Fifteen months after Article 370 move, as businesses tentatively re-open and public transport is back on roads, it doesn’t mean there’s calm
EVER since abrogation of Article 370 that granted J&K semi-autonomous status within India, there has been this huge debate about the lack of public protests in the wake of the extraordinary move. A general opinion goes that there were no mass scale protests as were otherwise expected. Over the last year this opinion has not only gained wide currency but is also accepted without any objection. In fact, the Kashmiri politicians who now make up the People’s Union for Gupkar Declaration struggle to answer this question. They either unconvincingly talk about the heightened security during the period following the revocation of Article 370 as is contended by Dr Farooq Abdullah or in case of Sajad Gani Lone, the people might choose to come out at the time of their own choosing. Omar Abdullah, on the other hand, has almost blamed people for not protesting at all.
Now, 15 months after the Article 370 move, Commander of the Army’s Chinar Corps Lieutenant General B S Raju has said that the Valley is “past the stage of uneasy calm,” meaning the region is perfectly normal.
But are things really so? Or were they so last year? The reality, however, is largely contrary to general perception, much of which has been shaped by the hearsay reinforced by propaganda. When in the wake of the withdrawal of the autonomy, the CPi(M) leader M Y Tarigami was asked why Kashmir hadn’t protested against scrapping of Article 370 on the scale it had against the killing of popular militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016, the Valley’s major communist party leader answered with a counter question: “Have you ever heard of protests taking place in Tihar jail?”.
As is obvious, Kashmir, Tarigami meant, was turned into one of India’s largest jails and this had made mass scale protests impossible in the newly created union territory. This has certainly been the case: Kashmir had been put under a sweeping security lockdown and a communication blockade that not only barred people from hitting the road but also invisibilized the protests that took place after all.
But this isn’t entirely how an anticipated revolt in Kashmir following revocation of Article 370 was pre-empted: the lockdown and communication clampdown, even though unprecedented in nature, were just the manifest security tactics to deal with a potential eruption. The real work to forestall protests comprised a complex set of actions sequentially performed on many fronts.
As the clock struck midnight hour on August 4, 2019, the day before Article 370 was withdrawn, Kashmir found itself snapped from the world: Kashmiris woke up to no phones and no internet. Not even landlines worked. Almost all major leaders across the mainstream-separatist divide – including the three former Chief Ministers Dr Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – had been arrested. The arrestees included political activists, youth, among them 956 former alleged stone-throwers and even business leaders. Many of them were shifted to major jails across India and a significant number of them continue to languish there.
When on August 5 at around 11 am the home minister Amit Shah announced the repeal of Article 370 in parliament, Kashmiris, disconnected from one another, could only react to it in disbelief individually. Their ability to organize had been broken. There was no leader still active on the scene, no functional political or social organization which could do this. And even if there were, they wouldn’t be able to communicate: for example, the militant leaders who would use social media to convey their programs.
Though newspapers started publishing after a gap of few days, they did so by downloading content at a government run facility for media. And being already disciplined, they published little that concerned the ongoing situation. Chary of having to take a position on the situation, they went without editorials. Their opinion pieces talked of health, environment and international issues.
This razing of Kashmir’s political and social organizational structure hardly ruled out spontaneous public mobilizations. So, to pre-empt it, security personnel in significant numbers were stationed along streets and at the entry and exit points of Srinagar and the major towns, within localities too.
But this still didn’t entirely prevent protests. Without anyone calling for it, Kashmir observed complete shutdown for 105 days. Public transport remained off the roads. By 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 was participated by around 10,000 people. But it was stopped before it could enter the barricaded densely settled parts of the main city. Subsequent attempts by people at Anchar were similarly thwarted, and so were those from the other areas.
Fifteen months later, as Kashmir anxiously looks forward to future, businesses are tentatively re-opening and public transport is returning to roads following eleven months of siege, five months of them spent under Covid lockdown. Does it mean normalcy? Far from it. Kashmir remains without high-speed mobile internet. All kinds of protests are strictly barred including a peaceful silent march. Last year in October around two dozen women who had tried to hold one such protest were quickly hauled off to a lock-up and released only after signing a bond that they won’t do so again.
Kashmir has now something resembling a working political organization in the form of PAGD. It is in a position now to articulate the sentiment of the people or formulate a response to the current crisis. But given New Delhi’s nervousness about an organized mass resistance to its Article 370 move at a time when the world’s attention hasn’t veered off from Kashmir, it looks unlikely that the erstwhile state will be allowed to have a normal political and civil society activity anytime soon.
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