The Valley of Fear: Is Kashmir Finally ‘Free’?

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Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

SCRAPPING of Article 370 and stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status is expected to be the centrepiece of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on the 72nd anniversary of independence day this year.

That probably explains the hasty and abrupt end to the Amarnath Yatra and cancellation of all other seasonal pilgrimages in the state as well as the timing of bringing in the legislation to change the orientation of the most complex and troubled state in the country by stealth in the Parliament.

While this present euphoria over altering the very nature of India’s only Muslim majority state will turn into a grand celebration on a day to commemorate the freedom of the country, attained by the struggles of those stalwarts who had firm faith in liberal values, democracy and secularism, the rights of the people that have been trampled so brutally to make these celebration possible will be beyond the pale of anyone’s view.

The political and geographical fate of the people of Jammu and Kashmir was decided on August 5 by a simple Presidential order and a resolution while they were cocooned in their homes with curfew or restrictions on the streets.

Far from thinking of consulting the people, a majoritarian government arrogated the right of the state legislative assembly to take a decision on changes to the special status on the Parliament where the ruling party enjoys a brute majority.

The logic behind the exercise being peddled is as delusional as the action is deceitful. The slicing of Jammu and Kashmir and reducing it into two separate entities as Union Territories, not even full-fledged states, is that this will be for the good of the citizens as it will end terrorism and bring development.

Has the state turned into some kind of a control freak that believes citizens are incapable of deciding for themselves what is good for them or not? Whether the stipulated goals, as stated by the Union Home Minister, behind taking this drastic action can actually be realised remains to be seen. What is important, first of all, is at what cost it has been achieved and whether all that has gone into achieving this is worth its salt at all.

Jammu and its neighbouring districts of Samba and Kathua, to its South, are under the spell of Section 144, forbidding an assembly of four or more people. In virtual reality, however, in many areas the Section 144 has been bent to convert it into an unannounced curfew.

Within the state, yet to be officially declared as two Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir, these areas appear to enjoy the maximum liberty. Phones are working, television channels are on, newspapers are being circulated and the internet is working, even if all these are only partially available.

Further up north from Jammu, along the Jammu-Srinagar highway and Jammu-Poonch highway, (while nothing is known about the vast but sparsely populated and poorly connected Ladakh region) the entire state has been pushed into a freeze under military jackboots and barbed wires. There is not even a trickle of news from the Chenab Valley, which has a fragile demography, or from the sensitive border districts of Rajouri-Poonch.

The only bits and fragments of what is happening is coming from Srinagar, rather the restricted VVIP zone of Srinagar, through television channels whose crews have been huddled in one particular hotel.

From the television studios, the nation is being told that officials have confirmed that things are under control in Kashmir and all the essential stocks and medical facilities are available. The journalists cannot venture beyond the specified ‘lakshman rekha’. Is it to ensure their security? Or to protect the Kashmiris living beyond the specified confines from them?

Senior journalist Muzamil Jaleel, who was in Srinagar and returned to Delhi, wrote on his facebook post: “I have just come to Delhi from Srinagar. It is worse than 1846. Srinagar is a city of soldiers and spools of concertina wire.

Yesterday, it took me three hours to reach office (Residency Road) from Parraypora. Phone – mobiles and landlines – have been disconnected. Internet is off. There is no money in ATMs. A very strict curfew has been imposed across Kashmir.”

“I could only move around with a lot of difficulty in uptown Srinagar. I have no information outside that small part of the city. However, I did hear there have been protests in old town of Baramulla. A colleague received a text message on his dead phone – some glitch. Everyone I met is in shock.

There is a strange numbness. We heard about killing of two protestors but there is no way to confirm. Kashmir has been turned invisible even inside Kashmir. The forces on checkpoints have specific instructions to disallow journalists to cross the barrier. I saw a TV crew from Delhi inside a hotel outside Rajbagh Police station – they were saying Kashmir is calm.”

This is the most detailed description coming from Kashmir since the historic day of August 5 when people woke up to curfewed streets and their world turned upside down. It is not known how many of them are aware of what has happened.

An unspecified number of extra troops have been mobilised across the Valley and other parts of the region in recent days. Who knows how the vast public is surviving – with or without bare essentials, with or without healthcare?

How many babies are being born and how many people are dying without a mourning and how much do family members have to plead before the uniformed men manning the barricades to allow them to give a decent burial to their departed loved one?

Worse still, are protests happening with a retaliation of bullets and pellets? How many casualties? In a Valley accustomed to crackdowns, raids and arrests, how many have been detained and how many taken to unknown destinations? If the clampdown, lockout and restrictions are unprecedented, in all probability then the end result may be too.

It is hoped that none of this is true but what is known with authenticity strengthens such suspicions. If two former chief ministers are imprisoned, an old and ailing ex-chief minister is put under a spell of house arrest and the one time darling ally of the BJP also finds himself barricaded under house-arrest, there is no telling what rest of the population, already fed on a regular dose of brutality and trampling of civil liberties, is facing.

But forgetful of all this, the Government and the nation have a reason to go on a celebration spree this Independence Day. Jammu and Kashmir is finally and fully an integral part of India. The freedom, which comes with civil liberties and basic democratic rights, of the people of this more than ever integrated part of the country is completely inconsequential.

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(The author is Executive Editor Kashmir Times. The article first appeared in National Herald).

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