SUHAIL AHMAD | 8 OCTOBER, 2016
SRINAGAR: With the 2016 Kashmir unrest completing three months, it has been unprecedented in many ways, at least statistically. Besides the 92 deaths, the sheer number of injured – over 12000 by media estimates – is overwhelming.
This year’s uprising will also be known for the huge pellet casualties. Of the nearly 7000 people hit by pellets, around 1000 have ruptured eyes. The very high number of eye casualties clearly indicates how the forces have abused their supposedly non-lethal pellet guns to target protesters' heads. As Ellen Barry of ‘New York Times’ writes, “2016 will almost certainly be remembered as the year of dead eyes”.
In a brutal crackdown reminiscent of the 1990s, over 7000 persons have also been arrested across Valley as the Mehbooba Mufti government looks to wrest the control back from the protesters.
This year will also be known for the longest spell of shutdown called by the separatist leadership. While much has been written about the government repression, we also need to spare a thought about the separatist response, which has been marked by the hartal-centric protest calendars.
We followed the weekly protest calendars in 2010 as well before weariness got the better of us. This year also, we have been living from calendar to calendar. While new methods of protests have also been tried out in the calendars, which is an encouraging sign, there has been no reprieve as far as the continuous shutdowns – punctuated only by evening relaxations – are concerned.
The word “deal” or relaxation was usually associated with the curfew imposed by the government, but it has now been owned by the separatist camp along with its negative connotations. In the initial phase of the current revolt, relentless curfew had drawn international media attention towards government belligerence. Hartals don’t seem to evoke the same concern and consideration as it’s seen more of a voluntary act.
Government curfews and separatist calendars have come to conjure similar feelings.
Shutdown has emerged as a predominant form of political protest in Kashmir over the past two decades. In the recent past, however, excessive use of hartal as a protest strategy has rendered it more redundant and less effective. No doubt hartals serve as a strong tool to mobilize public opinion on issues concerning life and liberty of a common Kashmiri. They also help highlight problems of people, which in turn can force the government to concede to the demands of the aggrieved lot.
The public response to the strike calls has also underlined the transition from armed to a peaceful, non-violent people’s movement, which is important in the post 9/11 world order. It is also no longer termed as a Pakistan sponsored movement, which lends more credibility to public protests.
But the fact remains that the effectiveness of hartal as a means of protest can be ensured when it is used sparingly. Strikes are an effective tool to convey a strong message to people in power, but it losses its relevance when used aimlessly and arbitrarily.
The prolonged shutdowns ensure that people get weary, which ultimately benefits the government against which the shutdown was called in the first place. Strikes are often intended to induce economic losses in the opponent’s camp, but the hartals in Kashmir are self-inflicting.
In fact the prolonged and frequent hartals have hit the local economy badly. The first and worst casualty is a daily wager who has to step out of his home, sweat and toil everyday to eke out a living – be it a small shopkeeper or street vendor or a passenger bus driver or conductor.
For such people, it ultimately boils down to the issue of livelihood irrespective of the supposed aim of the hartal on that particular day. The last few years have been testing for such innumerable families in the valley. They suffered silently. The worst part is that nobody reaches out to them making it that much more difficult for them to endorse the hartal calls.
Needless to say, the strikes also have adverse effects on other aspects of life as well like education and healthcare. Children lost at least four months of their academic calendar in 2010. This time around also, we have a similar, if not worse, scenario. The patient care in the hospitals also suffered badly. One would have expected the separatist leadership to learn lessons from the 2010 summer agitation and make necessary changes in their strategies to spearhead the protests, but as it turned out they still rely quite heavily on hartals.
Meanwhile, the government cannot be exonerated of its responsibility to ensure that it safeguards the lives of people and upholds their rights. It has no right to blame the separatists when in the first place its own policies are responsible for the public outcry.
No rational society in the world inflicts loss upon itself unless driven to desperation. When pushed to the wall, it is human nature to show dissent by means of protest, which in Kashmir has become synonymous with hartals.
The valley has witnessed worst forms of human rights violations over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, killings and other violations have not stopped despite a significant improvement in the situation.
In such a scenario, people protest because they are not being heard and this government indifference only justifies the hartals. Politicians who preach that hartals are irrational must remember that when it comes to choose between reason and dignity, people would often compromise the first one for the latter’s sake.
People of Kashmir have suffered a lot since the eruption of the armed conflict. It is the collective responsibility of both the mainstream and separatist camps to respect the sentiments as well as constraints of a battered population.
(Cover Photograph Basit Zargar: Grieving mother and relatives of a young boy killed by pellets last month in Kashmir’s Budgam district)