Now Running in Srinagar


Why a marathon turned into an angry demonstration:The government talks development and local issues, without talking peace in Kashmir

THIS SUNDAY in Srinagar, the “Big Kashmir Marathon” was flagged off from Kashmir University. Organised by an FM channel, it was Kashmir’s first international marathon, festooned with the slogan “I am the change”, aimed at raising awareness about the state of local water bodies, drug abuse and other unimpeachable local issues. But after the race was done and the prizes were brought out, another set of slogans erupted from the crowd: “Go India go back” and “we want freedom.” The police launched a lathi charge at the chanting youth, and they responded with stones. Once again, the impossibility of talking about everyday life in Kashmir without bumping into the elephant in the room.

The marathon, attended by leaders of the state’s ruling coalition, looked like an attempt at normalising the Kashmir story, bringing it within the rubric of local concerns that affect all other parts of the country. These may be vital concerns that need to be raised. But while the administration remains silent on deeper questions of identity and belonging, its support of the marathon seems particularly tone deaf. For what does it mean to hold an international marathon in a place that many consider “disputed territory”, where nationality is contested?

Down with the banners

Never mind answering the larger questions, the administration doesn’t even acknowledge the more immediate tensions on the ground. Kashmir University, where the marathon was flagged off, has no student unions and cannot organise events that it would like to hold. Five years ago, the government decided to ban student politics and demolished the offices of the Kashmir University Students’ Union. Recently old wounds were opened once again, as Naeem Akhtar, an ideologue of the People’s Democratic Party and the state’s new education minister, appealed to the Kashmir University vice chancellor to repeal the ban. He was refused. The PDP leader’s attempt to play good cop only seems to have sharpened resentments.

Outside the campus, the government has done its best to drive protests underground. Whether it’s demonstrations on the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s execution or marches to mark one year of the Kashmir floods and the lack of relief provided by the government, the institutional response is the same ? curfews, arrests and a heavy cloak of security. As the space for protest and political expression has shrunk, anger against the governments at the state and the Centre has built up. “The organisers had invited BJP leader and other bureaucrats. Do they expect us to shower flowers at them?” demanded one of the teenagers who protested on Sunday.

Tried, tested, failed

Successive governments have tried changing the subject, but with little long-term success. The assembly elections of 2008, which brought to power a coalition government composed of the National Conference and the Congress, was believed to be a turning point in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir.

The government had won a robust mandate, in an election fought on bijli, sadak, pani, stronger local government and better employment. The conversation had turned away from militancy, and it was felt that if the economic aspirations of the people could be met, the conflicts of J&K would eventually fade out. But the stone pelting of 2010 and the subsequent government crackdown blew apart this assumption. In the three years of sullen peace that followed, the state government did not make good on its election promises and the Centre did not use the relative calm to address the more fraught issues.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since he came to power in 2014, has devoted considerable time and attention in making political overtures to J&K. Anxious to reach out to a new electorate, he dialled down the BJP’s demand for the abolition of Article 370, which ensures special status for J&K. But he spoke the language of development and special economic package. Meanwhile his government refused to talk Kashmir with Pakistan and called off the bilateral dialogue after the Pakistani high commissioner met separatist leaders.

Bijli, sadak, peace process

Governments seem to mistake poll turnouts for faith in the Indian democratic process, and strong mandates for complaisance with the status quo. But the voter in J&K is motivated by a complex set of impulses, able to set aside concerns about autonomy and the peace process while voting to have their day to day needs met. Those concerns, however, do not just disappear because they have not been addressed.

Any administration that seeks to retain support in J&K needs to tackle economic grievances along with the more tangled questions about Kashmir. It has become especially important now, when militancy seems to have entered a new phase of popularity in the Valley and Pakistan has declared it will not talk to India unless Kashmir is on the agenda. To remain silent now is to be in a state of denial. It is a silence, moreover, that has poisoned all other conversations in Kashmir. –

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