Friday, Dec 01, 2023

Sainik Colony, Don’t We Live There Already?

Sainik Colony, Don’t We Live There Already?

Settlements, demographic change... On her own, even Mehbooba may have hit the streets on this.

Unwelcome Photograph by AFP

A cartoon in a local newspaper in Srinagar shows Union home minister Raj­nath Singh calling up J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to enquire whether a ‘colony’ could be set up for separatists. But, nobody is laughing in the Valley. Meh­booba has denied any plan to create separate enclaves for either ex-servicemen or returning Kashmiri Pandits. On the Kashmiri Pandit question, she tried to justify the move in the state assembly by saying that Pandits needed a safe ‘transit camp’ before settling in the state. Her analogy, in which she said that resettling Pandits in the Valley would be akin to throwing “pig­eons in front of a cat”, did not amuse people and the National Conference (NC) even asked her for an apology.

The central government’s proposal to establish residential complexes for former soldiers and Pandits has fuelled anger across the Valley and brought, for the moment, an otherwise fragmented ‘azadi’ camp on a single platform.

Demographic arm-twisting

In a territory where the meta-issue itself could be said to be land, it’s naturally a sensitive issue (the 2008 Amarnath agit­ation left around 60 people dead). The sainik colony and the Pandits’ enclave proposal is seen, even by pro-India gro­ups like the NC, as an attempt to change the demography of the Muslim-majority state. As NC working president Omar Abdullah put it, “The sainik colony could be a ruse to settle non-state subjects in Kashmir and hence bypass Article 370.”

The new industrial policy has also aroused suspicion by offering to house migrant labourers in the state. Hurriyat leaders suspect the move is to settle a few million ‘outsiders’ in the Valley.

“Imperialists tend to change the demography of subjugated nations,” says Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who heads the department of law at the Central University of Kashmir. “The British settled the Chinese from Hong Kong in Northern Ireland. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has been saying that change in demography is the only way to settle Kashmir, and the present government is acting on his dictates.”

Yaseen Khan, president of Kashmir Economic Alliance, an amalgam of traders’ organisations, says the move is “part of the BJP’s plan to alter the demography of Muslim-majority Kashmir.”

It is said that the idea of establishing a sainik colony in Srinagar was floated by the RSS immediately after the 2010 ‘intifada’ in the Valley. Senior BJP leader Tarun Vijay minces no words about the project, which is believed to be his brainchild. He says the colony is akin to “planting saffron in Kashmir” and that the move would “bring the fragrance of Indianness and the principal mainstream of patriotic India to the Valley to overcome the smell of stone-pelting and guns.”

A proposal in waiting

The proposal was formally mooted in April 2011 during a meeting of the Rajya Sainik Board (RSB) headed by Governor N.N. Vohra, which was attended by the then CM Omar. Sources say that three more meetings were held in the next three years and a requisition for 150 kan­-als (18.5 acres) of land was forwarded to the government. It was suggested that appropriate bylaws be made for this.

Later, in April 2015, the RSB approved the establishment of a sainik colony close to Srinagar’s old airport. Subsequently, the proposal was sent to the then CM, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. It, however, failed to take off due to Sayeed’s death in January this year. Meanwhile, the number of aspirants for the colony increased considerably, which would require a land of 350 kanals (44 acres) now. It is said that 26 senior off­icers, 125 junior commissioned officers and over 900 other soldiers have applied for plots of land in the proposed colony.

“It is the right of jawans to get a piece of land in the Valley for which they have been shedding their blood and becoming martyrs,” insists Vijay. He says his “good friend” Mehbooba “can do it and set up cities and not just colonies for sainiks”.

But Mehbooba fully understands that such a move would be a big blunder. If she goes with the proposal, it would be tantamount to committing political suicide for a second time, the first time being when her party joined hands with the BJP.

Mehbooba is conscious the alliance has brought only unpopularity to her family and the PDP in the Valley. Bijbe­hara, hometown to the Muftis, had voted overwhelmingly for her father, to “keep the BJP and RSS away from Kashmir”, as Mehbooba had cried out during the electioneering. However, only 1,000 people participated in her father’s funeral in Bijbehara. But, if she doesn’t give a nod to the sainik colony, it would be at the risk of annoying a belligerent Centre and being dubbed anti-national. No government in Kashmir has had the gumption to take on the Centre yet.

The current dilemma is betrayed in Mehbooba’s actions. Normally never too shy of the media, she is now seen running away from questions. Her spin doctors have only added to her miseries, from outright denial of the proposal, to an endorsement with riders, to shifting the blame to the Omar government, the statements have only messed up the situation.

At one point, the state government had sought to clarify that only soldiers who are permanent residents of J&K will be provided accommodation in the sainik colony. Now, it says no such colony will be set up in Srinagar or elsewhere in the Valley. “In a meeting in April, the government categorically said that no land was available for the establishment of the sainik colony,” says J&K education minister Naeem Akhtar. “Omar Abdullah chaired four meetings of the Sainik Board as CM. This controversy is the gift of the Omar-led government.” In his defence, Omar admits that he participated in the meetings but never passed any order. “If there is any such order issued during my tenure, please bring it forth,” he says.

Meanwhile, conscious of the fact that the sainik colony is sure to evoke insecurity among a majority of Kashmiris, the separatists are mulling a major agitation. Three top separatist leaders: Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik, who rarely see eye to eye, have in the past one month sat together to discuss the issue. A seminar was also held, with leaders dropping broad hints that a powerful agitation, on the lines of the 2008 Amarnath land row, was in the offing, should the government dec­ide to go ahead with the proposal.  “People should be ready to resist consp­iracies aimed at changing the demography of Kashmir,” says Geelani. “New Delhi is fighting Kashmiris on political, religious, social and cultural fronts, we have to unite to foil its conspiracies,” says Mirwaiz.

Mehbooba may be facing the worst per­iod in her two-decade-old political career. “She is in a terrible mess,” says Moazum Mohammad, a journalist who broke the sainik colony story last year. “Only controversies have been the hallmark of her four-month tenure.” Even as she was yet to settle in as CM after her father’s death earlier this year, Mehbooba encountered many storms in the process: the NIT row and the Handwara ‘molestation’. She somehow managed to sail through, though. But now, she needs to tread carefully. Only an eternal optimist could believe that Mehbooba can survive the sainik colony storm unscathed.

By Showkat A. Motta in Srinagar