Nothing Is Normal in Kashmir, Except the Normalisation of Conflict

If India wants to show the world Kashmir is back to normal, then downed shutters, empty schoolyards and unpicked fruit will make sure it hears a different story. For the betrayed mainstream, the silence is the only way to be heard.

The drive from Srinagar to Shopian in South Kashmir on the sixth Friday since the reading down of Article 370 is eerily calm. On one stretch of the road near Kakpora, just before Pulwama, stones and the odd felled tree trunk appear as makeshift roadblocks – laid by local youth to prevent any vehicular movement, military or civilian.

Barring some places, there are few security personnel in sight. Shops and businesses remain shut, and people – mostly men – mill about. Older ones sit in groups, talking, while younger men stare through our car windows and ultimately walk on by. It is a Friday – typically unpredictable and turbulent, and the area volatile, but the uneventful drive makes it easy to believe that the tension we feel is perhaps more imagined than real.

However, it is precisely this contraindication that lies at the heart of the story of Kashmir as it enters this new chapter that began on August 5, 2019. All shades of ideology and opinion in the Valley converge around a simple emotion – betrayal.

Delhi’s decision and the manner of its execution to nullify sections of the constitution that gave special status and privileges to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as further splitting the state into two union territories, has struck at a sense of dignity and identity of the Kashmiri mainstream political class – the buffer between New Delhi and Kashmir’s separatists through three decades of violence. The loudest silence today is from them – the vanguards who kept Pakistan at bay and held on instead to the promise of autonomy or self-rule that they built their careers on.

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However, history is replete with examples of the mainstream’s failure to tackle political separatism – whether during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years or the Manmohan Singh years. While Modi’s move is possibly a result of Delhi simply having had enough, it is as much a result of an authoritarian, populist leader killing two birds with one stone. Effectively shown the door by Delhi and abused by their compatriots for having been blind to India’s intentions, the silence of Kashmir’s pro-India population today is borne out of humiliation. It is the death of expectations.

In Shopian, amongst a group of a dozen odd taxi drivers whiling away the afternoon, the reactions vary only slightly. The older men accuse the Centre of both neglecting Kashmiri sentiments and deliberately disrupting business during summer’s peak tourist season – which has come to a grinding halt. “India has shot itself in the foot with this decision.” Their MLA from the People’s Democratic Party is in preventive detention, like his party leader Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of a government in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

These men have no love lost for their political leadership. In fact, they see their detentions as retribution for previous doomed alliances with the BJP, both in the Centre and the state, and accuse them of bringing Kashmir to this pass. But the absence of any representatives at all is also unacceptable. The Centre’s action has seemingly collapsed the gap between the mainstream and the separatist, and an agitated younger man who joins the conversation says, “This is the final straw. The fight for Kashmir will now be a fight to the finish – azaadi, once and for all, no matter the cost.” None of them is willing to give us their names or let us take pictures for fear of reprisal by the state.

On the outskirts of town, friends and relatives of a man who has been arrested and taken to Varanasi jail claim that he was taken in the middle of the night without reason or provocation. Police say Umar Bashir Naikoo is an over ground worker – a member of the now banned Jamaat-e-Islami, with links to terrorists and at least two open FIRs against him. He was taken on August 7, two days after the Centre’s announcement, to ensure he wouldn’t instigate protests or plan militant strikes.

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Naikoo’s uncle, who has seen all his brothers, sons and nephews in and out of police custody for years, says Kashmir will never accept India’s laws and believes Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan will speak on their behalf at the United Nations later this month. “Our religion binds us to Pakistan, that is why they support us,” the uncle says, perhaps not realising it is precisely this sort of rhetoric that plays into the triumphalism around this decision. The millennials in the room, born after the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley at the start of the insurgency in 1989, know nothing of Kashmir’s syncretic history or its once thriving Pandit population.

Back in Srinagar’s Soura locality, this sentiment is repeated. Angry youth have dug trenches to keep security personnel out. Stones and pellets fly every Friday afternoon. A 22-year-old man winces and holds his hand up to his temple. Fresh wounds from pellets that hit his head are flaming, but he refuses to go to the hospital, saying he will be picked up by police as he walks in. When asked why, he says he has already been detained twice in 2016, under the Public Safety Act.

In the sea of sullen, silent, shuttered streets, Soura’s fury is like a small tsunami. The question is whether it will go beyond its barricades. In a by-lane near the Anchar mosque, the 22-year-old stands under a poster glorifying Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani, killed in July 2016. For him, the call for the reinstatement of Article 370 is meaningless. In fact, Delhi’s actions are just more proof that India under Narendra Modi doesn’t care about Muslims, and even more reason for Kashmir to want independence.

Security personnel stop Kashmiri residents as they stand guard on a deserted road during restrictions after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in Srinagar, August 23, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Whether separatist or pro-India, this feeling is widespread. Most of Kashmir’s predominantly Muslim population sees August 5 as the day the state was targeted by the naked bigotry of a larger Hindutva project aimed to marginalise Muslims socially and disenfranchise them politically. A project which, historian Ram Guha argues, weaponised the pain and suffering of Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee when the armed insurgency first targeted their small community.

Today, as Kashmir’s population reconciles this assault on their dignity with a new reality as fully integrated citizens of India, the sentiment that the Modi government’s actions are dictated by nationwide anti-Muslim politics, by motivations far less benign than empowerment and development, is widespread. ‘The Gujarat Model’, another observer says: “They will give us economic empowerment and political disempowerment.”

But will India be prepared to pay the cost of this political disempowerment?

The truth is, no one really knows what happens next. Until September 27 at least, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the UN General Assembly, the message to security forces and the administration seems to be to ensure that no violent protests erupt, and that civilian casualties are avoided at all costs. Given the growing chorus of international voices demanding that India restore communications, release political leaders and ensure the protection of human rights, violent protests will only bring more bad press to a prime minister who wants the world to like and respect him as a democrat, no matter how authoritarian his government’s actions may be.

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So far, hiding behind the cover of security compulsions, Delhi has refused to restore mobile communications, even though the state’s administrative and police apparatus advised them to do so. But while mobile networks may be opened soon under growing pressure from the international community, there seems to be no hurry to release mainstream politicians. If there was any doubt about the Modi government’s intentions, slapping the draconian Public Safety Act on the National Conference’s 83-year old Farooq Abdullah, for no reason other than to justify his detention in the Supreme Court this week, clears things up.

The confusion in Srinagar today over how to comprehend or adapt to what has happened or what direction this new paradigm for Kashmir will take, co-exists with uncertainty, even fear, about what comes next. The shutdowns – communicated through whisper campaigns – are as much an act of voluntary civil disobedience as a result of militant warnings. Flyers warning the public are put up, and torn down just as quickly. Rumours of militant threats abound.

Security in the city is heightened after sunset. Schools are open, but parents are afraid to send their children. There is no curfew, but most shops and non-essential businesses stay shut. Militants have already killed a shopkeeper in Srinagar and an apple farmer in Sopore as a message to those exhausted with the impasse and wanting to resume the business of living. Apple-picking time is approaching fast, and the government has announced direct procurement to encourage them to sell, but farmers say they have been warned not to pluck ripe fruit from the trees.

If India wants to show the world Kashmir is back to normal, then downed shutters, empty schoolyards and unpicked fruit will make sure it hears a different story. For the betrayed mainstream, the silence is the only way to be heard. A civil disobedience, of sorts. There is nothing normal here, except the normalisation of conflict.

Kashmiris walk past broken window glass after clashes between protesters and the security forces on Friday evening, during restrictions following the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the government, in Srinagar August 17, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Betrayal, uncertainty and fear make a potent brew. In the absence of a spontaneous reaction over the last several weeks, several police and intelligence officials fear a structured one – an uptick in violence in the coming months. Pakistan’s posturing internationally is feeding the Centre’s playbook on Kashmir.

The aftermath of the attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in February 2019 is proof not only that there is a paradigm shift in how the Modi government deals with provocations from Pakistan, but that in a majoritarian, communal climate in India, ordinary Kashmiris within and outside the Valley will end up as collateral damage each time violence erupts. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan will only fuel the Hindutva engine further.

It is this fear of majoritarianism that India’s Muslim population feel across the country that is taking root in Kashmir, particularly among those who feel let down by Delhi. To them, the intent behind the Centre’s actions is far more dangerous than the act itself.

Six weeks into such a tectonic shift, with no attempt by Delhi to reach out and address this sense of betrayal and humiliation, the alienation is only deepening. The longer it waits, the harder it will be to address a three-way challenge – of reconnecting with Kashmir’s isolated, pro-India mainstream before the gap is filled by separatists, ensuring the promised rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits into their original homes and working towards a lasting peace.

Kashmiris, now feeding on a diet of mostly triumphalist, propagandist news television, are simmering within. A population accustomed to conflict and bloodshed develops resilience, and an instinct for survival. Today, Kashmir is silent – its mainstream defeated, its separatists on edge. But as the Modi government revels in its ‘victory’ over Muslim Kashmir, it will be wrong in more ways than one to mistake this silence for acceptance.

Maya Mirchandani is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University and Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.