August Stared At Us, Aghast

A year after the repeal of Article 370, the choices in Kashmir are now starker than ever before

LOOKING back at the days of lockdown following the revocation of Article 370 on August 5 last year, one of the distinctive images that comes to a Kashmiri journalist’s mind is that of Srinagar’s Media Facilitation Centre from where they were supposed to file their stories. Initially located at a hall of a prominent hotel in Sonawar, the centre was started with just four computers with wifi connection for around three hundred journalists from local, national and international media outlets. Journalists got just enough time on a computer to check and send mail. Rest of Kashmir Valley was under a complete security lockdown and communication blockade. Even the local newspapers didn’t have internet access. They download most of their content at the Centre on USB sticks  and reproduced the same with some skeletal reports on the local situation.

Pro-establishment politicians who had always stood for India in Kashmir and  participated in elections were also detained, so were around ten thousand others comprising civil  society leaders, potential protesters including even minors, not to mention the separatist leaders and activists.

Did any protests take place during the lockdown? They did, albeit they were largely invisible to media. According to an AFP report at the time,  there were 722 instances of protest during the first month following the August 5 move that averaged out around 20 protests a day. Nearly 200 civilians and 415 security forces had been wounded, the report said. The protests were largely centered in main city of Srinagar, Baramulla and Pulwama. The biggest of them all, comprising around ten thousand people, erupted at Anchar in Soura. In fact, for some weeks Anchar emerged as the spearhead of the opposition to annulment of Article 370. But the protests subsequently tapered off and eventually were quelled after a stricter lockdown was put in place at the sites of resistance. From thereon, the Valley plunged into uneasy silence.

A year on, the situation has changed but little. That is, apart from the militancy that has again hurtled itself to the centre stage since January. There has been a drastic spike in the violence as a result. The armed forces have killed 155 militants up to July 31, most of them in South Kashmir. This is the highest number of militants killed in the comparable period of a year in a decade. In June alone, 48 militants were killed in 17 gunfights.

But the silence on the ground is only getting louder by the day. That too despite the release of many a political leader. It has now been a year since Kashmir has witnessed any visible political activity: a rally, a party meeting, a call for some kind of a public response to the Article 370, or at least a coinage of a new slogan – albeit, some politicians including the former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, PDP leader Naeem Akhtar and Mehbooba’s daughter Iltija Mufti did give interviews and write for some publications.

It is true, that the J&K administration has forbidden them from carrying out any activity. For example, the administration, according to Omar,  didn’t let mainstream leaders meet at the residence of his father Dr Farooq Abdullah on August 5. But it is also true, the leaders who have been freed have been guarded in their statements. More so, in case of Omar who, in his recent interviews, has come across as a leader who is more concerned about carving some sort of space for his politics than guiding people how to better respond to the loss of the political autonomy.  And he has also made it clear that he is not the person the people in Kashmir should look for such a guidance. Though the detained PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti has through the tweets issued by her daughter on her behalf given all the indications that she will take the fight against loss of Article 370 to the street. But it remains to be seen how she will act once and if at all she is released. Until then the nature of the political response to August 5 move will depend on the statements and activities of Omer, his father Dr Farooq Abdullah and the other released leaders, among them the People’s Conference chief Sajad Gani Lone.

Where do we go from here? There is no easy answer to this question. Ever since the withdrawal of Article 370, Modi government has embarked on a series of far-reaching measures to remake Kashmir in its own image. And to this end, Hindutva juggernaut is working overtime to alter everything from demography to political representation in the region. And to ensure this grand project meets least resistance, New Delhi hasn’t let its guard down as far as the lockdown in the Valley.  Apart from a brief partial relaxation in between, the Valley has been under an uninterrupted lockdown – one in the wake of August 5 move followed by the one occasioned by Covid-19.  But the Covid-19 lockdown remains a siege within a siege, a  seamless blend of the security and healthcare-related restrictions.

But despite use of all this force, New Delhi seems nowhere near pacifiying Kashmir, ironically the rationale for the withdrawal of Article 370.  Though the public protests and stone pelting have momentarily disappeared, this is due more to the all-encompassing lockdown and the arrests of leaders, activists and the protesters than to any reconciliation or a sense of resignation among the people.

But one thing is certain. A year after the repeal of Article 370, the choices in Kashmir are now starker than ever before. Loss of the autonomy has wiped out the space for political concessions that lent meaning to engagement and dialogue among the stake-holders in Kashmir issue: New Delhi and Kashmiri dissident groups, Pakistan and India. It has now become a choice between accepting the new status quo or fighting to change it. More than anything, this troubling new dynamic will determine where the situation in Kashmir goes from hereon.

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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