//Uneasy lies the vale

Uneasy lies the vale

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. And the smoke in Kashmir is not coming from a Cuban peace pipe

David Devadas Srinagar, Hard News Media, October 2006

Political inaction exacts its own price. And the current perception in Kashmir is that the price may very well be a return to the early days of secessionist militancy when terror ripped through the valley following the abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed in December, 1989. “The situation is heading back to 1990,” says Kashmir Times publisher Ved Bhasin, dramatically. Even if one is tempted to treat Bhasin’s statement as journalistic hyperbole, it is impossible to overlook the echoes his observation finds in other independent quarters.

A shopkeeper in a sleepy village, not far off the Srinagar-Leh highway, compares what he now sees coming with the long past days of 1991. At the time, the situation in rural stretches had worsened further; state institutions existed only on paper. So uneasy is the shopkeeper that he does not want to be named. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, sounds gloomy: “If nothing happens (to rectify things), all — including the Hurriyat — will find it difficult to handle the situation a year from now.”

For the moment, many of these appear to be just ‘felt’ predictions because it is difficult to put a finger on hard evidence regarding the worsening political and social climate in the state. Some, like a Pandit from Jammu, who has visited Kashmir every summer for several years, speak like one who can sense the calm before a storm: “It’s in the air. I smell something very disturbing here this summer.” It is unlikely, however, that such an unspecific sense of unease will have registered in New Delhi for, as the Mirwaiz puts it, “Unless the people in Delhi hear a bang, they think (there is) normalcy.”

There are significant straws in the wind, however. Here’s one: police records show that requests by politicians for police escorts to public meetings and other rural tours have come down dramatically — to just eight per cent of the requests made last year (between January and July each year). These requests include those from secessionist politicians, the ‘moderate’ ones among whom often seek police escort. Obviously, relatively fewer politicians this year have dared to try and keep in touch with constituents, or address public meetings, or even simply venture forth to inaugurate projects and attend ceremonies in rural areas.

Another indicator of the change in the ground situation is the experience in August of a Kashmiri journalist who works for a major — and well-respected  — national news channel. He and his crew were almost lynched by villagers in the Bandipora area of north Kashmir. They were also at the receiving end of a verbal barrage regarding the bias of the ‘national media’, and were finally forced to leave the village.

Analysts in Kashmir are hard put to explain this worsening of mood. The majority blame it on the shift of power from Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad in November last. Azad’s focus on a clean, efficient administration has not gone down well with the people. The perception is that Mufti was better able to contain human rights abuses and rein in the security forces which are now behaving repressively.

In particular, the murder of a college student by security men who were checking his identity on a bus in uptown Srinagar in mid-August, has shaken and deeply upset Kashmiris. Versions of what happened vary, but the pattern of such incidents leads many to believe that the boy was killed after he refused to be humiliated (by holding his ears, getting into a ‘murga’ (rooster) posture, etc.)

Such humiliation (and much worse in torture cells) is not new to Kashmir, but the common Kashmiri has apparently come to the end of his tether. Psychiatrist Mushtaq Margoob of Srinagar’s Psychiatric Diseases Hospital points to the effect of the accumulation of traumatising experiences over the years. These stored memories, according to him, come to a head when the expectation that things will get better receives a setback; it’s as if the light at the end of the tunnel were to recede.

Various other factors have contributed to the perception of a setback as well. Apart from the change of government from Mufti to Azad, the impression had gained ground — at least until the Indo-Pak summit interaction in Havana this September — that the Indo-Pak peace process and the talks between New Delhi and Kashmiri secessionist leaders were going nowhere. “Nothing is moving,” says the normally diplomatic Mirwaiz Umar, adding that there appears to be “absolutely no policy”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s much-touted round table conference at the beginning of this year was such a fiasco that no secessionist leader, howsoever moderate, attended it. It was followed by public statements from General Pervez Musharraf that the Indian side had not responded to Pakistan’s proposals during negotiations for a long-term solution to the Kashmir dispute.

As if in response to Musharraf’s statement, there were a series of terrorist attacks this summer. Additionally, more militants infiltrated across the line of control (LoC) this summer than in the previous few years. A senior police officer says that those Kashmiris, who have been lying low in Muzaffarabad and other places across the LoC over the past few years, were dispatched to India this summer. This would indicate that a major end-game strategy is unfolding.

More worrying, this officer points out, is that a number of fresh young Kashmiris, mainly rural teenagers, have gone across the LoC to Pakistan for training this summer — the first time in the last three or four years that something like this has happened. Their return after training next summer could easily dovetail with the fears being expressed about a return to the high-intensity insurgency of the early 1990s.

The global scenario too is a factor. Mirwaiz Umar observes that Hezbollah’s success against the Israeli attack in Lebanon has had an impact and “Nasrallah (Lebanon-based Hezbollah leader) has emerged as a hero”.

At a more mundane level, the expectation that the CRPF would behave better than the BSF, which was removed from the control of Srinagar a couple of years ago, has been belied. Ali Shah Geelani, who chairs the hard-line Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, relates a string of human rights abuses from Srinagar and other corners of the valley, blaming “the occupation forces” rather than one or other government. “Occupation is the biggest oppression,” he says.Despite ill-health, Geelani’s popularity and confidence have been reinforced over the past year. The increased alienation that has again become evident this summer can only increase the salience of his uncompromising stand against “occupation” — which indicates a long hot summer next year.