On July 1, the Governor’s administration in Jammu and Kashmir imposed a 46-day ban, for five-hours a day, on the movement of civilian vehicles on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway to ensure the smooth and safe transportation of Amarnath pilgrims. The ban and suspension of railway operations, for the same duration, has drawn flak in Kashmir from all quarters including political parties, separatists, civil society groups and ordinary civilians.
Effective during the peak hours from 10 AM – 3 PM, it has been denounced as a ‘dictatorial diktat’ as it severely impedes and obstructs the socio-economic life of the people in the Valley, especially in South Kashmir.
The highway is not only used by many people for their daily commute to work-places, educational institutions and health-care institutions, it is also the lifeline of the landlocked Valley and Ladakh region in the north. The Jammu-Srinagar highway, a fair-weather road, is the sole channel for transporting supplies to the region and summer months are extremely crucial for not just meeting the daily demands of the two regions but also for stocking supplies for the winter months. Late evening on July 7, the state government announced a relaxed schedule of two hour ban instead of five. However, that does not bring any solace to the locals who maintain that effectively, the ban in place since a week has stretched beyond the stipulated five hours. Ever since the new relaxed schedule has been announced, Kashmir has been under a spell of civil strike, excessive restrictions and unannounced curfew in anticipation of law and order disturbances on the third anniversary of killing of militant leader Burhan Wani.
The highway ban aptly sums up the life of the ordinary Kashmiri in a heavily militarised zone. Turned into a vast prison, ordinary people in Kashmir are held hostage to such arbitrary actions, exercised over and above the routine restrictions, thus constantly enhancing the levels of humiliation, alienation and anger. Earlier, the people of the Valley faced two grueling months of election campaigning under the spell of a similar ban which was effective for three days a week.
The enforcement of the ban ironically coincided with Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s description of the Modi 2 government’s policy on Kashmir with the repetition of former Prime Minister Aal Behari Vajpayee’s historic phrase of “Insaaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat” (Humanity, Democracy and Essence of Kashmir). The ground reality of civil liberties of Kashmiris virtually lying in tatters mocks at the official claim. The highway ban is not the sole onslaught on democratic and human rights of the public of Kashmir.
The muscular approach of the government exercised through daily encounters with militants and cordons, crackdowns, raids and arrests of civilians, many dictated by mere suspicion and some by mere whims. Amidst the daily humdrum of life, crowded markets, buses, traffic jams, weddings and all kinds of ceremonies, Kashmir is caught in a time freeze defined by violence, bloodshed, barbed wires, bunkers, stones and gun.
A report by the UN, released on July 8, a year after its first ever report on the condition of human rights scenario in Kashmir, states, “around 160 civilians were killed in 2018, which is believed to be the highest number in over a decade. Last year also registered the highest number of conflict-related casualties since 2008 with 586 people killed, including 267 members of armed groups and 159 security forces personnel.”
Statistical data flies in the face of the official claims of the government that the situation in Kashmir is getting under control, a false claim based on the number of militant kills without taking into account the number of youth joining militant ranks and those waiting to pick up the gun.
Recent incidents and admission by police officers also show the increasing space for more rabid Islamist rebels affiliated to al Qaeda operative Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and Islamic State of J&K, though their growth is still in its infancy. The claims of democracy and humanity also militate against the government policies aimed at curtailing civil liberties of the ordinary Kashmiris amidst vilification of the Kashmiris by the ruling party members, Governor’s administration and the lap-dog electronic media on a regular basis.
This muscular policy runs parallel to a complete disarray on the political front. Political manipulations by New Delhi under successive governments, guided by the emotional insecurity of losing Kashmir, in the past seven decades are well documented. The right-wing Modi regime continues that tradition with a greater zeal which is inspired both by its insecurity and its contempt for the Muslim majority status of Kashmir.
Modi’s previous tenure saw the raking up of contentious issues like Article 35A and Article 370, both red herrings in Kashmir. The Article 370 revocation demand, however, has been received with a mixed response in Jammu, the BJP’s stronghold.
A section of Jammu based lawyers have been batting for continuation and preservation of Article 370 and 35 A. As many as 300 lawyers held a meeting in the summer of 2018 to oppose any tampering with the resident-ship laws. They opined that if Article 35-A or Article 370 is deleted, then accession of the State of J&K with dominion of India gets shaky. Senior advocate AV Gupta, a strong votary for retention of the state subject laws, maintains that Article 35-A is beneficial for the permanent residents of J&K state and quotes the existing system of free education from class one up to university level as one of the major benefits of the special status that the state enjoys.
Interestingly, the traders’ bodies, despite their distinct right-wing leanings, are also wary of any move to revoke the Article 370, as its challenges their monopolistic hold over trade and commerce in the state. A member of the Chamber of Commerce, on the condition of anonymity, said that Jammu would be more affected by the revocation due to its proximity to rest of north India and in view of the Valley’s land-locked topography. Less than two years ago, pharmacists’ associations in Jammu had gone on a two-day strike to oppose the government’s move to finalise contractual agreements with pharmacists from Punjab on grounds that the state enjoyed a special status under Article 370.
Perhaps, realising the limited appeal of the Article 370 revocation debate, in its second tenure, the BJP has now propped up an unnecessary debate on delimitation of electoral constituencies, which has been stayed by the apex court for the entire country.
Interestingly, while the first issue is pivoted around the idea of absolute integration of the state with rest of the country, the second makes a plea for Jammu and Kashmir as a special case. In a regionally and communally polarised state, the delimitation demand, based on the flawed assumption that the number of constituencies of Jammu region alone would increase, finds a currency in Jammu.
Though the Union Home Ministry has sought to put at rest the speculations about the BJP government going ahead with the delimitation exercise, the state unit of the party is busy raking the issue at the local level and strengthening its base.
This could be a signal that Assembly elections are around the corner. But there isn’t much clarity on that. Assembly elections have been kept on hold on grounds of law and order situation, which otherwise the government claims to be improving. Since November last, panchayat and local bodies polls as well as parliamentary elections were conducted smoothly, though they registered a shamefully low percentage in many pockets of the Valley. In a three-tiered governance system, the middle and the most vital rung is completely missing. The suspense over Assembly elections coincides with BJP government’s actions of inducing more violence and chaos in the already fragile eco-system of Kashmir’s conflict. It also coincides with the government crackdown on regional political organisations by invoking corruption charges, conducting tax evasion related raids against Kashmiri politicians alone and through vilification campaigns.
By blurring the lines between the separatists and the mainstream Kashmir-based politicians, the space for political groups is shrinking. Meanwhile, the BJP is hastily fattening its party cadres in all the regions of the state including Kashmir.
On July 6, the BJP kick-started a membership drive in the Valley with the aim of enrolling 3 lakh members in Kashmir and 8 lakh in the Jammu region, targeting prominent citizens, retired bureaucrats and educated youth. In a more confident position now, BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav on July 8 urged the Election Commission to go ahead with Assembly elections in the state.
There is a method to this madness. Both the militarily induced chaos and the marginalisation of the regional political parties suits the BJP. While the former ensures low polling percentage in the Valley, where the BJP was able to hoist its saffron flag on some of the panchayat seats and improved its vote share in the last parliamentary elections; and the latter allows the BJP to reap the harvest of the miseries of regional parties, primarily National Conference and PDP.
The present chaos and lack of clarity is aimed at one goal – majority for BJP in Jammu and Kashmir state Assembly or BJP in complete command of a coalition government. ‘Insaaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat’ is only for optics.
(The author is Executive Editor of Kashmir Times)