The six-month anniversary of the dilution of Article 370 was marked by slapping of Public Safety Act against five senior politicians including two former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. Many other political leaders have been released after signing bonds but a dozen others including another ex-chief minister, Farooq Abdullah continue to be detained. The move to slap the PSAs on the two former chief ministers was followed by two kinds of strong reactions on the social media.
One reaction was from many Kashmiris who invoked the close English variant of the saying is: As you sow, so shall you reap with the Kashmiri proverb: aanum soye, wowum soye, lajim soye paansiya (I got the nettle, I sowed the nettle and finally, it got to me). The PSA, a draconian act, that allows the state to detain anyone without any specific charges for a period of up to two years was used by each of the former chief ministers during their respective tenures to target many innocent people. The law was brought by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah in the 70s on the pretext of stopping timber-smuggling but it became an evident weapon for political vendetta and settling scores against opponents and critics. The very PSA they used for political benefits has now become a lasso around their necks. In Kashmir, many see the mainstream leaders as collaborators of New Delhi and thus a part of the problem, which is why the clamping of PSAs and their prolonged detentions also bring in an element of sadistic pleasure for some, ironically even as PSA is deemed a draconian law.
The other kind of reaction was from the Indian liberals who questioned the logic of detaining democratically elected leaders for a prolonged period and even pointed out the hypocrisy of the Indian government in dealing with the Kashmiri leaders with iron fists for no particular reason while ignoring the deafening cacophony of hate speeches by those who are part of the government or the treasury benches in the parliament.
Both the reactions are in line with the ground realities. So is the glaring dichotomy that while Article 370 abrogation and a complete suppression of the entire population of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir including arrests of mainstream leaders to facilitate that end have been done in the name of complete integration and scrapping all the existing laws of the land, the PSA, which is a draconian and extra-constitutional act, has been retained in toto. The PSA was used in the past by the local governments to target their opponents for decades. Post-insurgency, it was mostly to intimidate and silence the rebellion, often at the behest of New Delhi. Things to that end remain constant. The PSA is being used just as arbitrarily as it was before; the grounds of dossiers do not stand the test of constitutional validity.
These multiple dimensions of the PSA are important to understand the significance of the law and the model of incarceration in the present circumstances. But far more crucial is the need to grasp the larger picture of what is being done and to achieve what end.
The dreadfulness of slapping PSA on a dozen politicians, while releasing several others after they agreed to sign conditional bonds, waiving off their claim to critique the abrogation of Article 370, is that these dozen odd leaders are being used as totems to showcase the politics of control and surveillance of the entire landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. Their incarceration instills deeper fear in the rest by bringing home the message: If VVIPs who swore by the Indian constitution and remained pro-India are not going to be spared, what would be the fate of the lesser mortals. The Abdullahs, Muftis and other political leaders are not the only ones subjected to prolonged detention. Also detained are lawyers, traders, civil society activists and many youngsters – many languishing in jails outside. Eminent senior advocate, Mian Qayoom was denied health-care after a serious heart ailment, finally taken to hospital for a brief check-up and shifted from Agra jail to Tihar, instead of being released on medical grounds and old age. Meanwhile, crackdowns and raids continue as a norm, people being picked up for prolonged periods or kept out of circulation briefly. The actions are arbitrary, compelling people to lead their lives in an ad-hoc manner as the uneasy feeling sinks in: Anyone can be picked up, anytime, without any valid reason.
Individual lives can be turned upside down and no one would have any control.
At the core of these actions, thus, lies the mission and desire to take control of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Valley, by robbing the local population of any power and strength to control their own destinies or be able to punctuate the official narrative with an alternate one. To this end, as well, New Delhi wants to make sure that anybody who has a political legitimacy on the ground, whether it is 5 percent or more, or has the ability to mobilise people, is pushed behind an iron curtain. It is for similar reasons that the entire political brass even in Jammu region has become virtually powerless. The PSA on former chief-ministers and others has not been slapped because they have used the same law as a weapon against critics and innocent in the past but because of the fear that these leaders could now speak for the very people they victimised. The conditional bonds being signed by some to buy their release in lieu of the silence shows the extreme intolerance by New Delhi to any criticism of the government, particularly abrogation of Article 370.
The PSA detentions and incarceration of the people, particularly the political leadership, are significant markers of the politics of control and surveillance that will now become the future in this region. The larger worry is that this may only be the beginning of turning it into a vast prison. There may be much more in store. Though what goes up must come down as well. History of Kashmir is instructive that tighter the control mechanisms exercised by the powerful, more dangerous is the eruption of resistance against it. The trigger to that, with consequences that are beyond prediction, may take some time to come but till then, the present reality of an Orwellian state is grim.
It should also be worrying because in the larger scheme of things of the Hindu-right wing government, which is leading the country on to a fascist path, Kashmir is becoming a testing laboratory for rest of the country. The silence or the luke-warm response of the Indian liberals to the actions in Kashmir will end up legitimising a replay of similar politics and actions elsewhere. The PSA detentions of the Kashmiri ex-chief ministers, justified by no less than the prime minister, on the floor of the parliament, on grounds that the former had used words that were ‘unacceptable to us’ or the reported dossier of senior National Conference leader Ali Mohd. Sagar that ‘he could manage to mobilise people to vote even amidst boycott’ warn of not only the polity that is on the side of erring in Kashmir but also of a political future in rest of the country where ‘Might’ will be the only ‘Right’.