Long before revoking Kashmir’s autonomy, India had a ready plan to quell protests

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In India’s Jammu & Kashmir, protests against the scrapping of the state’s autonomy by the Narendra Modi government have been muted.

There have been no unrests on the scale seen in 2016, when the militant commander Burhan Wani was killed by security forces. When asked why, the Valley’s prominent communist leader MY Tarigami posed a counter-question: “Have you heard of protests taking place in Tihar jail?”

Kashmir has been under a sweeping security lockdown and a communication blockade ever since the revocation of Article 370 of the constitution on Aug. 5. Though the restrictions on communication have been relaxed slightly, there has been no reduction in the massive security deployment.

Yet, this isn’t entirely how a revolt in Kashmir against the Modi government’s move was pre-empted.

New Delhi’s tactics as they manifest themselves on the ground worked on two fronts: One, by systematically striking fear among the leaders and the known supporters of the separatist cause by unleashing law enforcement and investigative agencies against them and their families. Second, by breaking the organising ability, not only of separatists but also of the establishment parties and civil society groups.

Early start

The preparations to deal with the fallout of the Aug. 5 move began much earlier and comprised a complex set of actions sequentially performed on many fronts.

The first such move can be traced to mid-2017 when the centre launched Operation All-out against militants and the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA) probe against separatist leaders. While Operation All-out didn’t succeed, the NIA investigation was geared to make separatist leaders pay for their support and alleged funding of the militancy and unrest in the Valley.

The imposition of governor’s rule in June 2018, following Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party’s withdrawal of support to the J&K’s ruling coalition was crucial, too. It put New Delhi directly in charge of the erstwhile state, enabling it to substantially expand the NIA’s remit to act.

By the time, J&K was stripped of its semi-autonomous status, the NIA had cast its net wide, systematically scrutinising and calling for questioning to New Delhi the known people from politics, business, and media. The local media, especially, was targeted: among the people who were probed by the NIA, or called for questioning, included cub reporters and the editor of one of the largest selling dailies. This brought local newspapers more or less in line with the official stand.

By August, New Delhi had begun to set up the security apparatus and other measures to enable the passage of Article 370 in parliament. The Valley had been more or less reined in, if not tamed by then. New Delhi had succeeded in telegraphing the message of a no-holds-barred reprisal should anyone hinder its agenda.

Post August

When on Aug. 5, at around 11AM, union home minister Amit Shah announced the repeal of Article 370 in parliament, Kashmiris had been snapped from the world.

There were no phones and no internet.  Thousands had been arrested, many of them shifted to jails across India. Almost all major leaders across the mainstream-separatist divide, including three former chief ministers, Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, were under house arrest.

Disconnected from one another, Kashmiris could only react to Shah’s announcement in disbelief. Their ability to organise had been broken. There was no leader active on the scene, no functional political or social organisation which could do this. Even if there were, they couldn’t communicate. Militant leaders, for instance, couldn’t use social media to convey their messages and provoke the people.

Though the newspapers began coming out after a gap of a few days, they published little on the ongoing situation. Chary of having to take a position on the issue, they went without editorials. Their opinion pieces spoke about health, environment, and international issues.

To pre-empt spontaneous mobilisation, security personnel in significant numbers were stationed along streets and at the entry and exit points of Srinagar and other major towns. In volatile south Kashmir, where the government apprehended a forceful reaction, mass arrests were complemented by the arbitrary use of torture against youth, according to reports.

Youth were randomly picked up from their homes during nocturnal raids or called to security camps and beaten, according to published reports. In one chilling case at village Heff Shirmal in Shopian, the shrieks of a person being tortured were allegedly relayed on a loudspeaker to the surrounding villages.

This didn’t completely prevent protests though. Without anyone calling for it, Kashmir has been observing a shutdown ever since. Public transport is largely off the roads. By the government’s own admission, there were more than 300 instances of “law and order issues.”

One of the biggest protests was taken out by people at Anchar, in the outskirts of Srinagar, and saw participation from around 10,000 people. It was, however, stopped before it could enter the densely settled, barricaded parts of the main city. Subsequent attempts in Anchar were similarly thwarted, and so were those from the other areas. Protesters were allegedly shot at with pellet guns, leaving scores injured. Many who were hit in their eyes were partially blinded.

Uncertain future

Three and a half months later, as Kashmir anxiously looks forward to the future, businesses are tentatively re-opening and public transport is returning to roads. Does it mean normalcy? Far from it.

Kashmir remains without internet and prepaid mobile phones. Leaders continue to be under detention.  The lockdown remains intact, though security personnel don’t forbid normal movement of vehicles and people.

All kinds of protests are strictly barred, including silent marches—around two dozen women who tried to hold one in October were quickly hauled off to a lock-up and released only after signing a bond that they won’t repeat it.

Given New Delhi’s nervousness about an organised mass resistance at a time when the world’s attention is focussed on Kashmir, it looks unlikely that the region will be allowed to have a normal political and civil society activity anytime soon.

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