There are confusing signals from Kashmir as the state (which will become a Union Territory on October 31) completes a month since it lost its special status. While there have been some relaxations of the lockdown which was imposed on August 5 with most of the telephone landlines returning to life although not many of the mobiles and the Internet is still shut, several hundred people, including three former chief ministers, are still in custody. There are reports that the government has sought written assurances from them that they will not cause trouble if they are released, but, predictably, the offer has been rejected.
Mocking them, the Governor, Satyapal Malik, has said that a house arrest can help their political careers. He probably had in mind the fact that many leaders of the immediate postindependence period had spent time in colonial jails. But the jibe went against the government’s reported plan to build up a new generation of political leaders in a phase of politics where the currently established parties like the National Conference (NC) or the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will have no place. In an obvious attempt to encourage the emergence of new leaders, the Union home minister, Amit Shah, met 20-odd village headmen ~ panches and sarpanches ~ in Delhi, hailing them as leaders who bore the responsibility of ensuring that the benefits of the government schemes reached the people.
They were also assured of a Rs 200,000 insurance cover as they will be in the frontline of the fight against terrorism. In a boost to the government’s claim of a gradual return to normality, 575 youth joined the army and 29,000 registered themselves for recruitment. Since the Kashmiri youth have been showing an interest in enlisting themselves in the army for quite some time, the latest reports can be said to be a part of a continuing process which suggests that the abrogation of Article 370 hasn’t had an adverse impact on at least this aspect of life in the state. As a senior BJP leader has said, the Kashmiris are in a state of “pause” where they are trying to “understand” the change that has taken place in their lives.
The point, however, is the length of this “pause” which applies to the government as well, for it has to decide when to lift the remaining restrictions and release the jailed politicians and activists. That the government may not be in a hurry to do so is evident from the sudden detention of the mayor of Srinagar, Junaid Azim Mattu, within a day after he said that there was “anger” and “anguish” in the Valley and a sense of “insult and humiliation”. He also referred to a “humanitarian” crisis caused by parents being unable to speak to their children or patients to their doctors. The prolonged restrictions have also started to worry some of the Western powers, including both the US and UK.
Although there has been a general acceptance of India’s insistence about Kashmir being an internal matter, it is an assertion which can begin to fray if human rights are seen to be violated. There is little doubt that the government is still quite uncertain about how long it will be able to keep the politicians in detention even if telephone services and perhaps even the Internet are restored. Since all the three former Chief Ministers ~ Farooq Abdullah and his son, Omar, of the NC, and Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP are quite articulate and their parties do have a base in the valley ~ their release can prove problematic for the government. It is the same with others like Mattu and the former IAS officer, Shah Faesal of the newlyformed People’s Movement, who are quite capable of effectively voicing what they regard as the popular grievances.
Yet, as a retired bureaucrat said on TV, the window is fast closing on the time period when these critics can be kept out of sight and earshot while an Indian analyst based abroad felt that Kashmir is turning out to be a “PR disaster” for the government. For the present, therefore, Kashmir can be said to be in a kind of a limbo, an indeterminate state where it is neither fully free nor under a draconian lockdown. Nor is there any indication how long the present stalemate will continue since the government simply cannot allow in the foreseeable period the NC and the PDP leaders to come out of jail and organize rallies.
The government will also be on tenterhooks when the Supreme Court takes up the issue next month. If it endorses the government’s evisceration of Article 370, then all will be well. But a judiciary versus executive kerfuffle will follow any decision which questions the constitutionality of the August 5 decision. It is patent enough that the issue is heading towards a critical phase both from the point of view of politics relating to the lifting, or the continuance, of the restrictions in the Valley, and from the point of view of a judicial pronouncement.
(The writer is a former Assistant Editor, The Statesman)