New Delhi shouldn’t shy away from talks.
By Shome Basu
Since the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A – the laws which gave autonomy and special status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir – on 5th of August 2019, Kashmir valley, unexpectedly, hasn’t seen any major public uproar.
The valley was locked down for nearly 18 months which also included the COVID lockdown. For a major part of the lockdown, mobile phones, internet and landline communication services, schools, offices and all economic activities, barring some emergency services, were suspended while people stayed mostly indoors amid unprecedented crackdown on civilian movement.
The regular protests and pelting of stones on the security forces was heavily curbed while any potential of disturbance was contained by pre-emptive arrests, detentions and imposition of PSA. Nearly 4000 civilians, many of them young men, were arrested under PSA post-August 5, 2019.
The recent targeted killing of Kashmiri Pandits, however, is raising a new alarm. The killings began last year and have continued intermittently since then despite multiple crackdowns on the militant modules and an overwhelming footprint of security forces across the length and breadth of the valley.
While these targeted killings have invoked fear among the minuscule community of Kashmiri Pandits, most of whom lived in guarded encampments and many of whom fled to the safety of Jammu’s plains, it’s not for the first time that this community has become a target.
In the early years of militancy, security forces had little inroads into the alleys of valley and nearby hinterlands and Kashmiri youth were seen on the streets wielding their Kalashnikov rifles. The year was 1989 when the political killings first took place and among the first victims was a retired judge N K Ganjoo. JKLF took the responsibility for the killing of Ganjoo, who had previously convicted Maqbool Bhat, the founder of JKLF for the killing of CID officer Amar Chand.
Ganjoo’s killing was followed by more assassinations as local Kashmiri Pandits, as well as Muslims, were targeted on allegations of their affiliations with political parties and security agencies. Police could do little as they lacked will, training and sophisticated arms compared to the militants and cases emerged of cops bolting the police stations while young militants roamed the villages and towns. A police-militant nexus too wasn’t an oddity back in the day.
The killings and violent chaos generated a fear psychosis among Kashmiri Pandits who started fleeing the valley in droves.
Years passed by when the consecutive Indian governments beefed up the presence of central armed forces which included BSF, CRPF and others along with Army units. As of today, several lac armed security personnel are stationed in Kashmir to tackle an unrelenting insurgency and a population of little more than twelve-million.
The friction between the two communities dates back decades when the Maharaja – who was a Dogra Rajput from Jammu region – ran the administration which had a strong presence of Kashmiri Pandits as the Muslim population was kept out of the statecraft. The rise of Reading room, Round Room (from the Dastagir Sahib shrine) and Jamia Masjid in the downtown Srinagar, however, ruled the streets of Kashmir since 1931.
The partition took its own course of communal violence but Kashmir, which was still an independent princedom with a standstill agreement signed between the governments of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan while negotiations were underway with India, remained away from those fires.
Fast forward 75 years, Kashmir still remains in a quagmire. While public protests have been sternly curbed by the government after the abrogation of the autonomy laws, the guerilla techniques are back with targeted killing by gunmen who are now referred to as ‘hybrid terrorists’ by the agencies.
State police and other agencies blame cadres of Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen for killings, again shaking the amity and peace in the valley. In certain cases, militant organizations have also claimed the responsibility.
Besides the security forces, the gunmen killed around 14 Hindus including Kashmiri Pandits since August 2019 till May 2022. Notably, the number of Muslims killed by them is much higher.
This ‘hybrid terrorist’ is now on a prowl to kill selected people, which will either polarize the valley further or create an atmosphere of fear among the minority, new migrants, tourists and many other citizens.
If compared to what happened in the 1990s, the current threat levels are minimal. Many of the Hindus I have spoken to in the Valley rejected the threat levels because they feel the old days of militancy were more dreaded.
Although in the recent past, many Kashmiri Pandits again migrated but they feel a sense of betrayal by the Indian government as they haven’t been given protection as promised. The minority community members feel that the union government must provide more physical security.
The Centre had, on April 6, informed the parliament that the killing of those from the minority community in the Kashmir valley peaked in 2021. The killings were reported from Anantnag, Srinagar, Pulwama and Kulgam districts in the Valley. From Rajni Bala, a school teacher, to Bihari labourers and government employees, an array of victims has been the target of such killings.
The most startling of them all has been M L Bindroo’s killing who used to run a famous chemist shop in the heart of Srinagar.
Bindroo’s killing was seen as a warning to the community and the government on what was yet to unfold.
With the new domicile law in place and the new constituencies redrawn, New Delhi must junk the muscular politics now and embrace Kashmiris, who are ghettoed by high presence of security forces.
Government of India needs to have a concrete and clear plan to ensure instilling confidence among the people of Kashmir, instead of showing off high numbers in tourism sector which matter little in the gambit of larger law and order scenario.
As Pakistan is a neighbor and neighbours can’t be changed, India shouldn’t shy away from talks. Maybe India can set some conditions, but an open communication channel with Pakistan and the Kashmiri leadership is imperative for any headway towards peace. A robust Kashmir policy is needed for the wellbeing of the people and larger political needs of both India and Pakistan.
Shome Basu is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.