and saying, “coming to Kashmir felt like home coming”. He also acknowledged the “sadness” that has engulfed the valley, he talked about opening his heart and arms. He also said he understood pain as he has been a “victim of violence”.
The symbolism associated with hoisting a flag on Lal Chowk’s clock tower also doesn’t go down well with an average Kashmiri. Rahul was trying to evoke his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru’s flag hoisting after defeating the Pakistani tribal attack, which was celebrated by Kashmiris like a festival.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra reached Kashmir when the valley was at its lowest point. Since August 5, 2019, people are filled with a sense of disillusionment and hopelessness. No date has been set for the promised elections, unemployment is at its peak and the administration run by LG Manoj Sinha is distant and unapproachable. Besides the gun, narcotics are thought to have entered society, with 70,000 people affected according to a recent survey.
Kashmir has been in the thrall of a sense of numbness, mistaken often for a lull, like never before. The common Kashmiri seems to react to nothing, including the provocations which come in terms of new rules and regulations every now and then. The fact is that Kashmir remains volatile and, despite the tall claims made by the BJP, unresolved as it was in the last 30 years. Even on Republic Day, all of Kashmir had shut down in protest. This in spite of strict orders from the government to keep government offices and business establishments open.The public holiday which marks the anniversary of Republic Day was cancelled for the people of Kashmir.
The security scenario is not any better, the killings of minorities are no longer a thing of the past. There is disillusionment and disengagement. An average Kashmiri is interested in everything but politics. Kashmiris are still your best host, the wazwan has not lost its charm; Kashmiris still makes amazing kahw; Kashmir is still the best salesperson for nature’s beauty. But the removal of the toothless special status has been the last nail in the coffin of how an average Kashmiri sees her political relevance. Now it needs to be seen whether Rahul is actually able to resonate with Kashmiri sentiments. Will it spell some hope? Does coming out in support of the Yatra mean that the Kashmiri is ready to be seen again, or is it just a one-off event? Will it rekindle the political spark or will Kashmiri spirit go back into oblivion?
Toufiq Rashid is a journalist who has covered the Kashmir conflict, health and wellbeing for top Indian newspapers for nearly two decades. She now works at @Pixstory.