Last week, former bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal joined the list of eight mainstream leaders—including three former Chief Ministers of the Jammu and Kashmir—to be booked under the stringent Public Safety Act by the newly formed Union Territory administration. Faesal’s detention coincided with the government’s move to continue with the limits on internet access in the Valley, which were ‘eased’ last month to put an end to the world’s longest internet shutdown in a democracy.
Interestingly, the developments took place after “government-managed” a visit of foreign envoys to the region which many believe was an attempt to demonstrate to the outside world that ‘all is well’ in the Valley.
This was the second instance of foreign observers visiting the Valley to assess the ground situation after the abrogation of Article 370 which granted special status to the former state. “Everything is normal and alright here. We saw children on the way to their school, which is a sign of normalcy,” a member of the envoy had told reporters on February 12.
Apart from appearing for an annual examination, the students have stayed away from the schools, that are observing winter vacation, post August 5. It could be the presence of public transport and opening of shops and other business establishments that remained closed for at least five months which led to him believing that things are back to normal. The envoy, however, missed the fact that the “new normal” in Jammu and Kashmir has cost it its jobs, tourism, industry, handicraft, and horticulture as the region has suffered an estimated loss of around Rs 15,000 crore, as per reports of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries.
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The government’s reluctance to lift the internet ban, release the political prisoners and hold election tends to confirm the view that things are far from normalcy. “Situation on the ground doesn’t indicate there is any sort of normalcy. Normalcy will return when political leaders will be released. Normalcy doesn’t mean that you will put people under jail. It is the supremacy of civilian authority that is the indicator of normalcy in a political context globally. Wherever the state leaves civil agency and hands over control to the security agencies, it speaks of a situation out of the normal. It is an indicator of abnormality. Everything in Kashmir indicates that the situation is not normal and you cannot make things normal by announcing it. There are some signs which is leading the global media to believe in this,” Professor Noor Baba, who teaches at the Central University of Kashmir, told NewsClick.
The government’s move to start the political process in the form of holding by-elections for the vacant panchayat was ‘scuttled’ by the unwillingness of regional political parties. The truth, however, is that major parties boycotted the polls “unless their leaders are not released”, which led to the government deferring the election.
“In a democracy, it is the civilians’ government which holds the highest place. The government has to tell people what is their objective. We are not in normal times in Kashmir. Things are not normal for our party as well,” Imran, the spokesperson of National Conference, told NewsClick.
Political leaders also point towards the continued restrictions on communication structures and scuttling of freedom of expression. “What is normal? The real question is why you (government) are putting people behind the bars. Normality demands freedom of movement and expression. The second thing is what is the necessity of constantly keeping the communication structures under control? If everything is normal, let us be open to the world,” Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami, leader of Communist Party of Unit (Marxist) and former MLA from Kulgam, told NewsClick.
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He alleged that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is using the situation to gain ground in Valley. “If everything is normal then why are they allowing only BJP to work, to act or engage in political activities and other things? Why other parties and groups are not being allowed to engage in any political activity? Does it mean that they (other political parties) don’t want to do anything or because there are restrictions, there are curbs and preventions?” he said.
Uncertainty Taking a Toll on Common People
The veteran CPI(M) leader and former MLA feels that the people of the region have been subjected to an extraordinary situation by adopting an anti-constitutional way to abrogate their status, identity, constitution and flag.
The people across the Valley are still uncomfortable with the political equation that emerged after August 5. “Normalcy has certain parameters; if those parameters are not met, things are not normal. And one of the important norms of normalcy is free political activity. Even the mainstream political leaders are not allowed to come out. They are under different kinds of restrictions and people do not have access to free medium of information. Educational institutions are also not functioning normally,” Fayaz Ahmad, a resident from Shopian, said.
Meanwhile, some people claimed that the government’s reluctance to ensure normal political activity is responsible for the chaos. “One day they announce elections and defer it the next day. Which government would do it? They want elections without leaders. Why are they not opening the internet facilities? Would there be domicile safeguards? Are they going to alter the demography? These things are affecting our psyche,” Lateef Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar, told NewsClick.
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Others questioned the continued restrictions even six months of abrogation of Article 370. “Why would we not want normalcy? We want businesses, opening of schools and everything. They have achieved whatever they wanted. Why are they scared of opening things,” another resident, Irfan, said.
The unpredictability of the political equations on the ground has exacerbated the inhibitions of the people who feel unrepresented owing to the continued incarceration of the leaders. What has made things worse is the fact that neither the people have been able to voice their concerns, nor has the government been successful in reaching out to them. The confusion on the ground and in the minds of the people only suggest that things are not normal, “There is no normalcy here. There are restrictions and curbs everywhere. The media is gagged almost completely. Everyone is behind bars. They (government) do not trust anyone. They want people to dance to their tunes which won’t happen,” Khalida Shah, president of Jammu and Kashmir Awami National Conference, said.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.