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The Evolving Situation in Kashmir

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The momentous changes that occurred in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5th have finally come in force this October. Consequent to the abrogation of special status under Article 370, J&K and Ladakh are now separate Union Territories. Just before these changes came into force on October 31st, the erstwhile united state saw the elections to the Block Development Council (BDC) being conducted. The BDC elections were not only the first ever electoral exercise in the region after the abrogation of special status, but were also the first ever BDC elections to be conducted in the history of the state.

The fact that the elections went smoothly at a time when the communications blockade is gradually being lifted shows that the government has not left even a single base uncovered. Long before the lifting of the blockade, journalists and tourists were given a free pass to enter and leave from the state, while recently a group of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) visited Kashmir.

It is also notable that barely two months after the revocation of the special status, the government has begun to lift the blockade, despite militant threats. There was not a single instance of things going out of control or allowed to flare up, showing that the government had planned well in advance for Kashmir. Heavy army presence has ensured that militants remain neutralized, while Pakistani attempts to infiltrate terrorists into India has been rebuffed with yet another strike on PoK by the Indian Army.

These developments show that Kashmir is reaching normalization and will soon see political activity by next year. The continuing detention of some of the prominent leaders shows that the government is determined to not give into their blackmail in future and that future terms will be set directly by New Delhi.

Beating the Odds: Normalization in Kashmir

The Indian government decision to revoke the special status of J&K has received ample international attention. While the governments of most other countries have been supportive of the Indian position, it is the international liberal-left media, political power brokers/lobbyists sympathetic to Pakistani government and sections of anti-India NGOs (like Amnesty) and public personalities that have left no stone unturned in spreading misinformation about Indian actions in Kashmir.

The garb of human rights has been donned by these sections to peddle fake news regarding Kashmir. As always, even prominent media portals like BBC have not been immune to this, posting photographs of Russian Army excesses in Chechnya and passing that off as Kashmir. Leading newspapers like Washington Post and New York Times and some British newspapers have made it their mission to vilify India and become Pakistani mouthpieces. Interestingly, recently, US President, Donald Trump, cancelled all subscriptions of Washington Post and New York Times from all federal departments, on the ground that it is ‘fake news’.

The Democrats in the US Congress and the Labour Party in Britain have, similarly, allowed themselves to be open to Pakistani PR agencies and lobbyists. Despite this, the remarkable thing is that the Indian government has not allowed itself to bow down to this particular lynch mob even once. Neither have any Indian lobbyists been commissioned to please the American or British lawmakers.

Rather, in a show of defiance and impunity, about 27 right-wing MEPs were allowed to visit Kashmir in a highly protected and regulated visit. After their two-day visit, they reported that there was a lull in Kashmir and things were yet to return to normal, but that the militants were the main bar, and most importantly, they said that these terrorists were sponsored by Pakistan.

Despite criticism from left-liberal lobbies, the visit went smoothly and the Indian government had completed a basic formality of showing to the world that things are normal in Kashmir, but that all visits would happen only after being vetted by the government. No one can complain that India is hiding Kashmir situation from the world.

Even prior to this foreign delegation visit, there were already accounts emerging from the evolving situation in Kashmir from September onwards. Several journalists were allowed to visit Kashmir and, under the Supreme Court orders, some political leaders too were allowed, but with the condition that they will not promote political activity which might incite people.

The accounts that emerged from these visits were balanced. As early as September, disturbances were confined to a part of Srinagar, with other areas largely peaceful. Indeed, the situation in Kashmir has never been so controlled. The havoc caused was much worse in 2016 when terrorist Burhan Wani was killed by the Indian forces.

In the present scenario, while there is a tendency among a section of the population to feed false stories about Indian Army, a basic cross-checking of facts by an investigator showed that most of these stories were completely fabricated. For instance, claims made by a colony’s, Soura, residents in Srinagar about government hospital being full of pellet gun victims was proven to be false upon visit to the hospital, where there was only a single pellet gun victim and that too not from Srinagar. It was also uncovered that many a time, the local doctor would be hand-in-glove with the some locals in writing false medical reports to show to the media (Iyer-Mitra, 2019).

The situation differs from place-to-place. A field visit account from Pulwama in August highlights that while there were disturbances in Sunni villages, in Shia villages it was just the opposite. Balama, a Shia village in Pulwama, had almost no restrictions in place, with one of its residents even saying that they have to sometimes request the authorities to impose a curfew so that neighbouring Sunni villages don’t get the impression that they have special privileges (Pandita 2019).

Other than open defiance which has been confined only to certain pockets and has not been able to take the shape of a rebellion, reports from various other parts of Kashmir are unanimous in indicating that there are two options: either the locals want normalcy and are tired of Pakistani sponsored terrorism, or, they might explode and rebel any time in the future.

For now, this will remain unclear as long as terrorists continue to operate. While educational institutes and work places are seeing low attendance, the main reason is threat by militants and killing of those who dare to go to work. This is a marked change from the cries of ‘azadi’ that frequently used to rent the air prior to August 5th, the credit for which goes to the tough response of the Indian government never seen before.

Thus, the overall situation in Kashmir has been controlled since August 5th, largely thanks to deft handling of the government. Taking a leaf out of Israel’s book, the Indian forces have been able to employ crowd control techniques that have ensured that things don’t flare up. This has meant micro-management through technologies, ensuring that large groups are immediately broken up and that political activity or anything that can incite the people is not allowed. Also, the fact that hundreds of detained separatists and their informers have been lodged outside the state and main leaders are still under detention has ensured that no leader is allowed to crop up to gather the people.

In the midst of these changes, political activity is also being promoted, to ensure that there is normalization, but along new lines. For, Kashmir – swamped by Pakistan-funded terrorists and jihadi separatists constantly battled by heavy presence of Indian forces – has never been ‘normal’ since 1948.

A Welcome Change: New Political Activity

Last year’s Panchayat elections and this year’s BDC elections, both of which were conducted against all odds, is a step towards putting new systems in place to ensure that the integration of Kashmir is thorough even in the minds of the people living there.

The fact that the BDC elections – with 98.3% polling – were conducted in the first place, under such daunting circumstances, just within two months of the revocation of the special status of the state, is in itself a big victory, which has not been adequately acknowledged. Also significant is the fact that the elections were held simultaneously with the gradual phasing off of communications blockade.

The fact that these are the first ever BDC elections to be ever conducted in J&K reveals how dysfunctional the system of J&K had become over the last few decades. Not only were local body institutions dysfunctional, but the entire state had become a fiefdom of 3 or 4 prominent Kashmiri Muslim families – Abdullah, Mufti, Lone, to name a few.

The system operated not through local level representatives, but by the feudal patronage networks run by these top families. And thanks to the ‘special status’ enjoyed by the state, New Delhi had to depend on the intermediation of these families and had no direct links in the state. The only representative of New Delhi was the much reviled and vilified Indian Army.

Providing access to communications, while simultaneously conducting elections, has not been easy for the Indian government, but this pertinent aspect is hardly acknowledged. Ever since post-paid mobile connections and telephone was made accessible, there have been a series of attacks by militants on non-local labourers in Kashmir and at least two grenade attacks. Yet, not only is the blockade being lifted and public spaces being opened, but the BDC elections were held and saw high participation despite threats from militants.  

BDC forms the second rung of local level governance. Last year, direct elections to the posts of panches and sarpanches – the first rung or village level of local governance – were conducted, in which 23,629 panches and 3652 sarpanches were elected. It was these panches and sarpanches that became the voters in the BDC elections, which are indirect elections to select the block level chairpersons. The third and final rung of local elections will be held for the district level authority.

The BDC elections were held on 307 notified blocks, with 1092 candidates contesting, out of which 27 were elected unopposed. Since the elections were boycotted by Congress, National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the contest was between BJP and independent candidates. However, some BJP members have alleged that these three parties fielded their proxy candidates as independents.

The results have come as a surprise to the BJP, which had been campaigning for a long time for these elections. The party managed to win only 81 blocks, while the independents won 217 blocks. J&K Panthers Party won 8 blocks, while a lone Congress dissident won 1 block.

Table: Results of BDC elections held in October 2019:
Name of district Total  number of blocks No. of blocks notified for district BJP INC JKNPP Independents
Kupwara 24 24 0 0 0 24
Baramulla 26 26 1 0 0 25
Bandipora 12 12 0 0 0 12
Ganderbal 7 7 0 0 0 7
Srinagar 4 3 0 0 0 3
Budgam 17 16 2 0 0 14
Pulwama 11 9 4 1 0 4
Shopian 9 8 8 0 0 0
Kulgam 11 7 0 0 0 7
Anantnag 16 16 3 0 0 13
Kashmir division 137 128 18 1 0 109
Leh 16 16 7 0 0 9
Kargil 15 15 4 0 0 11
Ladakh 31 31 11 0 0 20
Kishtwar division 13 13 7 0 0 6
Doda 17 17 5 0 0 12
Ramban 11 11 2 0 0 9
Reasi 12 12 4 0 0 8
Udhampur 17 17 4 0 8 5
Kathua 19 19 9 0 0 10
Samba 9 9 4 0 0 5
Jammu 20 20 9 0 0 11
Rajouri 19 19 8 0 0 11
Poonch 11 11 0 0 0 11
Jammu division 148 148 52 0 8 88
Grand total 316 307 81 1 8 217
Source: Observer News Service (2019)

The results show that independents have performed much better than the BJP, in Jammu, Kashmir as well as Ladakh divisions. BJP has won 18 blocks in Kashmir while independents have won 109 blocks and a lone Congress dissident has won 1 block. In Shopian in south Kashmir, where the BJP has won 8 blocks, they were won unopposed. In Jammu, BJP has won 52 blocks, while independents have won 88 blocks and JKNPP has won 8 blocks from Udhampur. In Ladakh too, while BJP has won 7 blocks and independents have won 9 blocks in Buddhist-majority Leh, in Muslim-majority Kargil, BJP has won 4 blocks while independents have won 11.

The most surprising is the fact that BJP did not perform well in the Jammu division, which has been its stronghold. Here also the independents performed better. Except for Kishtwar in Jammu division, where BJP won in 7 blocks while independents won in 6 blocks, the BJP has underperformed in all other blocks in Jammu, including in areas like Kathua, Udhampur and Jammu which used to be BJP strongholds.

While the elections were not direct and do not reflect the popular mood, yet the division in the votes between the BJP and the independents shows that it is not winning or losing that matters in these polls, but the fact that polls were conducted in the first place and were conducted smoothly and efficiently.

Usually, in these indirect elections, the one factor that matters the most is lobbying, since it is the panches/sarpanches and not the mass of ordinary people who vote. It is no secret that the BJP unit in J&K has been divided of late and has indulged in internal bickering and politics. The disconnect between the dependent local unit and the dynamic Modi-Shah leadership at the national level is also palpable, which explains why BJP swept the Lok Sabha election in the state in May 2019.

The BJP’s local unit was also under the impression that they would most certainly sweep the polls, since other parties were boycotting them. As it was later revealed after the election results, the opposition parties played smart. They backed various independent candidates and played a spoilsport for the BJP. The independents – backed by these parties – also formulated strategies to ensure the BJP’s defeat in various blocks. Moreover, as per BJP’s internal calculations, they said that they decided not to field candidates in Kashmir and support independent candidates in various pockets. If these BJP-supported independents are taken into account, the block share would go up from 81 to about 140 (Ehsan 2019).

Paradoxically, the jolt to the BJP in BDC elections should convince the naysayers that free and fair elections with high participation in J&K have truly started. Just 2 months after the massive changes in the region, this is a big achievement and as good a marker of normalcy as any.

The Future

Besides the indirect district-level elections, also lined up on the government’s horizon are state level elections and the delimitation exercise for Jammu and Kashmir regions, by next year. As far as detention of political leaders is concerned, there is a deadlock, which goes on to show how sensitive and explosive the situation in Kashmir has been for so many years. The uneasy calm that prevails today is largely due to the heavy presence of Indian forces, with apprehensions that once full communications are restored the jihadi leaders will once again be active, as will their overground workers, and confrontations and violence will be inevitable.

Being a Sunni Muslim majority region with sympathies towards Pakistan, it is futile to talk about normalcy. It is not possible for Kashmir to return to normalcy as there never was anything normal about the valley since 1989, where India has always been seen with suspicion. From here on, there can only be a brand new course that can be charted out.

India is doing right by breaking away from the earlier policy of pampering separatists – even the intelligence agencies, such as RAW under former chief, AS Dulat, believed in cultivating assets. Unfortunately, these ‘assets’ were on payroll of both India and Pakistan, but used to advance only Pakistani interests. They were assured of protection from the central agencies due to the clout of political masters, NC and PDP. The current Indian policy had abandoned this soft approach since 2014 and has dealt with terror and separatism with an iron hand.

The new Indian policy takes cue from Israel and how it is dealing with Palestine. The recent strikes by Indian Army in PoK in the Tangdhar sector in October is testimony to that. The strikes destroyed, both, terror camps as well as Pakistani army bunkers, killing terrorists as well as Pak Rangers. This time, the strikes did not come as a surprise and Pakistani response – while one of denial – was also less rabidly political, showing that Pakistan and India are getting used to this new format. India has normalized cross-border strikes inside PoK, the first of which was conducted in 2016. This is much like Israel has normalized strikes on Hamas in Gaza. Indian actions no longer generate surprise, especially after Uri and Balakot. More such strikes can be expected with regular frequency.

This means that India has turned the tables on Pakistan by turning PoK into a buffer zone of sorts. Instead of adopting a defensive posture and being pushed back, India has taken an offensive and expansive position, and there is little Pakistan can do about it.

India has also thwarted Pakistani attempts to infiltrate terrorists into Kashmir, which is helping the situation in Kashmir. Pakistani and Kashmiri problems are underlaid by the common problem of Islamic fundamentalism. In the near future, a strong Indian state, controls over Kashmir for several years – just like in north-east during the 1990s – and simultaneous political activity, seem to dictate the evolving equation.

 

Bibliography

Ehsan, M. (2019, October 25). Hindustan Times. Retrieved from

https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/j-k-block-development-council-polls-bjp-claims-it-won-most-seats-congress-begs-to-differ/story-Q3i3KfXYpI4WaAiBYSGIkL.html

Iyer-Mitra, A. (2019, 2019 September ). The Print. Retrieved from 25

Observer News Service. (2019, October 24). Kashmir Observer. Retrieved from

https://kashmirobserver.net/2019/10/24/98-3-polling-recorded-in-first-ever-bdc-polls-in-jk/

Pandita, R. (2019, August 15). Open. Retrieved from

https://openthemagazine.com/cover-stories/in-the-mad-waters-of-kashmir/

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