A demonstration in Kashmir might seem like par for the course, and no big deal at all if only a dozen-odd people participate. But it becomes notable if those who demonstrate — and undertake a token hunger strike too — are some of the very people who took risks to participate in the administration’s most high-profile programme of the past two years.
A group of panchayat members were frustrated enough at the beginning of this week to demonstrate at one of the locations in the valley where they have been taken for group security.
People like them are the only elected representatives in Kashmir, for there has been no elected government in Jammu and Kashmir for the past 26 months, or even an Assembly since the house was dissolved in November 2018. The then governor dissolved the house, claiming that he had not received the joint bid of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, the National Conference, and the Congress to form a government together.
During these two-plus years of direct rule by the Centre, the only thing the government highlighted as a success in the public domain was the round of elections to panchayats and municipalities in September-October 2018. It is another matter that hardly anyone voted in most parts of the valley. Many seats remained vacant, entirely uncontested, and many of those who were elected were either unopposed or divided up just a few votes with one other candidate.
The government nevertheless counted it as a success. In that light, it is embarrassing for the government that those who were elected, or even just stood for those elections, have had to be locked up for their own safety. After a spate of killings by militants, the government rounded up hundreds upon hundreds of these grassroots politicians early this month and placed them in safe locations.
Militancy rising sharply
There could not be a more obvious admission of defeat. Worse, some of them are angry and upset about being thus locked up.
Many of the grassroots politicians who then had enough faith in the government to participate now feel that the government has failed them. Their lives in jeopardy, they feel frustrated.
Indeed, instead of using them as a bridgehead to try and integrate the rest of the people of the erstwhile state, the government has managed to alienate even some of these few who were willing to play ball.
Their plight evokes memories of the early 1990s when most of the Pandit community, as well as a large number of political activists, trade union leaders and other communists, escaped to Jammu in fear for their lives. Most of them were not able to return for many years. Several lived out the rest of their lives far from their beloved valley.
Large numbers of boys are taking to militancy and, joined by many from across the Line of Control, are targeting not just grassroots politicians but also security personnel, almost daily. The situation is becoming starkly desperate. Take just one indicator: a soldier who went missing from near his home on August 3, soon after Eid, has not been heard of since, despite a mammoth search.
As in the winter of 1989-90, each incident is being reported in isolation rather than as a scary trend, but it is an ominous slide. If the requisite wherewithal is successfully deployed, a mass agitation could emerge in tandem with war-like moves from east or west, or both sides. October might be a dangerous month.
Unease and resentment are common among others who were happy to be part of the Indian mainstream before the state’s status was suddenly cut down last year. Alienation runs deep, even though it is not often visible. That their trust has been abused is a common sentiment among such people.
A school principal in south Kashmir recalled how, a decade ago, he would take some students to an Independence Day function, leaving early in the morning to avoid the heckling of naysayers. But this year, he said, he would have made some excuse to avoid it even if attendance had been ordered.
The trouble is that the government has prioritised propaganda over substance during these two years — like so much else the Centre does. Much money was wasted on arranging those unpopular local bodies elections, but little was done to energise development on the ground through those bodies.
Some of the grassroots politicians now feel as if they are in Alice in Wonderland, at the mercy of the Red Queen. Almost as if to rub salt in their wounds, those of them who are associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party were taken to a plush auditorium last week to applaud while lavish coffee table books on recent “achievements” of each government department and each district were released. A few of them were given awards at the function, after which the chosen awardees read out speeches that, I am told, had been prepared — strictly scripted — for them.
Some of these grassroots politicians have been trying to resign in order to get out of this weird Wonderland, but find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Being shut in these safe places makes it tough to resign.
On Tuesday, a businessman whose office is across the road from one of the hotels where they have been kept received a visit from some of them who are associated with the BJP. Having begged their guards to let them go across the road, they had come to ask the businessman to arrange a press conference for them to announce their resignations.
Of course, the government is eager to prevent more of them from resigning than already have. It doesn’t go well with those coffee table books.
Layers of distress
There are several layers to the distress of the grassroots politicians who demonstrated, and many others like them in other safe locations.
Their most immediate concern is that they were not asked whether they were willing before they were locked into these locations. Some went along happily, fearful of militants’ bullets, but the majority are said to be resentful. Having stood with governmental processes, they talk of being treated like cattle.
After half-a-dozen lethal attacks on panches and municipal councillors in different parts of the valley since last month, the administration simply decided to put them in these locations without consulting them.
A second layer of their distress is that the government failed to empower their panchayats and municipalities, so that they could have shown their voters, as well as others in their communities, the advantages of their being in office. At a larger level, they say, the government has so far failed to generate employment or welfare schemes, or improve roads and other facilities that would make people positively disposed towards the government, including their local bodies.
Visits by the new lieutenant-governor, Manoj Sinha, to the Ganderbal and Baramulla district headquarters over the past two days gave a glimmer of a silver lining in these dark days. He even went to Reasi, one of the most backward parts of the union territory, on Thursday. All this is appreciable, especially since Sinha’s interactions with district-level bureaucrats at each place were apparently incisive and purposeful. However, it remains to be seen whether he can reverse the slide.
Ironically, people at large were quite happy two years ago that their corrupt politicians had been shunted aside. They were eager for a clean administration run by a responsive governor. Instead, they got the constitutional changes that divided and demoted the state.
Even after that, there was some openness to the promised better times. Instead, there was blanket repression, which lasted long after it was required to quell the initial agitations. After more than a year, 4G connectivity was finally restored this week in just one of the valley’s 10 districts, and one of the Jammu division’s 10 districts.
Naturally, a third layer of distress concerns the government’s failure to stem the tide of militancy. The government’s primary task is to ensure security for citizens, so it ought to be able to make at least grassroots representatives secure in their homes and communities, they say.
What gives an edge to their resentment is the fact that the government has proved that it can, if it really wants, prevent not just militancy but any activity. The entire valley was comprehensively locked down for several weeks after the constitutional changes last year.
From a worm’s eye perspective, that demonstration of state power was an implicit indictment of the failure of the government to protect Pandits in 1990 — or these grassroots politicians today.
By: David Devadas