Why Political Vacuum in Kashmir Won’t Be Easy to Fill

By Riyaz Wani

If you flip through the pages of local dailies in Kashmir Valley, a pro-government tilt in the coverage stares you in the face: Press releases from the state’s Information and Public Relations Department get the pride of place, often diligently adorned with pictures of the newly appointed Lieutenant Governor and his advisors. Most of rest of the news comprises of heavily sanitized sparse local reportage and agency reports which adhere to the general drift of the coverage.

The impression you get of Kashmir is a perfectly normal place. That too after four months of uninterrupted shutdown and uncertainty following revocation of Article 370 on August 5. There is no counter narrative: almost, no statements from the political parties or civil society groups which challenge the government position on situation. You will rarely spot a picture of detained politicians: Fewer reports mention Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti, J&K’s three top politicians and former Chief Ministers.

In a weirdly oxymoronic way, the press which ideally is supposed to reflect the reality is hiding it but in the process revealing more about the situation than it is able to hide.  And much more tellingly so. The one thing that comes across loud and clear is the growing political vacuum in the absence of political and civil society actors. This has rendered the vast democratic space between the state government and the people eerily vacant: absence of a discourse of any kind is deafening.

Similarly, government appears no better off for all the good press it gets. More positive coverage its functionaries and their activities get, more removed they appear from public. People don’t relate to the administration and in turn the administration appears irresponsive to them. What is more, there is little hope of any redeeming change in situation in near future.

The government so far has given no indication that it will free the political leaders anytime soon. The home minister Amit Shah has been non-committal on the subject, while the minister of state in PMO Jitendra Singh has talked of prolonging the leaders’ detention for “not more than eighteen months”.  This shows  New Delhi has no inclination to restore political activity in the Valley unless it plays along with its August 5 move. It expects an extended incarceration to soften the stances of the leaders to a point where they are willing to reconcile to the terms of the altered political reality.

Will that happen? It is difficult to tell. As things stand, the major pro-establishment parties like National Conference and the PDP are resolutely opposed to revocation of J&K’s autonomous status and want reversal of the contentious decision.  Separatist groups who seek Azadi for Kashmir too have rallied around the special status as they apprehend its withdrawal is geared to engineer a demographic change in the erstwhile state. But the detention of all decision-making leaders from across this ideological divide complemented by a sweeping security lockdown and communication blockade has temporarily put a lid on the expected political backlash. This has broken the organizational structure which could have formulated and spearheaded a public response to loss of autonomous status.

Encouraged by the success of its tactics so far, New Delhi is unlikely to change them in a hurry. And this will only prolong the existing state of affairs. Union Government is in no mood to allow anyone to mediate the vacant democratic space except on its terms. But there is currently no one in Kashmir who is ready to publically do its bidding.

This leaves the government with two options: either artificially install or co-opt existing political and social actors who uncritically toe its line or wait for the situation to further normalize before jailed leaders are let out. In case of former, the sponsored leaders will be perceived as little more than stooges. Considering the simmering anger in the Valley against revocation of Article 370, a politics that easily reconciles to the new political reality will have fewer takers in near to medium term.

This has created challenges not only for New Delhi making it paranoid about a belated public upheaval but also for the local leaders caught between centre’s stick and popular sentiment in the Valley. Sooner or later, New Delhi will realize it has no option but to give ground to anti-Article 370 move politics and let it run its course – albeit, it is likely to enforce strict redlines on how it plays out. At the same time, the challenge for the mainstream politicians would be to forge a politics that seeks restoration of J&K’s constitutional rights without letting it lapse into a separatist agenda.

So far, mainstream politics in the Valley has operated in a space between separatism and an outrightly pro-Indian stance. It has galvanized public support by making a case for India in Kashmir within the framework of Article 370 which guaranteed special rights to people and offered protection against demographic change. This space is gone now. Its chief proponent senior Abdullah is under detention for four months, so are others. They can now only demand back this  space, not operate in it.

Where do we go from here?  No easy answers to this question. There are many imponderables in air: If and when the government will release the jailed politicians. How will they approach their politics in the transformed political context? How will government respond if this politics veers starkly from its expectations? The answers are still months away. Until then, situation in Kashmir looks set to go on  regardless: people silently simmering at the lingering denial of rights and the government largely impervious to their grievances.

In such a politically drained environment, the protesting doesn’t get you government attention but incurs more indifference as local journalists demanding internet service have learnt to their detriment. Or the two dozen odd women from elite backgrounds who ventured to hold a peaceful protest but were despatched to spend the night at Srinagar’s largest jail and released the following day only after signing the bond that they won’t engage in similar activity.

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