End of the Road for Military Occupation?
Before the latest wave of intense mass protests and killings was triggered across Kashmir, a youth narrating his horrifying story of being a witness to state brutality said “Kashmir mein izzat se zinda rehna hai to India se ladtay rehna hai (Living honourably in Kashmir means keep resisting India)”. Echoing the most common sentiment in Kashmir today, he said it was not possible to imagine a life of dignity as a part of India.
Imagine this sentiment continuously confronted with the presence of five lakh soldiers and a large police force that knows nothing except fighting armed militants. (Of whom there are only a few left in Kashmir.) So, pent up anger is a constant backdrop to any act of resistance in the valley. The temperature of this anger began rising early this year when BSF soldiers killed a school boy. It was followed by the killing near the LoC of three young men from Nadihal village of Baramula who were passed off by the army as terrorists engaged while crossing over from Pakistan.
Such memories are common lore in Kashmir where an estimated 70,000 people, mostly civilians have been killed in the last twenty years. On June 11, this summer, residents of Chota Bazzar locality in old town Srinagar planned a protest demonstration against the massacre of 28 civilians seventeen years earlier in CRPF firing. As usual, authorities locked down the area. As happens in such pressure situations, protests broke out in the neighbouring areas. In their attempts to contain the situation, police killed a school boy with a teargas shell fired at his head from close and later claimed that some ‘miscreants’ murdered him to create disturbance.
This familiar mix of brutality and deception stood in contrast to government claims of normalcy and democracy taking root in Kashmir. This time government denial of the reality and the attempted deception crossed the threshold of patience in Kashmir sending the valley into a vortex of anger and death.
The situation has since gone almost out of control leaving 57 people, mostly protesting youth, killed in police and CRPF action. Hundreds are still nursing their bullet wounds in hospitals. On August 11, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally broke his silence over the situation he appeared as unwilling to change anything on the ground as New Delhi has always been. Apart from his usual approach of economic empowerment as a panacea for all problems, the PM again advocated dialogue but only for removing the perception (Ehsaas) of the status quo that has become unbearable for an average Kashmiri.
“Jammu Kashmir ke masloon ke liye ek aisa hal zarrori hai jo logun ke alahdigi ke ahsaas ko door kar sakey (Issues related to Jammu and Kashmir need such a solution that removes the feeling of separatism)”. The PM spoke in Urdu, a language widely understood in Kashmir. Military commanders in charge of Kashmir call it ‘perception management’.
The PM’s acknowledgement of the fact that people of Kashmir are making a bid for a future separate from that of the Indian Union, coupled with his inability to advance a political initiative, exposes the reality. To the people of Kashmir it meant that they will be kept under the jackboot till the ‘ehsaas’ of “alahdigi” (read Azadi) is given up or it fizzles out.
Understandably, the PM’s televised address to the nation had no effect in Kashmir. The next day the valley remained under curfew and restrictions. Protests continued in Srinagar and other places leaving many injured. Six more people have since been killed when government forces fired to quell protests.
The mood in the valley remains that of defiance. Protesters direct their anger at the symbols of the governing system generally perceived by Kashmiris as incapable of delivering justice. An assessment of the depth of this anger has already overstretched the local police as the cutting edge of the system that has controlled the rebellious population for two decades. It is now showing signs of crumbling under its own weight as the main tool of governing Kashmir. So much so that the PM in his address to the nation, realizing the moral challenge they face from a hostile population, asked the state government to take steps for protecting families of police personnel in the valley.
The PM said “There are elements that are trying to weaken the resolve of the J&K Police and trying to undermine their lawful efforts. I urge the State Government to take effective action to protect its policemen and their families.”
Caught in this grave situation, chief minister Omar Abdullah has become almost irrelevant. He has vacillated between using a language of reconciliation in his appeals for calm while in Kashmir, and sounding tough after meeting the Prime Minister in New Delhi. But he does not appear to be in a position to defend Kashmiri people from a position of moral strength as he called for more central forces to quell the unrest.
From the Chief Minister to the Prime Minister, everyone in the country is worried about the morale of security forces that remain the only instruments of control in Kashmir. Is it the end of politics in Kashmir or the irrefutability of what Kashmiri people call a ‘military occupation’?
A question Kashmir poses today to the largest democracy in the world.
(Parvaiz Bukhari is a journalist based in Srinagar.)