For more than 50 years, their presence was used to disprove Pakistan’s claim over Jammu and Kashmir, provide democratic legitimacy to New Delhi’s case; for over two decades, they ran a counter-insurgency operation and a campaign against separatists. For more than 50 years, they were the government.
Three weeks into the lockdown, abrogation of the state’s special status, its bifurcation and downgrade into a Union Territory, the political vacuum is deepening on the ground.
Senior leaders of the key Kashmir-based parties, National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, Peoples Conference and even smaller groups like Awami Itihaad Party and J&K Peoples Movement, are under detention. These include three ex-CMs, a former Union minister, almost every former state minister, even the Deputy Mayor of Srinagar, and a number of legislators.
Not just the top brass, many influential second-rung leaders and even district, tehsil and block-level activists have been picked up — in many places, The Indian Express has learnt, as many as four to five layers of leadership in these parties, even polling agents, have been detained. And those who have ducked the dragnet are groping for the way ahead.
“If Assembly elections had taken place on time, Omar Abdullah would have been CM again,’’ said an NC worker, from Khanyar in downtown Srinagar, who has moved out to avoid arrest. “Now he’s in jail and I don’t even know what is going on in my neighbourhood where our party has a substantial presence.”
“We have no argument left with us. We cannot blame people for being unsympathetic towards us. They were always right. We have been shown our place,’’ he said. “We did everything, including justifying shedding the blood of our own people, to keep India’s flag flying high in Kashmir. Today, we are not trusted. We are being put through the loyalty test again and again. Article 370 is the core of what made us Indians in Kashmir and that too has been taken away.”
So sweeping is the crackdown on the mainstream there isn’t anybody of consequence from these parties who can provide any clue to the next steps. “I am perhaps among the very few NC leaders who is still free because I have been dodging arrest. I don’t stay at home and my location can’t be found out through phone — phones aren’t working,’’ a young leader told The Indian Express. “I have no information because there isn’t anybody among our top leaders to ask.” He said that while the party office, Naw-e-Subuh, is in a high-security zone next to the local Doordarshan and radio stations, access has been blocked.
Explaining the new criteria, a police officer said that “anybody who is greeted by more than 10 people in a mohalla is a potential mob mobiliser” and “thus seen as a threat”. A lower-rung PDP worker from South Kashmir said that since 2016, he has been living away from home because of the militants’ threat. “Now the government too is after us. I can’t go home because I may be killed by militants. I can’t stay here because I may be picked up by police. I am hiding from both the sides now,” he said.
He echoes the questions being asked on the ground. “For us, Mufti was India in Kashmir. Our party was in alliance with BJP till last year. How can any government go after us?’’ he asked. “Perhaps over time, we had forgotten that when the day comes, we would be treated like any other Kashmiri — nothing more than suspects and jailed”.
Asked about the detention of mainstream leaders, the government spokesman in Srinagar said: “Local authorities are taking all such steps as may be necessary to maintain public order. I assure you that everything that is being done is being done under appropriate laws”.
Ironically, there is little sympathy for these leaders or parties among large sections of the public. While the Centre claims their “corruption” and “nepotism” is the reason for disaffection, many here point to their “long complicity with New Delhi” and say they have got their comeuppance.
“They were India in Kashmir,” said a university professor who didn’t want to be identified because of fear of reprisal. “Until now, they were detaining people, locking us up inside our homes. Today, their fate has changed, they have been made to realize that they will always remain part of us. How do they resist the new order is the question now”. There is another significant reason why public sympathy is missing.
Many also suspect that these very same leaders, if and when they will be released, may cite political expediency to resume negotiations on new terms with the Centre.
“They may talk on how to restore the statehood of J&K. Ladakh will always remain a separate Union Territory and there will be no dialogue on Article 370 and Article 35 A. They are gone for good,’’ said a senior police officer involved in the current administration. “I don’t know when that will happen. It could take yet another five years. There is no chance that the government now will agree to restore special status to J&K. It is history now”.
Whether that happens may not be clear but one thing is: mainstream political leaders are in a double-bind. If they are seen as falling in line, they risk losing public trust, said the university professor. Can they address people’s fears and hopes in a politics that abjures violence is the question, he said.
So, if and when they are freed, how they redefine their role and discourse will eventually shape post-August 5 politics in the Valley.