Kashmir descends into a witch’s brew of fear and suspense

An uneasy calm.
An uneasy calm.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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(Note from editors: Since this report was filed late in the evening yesterday (Aug 4), the situation seems to have worsened in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. It is reported that several top politicians, including former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have been placed under house arrest. Our colleague Riyaz Wani, who filed this report, is unreachable as communication lines—internet and cellular phones—were switched off in the state. The cabinet of prime minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to meet in the morning today, reportedly over the situation in Jammu & Kashmir.)

It all began late in the afternoon on Aug. 2 when Jammu & Kashmir home secretary Shaleen Kabra issued an order calling on pilgrims and tourists in the state to “immediately” curtail their stay and leave “as soon as possible.”

The order cited an unspecified looming security threat for the extraordinary measure. This instantly triggered panic. People rushed to stock up on essentials. Hundreds of vehicles lined up for fuel at filling stations. Those without vehicles were seen carrying fuel in cans, bottles, and even vacuum flasks.

In the meantime, tourists and pilgrims, too, were seized with fear of the unknown. Government arranged transport to help ferry them outside the state. The challenge was bigger in case of the ongoing annual pilgrimage to the high altitude cave shrine of Amarnath which was due to culminate in the next few days. Thousands of pilgrims on their way to shrine or lodged at the base camps in Pahalgam and Sonamarg were asked to return.

Ironically, the government order asking outsiders to leave the Valley had followed within an hour of an assertion by the state’s top security brass at a press conference in Srinagar that the forces had reigned in the long-running separatist militancy and brought the situation under control. In fact, the reporters were informed by the state’s director general of police, Dilbagh Singh, and the general officer commanding of 15 corps, Lt General KJS Dhillon, that the threat to Amarnath pilgrimage had been neutralised by the timely recovery of a Pakistan-marked anti-personnel mine and a US-made sniper rifle M24.

This had reassured people following a week-long troop build-up in the state of around 38,000 more security personnel. Kashmir is already estimated to have around 600,000 soldiers engaged in anti-militancy operations.

However, as it turned out, such reassurance was short-lived.

A spate of other orders ranging from cancellation of the leaves of doctors and vacating non-local students from a Kashmir’s leading Engineering college only reinforced the fears sparked by the home secretary’s.

As if to complement the tension in the Valley, the borders with Pakistan, too, erupted. Firing across the Line of Control intensified, leading to loss of security and civilian lives on both sides. India has claimed to have foiled the incursion by Pakistan Army personnel, also called BAT (Border Action Team) operation, killing five intruders. It has asked Pakistan to take the bodies back. Pakistan has accused India of using cluster munitions on civilian areas on its side of the border which has killed multiple civilians and injured many others.

Kashmir is now a witch’s brew of endemic scare and suspense.

Geopolitical context

The current situation has followed the US president Donald Trump’s July 22 offer of mediation on the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan during the much-hyped meeting with Pakistan prime minister, Imran Khan. Trump has since reiterated the offer in an interaction with reporters. New Delhi, however, has rejected mediation, terming Kashmir a bilateral issue with Pakistan which controls one-third of the state. The two countries have disputed Kashmir since their Independence in 1947 and claim it in full.  They have fought three wars over the state but the issue has lingered on.

The three decades of separatist movement in the state, which have so far claimed around 60,000 lives, have only further deepened the conflict with little hope of a resolution in the foreseeable future.

The ongoing turn of events in the state also comes in the backdrop of an accelerated movement towards a US-Taliban deal on Afghanistan being brokered by Pakistan. This is anticipated to pave the way towards a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which puts Islamabad in a position of strength, relatively greater than India’s, in the war-torn country. Many a political analyst in India have expressed fears that such a geopolitical shift could relieve militants in Afghanistan to fight in Kashmir like they did in the mid-nineties.

India’s Kashmir game plan

For now, nobody knows what New Delhi is up to in the state.

India’s home minister Amit Shah yesterday met the country’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, to discuss the situation in the state. Across the border, too, prime minister Khan summoned a meeting of the national security committee, which re-affirmed Pakistan’s resolve to respond to any “misadventure or aggression” by Indian forces, a press release from his office said. In a series of tweets, he urged president Trump to intervene in view of the “new aggressive actions taken by Indian occupation forces” adding this had the potential “to blow into a regional crisis.”

Meanwhile the situation continues to deteriorate. After the first two days of the rush on the streets to buy essentials following the new government orders, the markets now look empty and eerie. Confined to houses, people are waiting for some clarity. The atmosphere is rife with rumours and suspicion about what could be up Delhi’s sleeve.

Some three or four explanations are doing the rounds. The most dreaded of which is a plan to do away with J&K’s special status within the Indian union. This involves abrogation of the Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which respectively grant autonomy to J&K and forbid outsiders from settling down in the state. If the articles go, it is feared to clear the decks for the centre to alter the demography of the state.

Will New Delhi under Modi do it? Well, it has made no secret of its intention to do so.

Lending further credence to this prospect is the fact that revocation of Articles 370 and 35A has been a part of the long-standing ideological position of the BJP on J&K. What is more, on the stump, top BJP leaders, including Modi and Shah, have sought support on the promise of withdrawing J&K’s special status. The party’s landslide victory in the national election earlier this year possibly shows widespread public backing of such a move in the country.

Second, rumours abound that the centre is mulling the trifurcation of the state by granting separate statehood to Jammu and union territory status to Kashmir and Ladakh regions. It is argued that by bringing the Valley directly under New Delhi’s control, the centre would not need to take recourse to a tortuous legal route to dismantle Articles 370 and 35A as they will automatically go, attendant on a union territory status.

The third explanation—and this has pretty much been on the cards—is the fresh delimitation of the assembly constituencies of the state. This envisages an increase in the number of the state’s electoral constituencies on keeping with the growth in the population. As of now, J&K has 87 assembly seats, out of which the Valley has 46, Jammu 37, and Ladakh 4. Hence, it is generally a Valley-based party which either singly, or as a majority partner in a coalition, rules the state. The BJP has been batting for parity in seats between Kashmir and Jammu to make the latter an equal stake-holder in the state government. There is a hitch, though: demographics.

J&K has three provinces: Kashmir,  Jammu, and Ladakh. The Kashmir Valley is a Muslim-majority area, Jammu has Hindu majority, and Ladakh is evenly split between Buddhists and Muslims. However, the state as a whole has a comfortable majority of Muslims (68.3% of the population, according to the 2011 census; Hindus constitute 30%, Sikhs 2%, and Buddhists a little over 1%).

Hence the Valley considers enhancement of the seats for Jammu a ploy to disempower the majority community and deny it the rightful stake in the governance of the state.

Another explanation for the unprecedented enhancement of security in the state is external in nature. People speculate it may have something to do with the ongoing border tensions with Pakistan which could potentially escalate into a bigger crisis as Khan, too, has stated. This may be why the measures haven’t been confined to Kashmir Valley, but extended to parts of Jammu and Ladakh, too. These areas are devoid of militancy and witness little public unrest usually.

Parties close ranks

With no answers coming and the suspense relentlessly ratcheting up, major unionist parties of J&K, such as the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), People’s Conference, People’s United Front, and even the Indian National Congress, have united to not only demand answers for the turn of events but also collectively resolve to fight any bid by the centre to make any constitutional changes.

On Sunday evening, the top leaders of the various regional parties met at the residence of the National Conference president, Farooq Abdullah. The abrogation of the Article 35A would be an aggression against the people of the state, they said in a joint statement.

“It was unanimously decided that all the parties will be united in their resolve to protect and defend the identity, autonomy and special status of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, against all odds, whatsoever,” the joint statement read. “The parties participating in the meeting resolved to seek audience with the president and prime minister of India and the leaders of other political parties to apprise them of the current situation and make an appeal to them to safeguard the legitimate interests of the people of the state with regard to constitutional guarantees  given to the state by the constitution of our country.”

The all-party meet was followed by a candle-light march by PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti. She urged the centre to clear the air on the current turmoil in the state. She said special status to J&K under India’s constitution was “a matter of right, not privilege.”