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Kashmiris no Longer Believe the Centre Will Listen to Them—Kapil Kak

Rashme Sehgal |
The noted human rights activist says that in Kashmir, people view the denial of their civil rights as choking democracy, end of politics and the death of expectations.
Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd.)

Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd.). Image Courtesy: The Wire

Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd.), a former deputy director at the Centre for Air Power Studies, is one of the petitioners who have challenged, in the Supreme Court, the abrogation of Article 370. Kak, a member of the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, recently spoke to NewsClick over email. In its latest report, ‘Three Years as a Union Territory: Human Rights in J&K’, the forum has criticised the central government’s heavy-handed tactics in the former state. He sees the recent call by Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Community, for Pandits to migrate out of the Valley as a “strident indictment” of the central government’s policies towards the region. Edited excerpts:

The government claims normalcy has returned to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) following the abrogation of Article 370, but your latest report records a very different situation. Could you highlight why this variance exists?

The claim of “return to normalcy” needs time-metric co-relation. In the immediate aftermath of reading down Article 370, nothing was normal: the incarceration of the entire political leadership, communications lockdown, a civil disobedience movement, shut down of business and commercial establishments, major dislocation of healthcare, closure of the education sector, stoppage of public transport, et cetera. Normalcy in these sectors has largely returned to the pre-5 August 2019 situation.

But on the flip side, a large number of political persons taken into preventive detention remain in jail, in many cases outside the former state. Civilian fatalities due to militancy remain inordinately high. Anti-terror and sedition laws continue to be disproportionately employed against political leaders and journalists. Clampdown on the freedom of the press through police harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention reportedly persists. As [former chief minister] Mehbooba Mufti aptly put it, “Every resident of J&K has become cannon fodder in Delhi’s quest for manufactured normalcy.”

How would you describe the present human rights situation in the Valley, and how do people living there view the situation?

As we aver in our report, people view the denial of civil rights (freedom of speech and assembly, right to peaceful protest, the right to regular free and fair elections and a right to free press) as the choking of democracy, end of politics, death of expectations and unambiguous signalling that the Centre would no longer listen to Kashmiris.

The moderate Hurriyat leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has not been allowed to deliver his weekly sermons at the iconic Jama Masjid for all 156 Fridays in the last three years, during which he has remained under house arrest.

Journalism faces a very adverse ecosystem, and media practitioners have an overwhelming sense of fear. People no longer view them as the fourth pillar of democracy. People report that the crackdown on the media and civil society groups continues unabated, including through draconian counter-terrorism and other laws, like the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2003, Public Safety Act, 1978, and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967. The Union Territory government’s New Media Policy, 2020, has made censoring news easier.

Your team also interviewed members of the Kashmiri Pandit community in Jammu and the Valley. Could you talk about the film Kashmir Files and how it has affected the relationship between the Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits, which was disturbed after the 1990s?

Our report addresses this issue in great detail. The Bollywood film The Kashmir Files is based on the testimonials and stories of the hapless Pandits who got clawed out of their millennia-long geo-cultural mosaic of peaceful coexistence in a sacred geography. This story needed to be told. But on the worrisome flip side, the film seeks to slander, vilify and delegitimise the Valley’s majority community’s own pain and suffering of over three decades during which tens of thousands of its youth were killed.

Clearly, the victimhood of Pandits has been appropriated as a crude political-ideological and commercial weapon for the cause of majoritarianism. The exultation and celebration of the film by Pandit migrants in the rest of India sullied the sense of coexistence in Kashmir, which was perhaps on its way back but appears to have got disturbed yet again.

Roughly 4,500 Kashmiri Pandits were part of former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s employment package of 2010 and returned to the Valley. Relaunched by the present regime, it also promises safe homes for Kashmiri Pandits who return. But many have decided to return to Jammu. Can you explain this scenario?

We must underscore that the 4,000 Pandits who never migrated out of the Valley have lived in nearly a hundred locations over three decades, invariably under the watchful eye of their majority brethren. For 18 years since Nadigram [killing of Kashmiri Pandits in 2003], no Pandit was targeted. But the killing in October 2021 of ML Bindroo, a popular medical store owner, did raise fears of insecurity and vulnerability among them. The impact of the killing of Prime Minister’s package employee Rahul Bhat was far more on such workers. Nearly fifty per cent of them have stopped work and moved to the relative safety of Jammu.

The fatal shooting of Sunil Kumar Bhat, a Pandit orchardist, on 16 March and the severe bullet injuries inflicted on his relative Pitambar Nath Bhat has again sent shockwaves among the microscopic community. In a strident indictment of the government, Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Community, which never migrated, said that while tourists and Amarnath yatris were safe, non-local Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits were [becoming] the targets of terrorists. He called upon the Pandits to migrate out of the Valley. It remains to be seen how such an appeal would resonate and pan out with the community he represents.

A respondent in the Vessu camp in Kulgam has said that 60 per cent of camp inhabitants had left for Jammu.

Perhaps more people have moved out of the Vessu migrant location, but the overall figure for all camps put together remains about 40-50 per cent.

The Modi government has often highlighted how it facilitates Kashmiri Pandits’ return. But from the 6,000 homes to be built for them, only 1,025 have been constructed so far.

Yes, it was so encouraging to know that the political dispensation that came to power in 2014 made the return of Kashmiri Pandits the central plank of its J&K policy. But to paraphrase the British poet, TS Eliot, between the idea and the reality fell a shadow. The 2010 policy on providing government jobs to returning Pandits was repackaged in 2015 to include the construction of secure and gated temporary accommodation for 6,000 employees. But as you say, only 1,025 units have been constructed so far—a cause of enormous disappointment for Pandits.

Your report highlights the tremendous odds that 3,900 panchayat members in J&K face. For one, a number of them have been shot by militants. Do we know how many such killings have occurred?

Yes, the 3,900 panchayat members working at the grass-roots level in a militancy-affected region do face daunting challenges. Twenty-six sarpanches and panches were killed by militants during 2012-22.

Panchayat members had complained to your forum that their movements were severely inhibited after these attacks, prohibiting their interaction with the public.

Yes, some panchayat members do complain of restrictions. It appears that members aligned with the ruling party at the Centre feel a greater sense of vulnerability. On the other hand, the impression one gathers during interactions with their organisational leaders is that members are going about their jobs as best as they can in the prevailing security situation.

Many complain they have no power to work on the ground. Others complain the bureaucracy is marginalising them. How do ordinary people perceive these elected representatives?

Yes, the widespread feeling among panchayat members is that they have not been empowered as promised. The all-powerful bureaucracy, especially when the state and then the Union Territory have been under direct central rule for over four years, is loath to delegate powers to the panchayats, whose members understandably feel marginalised.

Many panches and sarpanches received no training, and people see them as novices or rubber stamps. Has this fuelled cynicism towards them in public?

Yes, it is a fact that sarpanches and panches have received no worthwhile training other than basic familiarity with documentation and rules. The promise to take some of them on tour to selected places in the rest of India where panchayats function efficiently has also not fructified. But given the overarching situation and circumstances in which the panches operate, those who elected them are not too cynical.

Is it that the central government wanted to use the panchayat elections to devalue and bypass the political parties in the erstwhile state? Did the ‘experiment’ succeed?

People in the Valley term these efforts as ‘Mungerilal ke sapnay (dreams of Mungerilal—an Indo-Gangetic proverb) which have reached nowhere. After all, nationwide, three distinct levels of governance exist: the panchayats, the district or block level administrations, and then the state or Union Territory-level legislatures. It would be futile to imagine one can supplant the other!

Your report refers to a real estate summit held in Jammu in 2021, which was to be followed by another one in Srinagar. [See background and developments in land-related issues in Kashmir here and here.] What feedback did you receive about it?

Yes, a real estate summit, the first of its kind, was held last year in Jammu. But due to a lack of clarity on the government’s policy on land use and circle rates, real estate players appear chary of making investments. Construction of factories or buildings on khud land (where water emerges), permitted earlier, is now disallowed. This imposes another constraint. It appears the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry has sought clarifications from the government on these issues, but the forward movement has been slow, to the utter disappointment of the Jammu business community. Another real estate summit is scheduled in Srinagar in October 2022. It remains to be seen what issues would emanate from that one.

(Rashme Sehgal is a freelance journalist.)

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