Autumn in Srinagar
The lack of normalcy after curfew ended shows that the militants’ diktat rules, and Delhi’s only option is to engage the populace
Maya Mirchandani Srinagar
For most of July and August, an alarming, stifling stillness descended over Srinagar. The streets were empty, schools, shops and businesses closed, essential commodities like petrol, milk and food in short supply and mobile internet services suspended. The silence was pierced only by the sound of protests against India and its ‘occupation’ of Kashmir. At last count, clashes between protesters and security forces on edge – the state police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) mainly – have resulted in over 75 civilian deaths and several thousands of civilians and security personnel injured. The pellet gun, that’s injured many protesters who are still receiving treatment in the city’s hospitals, has become a metaphor for both – India’s military presence, as well as Srinagar and Delhi’s poor management of the spiralling crisis. As the summer ends, cold winds bring in rain and the days get shorter, and the State’s decision to end a curfew that’s lasted nearly eight weeks across the Valley seems more like a token experiment with peace rather than an indicator of any real normalcy.
Even though ordinary residents are now allowed to move about freely, barring the town of Pulwama and a few areas of downtown Srinagar, the strike call by separatists is still in effect. And that means people still stay home, and most shops and businesses remain shut, irrespective of the end of curfew. In spite of drawing room chatter over the relevance (or not) of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) – an umbrella organisation of several separatist groups – the strike calendar sent out in the names of three of its leaders, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, dictates whether most ordinary Kashmiris step out, open shop or not.
For all of us outside the state, the protests that erupted in the wake of Hizb militant Burhan Wani’s killing have defied comprehension for the most part. But in Kashmir it is apparent the death was simply a catalyst, not the reason, for simmering anger to boil over. For many of the young boys with stones out on the streets today, the past eight years have been giant waves of explosive anger and fragile peace. So why does everyone say this time is different?
The reason seems shockingly simple. The protests of 2008 and 2010 were centred on demands that the state could at least attempt to meet – reviewing the grant of land for the Amarnath Yatra, and bringing those responsible for a fake encounter in the Machhil Sector to book. This time, they aren’t angry about the death of an innocent person but are out in support of the cause Wani is believed to have stood for – ‘Azadi’. And yielding to it is hardly a promise any government can make.
Worse, and perhaps this makes it all the more different from the protests of 2008 and 2010, many sections of the national media have become the enemy, making it next to impossible for us to visit neighbourhoods that have seen clashes with our cameras. The only reason this reporter managed to visit a family in their home was because the young man killed – an ATM guard whose abdomen was pumped with a pellet gun at point blank range – was known to a colleague. The rage is palpable on the streets, in the homes of Srinagar. Funerals have become political and every civilian casualty, connected to the protests or not, has become a lightning rod. One that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been unable to contain.
For a politician who premised her career on the slogans of self-rule and a healing touch, this is an early and tough challenge to her leadership. The alliance with the BJP has cost her public affection, something Mehbooba has thrived on during her years in the opposition as she went from house to house, family to family, empathising with those had lost loved ones in the course of the conflict. The ordinary Kashmiri consumes news avidly and whether it’s the controversy around the beef ban, the JNU agitation and sedition cases, the murder of Mohammad Akhlaque in Dadri or the debate on what or who defines nationalism, the fault lines that have appeared nationally since the last general election are topics of heated conversation in Kashmir. The perceived shift in Delhi’s definition of nationalism and identity has hardened opinion further against the party in the Valley. And in the din, the Centre and state government responses sound like the same old bid to blame the predecessor and deflect responsibility. But the truth of the Valley is this, indeed, it’s a universal truth, when politicians bicker among themselves to retain power and support, they are exposed. In Kashmir, when that happens, the only ones who gain are the separatists.
If Delhi’s opening strategy to deal with the unrest was simply from a security perspective – deploy more forces, wait out the anger and tire out protesters – it has clearly not worked. While no one doubts Pakistan has capitalised on the unrest, that rationale is simplistic at best. Anti-India doesn’t always translate into pro-Pakistan, and that’s the large swathe of Kashmiri people Delhi needs to engage with. It has taken nearly two months for the Centre to realise it needs to evolve a new strategy. So much so that the government has finally been forced to talk to ‘everybody’ in Kashmir (not just moderates, as Home Minister Rajnath Singh had earlier stated), and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has appealed to SAS Geelani to help the chief minister “stop the killing”. As the Centre sent in more forces – the Border Security Force is back in the Valley for the first time after the 1990s – the fact that the first calls for dialogue and a political solution came from the Army’s top generals in the state has not been lost on anyone.
Even now, the answer to whether our leaders have the political will to find a lasting solution is unclear. Urging youth to carry laptops and not stones is not enough. Carrying laptops or sitting for common entrance tests aren’t necessarily contradictory to political aspiration. While Mehbooba says she has faith that Delhi is committed to resolving the problem, the Centre needs to show it means business on dialogue too. From Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s promise of finding a solution, “Insaniyat ki daayrey mein”, to a 2012 report by government-appointed interlocutors asking the Centre to review the military’s role and genuinely address human rights violations, most agree that the story of Kashmir is a tragedy of lost opportunities. Time after time, Delhi seems to repeat the old mistake – of assuming a lack of violent conflict in Kashmir is the same as peace. The status quo in between these cycles of unrest – a Kashmiri intifada, if you will – should be used to initiate dialogue, not ignore it.
This time, as curfew lifts, Delhi must realise it has limited choices; and they all include engaging the people and politicians of Kashmir, across the board, on some idea of autonomy or self-rule – the very promises made by the state’s mainstream political parties – and salvaging what’s left of a tattered dialogue process.
(Maya Mirchandani is Foreign Affairs Editor at NDTV)