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Elections, Press Freedom, Kashmiri Pandits' Return: Kashmir's Great Expectations From 2023

Like politicians who are hopeful that Assembly polls will be held next year, some of the journalists are hopeful that Kashmir Press Club will be restored and detained journalists released, the government is hopeful Kashmiri Pandit employees will return to the Valley. There is optimism all around.

Locked up Kashmir Press Club
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All journalists were looking at a bulky lock. They were told some unknown persons locked the main gate of the Kashmir Press Club. No one, for obvious reasons, dared to touch the lock. All were observing it for some time as they had not seen the lock before. They were talking about who could be these unknown persons. There was confusion all over. As reporters were waiting, the government's Information department in a press release said that the government has decided that the allotment of the “premises at Polo View in view of the now deregistered Kashmir Press Club be cancelled and control of land and buildings situated at Polo View Srinagar which belongs to the Estates Department be reverted back to the said Department.” All reporters left the place. They filed stories about the closure of the Kashmir Press Club. Some mourned its sad demise in their stories. And after that no one looked back at what happened to it. This is how January 2022 began for the media in Kashmir. 

Will there be Assembly elections? 

2022, like the previous year, started with hectic political activities. Every week someone joins some mainstream party. He is being referred to as a senior leader. He is turbanized. He is allowed to address the media. The show has been going on for the last four years.

When Ghulam Nabi Azad left Congress and formed Democratic Azad Party he almost took all Congress party members along. They were all turbanized. Now some of the Azad party leaders are leaving Azad and joining other parties. This exercise of joining brings a lot of joy among the leaders of the political parties. All these efforts are made with the hope that the polls will be held in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the hope of the polls they even gave statements. Azad says statehood should be restored before the polls. In one of his political meetings, Omar Abdullah said once in power he would repeal the contentious Public Safety Act (PSA). This evoked huge debate between a number of spokespersons of different political parties. But the debate is not whether Omar can remove the PSA or not. The discourse is whether elections will be conducted in J&K in 2013 or not.

In March 2022, Home Minister Amit Shah said assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir will be held once the delimitation exercise is over and after consultation with political parties. “We have no interest in keeping Jammu and Kashmir under President’s Rule,” Shah said in Lok Sabha while responding to concerns raised by members on Kashmir during the discussion.

Jammu and Kashmir has been without an Assembly since November 2018 when the then Legislative Assembly was dissolved by then Governor Satya Pal Malik after the PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti staked claim to form the government. Governor’s rule was imposed in J&K in June 2018 after the BJP pulled out of the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP coalition government.

For the past three years, the BJP leaders have been saying that elections in J&K will be held after the Delimitation Commission completes its exercise and gives its report. On May 6 this year, the Delimitation Commission finalized its two-year long exercise, recommending the creation of six additional assembly constituencies in the Jammu region and one more in the Kashmir valley. It was expected that the completion of the process of controversial redrawing of the electoral map of Jammu and Kashmir would pave the way for assembly elections in the Union Territory (UT), but nothing moved forward on the electoral front. The ECI then started work on the revised voter list. It too was completed and issued in October 2022 but no date for the polls are set.  In Kashmir many are of the view that J&K will not see polls for long as the BJP government has free hand in the UT. Will the ECI prove them wrong in 2023? 

Gulmarg in 2023

In the latest, Lt Governor’s administration rolled out new rules under Jammu and Kashmir Land Grant Rules-2022 legislation. It reads “all the outgoing lessees, except subsisting/expired leases for residential purposes, shall immediately handover the possession of the land taken on lease to the government, failing which the outgoing lessee shall be evicted." For the past four years, these hoteliers of Gulmarg and Pahalgam have been asking for extension of the lease. The lease was not granted and finally in November, the government issued an order asking them to hand over the properties to the government.

Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was first to criticise the government order saying the BJP is snatching the land of locals and giving it to outsiders. She said China has made incursions in Ladakh and Arunachal and the BJP government has done nothing, “but in Jammu Kashmir, they are taking away the land from locals and making them unemployed.”  The hoteliers of Gulmarg and Pahalgam areas that see most of the tourist rush who visit Kashmir appealed to Lieutenant Governor J&K to intervene in the matter and hold on the government order. They said the business and economic sector across the state would come to a grinding halt if the properties are taken away.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha told media persons in Jammu that new land lease rules notified by the administration will benefit the commoners. "The (old) land laws were very regressive and not framed with the interests of the people in mind. The changes which are necessary for benefiting common man are being made," Sinha said. He dismissed political outrage in Kashmir over a government directive to land leaseholders, saying new laws would hardly affect 400 to 500 people. “It will have no impact on the poor,” he added.

The latest government order has opened all Gulamrg and Pahalgam hotels for e-auction to all. The coming year will see the auction of hotels of Gulmarg and Pahalgam to begin with. It will be interesting to see who will buy these hotels. It will also be seen whether hoteliers running the business for decades from these places will get any compensation for the construction they have made over the years. In 2023, all eyes will be on Gulmarg.

Mehbooba Mufti has already set the political tone: “We have been saying from the beginning that the aim of BJP after Article-370 abrogation was to loot our resources and snatch our land and bring settlers like how Israel is doing in Palestine.”

Will detained journalist be released? 

This year also marked a tough time for the journalists. After the closure of the Kashmir Press Club early this year, two journalists were booked under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a law under which a person can be detained for up to two years without a trial. On January 5 this year, Sajad Gul, 27, was arrested from his home in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. He was later booked under PSA and sent to a jail outside Kashmir. On February 4, senior journalist Fahad Shah, was arrested and booked under PSA and shifted to a jail outside for “glorifying terrorism and spreading fake news.” 

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Will Kashmiri Pandits return? 

While there is a registered decline in militant attacks, 2022 also saw targeted killings of off duty police men and minority community members. Around 14 people belonging to minority communities including three Kashmiri Pandits were killed. The killings triggered an exodus of Kashmiri Pandit employees, posted in Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s Employment Package. The employees have been protesting in Jammu for more than 250 days now. They seek relocation of their posts to Jammu. The government is not relenting on this. In 2023, the biggest challenge to the government is to motivate the minority Kashmiri Pandit employees to return to Kashmir. The government says peace has been restored in Kashmir. But Dr. Farooq Abdullah counters: “if peace was restored in Kashmir then why Kashmiri Pandit employees are not re-joining their duties in Kashmir?.”

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BJP president Ravinder Raina also has this counter for the government: “Rahul Bhat was killed inside the office. I am appealing to Lt Governor with all humility to have a meeting with Kashmiri Pandit employees posted in Kashmir and listen to them. Once you hear them you will realize the ground situation.” Raina says Jammu and Kashmir is fighting a war for the past 35 years and it is in a "state of war" and the BJP will not allow anyone to make Kashmiri Pandits scapegoat.

Like politicians who are hopeful that Assembly polls will be held next year, some of the journalists are hopeful that Kashmir Press Club will be restored and detained journalists released, the government is hopeful Kashmiri Pandit employees will return to the Valley. There is optimism all around.

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