NEW DELHI: The Concerned Citizens Group (CCS) led by former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha has in a third report after a visit to Kashmir found the Valley to be even more depressed and despondent than before. The members---including Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Kapil Kak, social activist Sushobha Barve and senior journalist Bharat Bhushan visited different parts of the state where they met political leaders, students, lawyers and others.

The photographs here are from The Citizen Photographer Basit Zargar, recording the protests in Srinagar on the day of Eid.

The report states:

The most disquieting conclusion of the interactions that the CCG had with Kashmiri students, civil society and political leaders this time around was that as compared to the previous visits, the sense of dismay and despondency in the people had grown. The proximate reasons for this not only seemed to be the lack of dialogue with the Kashmiris but also because tourism had plummeted, hotel business was in dire straits, there was flight of capital and an overall economic downturn leading to greater unemployment and economic distress. The situation was much worse than the previous two years.

At the same time, the distance between rest of India and the Kashmiri youth but also others seems to have increased. This was evident in the fact that even the people who used to talk reasonably earlier were using the language of the militants and separatists this time. People complained of not only of the military approach to the problem of Kashmir but also of a judicial/Constitutional aggression against the people of Kashmir in attempts to undo Article 35A of the Indian Constitution which ensured special rights for the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the only saving grace was that in personal discussions prominent members of civil society continued to use cautious and measured language which suggested that there was still a constituency for peace and that societal leaders were willing to make an effort to end violence and ensure a peaceful atmosphere so that a dialogue could begin to address their issues in a considered and in a less emotionally charged manner.

This was very encouraging as was the positive response of the people to the Prime Minister’s message on Independence Day -- that Kashmiris need a hug and not abuse or bullets. People said that they were waiting for the operationalization of the PM’s message and hoped that this would happen soon.

The Disquiet on Article 35A:

There was all round opposition to attempts to revoke Article 35A of the Constitution of India. The judicial raking of the Article 35A issue seems to have pushed the demand for ‘Azadi’ to the background (it has, however, neither disappeared nor become secondary, only less urgent) as people see the attempts to change rules for special rights of people of J&K as an existential threat of changing the Valley’s demographic profile.

People believe that revoking Article 35A can potentially lead to a demographic change in the state as outsiders are facilitated to buy land and property in the state. This was completely unacceptable to them.

The simmering anger also stemmed from the belief that the Central government was a “passive collaborator” in the petitions filed before the Supreme Court of India.This belief was strengthened not because of the statements from the ruling party at the Centre and its frontal organisations but the Central government’s attitude itself. So Kashmiris openly alleged that the judicial attack on J&K’s special status was being “stage managed” by the Central government.

Recalling that Article 35A had been challenged in the Supreme Court earlier also but each time, the Central government filed a counter-affidavit. Now, not only had the Central government not filed a counter-affidavit, the Attorney General in fact argued for a wider debate on the Constitutional provision.

The Kashmiri people are asking why the state government had been left alone to defend Article 35A and whether it was not the responsibility of the Central government to defend the Constitution. A lack of clear answers to these two questions has led people to doubt the Central government’s intentions.

They suggested that the government had erred in the Supreme Court and that instead of keeping quiet, it could have easily told the apex court that this was a political issue which needed to be discussed in Parliament. Alternatively, if the government felt that there were some issues with Article 35A relating to the fundamental rights of J&K women getting married to men outside the state, then the government should have argued that the matter be referred to a 9-judge Constitutional bench.

There is a general belief, however, that if Article 35A is removed through a judicial decision, there would be widespread trouble in the state. Some even claimed that if Article 35A and Article 370 are tempered with “you will see and uprising like no other” witnessed up to now. It is also expected that the alliance between the Peoples’Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will, in all likelihood, breakdown if Article 35A is struck down by the Supreme Court.

Raids by National Investigating Agency (NIA):

There were two sets of reactions to the NIA raids on separatist leaders and their associates for receiving money illegally from Pakistan. Some sought to point out that the Indian government and its agencies had also been funding Kashmir leaders of all hues and justified using foreign money by the separatists. They said raiding the separatist leaders and thereby trying to delegitimize them was part of a whole host of hostile acts by the Central government aimed at the Kashmiris. The attempt, they claimed, was to somehow show that the unrest in Kashmir was entirely due to funds from Pakistan which was not the case at all. This view came largely – but not limited only to them-- from people sympathetic to the separatist leaders, especially youngsters and those from the legal profession.

Others, however,pointed out that the very fact that the ordinary Kashmiris had not reacted by protesting against the raids on the separatist leaders by the NIA, showed that they were not unduly bothered by these developments. This, they said, was because they believed that those who had been charged with violation of Foreign Exchange management Act ought to come clean and provide transparent accounts. The NIA raids, however, seemed to have instilled some fear among separatist sympathizers, that if they speak up publicly they too could be picked up for questioning.

Counter-insurgency Operations and militancy:

The security forces have clearly had some remarkable success in eliminating militant leadership in the last few months. However, on the one had this has sent a strong signal to all concerned that there would be no soft-pedaling on militants, on the other, it could also lead to new recruits and more spectacular attacks on the security forces.

As far as new recruits to militancy are concerned, many felt that, they required a greater outreach to be brought into the mainstream. They have hardly any weapons, no training but are very high on motivation. Most of the local militants are to be found in South Kashmir, while those who support Islamic fundamentalism of the Al Qaeda or Islamic State variety are limited to areas like Pulwama and Tral. Their life expectancy, when the security forces are working with targets of eliminating all active militants by the year-end -- is likely to be very short.

There are those in Kashmir who were upset with the security forces setting themselves targets for killing militants – it is said that of the approximately 225 local militants, 139 had already been killed and the rest were likely to be eliminated by December this year. They claimed that setting such deadlines and targets by the security forces was disturbing even as new recruitment to the militant ranks continued to take place. “Our security forces are instruments of our Constitution. We should not allow them to become a part of our failure (in Kashmir),” one of them remarked.

Economic downturn:

The Kashmir Valley used to get about 15 lakh tourists in the summer season in a good year. Up to August 17 this year, the total number of tourist had come down to 6.73 lakh as compared to 11.43 lakh last year for the same period.

About 5 lakh people are connected to the tourist industry directly in Kashmir. Today, a situation has come where they are staring at being unemployed in the near future. The tourist season went badly last year because of curfew and violence but this year even when there is no curfew and violence has gone down, tourism is worse than last year.

Big hotel chains like the Taj Group, ITC and others who had partnered with local hoteliers to open new hotels and upgrade existing ones are no longer sure whether they would be able to keep up their operations after the next two months. A large number of upper end hotels have shut down up to 75 per cent of their rooms because of low occupancy.

The local tourist industry representatives claim that Kashmir is not being sold as a destination in the rest of India. They are under the impression that this is a part of a larger conspiracy to finish off Kashmir’s economy, and some private national TV channels are playing a damaging role by projecting all Kashmiris as terrorists and making out as if Kashmir were a war-zone. These TV channels had single handedly managed to project Kashmiris as a hated community in the rest of India.

One of them even alleged that big travel companies were being told not to sell Kashmir to tourists. On Social Media also there has been a campaign against Kashmir some alleged – as evidence they pointed to a BJP legislator from Telangana urging people to go for Amarnath Yatra but not buy anything from local Kashmiris.

In addition, industry sources points out that outside contractors – especially from Andhra, Telangana and Maharashtra – no longer want to work on projects in J&K. Even a reputed contractor working on the Ratle hydroelectric project on the Chenab had ‘run away’.

Up to now, there was migration of workers from UP and Bihar for low-skilled work in Kashmir. For jobs requiring higher skills, workers used to come from the rest of India. With the economy in decline, the avenues for them in the Valley were shrinking. As for the educated Kashmiri youngsters many of them leave homes for education in the rest of India and abroad and find work there. At this rate, many Kashmiris fear that they will be left with only a generation of youngsters who either throw stones or prefer to pick up the gun.

Governance and Accountability:

The governance and administration in J&K remain by and large unstable and those manning them have little time to deal with internal issue in a sustained manner because of the prevailing situation. Before they begin addressing one issue, another more pressing one emerges.

The situation in the state itself is to a large extent impacted by developments beyond the control of the state government – e.g. the legal challenge to Article 35A, the repeated statements about abolition of Article 370 by those close to the ruling party at the Centre, the exaggeration of the ground situation in the Kashmir Valley by the national media, especially TV channels, etc.

Some Kashmiris go to the extent of saying that all institutions in J&K are discredited and what is worse is that there are no political leaders with unquestioned credentials. So people have no faith either in the system or the mainstream political leaders. There is frustration in the people because of lack of governance and the absence of law and order. One of the reasons they support the nebulous idea of “Azadi” is because they feel that the present system does not deliver and perhaps something else would solve their problems.

There are thinking Kashmiris who believe that India is unable to win the hearts and minds of the people because in order to do that credible institutions and political leaders are needed. Some even suggested that if there was focus on nothing else but on providing law and order like the rest of India then things would improve. Instead the government’s focus seemed to be only the symptom – militancy – and not on the disease.

Accountability at all levels was also emphasized. People feel that there is no accountability within the system or even outside it. As it is people feel that the state government machinery functions in an arbitrary and illegal manner. Increasingly they think so of the security forces too.

To usher in accountability, it was suggested that the Central government might set an example by considering setting up a grievance redress mechanism within the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, even if it cannot be removed – perhaps a tribunal headed by an Army General and a Judge could be a solution.

The general feeling was that unless credibility of institutions is restored, nothing can move forward in the state. The constant focus on militancy alone means that administration is ignored and one tends to ignore the fact that 50 per cent of the atrocities are by the police and the army under the control of the government. It is non-governance which resulted in militancy, many felt.

Prime Minister’s I-Day gesture:

While there were some Kashmiris who rejected the PM’s change of tone on Kashmir at this year’s Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort as nothing more than demagoguery, a majority seemed to welcome it.

Those skeptical of the PM signaling a change in government policy said that this was not yet evident on the ground and therefore what he said remained at the level of posturing. They felt that since the Prime Minister now seemed focused on his re-election, it was not possible for him to start any long term process that could led to resolution of the Kashmir tangle. Some strongly believed that conflation of non-initiation of political outreach, strong military-centric approach, and vigour in legal pursuit of old cases against separatists and their associates, and the PM’s offer of embracing Kashmiris appear to conform to a plan. However, its contours were unfathomable at this stage.

With the majority of people this group interacted, the PM’s statement seemed to have gone down well. They were happy that he had said what he did and wished that he had done so earlier. They believed that like former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could also change the atmosphere in J&K and make the people in the state feel secure. However, they also pointed out that this could not be done by putting a brake on the state’s economy, unnecessary harassment of civilians and killing of youngsters.

However, most of them also said that the PM needed to operationalize the sentiments he had expressed and that his sentiments must be reflected in the situation on the ground. As of now, many of them felt that the government had boxed both the separatists and itself into a corner and there was no one to engage with to resolve the conflict. They said that Kashmiris would be ready for an embrace but they would want something more than words.