Modi and Shah Forget that Kashmir is No Tibet, India is No China

To impose its writ, the government has had to imprison nearly 80 lakh people in their homes, disconnected from each other and the world.

It has been more than a month since the announcement in parliament by home minister Amit Shah changed the fate of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and along with it, our collective future too.

Make no mistake, despite the distance between Kashmir and the rest of India (more of conscience than real), our fates have increasingly become aligned, even if we don’t realise it just now.

The government of India has been claiming that it is all for a good cause — development and welfare of the Kashmiri people. The fact that the Kashmiri people have not been asked whether they want this kind of development, is a minor detail.

In any case, why point fingers at this government alone; infantilising the Kashmiri people by claiming that they don’t know what is good for them has been a consistent attitude of the successive governments in Delhi. Which is why on the high table where decisions are made, there has never been any chair for a Kashmiri.

The development may come to Kashmir in the future. But before that, there will be pain. A lot of it and spread over a long period of time. Not just for the Kashmiris — who, by our reckoning, clearly deserve it — but for the rest of us nationalist Indians.

Also read: ‘Kashmiris Should Be Given Freedom to Take Their Own Decisions’: Punjab Farmers

Consider this, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Annual Report for 2016-2017, ‘Rs 988.55 crore has been reimbursed to Jammu and Kashmir Government under SRE (P) till 28.02.2017, which is the highest ever.’

The following year, this expenditure came down to Rs 627.87 crore (Annual Report 2017-18). The SRE or security related expenditure only covers the cost of deployment of the Central Armed Police Forces in the state and the state police involved in counter-insurgency operations. The cost of maintaining the army in J&K, both on the Line of Control as well as in the hinterland on the counter-insurgency grid, form part of the defence budget, which, as is well-known, is terribly skewed in favour of revenue rather than capital. Nearly 80% of the defence budget goes into paying salaries and only 20% is spent on modernisation. The implications of this for India’s defence preparation are obvious.

Then there are central grants. According to a 2016 report, since 2000, the state of J&K had been getting nearly 10% of all central grants. In real terms, Rs 1.14 lakh crore has been spent on the state in 16 years (2000-2016). None of this factor in the unaccounted funds released by the government to the intelligence agencies operating in the state, which use it to pay off the informers and to keep small-time politicians and potential disruptors on India’s side. A similar unaudited fund is also released to the Indian Army for maintaining its so-called intelligence grid and a friendly media.

A boy jumps into the Dal Lake, days before the August 5 decision was announced. Photo: Reuters

Now with the additional infusion of over 30,000 troops since July 2019, the cost of hosting them will go up. Given the state of the Indian economy, with the fear of real depression looming, any additional cost is going to cause serious pain.

What’s more, the J&K governor Satya Pal Malik has also generously announced that 50,000 jobs will be created in the state. In fact, he has asked the Kashmiris to quickly queue up for these jobs, suggesting that these are being opened shortly. It’s another matter that with the level of unemployment in the rest of the country at an all-time high of 6.7%. Clearly we will be required to make greater sacrifices to ensure that government’s adventure in Kashmir has a semblance of success.

The tangibles aside, a greater sacrifice will have to be made by the Indian military, who will have to side-step its primary task of preparing for a conventional war in favour of committing more numbers, man-hours and limited resources to maintaining peace in the state as well as staying in perpetual readiness to carry out political strikes against Pakistan in case it doesn’t mend its perfidious ways. Taking lessons from an ostrich, we will have to ignore the Chinese military challenge because there is only much the Indian forces can do and our beleaguered economy sustain.

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Yet, all this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg which sank the Titanic. The real challenge will be when the streets of Kashmir start to speak. Today, they are silent for most part, breaking into sporadic, impromptu, but insignificant protests. Yet, this silence is frightening.

Because in Kashmir, nothing is ever as it looks.

“Right now, nobody knows what a Kashmiri is feeling or thinking,” said an educationist who has been living in Delhi since 2005 and has been working on government of India programmes for education and empowerment in remote areas.

“The only thing that can be said with any degree of confidence is that there is a lot of anger in the Valley. There is a huge sense of betrayal amongst people like us who love India and believed in co-existence with India. I did not expect the government to behave like this. In one thoughtless moment it has undone years of hard-work that people like us had put-in in the decade of 2005-2015, trying to bring as much normalcy as possible within the Constitution of India,” she said.

A deserted, weed-ridden Dal Lake amidst the clampdown following August 5. Photo: Reuters

“We tried to bridge the divide between the people of Kashmir and mainland India. To some extent we were successful too. But, look what have they done now?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s not just the abrogation [in effect, reading down] of the special status. The government’s action has actually exposed the divide between the two people. I am appalled by the reaction of mainstream Indian people. Forget about the politics at the moment. It is a humanitarian crisis.”

Sitting with her in her office were three young visitors from the Valley. Initially unsure about how much to say to an Indian journalist, gradually, the youngest of them opened up. A student at the University of Kashmir, he was in Delhi en route to Dubai to visit his brother who works there.

“What has India got by doing this?” he posed. “They think they will be able to buy land there and build holiday homes? Seriously, do they really believe that once the curfew is lifted Kashmiris are just going to carry on with their lives as if nothing has happened?”

“Frankly, the special status meant nothing. India controlled everything. Even the chief minister had no power,” added the oldest of the visitors, who introduced himself as an angry Kashmiri man. “All that the special status did was give us an illusion of being in control of our land, our language, our culture and our history. India wants to wipe out our identity. It wants to rewrite our narrative. As far as land is concerned, Indians cannot buy land in so many other states, so why this obsession with Kashmir? Clearly, this politics is about religion, nothing else.”

Also read: Media Reports Allege ‘Brutal Torture’ by Security Forces in Kashmir

Shushing her visitors, the educationist and the host for the afternoon, summed up the interaction. “Kashmiris are smart people. They are also very resilient. Years of suffering have strengthened their spirit. Even now, sitting at home, fighting their fears they would be thinking about new ways of resistance. Trust me it will not be anything that you expect. You think there will be violence? Maybe, there will be no violence. Maybe, there will be something else.”

Can leaderless people come up with a coherent plan for resistance? After all, everyone with any potential for mobilisation — from mainstream and separatist politicians to student leaders, trade unionists, lawyers, ulemas and human rights activists — are under arrest.

“Circumstances create leaders. In Kashmir, different circumstances have thrown up different kind of leaders. Sometimes they don’t even have to be alive to mobilise the people. We just have to wait and see.”

Lessons not learnt

In the autumn of 2008, when the Kashmir Valley was limping back to a semblance of normalcy — a euphemism for intermittent periods of calm — after the summer of violence triggered by the proposed transfer of 100 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), I sat opposite a portrait of a man with poet Allama Iqbal’s verse in Urdu inscribed on it in Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference’s chairperson Sajad Lone’s office.

The verse ‘Tu shaheen hai parvaaz hai kaam tera/ Tere saamne aasmaan aur bhi hain’ (You are an eagle, to soar is your job/ you have more skies ahead of you) piqued my interest in the man in the portrait. Once Lone came in the room and settled down, I asked him about the portrait. He was surprised that I didn’t know the man. As was my photographer, a local Kashmiri.

“That is Maqbool Bhat,” he told me in a voice bordering on reverence.

“Maqbool Bhat, of course I know of him,” I said dismissively. He was hanged in Tihar jail in the early 1980s.

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Lone didn’t look very pleased with my tone. It seemed that he wanted to put me right about Bhat, but then changed his mind. After all, I had not sought the appointment to discuss his sentiments about Bhat.

But the verse stayed with me. Over the next few years, I came across a somewhat similar portrait in different settings in Kashmir. This time I didn’t ask any questions. I simply accepted that Bhat was the tallest, most inspirational Separatist leader whose ideological exertions continued to shape the discourse in the Valley.

My interest in Bhat was, however, aroused a couple of years ago, after the killing of Burhan Wani. An angry local had then said to me, “You kill one Burhan. Many more will rise. Just as many Maqbools were born when you killed one”.

Kashmiri women mourn the death of Burhan Wani, a separatist militant leader, during his funeral in Tral, south of Srinagar, July 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Like a flash, it occurred to me then that perhaps, Bhat’s heroism had to do with the manner of his death and not his life. Quite like Wani. A hero was not born. He was killed.

All political movements, especially those against the State, have their moments of ebb and tide. But what sustains them for generations are heroes — people with extraordinary ability to inspire. Most movements atrophy because of their inability to create such heroes. Perhaps, this fate could have befallen the Kashmiri movement too, but for the unwillingness of the government of India to learn from history.

Consequently, in its 30 years, the Kashmiri insurgency has drawn inspiration from three heroes — Maqbool Bhat, Afzal Guru and Burhan Wani — one each for a generation, passing the baton on, keeping the sentiment alive and the resolve steadfast. For this, the Kashmiris must thank the government of India, which presented their movement with these iconic figures as anchors and contributed enormously towards their myth-making through its short-sighted assertion of authority.

According to a Srinagar-based political historian Ashiq Hussain, Bhat’s hanging in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in February 1984 went almost unnoticed in Kashmir. It was not because the government blacked-out the news, but because most Kashmiris didn’t really know why Bhat was a big enough deal to be executed or mourned. He attained martyrdom five years after his death in 1989, when the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), an offspring of National Liberation Front, the organisation Bhat founded in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) raised the flag of azadi and observed his fifth death anniversary.

Maqbool Butt of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Photo: Unknown, Illustration: The Wire

An average Kashmiri could not be blamed for his ignorance. Through the 1960s and 70s, Bhat was a fringe maverick who raised the banner of azadi for Kashmir at a time when separatist sentiment was almost non-existent except among the Jamaat-e-Islami cadre which favoured merger with Pakistan. Like many Kashmiris in those days, Bhat frequently crossed the Line of Control (then Ceasefire Line) between the two Kashmirs. He was not training in handling of arms. For most parts it was seeking better economic opportunities and indulging in small time politics, mainly in POK.

Because of his frequent crossings of the LoC, he was suspected of being an Indian spy, often arrested by Pakistan Army and tortured. Eventually, Indians agencies caught on with his movements too. Once while crossing over from POK in 1966 in the hope of recruiting more people to the cause of Kashmiri independence, he was accosted by the Indian troops. In the ensuing fire, an Indian CID officer and one of Bhat’s companions were killed. Bhat was tried by the local court in Srinagar and awarded death sentence.

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He escaped the prison by digging a tunnel, crossed the CFL and resumed his political activities in POK, travelling as far as to Gilgit-Baltistan. In 1971, he was accused of having master-minded the hijacking of an Indian aircraft, even though he was not directly involved. After the war, he was once again arrested by Pakistani agencies for being an Indian agent and incarcerated for two years. With dwindling support base in POK, he decided to return to J&K in 1976 by crossing the LC. This time he was arrested by the Indians and brought to Delhi on the basis of his old death sentence given by the court in Srinagar.

He utilised his time in Tihar writing petitions to the government of India, contesting his sentence. The government ignored him and his petitions. In early 1984, a few British Kashmiris, owing allegiance to NLF, kidnapped Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in London. They demanded that government release Bhat. Before the government of India could respond, they murdered the diplomat in February 1984. A furious government executed the death sentence on Bhat and turned him into a hero.

In an essay on the rise of Bhat’s post-death stature, Hussain writes on a Kashmiri portal Wandemag, “At JKLF’s behest people observed a general strike on February 11, 1989, Maqbool Bhat’s fifth death anniversary. Since Pakistan’s policy was to convert Kashmir into a very hot place for Indian armed forces, they did not mind if Maqbool became a hero.”

And so, the legend of Bhat endures as the first Kashmiri who chose to die for the idea of azadi.

Kashmiri women attend a protest in Srinagar. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Yet, no lessons were learnt. In 2013, the government yet again chose February to hang another Kashmiri in Tihar jail; quietly and just as unnecessarily. In the early years of Kashmiri insurgency, Afzal Guru, like several Kashmiri boys had crossed the LoC but then changed his mind. Even before he could commit any acts of violence, he surrendered to the Border Security Force in 1993-94. As was the practice, he was allowed to resume his regular life after a cooling-off period but was required to present himself at the local police station at frequent intervals so that his life could be kept under watch.

After the 2001 terrorist attack on Indian Parliament, Guru was one of the people arrested by J&K’s Special Task Force (primarily comprising renegade militants) and handed over to Delhi police. The case that followed was the mockery of Indian judicial system.

Human rights lawyer and author Nandita Haksar, who represented Afzal’s family after his death sentence and helped him file the mercy petition with the President of India, told me of his trial, “From the moment Afzal Guru’s trial started in the Special Court, he was doomed.” 

According to her, no lawyer agreed to represent him. The court appointed an amicus curie who accepted Afzal’s confession made to the police without question, thereby admitting to his guilt. Then she left the case and another amicus was appointed by the court. He refused to represent Afzal and Afzal refused to be represented by him. But the court insisted that Afzal be represented by him. 

Afzal Guru. Credit: PTI/Files

Afzal Guru, doomed even before he stood trial. Photo: PTI/Files

“The result of this disinterest was that when the prosecution produced 80 witnesses against Afzal, the amicus cross-examined or made observations against only 20. And even these were inconsequential,” she said. 

“The same story was repeated in the high court. A Muslim lawyer was appointed by the judge, who didn’t even show his face in the court. In the atmosphere that was prevailing in India at that time, which Muslim lawyer could have risked his life and career by representing a Muslim man, from J&K, and accused of being a terrorist?”

Subsequently, Afzal gave a list of a few lawyers, none of whom agreed to represent him. In any case, given his financial condition, he couldn’t afford a ‘commercial’ criminal lawyer. Eventually, the court-appointed lawyer implicated his own client by suggesting that he be killed by a lethal injection instead of being hanged. 

“The Supreme Court observed all these weaknesses in the case and even absolved Afzal from the charge of being a member of any terrorist organisation. Yet, it felt compelled to uphold the death sentence to satisfy the ‘collective conscience of the society’.”

While he was given the death sentence by one ultra nationalist government, the sentence was carried out by another in a bid to prove that it was no less nationalist. In the bargain, yet another hero was created. Until Guru’s ‘martyrdom’ was upended by the third one in 2016, his death anniversary used to be a cause of great stress for the government, which was forced to order complete shut down on subsequent February 9ths to prevent widespread street protests.

But hero-making did not stop. In 2016, when most Kashmiri militants were operating behind the cover of facial masks, a young boy threw off his. This single act of defiance raised his level. He was no longer an ordinary militant. As his stature in Kashmir grew through social media, the government felt compelled to show him who was in control, a sentiment driven by the belief that the State must assert its authority from time to time to dispel the notion of being weak. Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter and the Valley erupted. A large number of people mourned his death as that of a loved one. The streets filled with mourners accompanying his funeral procession, in which his face was left uncovered to rouse greater passion.

The cycle of violence and repression that followed Wani’s death continued until early this year when a series of incidents including the suicide attack on the CRPF convoy in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district and the retaliatory air strike by the Indian Air Force on Jaish-e-Muhammed’s camp in Balakot (Pakistan) shifted the focus from Kashmir to India-Pakistan. The euphoria that followed ensured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government sailed through the General Elections and into the Parliament with a greater majority.

Balakot air strike

Pakistan army soldiers walk near the crater where Indian military aircrafts released payload in Jaba village, Balakot, Pakistan on February 28, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Asif Shahzad

The curse of power

Perhaps it was this sense of invincibility that encouraged the government to make yet another show of its authority on August 5, 2019. However, this display of state’s power has come at a great cost as mentioned earlier.

To impose its writ, the government has had to imprison nearly 80 lakh people in their homes, disconnected from each other and the world. About 4,000, including former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have been taken away. While the ordinary political prisoners are being kept in various jails in the Valley and outside (some are lodged in prisons as far as in Agra), for people like Abdullah and Mufti, VIP locations have been improvised as prisons.

According to media reports, both former chief ministers have been isolated with no access to phones, televisions or newspapers; though they have provided with books and movies for entertainment. The idea is to render them politically inconsequential even after their release whenever that happens, though Governor Malik has said that this will not happen in a hurry.

Former J&K chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah. Photos: PTI

A little understanding of Kashmir’s history would have sensitised the government to its present and possible future. For one, while the violent insurgency started in 1989, the sentiment of separateness dates back to Independence and has endured everything — government of India’s largesse, cruelty, dirty politics, as well as vileness and cravenness of its own leaders.

And two, like the Kashmiris, the National Conference of the Abdullahs has survived the prolonged incarceration of its founder leader Sheikh Abdullah, assault and killing of its political workers, an engineered split of the party and several family discords. Great adversities produce great opportunities. It is unlikely that the party or its leaders will go into oblivion, even if the government is trying to manufacture new leaders by chipping away at the lower rungs of the NC and People Democratic Party (PDP) cadre.

What will, however, determine the course of the future will be the sentiment of the street. Despite merciless curfew, rolls of concertina wires and preponderance of the uniformed forces, the people remain hostile keeping the armed troops nervous and on the edge. If videos, images and reports coming out of the Valley are to be believed, the face of the great Indian government in Kashmir is its military and paramilitary, both of which are frequently losing control and venting their frustration on ordinary citizens. Reports of frequent crackdowns on villages and torture of random citizens abound. Worse, it is even picking up professionals like doctors who plead for their patients. Can the face of the state show more nervousness?

Kashmiri women walk past concertina wire laid across a road during restrictions after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 20, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

While some reports may be exaggerated and some repetitive, the truth is that for all its assertions, the government of India has no control over the present narrative nor the future. The hoped-for normalcy by cowing down the people remains elusive. Whenever it relaxes the restrictions in some areas, it is forced to enforce it back. And continued repression is fuelling greater resentment.

Another new development is voluntary enforcement of civil disobedience by the civilians, who are refusing to resume normal life even when the curfew is lifted. An entirely word of mouth phenomenon, people resist opening their shops despite pressure from the authorities. Right now this is limited to a few areas, but word is spreading. Who knows how far it will go; and in how much time.

The government’s biggest failing has been that despite complete clamp down, news continues to trickle out of the Valley. It is reaching both international media, as well as influential Kashmiri diaspora, which is waging a spirited battle on social media, thereby ensuring that they continue to prick the conscience of the world. Even when foreign heads of the state have their limitations in making definitive comments on government’s actions in Kashmir, an increasing number of global civil organisations have started to lend their voices to what is being seen as the struggle of the Kashmiri people. In addition to the political dimensions of the issue, today, it is being seen as a human rights crisis.

Though it is difficult to say what the government was thinking when it decided to read down the defanged Constitutional articles, except fulfilling its ideological agenda, the truth is it cannot do a Tibet on Kashmir. 

It forgets that, one, India is no China; and two, Kashmir is no Tibet. It is a United Nations’ recognised international dispute. It has stake-holders; apart from the people of Kashmir and Pakistan, China has become one too. The Indian government is signatory to the bilateral agreement (Shimla Agreement) which says it will not alter the status quo in Kashmir!

The worse part of this Kashmir adventurism has been that for the first time India is being projected in the influential international media as autocratic, ruthless, insensitive and undemocratic. Aspersions are being cast on the largely clean human rights record of the Indian Army as more stories of torture tumble out.

Under these circumstances, perhaps the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear a number of petitions on Kashmir, including one on the legality of the revocation, can give a face-saver to the government to restore status quo. And initiate the process for a just resolution of the dispute. If not for any other reason then for the sake of the nation and its future.

(The writer is executive editor FORCE newsmagazine)