They lined up in the wintry chill, some still homeless after the floods, because hope lies in hoping. As one more predator swooped down on Jammu and Kashmir, democracy was declared after the first round of voting on November 25. The uber nationalists had spoken in the dictatorial tone they adopt to thrust their assembly-line idea of consensual politics.
Kashmir is a target to be achieved, no less than a Mission 44 to bag enough seats to ensure that the ruling rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre captures the state. Anybody likely to get in the way has to be silenced. The polls were announced a month ago. Around 35 people per day have been detained since. According to a report in the Indian Express, many of them were scanned from their pictures at protest rallies and categorised as “stone pelters” and “trouble mongers”. The bigger threats have already been confined: “Among prominent Kashmiri leaders, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani are under undeclared house arrest. Shabir Shah is in prison. Yasin Malik has recently been moved from prison to hospital for the treatment of a kidney ailment.”
Dissent won’t be heard. This does not concern bespoke democrats. Mission 44 reveals the cussedness to hold a state hostage by using every trick, be it through the army’s planned errors, floods or religion.
Election month has resulted in fast-track justice to work its magic on the sympathy vote. If the government employs AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) that gives a carte blanche to the army to make a point, it can also dictate when the forces should perform public penance. In a state where encounter killings are common with unmarked graves and half widows standing testimony, what has prompted the sudden change in modus operandi? It is not as egalitarian as it looks.
On November 3 two teenagers, Faisal Yusuf Bhat and Mehrajuddin Dar, were shot dead in Budgam. 118 rounds were fired; 28 bullets were pumped into the boys. The operation was so shoddy that it seemed like the soldiers were parodying themselves. Headlines such as ‘The Army accepts its mistake’ imbued the forces with the magnanimity of accepting their fault.
Now, just three weeks later, the verdict is out. The army has “indicted” nine soldiers and recommended court martial proceedings for the “mistake”. The mistake in the words of Lt General D S Hooda of the Northern Army command was this: “There was some information about a white car with terrorists. Obviously, the identity was mistaken in this case. We take responsibility for the death.”
Terrorism has become a good excuse, even if it means shooting the unarmed. This has been a pattern, which is why the parents of the young men rejected the compensation money of Rs 10 lakh offered by the army. Said Faisal’s father: “The blood of my 14 year old son is not so cheap that I could barter it. I reject this compensation. I will pay Rs 20 lakh to army in return if it hands over the killers to us.”
It is reminiscent of some locals rejecting the central government’s gestures during the September floods. A group throwing away food packets back into the waters that had rendered them homeless was about anger and self-respect, the latter a luxury when life is at stake, but the assertion of it remains a potent image of a people holding their own despite the helplessness.
Those reporting it, however, sought to convey that it amounted to ungratefulness. Nothing quite ‘otherises’ people like a formal transaction, a quid pro quo, especially when they have a right over the state machinery. “Aren’t you grateful to the army” became the slogan as those stranded for days without food or water and trapped on the roofs of houses were pulled up into helicopters even as another army of Kashmiris volunteers reached the smaller villages in makeshift boats.
For those outside the state the army reputation acquired a halo. The soldiers were working under directions from the government. Their role was as political as it was humanitarian. Majid Pandit, a media person and photographer, astutely observed, “Militarization of Humanitarian Assistance: Vulnerability of this space in present times. This calls for a case study.”
Mainstream media infiltrated the state to communicate to the rest of India the picture of a land being rescued by the same soldiers who Kashmiris have thrown stones at. Additional Directorate General of Public Information tweeted from its official account, “Despite fighting the fury of floods in Kashmir, Indian Army carried an operation at Laribag, Kupwara eliminating one LeT terrorist.”
Even in the midst of such tragedy where 85 per cent of the populated areas were under water, the message sent out was that this is a terrorist region where assimilation is possible only by elimination.
In the Valley where the desire for azaadi might be deemed as separatism, the political establishment can use different strands of separatist compulsions. Sajjad Lone is just the sort of person they would go looking for — an ambitious man with a chip on his shoulder and nothing to lose (he lost in 2009 and 2014). His whiter than the rest stand had made him into the black sheep of the separatist family. His calling card today is that of an ex-separatist. So when Narendra Modi with his ultra-nationalism approached him, he felt indebted: “The national party that dominated the political scene in Kashmir was the Congress, and they confined themselves to the Abdullahs and Muftis. Now there is another national party in power and its national leaders come to Kashmir and meet people like Sajjad Lone.”
This was done without any reference to the elections to suggest that there was no axe to grind. Lone turned into emotional jelly: “I cannot tell you how humble he is. He was talking as if I was the Prime Minister and not him.” He was baited not with anything real, but that titillating phrase, “wait for a little while and then see whether there is change or not”.
Personal history is being repeated. His father Abdul Ghani Lone was killed in 2002. The whitewash job had peddled him as the “lone moderate voice” even though he said that he had nothing to do with the Indian government. The PM from a blatantly Hindutva party was handing a posthumous certificate to a blatantly separatist leader who had once commented that his life was in danger “wherein many guns work at the same time”. Sajjad was to comment later: “At the end of the day, the man who takes up the gun is responsible for his own actions. We can’t criticise them because we are not risking our lives, but, as a Kashmiri, I feel politics should have a much bigger role in the current world scenario.”
Twelve years after the senior Lone was killed, the son is being ‘moderated’ to be fit enough for a saffron mainstream.
The shrewd strategists manning the goalposts are not averse to playing along, ideology be damned. At a rally, Modi invoked “Allah Ta’ala”, giving full credit to the exalted god of Islam for the river Chenab. With his emphasis on “a Kashmiri is a Kashmiri” he debunked the role of religion in politics to the crowd, but the backroom boys were busy with meeting clerics. Ramesh Arora who is in charge of the BJP’s Kashmir affairs wing said, “This notion that BJP is a communal party is wrong. Kashmir is the land of Sufi saints and Islam will grow better during our regime.”
This is no different from the BJP position of bettering other faiths by claiming them to push the Hinduisation agenda. What comes across as a secular statement — “the religion of the chief minister is immaterial” — is really a means to keep options open and pave the way for a non-Muslim candidate.
However, it is not about catering to the Kashmiri Pandit population that is being used only for seats to be captured. Obfuscation prevails: “From Jammu and Kashmir we will find solution to the issue of the refugees. I want to tell those spreading lies that they should not mislead people.” Modi did not mention the Pandits by name. Worse, he spoke about the “problems of refugees that have been existing for 50 years”. For someone who is willing to sup with the separatists he has no sympathy for, political compulsions forced him to avoid mentioning 1989 as the year of Pandit ‘exodus’, when infiltration had peaked.
From the Pandit point of view, this is unpalatable. Unlike the Kashmiris still in the region who continue to suffer, they have always been comfortably ensconced in the capital political scene irrespective of the party in power. What they seek is a restoration of their identity and are not ready to be a watered down version in an all-purpose ‘Kashmiriyat’. The Panun Kashmir movement has its own separatist notions, yet the community’s aspirations are being sidelined to favour the Valley’s pro-independence groups. Ram Madhav of the BJP, a former top-rung RSS leader, said of the separatists: “This is the time for them to work for development. They should fight both the corrupt NC and PDP.”
Such is the level of opportunism to grab space from the ruling National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party that even azaadi is being wooed to build the development cage. Also, there is no mention in the manifesto of Article 370 that grants the state special status.
Campaign manager Ramesh Arora observed, “We have a clear stand on Article 370, which Modi and other leaders of the party have made specifically clear that we want debate and discussions on the issue. If people think it benefits them, then let it be but if they say it has not benefitted them, we will proceed accordingly.”
The foundation of the Kashmiri ethos is based on its separateness and specialness. For the people, benefit is not about a cost-effective analysis and it is unlikely that their views will be sought. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairperson of the Hurriyat Conference, had written an open letter to the ‘People of India’ just before the May general elections: “We urge you to recognise that the Kashmir issue is not a peripheral or isolated one… (It) continues to destroy life and obliterate the rights and aspirations of our people in Kashmir who desire only to live free, peaceful and dignified lives. The continuation of this tragic conflict is also a direct threat to your interests and well-being as a people.”
This sounds like a more honest understanding of democracy than the gleam in the eye over Srinagar as a smart city. The ski resorts and tulip gardens are for others. Kashmiri pragmatism about these does not dilute their idealism that goes beyond the number of seats to grab.
Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections.