Any visitor to the Kashmir Valley will testify that the people there are emotionally distraught, sullen and angry. The talk of early restoration of democratic processes is idle prattle. Just as village body elections did not usher in democracy, nor will elections for block development councils, which the government intends to hold next month. Creating structures for administrative convenience must not be mistaken for participatory democracy.
Contrary to the claims of normality by the government, there is nothing normal in the Kashmir Valley. Far too much has happened too suddenly, and has numbed the Kashmiris. They are shocked and almost ashamed to talk about their predicament.
Veteran Kashmiri public intellectuals claim that once the Kashmiris saw almost all political parties fall in line with the government in Parliament, they knew they were alone. It is not so much New Delhi’s decisions but the way they were operationalised through subterfuge and surprise that has shocked and stunned them. They claim that Article 370 had been rendered ineffective a in 1953 itself by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and that the Narendra Modi government has only completed the ritual of its burial.
However, the breakup of the state into two Union territories is seen as a particularly vengeful act by the people. They feel punished by the way statehood has been taken away. They also believe that they have been wrongly pitched against Ladakhis and the Shias of Kargil as they never coveted their land, made attempts to change their demography or discriminated against them. Yet a false narrative has been created that Kashmiris prevented the development of Ladakh.
Kashmiris appear to have opted for a kind of civil disobedience by shutting down their shops and establishments without any call for a strike or a bandh. Government agencies claim this was being enforced by militants with guns. These are no more than stray incidents and the locals say that this is a “civil curfew” imposed by the people themselves – exempting establishments selling bare essentials (groceries, vegetables, meat, etc) for three hours in the morning and evening. The rest of the day, all business establishments (except pharmacies) remained shuttered and sullen businessmen sit outside their shops staring into the void.
The question is: What will happen when the civil disobedience peters out? In the absence of political parties to channel people’s emotions, what follows will be uncharted territory.
As of now, the Kashmiris seem intent on not precipitating a situation which might lead to unnecessary loss of lives. Parents seem convinced that their next generation is not safe in Kashmir. Those who can afford to send their children for education and jobs abroad are actively exploring those options. Others are considering schooling their children in other parts of India. However, not everyone has the option of moving them out.
Youngsters claim that family conversations have become stilted and difficult. But there is more gloom than anger in the air. This can change, however, and the nightmares that haunt the Kashmiris could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A situation can emerge in which it may become difficult to return to democratic politics. The mainstream political parties and their leaders have been doubly damned. The Central government has dubbed them corrupt and imprisoned them. And the people mock them for having sustained false hopes of justice from New Delhi.
Their only two options are – mass civil disobedience or violence. There are those who claim that the central government’s actions have led to greater radicalisation with desperate talk of a violent solution. But there are no guns or trained hands available to wield them – unless Pakistan once again opens the tap on arms supply and starts training yet another generation of Kashmiri youngsters. The Kashmiris themselves seem reluctant to listen to the militant leadership, either because of their self-defeating dictates like not selling apples this season or because of the futility of violence in the past.
The attempt by the Central government to create a new political leadership through the elected representatives (panches and sarpanches) of village and town panchayats seems doomed to failure. There is an attempt to get them and those working with the Army-sponsored NGOs to join the BJP, the ruling party at the Centre. It is unlikely that Kashmiris would support any artificially constructed King’s Party, especially as they are disenchanted with the mainstream parties that cohabited with New Delhi in the past.
Meanwhile, in the neighbourhoods of Srinagar – where Section 144 has been imposed and streets have been dug up to prevent security personnel from entering – it is the youngsters who call the shots. With the separatists behind bars, a new leadership is taking shape. It is both amorphous and faceless. No one knows what this emerging leadership will decide to do in the future.
The more difficult prospect for New Delhi will be if rather than an upsurge of violence, civil disobedience were to persist and intensify. What if it deepened by, say, people refusing to pay electricity or water bills? Would the administration then dare to cut off electricity and water supplies?
As of now, the people do not want the jailed leaders to be released and begin “controlling” the civil disobedience. They are also waiting to see what Pakistan will do, and how long the Central government will continue with its massive security presence. Kashmiris, however, warn that the surface calm must not be mistaken for peace.
They recall the public reaction after the arrest and removal of Sheikh Abdullah as “prime minister” of the state in 1953 and the appointment of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in his place.
The immediate public protest lasted only a day but the simmering anger against the state erupted 10 years later when the Moi-e-Muqqadas (believed to be Holy Prophet’s hair) was stolen from the Hazaratbal shrine. The trigger for the mass protests was the throwing of a kangri (firepot, used by Kashmiris to keep warm in winter) at a Congress leader during a protest rally at Lal Chowk. This time around, however, the Kashmiris may not wait for 10 years. The trigger may come much earlier.