The death of yet another expectation will only increase the hurt and anger.
Six weeks after the abrogation of Article 370, normalcy remains a distant dream in the Kashmir Valley. Contrary to the assessments of security agencies that had predicted large-scale agitations, there are no big protests or signs of any major unrest. In fact, the violent protests have been limited, as reported by various journalists, to a few hotspots. Even south Kashmir, which is infamous for militancy and violent protests, remains calm on the surface. This area was the hotbed of protests and violence in 2017 and 2018, and yet has been eerily quiet over the last six weeks.
However, the absence of large-scale violence does not signify normalcy in any manner as conversations with people reveal seething anger. The fear of detentions and investigations coupled with an absence of leadership and direction is keeping protestors from coming on the streets. On the other hand, the fear instilled by targeted attacks against a shopkeeper and the family of orchardist is ensuring the continuity of the civil curfew. The market is abuzz with rumors of militant sightings and imaginary threats, and these rumors are amplifying the sense of fear. The absence of internet and mobile telephony because of the communication lockdown has only fueled misinformation, making it difficult for the people to check the veracity what they read or watch. Television channels, which are the only source of news and access to the outside world, have lost all credibility with the media being seen as the mouthpiece of the ruling party. People out rightly, and almost zealously, reject all news as propaganda. Every conversation begins with a barrage of abuse against Indian media. It will not be an exaggeration to state that the anger against media is far more intense than the anti-security forces or even anti-India sentiment.
Anchar (Soura) area of Srinagar has emerged as the most talked-about hotspot of protests, and has received an unmatched and perhaps disproportionate international media attention. This area remains volatile and out of bounds for security forces, as the locals have dug up roads and installed barricades to keep the police from entering into the neighbourhood. It is the only place in the valley where TV cameras can meet protestors, making this perhaps the only significance of this hotspot. That this epicenter of protests is an area of less than one square kilometer and houses not more than 200 families explains its insignificance.
Soura could however become a model for protests in other parts of the Valley. People could take a cue and create similar ‘liberated zones’. This kind of protest is new to Kashmir and the presence of militants in one or many such hotspots has the potential to complicate the security matrix, particularly in south Kashmir.
Conversations with security officials reveal that the government expected unrest far more intense than the one witnessed after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. How the situation unfolded after 5 August has taken the security managers by surprise, messing up their calculations. Even so, the security officials are not complacent or sanguine, and acknowledge the fact that there is pent up anger in the population.
To avoid any triggers that could lead to protests and violence, the security forces are treading a tight rope. The government does not have an exit strategy and wants the stalemate — surface level calm, with little violence and civil curfew — to continue. This is why recommendations by security officers on the ground to ease up on communication restrictions have not translated into decisions.
What is truly worrying the security forces is the fear that a single event or incident of friction can act as a trigger to mass protests and street violence. Security forces are already anticipating, even gaming possible triggers in months and years to come. Each agitation in past has been far more intense than the preceding one. The unrest of 2010 would not have been possible without the agitation of 2008. Similarly, the new militancy inspired by Burhan Wani was borne out of the after-effects of the agitation of 2010. The silence and a lack of outburst on the streets at this point of time is therefore being read as sign of a worrying trend in the future. Security forces assess that any outburst in future will be unpredictable and more intense than the previous one.
While the restrictions imposed on civilian movement in initial weeks may have deterred the possibility of mass mobilisations, the widespread detentions of political leaders and activists are largely responsible for the lack of protests. Over the last six weeks, the police have rounded up protestors — “troublemakers” in the security parlance — from almost every area that witnessed disruptions. The detentions have instilled a sense of fear as many detainees have been sent to prisons outside the state. No one in the police is willing to share the exact number of detainees, which is a little strange because in the past the law enforcement agencies have never been chary of sharing or making public this data. Conversations with civilians suggest that many of these detained protestors have been released on the guarantee provided by families and friends.
Ironically, the detention of mainstream politicians has served a common cause for the central government and separatists: both see it as a cleanup. The extremist and separatist leaning civilians see the detention of mainstream leaders as a blessing in disguise; in their opinion, the mainstream leaders were enablers or local collaborators of the Indian government and its policies. With their exit there is no room left for moderate and middle of the road politics. Like the government, the separatists, particularly of the Islamist bent of mind, have wanted Kashmiris to choose one side or the other. Today, many people in Kashmir see a vindication of the stand of Hurriyat hardliners who saw mainstream leaders and all chief ministers of the state as “puppets”.
There is no middle ground left in Kashmir. You are either on the side of India or on the side of Kashmiris. If you are on the Indian side, you are labelled as being on the side of the RSS. Conversely, you are perceived to be on the side of Kashmir only when you are in total agreement with the Islamists. Anyone who disagrees with the views of people on the ground is immediately branded as an “RSS supporter” or “BJP agent”. This is reminiscent of an era when the activists of Congress party in Kashmir were seen as ‘Quislings’.
Undoubtedly, the most affected by the prevailing scenario are an insignificant minority of pro-India Kashmiris who seem to have lost all moral arguments against the separatists and Islamists. They feel as if an artificial limb has been taken away, and expect a heightened threat from the militants.
There is a broad consensus among security officials that militancy will grow in Kashmir. The uptick in militancy will put the section of Kashmiris, who desire a semblance of normalcy and progress, at-risk and more significantly, force them into deeper silence. The attack on the shopkeeper in Srinagar and the family of orchardist in Sopore is a first signal to civilians who wish for the return of normalcy.
The restrictions on mobile telephony has affected the flow of intelligence to security forces. Informers are unable to deliver information about the movement of militants bringing anti-militancy operations to a halt. Counterinsurgency operations have been at a halt for 13 days more than the Ramzan ceasefire of last year. During the Ramazan ceasefire, security forces had better access to intelligence as mobile telephony and internet were operational. The internet blockade has also affected the flow technical intelligence, enabling terrorist outfits to regroup and move freely to instill fear.READ: The Kashmir gambit: Economic empowerment, political disempowerment?
In the absence of mainstream and separatist politics, militants and fear of their terror are taking control of both physical and mind space. On the other hand, those who espouse the cause of separatists see violence and militancy as the only “protection” against a demographic change. The restrictions on internet have limited the messages, which are limited to letters and posters pasted on walls. Once the internet is restored, video and audio statements released by militants will further aggravate the situation on ground.
While the anger within Kashmir is palpable, those who have a direct stake in the separatism are employing a wait and watch strategy. That is why the security forces do not see an unrest on the anvil this year. In fact, each individual or group is expecting others to fight back. Government officials are waiting for police personnel to resign and vice versa. Similarly, people on the streets are waiting for militants to attack. Some are even waiting for Afghans to infiltrate into Kashmir and fight on their behalf. Mostly, Kashmiris are looking towards Pakistan to do something dramatic. Some are looking eastwards to China. Whether or not that happens, people are passing each day with new hope and outlandish rumors (for instance a lot of people said Gulmarg has been taken over by BAT action teams of Pakistan). Amidst this, there seems to be no expectation of any relief (development, jobs, etc.) from the government of India. A senior journalist described this phenomenon as a “death of expectation.”
Talking about hope, every Kashmiri seems to have marked the coming 27 September on their calendars as the most significant date in the recent history of Kashmir. They are looking forward to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session on Kashmir where Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan are supposed to speak. While it was difficult to argue the pros and cons of violence and militancy in conversations with ordinary Kashmiris, one statement stood out the most: “Now go and tell people in Delhi you have lost this battle. Without any violence, the world is talking about Kashmir today. Imagine what will happen if things turn violent in the valley or on the border.”
The outcome of UNGA session may not be pleasing to Kashmiris who have pinned a lot of hopes on the global body, but surely the death of yet another expectation will only increase the hurt and anger; the sense of defeat; a desire for violence; and support for extremists. In such a polarised environment, a small section of Kashmiris who stood by India and continue to stand for peace and progress are seeking an early exit.
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Khalid Shah was an Associate Fellow at ORF. HisRead More +