Kashmir once again: Paradise on the edge
Smiling tourists, traffic snarls on way to Gulmarg and legendary hospitality mask the uneasiness and fear of the future
Accommodation around the Dal Lake these past few weeks was almost impossible to secure. The rooms were at a premium and cost 2-3 times the normal tariff. Taxis were equally scarce and roads to Gulmarg and Pahalgam were choc-a-bloc with vehicles.
On the other hand, there was no permission for tourists to visit Mattan or Abantipora in South Kashmir to look at the historic ruins. Even the transit camp for Kashmiri Pandits at Budgam via Doodhpathri was disallowed by security personnel, who are as visible as they were in the 1990s.
Unlike in the 1990s, however, there are this time no incidence of stone throwing. Nor did one spot gun toting militants who strutted around in the 1990s, many with AK-47. This time shops were open and streets were crowded. Despite the overwhelming presence of security personnel, appearances were deceptively normal.
But scratch the surface and one could feel the uneasy undercurrents. Conversations with old friends in the Downtown Srinagar and with Pandits who stayed back in the 90s revealed their uneasiness. There is fear and anxiety about a terrible future that is seldom articulated but can still be sensed. The surge in targeted killings of Muslims, Pandits and Dalits had a lot to do with it.
It is not that targeted killings started in recent weeks. They had resumed soon after Article 370 was abrogated and the state of Jammu & Kashmir was bifurcated into two Union Territories in 2019. This monumental blunder was followed by holding Panchayat elections at gunpoint. Militants called for the boycott of the panchayat polls and when the State went ahead and conducted the election with a meagre percentage of voters participating, the ‘elected’ Panches were targeted and killed, among them several Kashmiri Pandits.
Undeterred the government launched a website, ostensibly to settle disputes over properties left behind by the Kashmiri Pandits. Pharmacist Makhanlal Bindroo, besides several school teachers, was killed. Several Kashmiri Muslims were also killed on suspicion of them being police informers. In the fresh phase of killings, Pandits who had returned to take up jobs under then PM Manmohan Singh’s employment package, are being targeted.
These displaced pandits had been offered jobs and housing in transit camps. None of them was attacked till 2019 and during my own visits to the Valley between 2014 and 2018, I did not find Pandits unduly concerned about security. But things have undergone a sea change. Reports of a large scale exodus from transit camps have been coming in and so called ‘The Resistance Front’ (TRF), which has taken responsibility for the killings, has been demanding that outsiders and Pandits should leave the Valley. It has also been threatening to disrupt the Amarnath Yatra.
In Kashmir the dominant view is that the government’s policies and actions have triggered the fresh bout of killings leading to the exodus. There is the perception also that after 2019, the government has brought in a large number of outsiders and posted them in key positions.
Natural resources and businesses, believe many, are being handed over to outsiders. There is the suspicion that the Government is trying to change Kashmir’s demography. There is certainly some truth to such perceptions. Many key positions in the administration are indeed held by outsiders who are ignorant of local language, culture and customs. As a result human intelligence in the Valley has dried up substantially.
The promotion of the one-sided propaganda film, The Kashmir Files, which ignores terrorists killing many more Kashmiri Muslims than Pandits in the 1990s, also added fuel to the fire. The statements of BJP leaders deepened the suspicion that the film was designed to malign Kashmiri Muslims and turn them into objects of hate on social media and the rest of the country.
Earlier Kashmiris believed that the Indian Government and the Indian Army alone were against them. After the film Kashmir Files, and rabid slogan shouting in cinema halls by sections of the audience, quipped a social worker, Kashmiris are now convinced that average Indians are also against them. Ironically the film has done no good to Kashmiri Pandits. On the contrary it has helped fan anti-Indian feelings and has made it difficult for Pandits to stay on in the Valley. Militant organisations like TRF have also been quick to catch on that killing Pandits would keep them in national news because killing Kashmiri Muslims attrac-ted no attention from the Indian or even international media.
The deep worry in Kashmiri society over these developments was reflected in appeals for peace made during the Friday prayers in mosques in Kashmir. The Imams tried their best to shore up confidence and called for Muslims to stand by the minorities and open doors to them.
But even as Kashmiri Muslims have been vocal in extending their support and sympathy to the Pandits, what has been unfortunate is the continued silence of the government. While it shouts from the rooftop to claim upholding the interests of the Pandits, it has achieved the exact opposite with its policies. By using Kashmiri Pandits as a political pawn to polarise people outside Kashmir, the Modi government has created the conditions which are forcing them to flee.
It has not inspired much confidence so far that it is capable of reaching out to the stakeholders, engage in dialogues and find solutions. In Kashmir at least, one sees little hope from this government.
(The writer, an author, historian and blogger, is just back from Kashmir. Views are personal)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)