September Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

When scenes of Kashmiris — men and women, young and old alike — waving green flags amid frenzied screams of ‘azadi,’ hit Indian television screens, the people were taken by surprise. It was reminiscent of the ’80s when the Kashmiris had similarly taken to the streets, demanding independence, and violence had erupted, leading to a crackdown by the Indian security forces.

It all began when the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government decided to transfer 800 kanals of land to Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti (ASS), the managing board for the massive annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Shri Amarnath cave shrine in Kashmir. The land was ostensibly only to be utilised during the pilgrimage in order to provide the yatris better accommodation facilities, like prefabricated huts and toilets. The Amarnath Yatra is one of the major sources of income for the people of the Valley and, often the only source to much of the nomadic population in the Valley.

The United Parties Alliance (UPA) government at the centre has been so preoccupied with the US nuclear deal and its own survival woes, that it failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. It was left to the recently appointed J&K Governor, N.N. Vohra to decide the course of action: he unilaterally cancelled the land transfer order on June 30. This, in turn, angered the Hindus of Jammu, who blocked the strategic Jammu-Srinagar highway, suspending the transportation of food and essential items to and from the city.

So, a seemingly innocuous act on the part of the government has now snowballed into a major crisis in the conflict-ridden state. Incidentally, Article 370 of the Indian constitution prohibits the sale or transfer of J&K land to non-state subjects, while allowing state subjects of J&K to buy land in the rest of India. This transfer of land for the Amarnath shrine, which has been referred to as a “permanent transfer” by the former right-wing governor of J&K, Lt. S.K. Sinha, has fuelled suspicions and provoked the Muslims of the Valley. The Hurriyat leaders launched a campaign against this transfer of land and charged the board with attempting to change the demographic composition of the Valley by settling Hindus from other parts of India. Seeking to gain political mileage in the run-up to the elections, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), that had originally approved the transfer order as part of the ruling coalition, blamed the Ghulam Nabi Azad government for the debacle and pulled out of it, paving the way for governor’s rule. Leading newspapers in the Valley called the yatraa a “monstrous phenomenon” and a “cultural invasion.”

The residents of Jammu are equally defiant. They believe that they have always been asked to sacrifice their interests for the “greater cause” of retaining Kashmir within India, and that the decision-making has always been in the hands of Kashmiri leaders.

Jammu is predominantly a Hindu-majority area, but it has a considerable Sikh and Muslim population (Muslims form a majority in three of the state’s provinces: Doda, Poonch and Rajouri), while ethnicities such as the Dogras and the Gujjars are also settled there. Nevertheless, politics in the state has predominantly been so Valley-centric that a feeling of discrimination has started taking root in the minds of the people. Balraj Puri, a leading analyst on Jammu and Kashmir, points out that with the exception of Ghulam Nabi Azad, the chief minister of the state has always been from the Valley. Although Jammu has a larger population, it only has 37 seats in the legislative assembly, as against Kashmir’s 46 seats. Jammu generates 70% of the state’s revenue but receives only 30% of it. Jammu is also home to more than the 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus who had fled the Valley when trouble began in the late ’80s.

Incidentally, the BJP, which had won only a single seat in the 2002 J&K state elections and no seats from the state in the parliamentary elections, politicised the issue to garner popular support. Soon people, not only in Jammu, but across India, began talking about the subsidies that the Indian government provides to Muslims for Haj. The Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Yatra Samiti, an adhoc citizens group, was formed to spearhead the agitation against the annulment of the transfer of land. Since the Samiti refused to talk to politicians from the Valley, the governor set up a four-member negotiating team chaired by the governor’s adviser, Sudhir S. Bloerio. “We are against this unilateral decision, without taking the people of Jammu into confidence,” says Sheikh Shakeel, president of the Jammu Bar Association, which has been supporting the Samiti. Though many of its members, including its president, Leela Karan Sharma, are affiliated to right-wing Hindu groups such as the RSS and VHP, the group also has the Congress party and non-political members in its ranks. The Kashmiri pandit community is actively supporting the agitation, as is the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Jammu Industries Association, the Jammu Retailers Federation and the Jammu Doctors Association.

Jammu has always sought more integration with India, says Puri, while Kashmir has sought more autonomy to preserve its identity. Hence, when the land transfer order was revoked, Jammu perceived it as giving in to the secessionists.

A few days into the agitation, a curfew was clamped on Jammu, while allegations were made that no curfew was enforced during the entire agitation in the Valley. Sporadic communal clashes broke out in areas like Bhaderwah, Samba and Kishtwar, but were soon brought under control. Seventy huts belonging to Muslim Gujjars were torched, which were widely reported in the Valley as instances of Hindu communalism.

But it was really the statements of the BJP state president, Ashok Khajuria, about imposing an ‘economic blockade’ on Kashmir, that led the Hurriyat, the PDP and even the National Conference to stir up anti-India sentiments. Amid shutdowns and strikes called by the Samiti, the Jammu-Pathankot road was blocked for days, with no movement of trucks carrying supplies to or from the state. Some drivers from the Valley were even attacked, resulting in the death of one and injury to others. Though the government later provided security to trucks moving out of the Valley, truckers were reluctant to travel, resulting in losses for the Valley’s Rs.2,500 crore fruit industy. According to Ghulam Rasool Butt, chairman of the Kashmir Coordination Committee of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers’ and Dealers’ Union, around 60% of the packed fruits that were ready for transportation had become spoilt. He estimated the losses to be around Rs.400 crores. Butt claims that he sent a fax to Governor Vohra on July 26, regarding the fruit growers’ concerns and seeking an appointment to discuss the issue, but received no response.

They then threatened to cross the border into Muzaffarabad and sell their produce, especially apples which were in danger of rotting, in Pakistan.

“The entire thing has been blown out of proportion by the mainstream parties for political mileage,” says a disgruntled former Congress MLA in Kashmir. And, as a result, trade and tourism has suffered, while life for the ordinary Kashmiri has become paralysed. “The average Kashmiri is caught between draconian security laws and the interests of our selfish politicians,” says a teacher. Add to that, the general discontent with the daily checks and harassment by security personnel, the disappearance of thousands of people, unemployment, a growing drug addiction problem and the increasing radicalism being instilled in the youth by organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat — life for the ordinary Kashmiri is nothing short of miserable.

The situation for the Indian government spiralled out of control when the Kashmir Fruit Growers Association, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Traders Federation, both factions of the Hurriyat and the PDP called for a ‘Muzaffarabad chalo’ march to the Line of Control (LoC) on August 11. There was excessive use of force on the thousands of marchers proceeding towards the LoC. Legal expert Ram Jethmalani even suggested that the marchers be allowed to cross the LoC but not be allowed back. Many had expected a preventive curfew to be imposed on the Valley, but it was only imposed — for the first time in 17 years — when news of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz’s death broke, and 21 Kashmiris lost their lives in the ensuing two days of violence. Across the Valley, demonstrators chanted ‘Azadi’ and ‘Ae zalimon, hamara Kashmir chorr do,’ while others shouted ‘Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan’ and ‘Hindustan, tere maut.’ The crisis helped bring different factions of the Hurriyat together. While most of the demonstrations were peaceful and non-violent, mobs forced businesses to shut down. The Central Reserve Police Force bunkers were destroyed, and the Indian tri-colour flag was torn and burnt. And on India’s Independence Day, it had to be taken off by security personnel soon after it was hoisted at Lal Chowk, the heart of the city. Soon after, demonstrators hoisted the Pakistani flag in its place.

The state decided to hit back. After days of uninterrupted protests and demonstrations — during which Hurriyat leaders submitted a memorandum to the UN office in Srinagar, asking it to “actively engage” itself in Jammu and Kashmir — Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Ashraf Sehrai, JKLF chief Yasin Malik, and a host of other separatists leaders were arrested — on the eve of the separatists’ calls to march to Lal Chowk. A strict curfew was imposed across all districts of Kashmir, with shoot-at-sight orders, and all news channels were ordered off the air.

These frenzied scenes witnessed by the Indians on their television screens, have, for the first time, started the ‘azadi’ debate for the Kashmiris. While some intellectuals have been advocating the right of self-determination for Kashmiris for some time now, certain mainstream columnists, have also touched upon the ‘azadi’ word. In a hard-hitting column, the famed Arundhati Roy propagated freedom for Kashmiris. She remarked: “For all these years, the Indian State has done everything it can to subvert, supress, represent, misrepresent, discredit, interpret, intimidate, purchase — and simply snuff out the voice of the Kashmiri people.” However, a recent opinion poll conducted by Times Of India in nine major cities across India, predictably enough, found that the majority of the respondents felt that India should not let go of Kashmir.

National Conference leader Omar Abdullah went on national TV to say that azadi was not a “feasible option” for Kashmir, while Mirwaiz, leader of the moderate Hurriyat faction, in an interview with Outlook, remarked that “When someone on the streets here says Pakistan or Nizam-e-Mustafa, what are they trying to convey? What he [the Kashmiri] is saying is that he rejects the present system. This does not necessarily mean he would choose Pakistan. People here know what has been happening within Pakistan.” The JKLF chief Yasin Malik’s slogan, as always, was: ‘Is paar bhi lenge azadi, us paar bhi lenge azadi.’

“Most of the demonstrators were boys below the age of 25,” says PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti. “They have not only witnessed the worst abuses at the hands of the militants, but also humiliation by security forces. For them the demonstrations and slogans against India are a way of releasing their pent-up frustration. For them azadi means azadi from suppression, from blockade” — and not necessarily Pakistan.”

Analysts and commentators, meanwhile, have started advocating greater patience with the Valley, minimal use of force, engagement with all political players and greater autonomy. The Hurriyat, as well as the mainstream parties, say they want trade through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad route, withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act, and release of all Kashmiri detainees from jail.

The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service has resumed but the confidence-building talks between India and Pakistan have stalled. The attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which has been blamed on the ISI, the Pakistan National Assembly’s resolution on the current Kashmir crisis, the alleged infiltration of soldiers across the LoC and renewed clashes have not gone down well with the Indian establishment. Speaking to Newsline over the phone, Saifuddin Soz, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh (state) Congress Committee and minister in the current Union cabinet, categorically stated that the peace process between India and Pakistan had taken a backseat due to Pakistan’s internal exigencies. “There can be no trade through the Muzzafarabad-Srinagar route because there has been no response from Pakistan on this offer yet. We are waiting for a response from them.”

Meanwhile, India seems to be following its favourite policy — that of using the stick first and then, the carrot — in Kashmir.