“We’ve had enough. We are not even considered human. India says it wanted to integrate Kashmir but it is an ugly country. You are a sham democracy,’’ says a young man on a street in a South Kashmir village.
He refuses to share his name.
“I will not tell you. Your forces will come after me. We don’t even have the liberty of free speech. I want independence, I want you to leave me alone. I was going for a Railway Recruitment Board interview but there is no public transport.”
The irony of wanting an Indian government job is lost on him and when this is pointed out, he only gets angrier.
“What can I do till you don’t leave us alone?” he says.
“You can’t keep killing our people and expect us to be a part of you. You think all of us who use mobile phones are terrorists.”
The fact that this writer works for an Indian newsroom angers him even more.
“You will go back and join the ‘everything is normal’ brigade. Why don’t you go back to India? I don’t want to talk to you,” he says and walks away.
The anger isn’t new. Nor unexpected.
A month after Parliament passed laws and resolutions to bifurcate Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, and scrapped constitutional provisions that gave it special status and its permanent residents, special privileges such as government jobs and land ownership rights, J&K remains in a state of partial lockdown. Many of its leaders, both mainstream politicians and separatists, remain under arrest.
The radical moves took everyone by surprise, but the restrictions (on public movement and mobile communication, for instance) have ensured that there is an uneasy, if tenuous peace. There haven’t been too many instances of violence.
The government is comparing 2019 with 2016, when the Valley witnessed a clampdown after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani, who had captured the imagination of the Kashmiri people. His death led to an uprising that lasted well over four months. Then, the Valley saw over 100 deaths. As governor Satya Pal Malik pointed out in an interview, 30 people died in one week alone in 2016.
One month on, a civil resistance has taken shape. The government has announced the opening of schools, but attendance is thin. So is attendance in government offices. Concertina wire has been rolled back at several places and Section 144 (which prohibits the public assembly of five or more people ) lifted but most shops remain defiantly shut. The only shops that are open – in Srinagar and across districts – are neighbourhood grocery stores. A South Kashmir district commissioner said he called members of the traders association and asked them to resume business. “They just refused and said `you cannot force us. You have chosen to break the link with us by removing an Article (370) that gave us our identity. Now let us decide our own future’,” this person added on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the sweeping arrests of political leaders and separatists has led to a vacuum that is now being filled by the militants. While the separatists issued protest calendars in 2016, the militants are now distributing posters in colonies and pasting them on mosque walls. In the posters – seen by HT – the Hizbul Mujahideen is calling upon people to help their “mujahid brothers” in several ways. In one notice, the call is to “give a befitting reply to every conspiracy of Indian imperialists and enforce strict restrictions on the movement of traffic.”
The notice goes on to say, “Only the patients going to hospitals may be allowed to move on the road…After magrib (evening) namaz, people are requested to turn off the street lights so that our Mujahid brothers can move around freely.”
Also evident is the hand of Pakistan. For several years now, people in the state had gone cold on Pakistan, realising that they were being exploited. This became evident in 2013 and 2014, when local Kashmiri men started picking up the gun again.
After the first rush in 1989, when insurgency took root, foreign terrorists were at the forefront of the insurgency, until locals started disappearing into forests and reappearing on social media, gun in hand.
In the past month since the nullification of Article 370, people in J&K have been eagerly watching Pakistan’s moves.
Cable networks have not been allowed to operate since August 5 but those who have dish antennas at home are seeing what Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has to say, and he has been saying a lot.
What can also be said with certainty is that Pakistan is trying its best to push in terrorists across the Line of Control.
“Launch pads are full to their capacities and attempts are being made day and night,” Lt Gen KJS Dhillon, Corps Commander, 15 Corps said.
According to intelligence estimates, some terrorists have managed to sneak in. Intelligence inputs also indicate that Pakistan has reopened its training camps after a gap of two years.
“Mosques in Rawalpindi and Muzaffarabad are being used to indoctrinate and mobilise people to join the movement to ‘free Kashmir’,” a security official said.
Violence and collateral damage ::
There has been some violence, though.
“We have treated about 50 people who were brought in with pellet injuries,” one doctor at a Srinagar whispers and disappears before he can be asked for his name. There are two young boys with bandages on their eyes but within minutes of this reporter reaching the SMHS Hospital, two security guards arrive. The medical superintendent is clear: “Sorry, no permission, you have to leave,” he orders.
But governor Malik says, pointing to his chest “Nobody has been hit above this.” Everything else, he adds, “is propaganda.” He adds that there hasn’t been a single casualty (on account of action by the security forces).
There has been collateral damage.
There’s 34-year-old Fehmeeda Bano, who died because of excessive toxic inhalation.
At her home in Srinagar’s Bemina locality. her husband Rafiq Shagoo shows the hospital record issued by SKMS Medical College and Hospital: “Acute lung injury. Inhalation of teargas smoke. Sudden cardiac pulmonary arrest.”
Across villages, the army is distributing pamphlets on the “benefits of the removal of Article 370 and 35-A.” Printed in Urdu, the flyers say people will now have the right to education, freedom from corruption, mid-day meals at government schools, health benefits under Ayushman Bharat and new hotels and tourism centres. Some of these are because of some central laws that weren’t applicable to the state before the revocation of its special status.
The governor has already announced that 50,000 jobs would be created but some people say these offers mean nothing.
“Our children lie buried in graves and you want to bribe us with jobs. If we tell you ‘we will kill your children and then tell you that we will give you a job,’ how will you feel?” asks an irate Firoze Bhat, 29, at Kulgam’s Qaimoh village. Another resident, Umar Shafi, says he gave up his job with Airtel in Gurugram to be with his community. “Our future is dark and uncertain. We will continue with our strike.”
Apart from political leaders, political workers and separatists, scores of Kashmiri men have been arrested under the Public Safety Act and flown out of the state. No state functionary is willing to put a number to just how many have been flown out. A family in Kulgam whose son has been sent to a jail in Uttar Pradesh is resigned to not seeing him for the next six months. Shameema Bano, mother of Umar Dar, 19, who was taken away by the local police’s Special Task Force, shows the papers.
“You have been found working as an active overground worker of active terrorists whose only aim and objective is to secede Jammu and Kashmir from the Union of India. You have been instigating the youth to resort to stone pelting,” they say.
Hundreds of “stone pelters” have been arrested and sent out of the state to prevent protestors from taking to the streets.
An uncertain future ::
In Srinagar, a locality called Soura has become the symbol of resistance. The neighbourhood has always resisted the state but this time it has morphed into a separate enclave that erupts every Friday. Its residents took out the first big protest march on August 9. The government initially denied it but finally accepted that some people did indeed take to the streets. Security forces opened up their pellet guns to quell the protest, but Soura’s residents have now dug up roads leading into the locality and blocked access. Soura’s graffiti is reflective of its residents’ voices.
“We love Pakistan,’’ says Ruqaya Nabi, barely 50 metres from a shop that has “Pakistan army zindabad’’ painted across its shutter. Nabi was preparing for a Masters in education when communications went down. “We get our syllabus online. What do we do now? Wait till the internet is restored and India will get its reply. I have decided not to go to college now.”
Another resident, Fehmeeda Jan, is bitter that Eid, an important religious festival, could not be celebrated. “We wish you a similar Diwali. Only Pakistan understands our pain. You are pushing our brothers into militancy,” she says.
On the face of it, the government can legitimately claim ‘’no casualties, not a single bullet fired,” but Kashmir’s future remains uncertain. The valley has long been the Union’s territory in letter – whether it will become that in spirit is a answer that lies in the distant future. For now, Kashmir is on the brink.