How important is J&K’s autonomy for the common man?

SANJEEV KRISHAN SOOD | @sood_2

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation from the Red Fort stated that the Kashmir problem can be solved only through embrace and not bullets. This is a welcome policy shift from the one which emphasised no talks till the time violence and stone-pelting stops.

After relative calm of a few years, Kashmir suddenly erupted and has been witnessing a cycle of violence after the death of Burhan Wani, Hizbul Mujahideen commander in an encounter last year. He was young, educated and tech savy and was, therefore, seen as a hero by the locals. Besides, the locals continue to believe that the circumstances leading to his death were not entirely above board.

Besides interacting with several Kashmiri acquaintances, during my visit to Kashmir in April – immediately after the infamous incident of the human shield when stone-pelting incidents were at their highest – I also interacted with a retired senior police officer-turned-politician.

Everyone seemed to agree that the Kashmir problem is not about lack of development or poverty. The levels of poverty seen in Kashmir are much less when compared with other parts of country. Yet the militancy aided and abetted by Pakistan continues to get support because of the policies adopted by the Indian government which give rise to a sense of alienation amongst locals.

Everyone seemed to agree that the Kashmir problem is not just about lack of development or poverty. 

The deceased militants are now idolised because they are mainly local “heroes”. Such large gatherings on “namaze janaza” were never heard of earlier. Foreign militants used to die in encounters, but since no relatives were there to mourn them their bodies received quiet burial by security forces. These factors at least point to one major success of security forces that they have been able to considerably control infiltration from across the LoC.

There is a strong sense of mistrust in politicians and bureaucrats because of rampant corruption. A large portion of the funds meant for development of the state is siphoned off by these people which is causing widespread resentment amongst the ordinary population. People do not have confidence in the government’s ability or devotion towards resolving their problems.

Politicians belonging to present ruling dispensation are specially disliked. The PDP is seen to have betrayed the population by compromising the interests of the state by aligning with the BJP, which is seen to be pursuing its aggressive Hindutva agenda and diluting the status of J&K.

The common Kashmiri appears to have only a woolly idea of what is “azadi”. He is certain that he does not want Kashmir to go to Pakistan. He also is sure that an independent Kashmir cannot survive on its own. They need to remain within India but still want azadi.

When asked about their idea of Azadi, the most common refrain is that they wish to live with dignity and “without oppressive restrictions imposed upon them in the name of controlling militancy”.

It is repeatedly pointed out that the present government in J&K came to power to implement the agenda of governance (AoG) agreed upon by the BJP and the PDP.

However, the central government and PDP are seen to be dishonouring important commitments specifically provided in the AoG. Amongst others, the main provisions of the AoG provide that (A) review will be undertaken to assess the necessity of retaining the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); and (B) there will not be any dilution of Article 370.

The most common grouse is that indiscriminate use of the AFPSA by the forces is causing lot of harassment and disruption in day-to-day life of common kashmiris and this is leading to further alienation.

Presently, the AFSPA is applicable throughout the state. However, there are parts of the state, especially, the districts of Kathua, Samba, Jammu and Ladakh region which are not affected by militancy. The government as a confidence-building measure can withdraw the AFSPA from these areas, thereby giving positive signals about its intentions and sincerity.

The other issue relates to Article 370. The AoG is said to have a provision which says that provisions of Article 370 will not be tinkered with. However, the refrain from BJP leaders is totally opposite to that. They also have gone to court to have the article abrogated. There is even a challenge to Article 35(A) of the Constitution.

These developments are creating a suspicion in the minds of politicians and people at large about the intention of the central government.

An often-heard argument by some is that the special status of Kashmir is responsible for all its ills, but that’s not true. On the contrary, as has been oft-repeated by many, it is Article 370 and related provisions which made it possible for the instrument of accession to put into effect.

Most of the provisions of Constitution and most of the laws applicable in India are also applicable in Kashmir. Therefore, the practical implications of autonomy or “azadi” that they now seek appear to be limited to the extent of being allowed to lead their lives peacefully.

I, therefore, agree with Lt Gen (retd) HS Panag, who in an article published last year, said “autonomy within the framework of our Constitution is an insignificant price to pay for bonding our nation”.

Another general feeling amongst common Kashmiris is that all of them are treated as militants or militant sympathisers. Their loyalty to the nation is always suspected. The infamous case of “human shield” is cited to buttress their claim. Whether the person was guilty of stone-pelting or not, they feel that the officer used him as a shield just because he wanted to save “us” (personnel of Indian Army) from “them” (Kashmiri common man).

The presence of security forces everywhere and restrictions placed on free movement of Kashmiris, especially at night is another sore point. They find themselves pushed to a corner – On one side are the security forces which treat all of them as suspects. On the other hand, are the militants who exploit and threaten them of dire consequences if they cooperate with security forces.

I too saw that deployment of troop (in ones and twos) all along the roads and market place. I feel that this kind of deployment besides exposing them to risk of being surrounded and pelted is also counterproductive as it disrupts daily life and causes resentment.

Continuous deployment also tires out the troops and slows down responses in case of exigencies. The authorities concerned may instead consider deploying them on posts and send out area domination patrols on regular basis.

The security forces are performing their task to the best of their capabilities and trying to create an environment in which meaningful dialogue can take place. It is for the government to identify leaders who can represent the Kashmiri population and initiate the process of dialogue as envisaged by the prime minister.

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