Kulgam: The Writing on a Bloodied Wall
NEW DELHI: Kulgam is the writing on the wall. And a clear demonstration of how rapidly the Kashmir Valley -- caught between two opposing narratives -- is hurtling down the cliff with the politician fanning the flames as it were with abandon.
It is not a return to the decade of militancy of the 1990’s that left the Valley wounded, and scarred for life. It is going to be much worse, as this time the people have given up all hope and fear to actually come out on the streets to save what they believe is their present, if not the future. In the 1990’s the Kashmiris were passive, in that while supportive of the militants from across the border and giving many shelter, they did not come out as a crowd to declare this support.
Kulgam should terrify all with a stake in Kashmir. I know for certain there are any number of young Kashmiris who are terrified as they see their chance of a wholesome future evaporating. They know, as do the elders who have lived the 1990’s, that Kashmir is being forced into an abyss and despite calls for strategy there is no leadership today that can rise to the situation.
Take Kulgam and what happened there. In any narrative there is a lot more than meets the eye, a lot more anger, a lot more suffering, a lot more complex details. But to put it simplistically, the Army, police, paramilitary were all involved in search operations that led them to the village, that led to the encounter in which three Army soldiers, including a Major, and four militants were killed in the first instance.
While the encounter was on, crowds started gathering to save those holed up inside the building. This brought the forces under tremendous pressure. The people, angry and alienated, wanted the forces to get out. The soldiers under directions had to complete the job, but had the militants on one side and the agitated crowds on the other. They opened fire directly into the civilian crowd, firing above the waist as has become the norm in Kashmir. Several were injured with bullets and pellets, and at least two civilians killed.
The two narratives came spilling out even as the action was on. The Army that does not want to be in Kashmir but has no choice, and whose young soldiers died in the encounter, is aggrieved and upset. Army soldiers and officers are not even willing to hear the other point of view, their anger reaching new heights, and directed not against the government that has pushed them to this point but against the Kashmiris. Photographs of the young Major who was killed, with his young son are being circulated by the soldiers.
On the other side, photographs of the slain civilians, grieving mothers, relatives are being circulated amidst tears and loud lamenting. This grief too is real and genuine. The crowds came to protest against the search operations that has the men folk humiliated, the women and children terrorised, as armed soldiers burst into homes to look for alleged militants. The people have been facing this for decades, the difference being that the Kashmiris have set aside their fear and are now coming out in large numbers to prevent the forces from entering their homes and as they said, firing at the young people.
It took a great deal of effort after the 1990s for the distance between the two sides to be reduced. It took a free and fair election, the emergence of a new regional Peoples Democratic Party with a healing mission, and concerted effort by the Indian Army under some good commanders like Lt General Ata Hasnain to try and bring new understanding between the Army and the civilians. It was made clear to the government at the centre, that the Army was not keen to be at the forefront and would like normal law and order to be handled by the Jammu and Kashmir police. In 2010 when 126 boys were killed, the police took the brunt of the anger, but again there were efforts even in those unusually bad times to keep communication channels alive.
It has also changed for the worse, and increasingly so, since the BJP and the PDP came into power as an alliance. The healing touch that was inadequate even at the best of times has been completely stopped, and replaced by a silent and ineffective and insecure PDP Chief Minister with a virulently communal alliance partner in Jammu and Kashmir. The first has decided to keep her head buried in the sand, and the second is running a strong campaign in Jammu and other parts of India against the Kashmiris at different levels that moves from cow slaughter, to Article 370, to terrorism, back to segregated colonies, on to Rohingya Muslims. All issues that make the Kashmiris feel more under siege, if that was possible.
At the same time in the rest of India, by linking Kashmir with its view of aggressive nationalism, the BJP was able to ensure that the efforts to bring peace to the Valley and at least prevent it from reaching an irretrievable end were further marginalised. Students speaking for Kashmiris were charged with sedition, meetings on Kashmiri in different campuses and cities were brought to a violent end by ABVP mobs, FIRs were registered against innocent people---and Kashmir was thus effectively pushed out of the Indian discourse.
Alongside Kashmiris studying in other Universities do so at their own risk, with targeted attacks on students to a point where many have been recalled to the Valley by parents fearing for their wards safety. The message that Kashmiris are not safe in other parts of India has thus, been effectively communicated.
In fact, over the last years the political role has been to bring the Valley and the Kashmiris under unending pressure. And to pit them once again against the Army and the paramilitary to a point where both are now suffering. More soldiers, according to reports, have died in this past one year than in the corresponding period earlier with the Army feeling the pressure of an alienated, and angry populace as well. The situation, even according to Army officers, is fast reaching exploding point for both being made to face each other in the Valley by the political leadership.
The state and central governments are working together to increase what is becoming relentless pressure on both sides by not even trying to restore peace in the wounded, and alienated Valley. As the sources said, “it is almost as if the government wants a confrontation, and wants bloodshed in numbers that will set a new record.” Efforts by individuals and groups, voices raised in Parliament, have had no impact on the government insofar as Kashmir is concerned. There has not been even a minimalist effort, with the BJP’s age old antagonism to Kashmir on full display, without a break or pause.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has lost her grip entirely. She is today more unpopular than her predecessor Omar Abdullah was in his worst 2010 days. The elected representatives of all parties are marginalised and feeling the heat. The Hurriyat while afloat, remains at the periphery, following the people rather than the other way around. There is a pervasive atmosphere of distrust and suspicion in Kashmir that does not seem to bother the government in power that is following a strategy quite different to what even this beleaguered state has known in the past.
(Cover Photographs: Major Satish Dahiya killed in the recent encounter with his young son in happier days; A Kashmiri mother cries over the dead body of her son killed in the same encounter)