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Even for Kashmir, which is all too familiar with the murkiness that accompanies government activities, the last two months have been trying. In June, immediately after the Lok Sabha elections, J&K Bank, arguably the last of the state’s autonomous institutions, saw its chairman ousted and called for questioning to New Delhi after allegations of corruption. There was a deafening silence about this action, apart from furtive rumours that the institution, the state’s symbol of fiscal self-reliance, would be merged with another bank.
Then, in late June, there was a sudden, well-advertised deployment of the military. In preparation for the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine, more and better fortified bunkers sprang up all over the Valley. The authorities dropped messages that did not go unnoticed by Kashmiris. Many private airlines announced to pilgrims that their vehicles would have GPS devices. Within days, the number of bunkers increased from 12 to 22 on a 15-km stretch of the highway. Road-repair crews suddenly swung into action. Post-winter potholes were rapidly filled, white and yellow traffic lines were freshly drawn and diligently placed signs welcomed and directed pilgrims at each fork on the road. Vehicles of locals were stopped with rude whistles and threatening batons as pilgrim convoys sped to their destination.
While people in Kashmir would welcome a genuine anti-corruption drive, the manner of the offensive—bypassing J&K Bank’s board of directors and in-built systems—felt more like an assault on the state’s collective self-respect. A similar logic would apply to our roads being fixed and traffic policed—it was palpable that the patch-ups and regulations were for pilgrims, not for Kashmir’s residents, who have to endure bad roads and traffic for most of the year.
The combination of rumour-mongering and indirect slights in June morphed into the objective of instilling uncertainty and fear in July. The month began with a BJP functionary declaring that the government would unilaterally abrogate Indian laws, edicts and contracts in relation to Jammu and Kashmir. Later, 10,000 additional troops were airlifted to the Valley and another 10,000 are anticipated soon. Yet another anxiety-inducing event was the leak of a memorandum (since denied by the purported author) addressed to military personnel and others to evacuate their families and to stock up on food, medicines and other essentials in anticipation of (presumed) violence. The buzz as to the reasons for this has ranged from Delhi’s determination to illegally abrogate laws to war with ‘a neighbour’ to the imminent announcement of assembly elections. It is significant that neither the home minister nor the usually garrulous office of the governor has silenced the rampant speculation.
Some in the BJP government are satisfied that these tactics have managed to create a mood of fear and trepidation in Kashmir. Not so much fear of state violence, as of protests and the taunts those elicit from security forces. And not so much trepidation at disruption of our daily routines as the youth’s determination to defy. As recent history is witness, the Kashmiri youth’s reaction is not likely to be benign.
Meanwhile, the government, having subdued most overt protests after the Lok Sabha elections, appears to want to inure Kashmiris to what it sees as ‘normal’. It would then like to ask what Kashmiris want. The simple response to that question is, of course, azadi or freedom. The more complex answer in the current context is that they want to be rid of the indignity of being exiles in their own home. This is done each time they are made to wait like second-class citizens so the military can pass; each time their roads are overhauled for the military rather than for citizens; and each time their vehicles are searched and they are viewed with suspicion.
What Kashmiris want is to be rid of the secrecy that plagues their political lives. It has created and fuelled rumours like the ones mentioned above, and the state has used these to wield psychological operations or ‘psy-ops’. Confidentiality in statecraft is understandable, but the difference between confidentiality and secrecy is that the latter stinks of conspiracy, and Kashmiris are aware of this.
The government claims that it wants to ‘normalise’ the situation in the state. To do that, it will need to treat the land and its people with dignity and transparency. From behind the barricades in Kashmir, it looks like an exceedingly difficult task.
(Siddiq Wahid is an author, historian and political commentator)