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Revoking Art. 370: A Central Strategy that Keeps on Backfiring

The Centre made the return of Kashmiri Pandits the centrepiece of its Kashmir policy and accordingly scrapped Art. 370. The result is before all to see.
Security personnel stand guard in the closed market on the second anniversary of the abrogation of article 370

Security personnel stand guard in the closed market on the second anniversary of the abrogation of article 370

Summer brought many tourists to the serene Kashmir valley. But just as tourism peaks after three dull years, there are strong indications of a crisis in the valley. On Thursday, news of the killing of another Kashmiri Pandit—bank manager Vijay Kumar who lived in Kulgam—spread panic in the community. This is the eighth targeted killing in Kashmir since May, and the third of a non-Muslim government employee. 

While the influx of tourists—most hotels are booked for all of June—is being projected as normalcy in the Union Territory, the cycle of killings is proving it illusory. 

Indeed, in recent months, there have been indications that the Union Territory could soon return to full statehood. With delimitation over, an election is also on the cards. However, if you go outside the valley’s tourist destinations, these hopes get seriously challenged. 

Days ago, Rajni Bala, a Hindu (Dalit) teacher in a remote village in the Kulgam area was killed, sparking protests by Kashmiri Pandits in different parts of Kashmir. After this, the Kashmiri Pandits staged a dharna in the Samba district and shouted angry slogans at Ravinder Raina, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Jammu and Kashmir unit. 

In Srinagar, protesters blocked the road leading to the airport for several hours. The route to Pahalgam, a priority destination for tourist, had to be diverted towards Bijbehara. Intriguingly, due to security threats, this route was closed for tourists a few days back. All  temples in South Kashmir, including the famous Awantipora and Mattan ruins, were also closed to tourists. In down-town and other residential areas, one senses an uneasy calm that overshadows the tourist influx. 

Targeted Killings: Frightening Memory of Nineties

As a tourist, the valley looks normal. Shops are open and streets filled with vehicles. Unlike in the nineties, gun-wielding militants are nowhere to be seen. Even after former militant Yasin Malik was awarded the life sentence, the city remained calm (after a 24-hour self-imposed market bandh). Stone-pelting has stopped, large-scale rallies are absent, and city life seems normal. In other words, except for the targeted killings, militancy seems non-existent. 

But these killings are not to be scoffed at, for now, they remind of the early era of terrorism in the valley. Soon after the panchayat elections in 2020, many holding panch and sarpanch posts were killed, including Kashmiri Pandits, which sent shock-waves through the microscopic minority community. The Pandits had somehow put the nightmarish nineties behind them. Then more killings followed, such as of the well-known chemist Makhanlal Bindroo, who had decided to live on in the valley despite the mass migration of his community. 

The killings of Rahul Bhat and Rajni Bala—and on Thursday of Vijay Kumar in Kulgam—have added a new dimension to the ongoing round of attacks. Bhat, Bala and Kumar were beneficiaries of the Prime Minister’s package designed by the previous central government to facilitate the return of the migrant Pandit community to Kashmir. 

A newborn organisation, The Resistance Front (TRF), has taken responsibility for these killings. In recent statements, they revealed an intention to kill the beneficiaries of the PM package, resident Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindu communities in the valley. They have warned them to leave or face the consequences. In a repeat of the tactics of the nineties, the militants have termed the Kashmiri Pandit residents as “collaborators” of the Indian government. It is no surprise that the KPSS, an organisation of resident Kashmiri Pandits, has declared, (also on Twitter) that beneficiaries of the PM package in Mattan will leave the valley on Friday and must get security from the government as they travel. 

Of course, the violence in Kashmir is not limited to the Kashmiri Pandits or Hindu residents. Many Muslim citizens have also been killed in recent times. The TV and social media star Ambreen Bhat and SPO (Special Police Officer, a temporary force) Mudasir Ahmad were killed soon after Rahul Bhat’s killing. A resident of the Keegam area of Shopian, Farooq Ahmed Sheikh, was also attacked by the militants on 1 June. While no organisation has taken responsibility for these murders, it is widely perceived as the handiwork of some smaller outfits. Other SPOs and security force personnel have also been killed recently. 

The guerilla-like techniques the terrorists have adopted of late are not easy to contain, especially under the new socio-political and administrative conditions in Kashmir. The situation has, naturally, created panic within the Kashmiri Pandit community. For the last twenty days, they have been protesting for effective security cover or else be shifted to safer places. Many are seeking ways and means to migrate from the valley. In a series of tweets, the KPSS has blamed the policies adopted by the current regime for the recent killing of Kashmiri Pandits. 

Over-Activism Leads to Policy Paralysis

The BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have always treated the Kashmir problem as a communal and law-and-order issue. Once it got absolute majority in Parliament in 2019, and gained control over Kashmir after toppling the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government, and scrapped Article 370, it has followed a two-pronged policy towards Kashmir. On the one hand, it has crushed dissent with an iron hand. Alongside, it has tried to control the administration of Kashmir by appointing non-Kashmiris or outsiders. In almost every critical administrative department, Kashmiri officials have been replaced by non-Kashmiris. Non-Kashmiri officers also dominate the police in Kashmir. Most Kashmiris see this as the first step in attempts to change the religious demography of the former State. 

The heavy presence of armed forces, absence of a democratically-elected government and broadly non-Kashmiri administrative and police structure have created a peculiar situation. The administrative machinery has lost touch with the local population. The result is an almost complete lack of human intelligence, discontent among senior and experienced officers and a sense of unease between junior and subordinate officials. Remember that Kashmiri police officers such as Ashique Bukhari, Allah Bakhsh and AM Watali were instrumental in containing militancy during the nineties. 

While the familiarity of the police and administration with the language, local traditions, and topography is crucial in fighting insurgency, the presence of a representative government in the former State would also act as a buffer. However, the present dispensation refuses to accept this. Their apathy toward the local population and communal approach toward a political problem has created a dangerous situation.

The continuous hate propaganda against the Kashmiri Muslims in the mainstream and social media has also pushed back the pro-India and peace-seeking section of Kashmiri society. While all Kashmiris have been painted as villains by the pliant mainstream Indian media and IT-cell warriors, an impression has dominated in the valley that not only the government in Delhi and its security forces but the majority of India is against the Kashmiris. Attacks on Kashmiris students in different parts of the country, denial of hotel accommodation and venomous campaigns by senior leaders after Art. 370 was read down only boosted the perception. 

The release of The Kashmir Files film—and its reception within the political class and social circles—was the final nail in the coffin. Trust has almost vanished. The Kashmir Files film gave anti-Indian forces in the valley a fillip, and it is evident that they have been able to win over mercenaries and sympathisers in Kashmir. 

Forget Return; Pandits Want to Quit Valley

The return of Kashmiri Pandits was always a favourite ploy of the BJP. The party claimed that with Art. 370 was out of the way, all obstacles in the way of their return would disappear. It defended numerous autocratic measures in the name of the return of the Pandits, and the issue dominated several Assembly elections since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

A section of migrated Kashmiri Pandits also supported these steps, as there was palpable enthusiasm among them after August 2019, when Art. 370 was withdrawn. However, except for loud promises, communal hate campaigns and complete capture of the administrative-political space, no feasible policy to assure their return has emerged. It was perceived that once militancy is crushed and the dominance of Jammu replaces that of Kashmir, not only will Pandits return, but so will other Hindus, to settle there (with the help of the schemes like the establishment of 50,000 temples!). 

A plan to change the demography of the valley has never been announced, but there are sufficient indications of this intent. With targeted killings, this program would appear to have fallen flat, forget the return of Pandits or settling Hindus—even those living in the valley are under tremendous psychological pressure to leave. 

The PM package, implemented when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, aimed to resettle migrant Kashmiri Pandits by providing them jobs and shelter. But now, the TRF has declared its intent to annihilate the beneficiaries of this package, calling them “collaborators”. It is often contended in Kashmir that Pandits who benefited from the package are being placed in important decision-making positions in the administrative machinery at the cost of Kashmiri Muslims. A profile of the jobs provided under this package does not support these claims. However, rumours are abuzz in the valley and creating discontent. 

The absence of an organic dialogue between the beneficiaries of the package, who live in separate transit camps, and the majority community has only made things more difficult. Once the killings began, the Pandits hit the streets seeking relocation to safer places, i.e., out of the valley, preferably Jammu. However, any such step would completely contradict the objective of the scheme. It would put the Union Territory administration and its bosses in Delhi in a very awkward situation. That is why the gates of the transit camps have been locked, and the Lieutenant-Governor is flying to Delhi to discuss the situation with the Home Minister Amit Shah.

Some statements of the TRF have created a panic amongst resident Pandit community. Note that even after mass migration, about 800 Pandit families never left the valley. This thin majority lives in an almost invisible existence in rural and urban locations in the valley. Until recently, they never figured in the news. When I interviewed them in 2015-16, security was not a concern for most of them. But things have changed severely since then, forcing them into a rethink. A few community members said they have started searching for alternative accommodation, and if things don’t improve, they may consider leave the valley altogether. They cite the security threat and the political class not taking their grievances seriously.

There should be no doubt that the latest developments threaten the existence of Kashmiri Pandits as a community. The attacks also reveal the hollowness of the high-decibel claims of the present political dispensation and its inability to deal with a complex political problem. Its narrow communal outlook has proved detrimental to the socio-political situation of Kashmir and counterproductive for the valley’s minority community. With the Amarnath Yatra due soon, these developments perturb the law-and-order situation in the valley and elsewhere. There is an urgent need for a political solution through dialogue and democracy, but that hardly seems possible in the wake of the adamant attitude of the central government. 

Ashok Kumar Pandey is the author of several books and a political commentator. The views are personal

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