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Monday, April 06, 2020

In Valley, a reality check: My trip to Srinagar laid bare a false narrative of normalcy

If, when I was in the foreign service, I had reported to my ambassador after such a trip that I had found “normalcy” in Srinagar, he would have recommended that my further promotions be frozen.

Written by Mani Shankar Aiyar | Updated: February 22, 2020 6:50:15 pm
Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370, Kashmir lockdown, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Srinagar, Kashmir internet, Indian Express The police, having been tipped off by now to our presence in their city, arrive at our hotel to inform us that we cannot hold the meeting we have openly convened in a UT where “normalcy”, it is officially claimed, has been restored.

The government has deceived me once again. Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Opposition “leaders” to visit Srinagar to see for themselves how “normalcy” is being restored. The home minister had said anyone was free to go to the Valley. So, I went. What follows is my story.

I was pleasantly surprised to not be intercepted at the airport. So, taking the PM and HM at their word, I first went to see the 85-year-old daughter of Sheikh Abdullah, Begum Khaleda Shah, and her family. There I learned of a novel innovation the local authorities have made in our detention laws as their particular contribution to teaching the Kashmiris what it means to be truly “Indian”: Without passing or providing any written orders, they simply stop those under effective, if not legal, house arrest, from leaving the premises and arbitrarily determine who may or may not visit them.

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She showed us photographs of policemen barring their way in the presence of two Kashmir MPs which, along with a live video, they had submitted to the J&K High Court in a habeas corpus petition. The High Court turned down their request saying that a “Writ Court is neither to hold an enquiry into the allegations made in a petition, nor to take oral evidence. In writ proceedings, a fact is to be supported and proved by authentic documentary evidence. Press cuttings cannot be relied upon as authentic documentary evidence.” The Hon’ble Court went on to adjudicate, “Further, a Writ Court cannot hold enquiry into disputed facts. Once facts are disputed, the writ petition is rendered not maintainable”. So, the entire family of Sheikh Abdullah is now in one form of detention or the other, despite having upheld for 70 years and more the erstwhile Riyasat’s integration into the Union of India, braving a spate of assassination attempts and at the cost of the lives of several hundreds of their followers to terrorist bullets and separatist bombs. Begum Khaleda nostalgically remembers hosting Mahatma Gandhi when she was a teenager and then gives me a copy of an open letter she has addressed to the prime minister rebutting each of the 23 counts that his home minister had raised in justifying his decision of August 5. She has neither received, nor expects to receive, a reply. But she hopes the points they have raised will somehow find play in Parliament. And, notwithstanding the setback they have received in the High Court, they continue to pin their hopes on the still higher judiciary. In this, they are at one with almost all Kashmiris who rest their hopes for justice on the last resort of the oppressed. And ominously add that, “without justice, there can be no peace”.

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We then dine with Agha Syed Hassan, the Shia leader, who is similarly incarcerated without orders in his residence. His story substantially endorses what we have learned earlier in the day. Next day, we understand from his son, in a telephone conversation, that the family has been severely reprimanded for not having informed the authorities of their visitors who stole in under the cover of darkness.

The police, having been tipped off by now to our presence in their city, arrive at our hotel to inform us that we cannot hold the meeting we have openly convened in a UT where “normalcy”, it is officially claimed, has been restored. My colleague and I have convened similar meetings in Srinagar before, even when the streets were burning. We, therefore, ask for written orders. These are denied. We are told that Srinagar is under Section 144 of the CrPC. In that case, we ask, how is it that groups of Kashmiris were made to meet the foreign envoys who had been in Srinagar just the day prior to our arrival. We add that our meeting has not been convened in a public place but will be held behind closed doors. The police gruffly respond that these are their orders and call in a large posse to both prevent our guests from entering the hotel — and us from leaving the premises. An additional room is taken between my colleague’s room and mine with a stern looking policeman seated on the bed with his AK-whatever in full sight, and the door wide open to check on any one who enters or leaves our rooms. I have heard of “house arrest”. We now find ourselves under yet another novel invention — “hotel arrest”! Moreover, we are told we cannot leave for the airport next morning except under police escort so that a beady eye is kept on our not straying from the “strait and narrow”.

We read, with some amusement, in the newspapers that some of the foreign envoys who went on a pleasant picnic in shikaras on the Dal Lake found “signs of normalcy” on their visit. Perhaps they should have asked the boatmen gliding them along the Dal waters how many tourists they had succeeded in inducing into rides with them since August 5. Perhaps they could have enquired why so many shops on the boulevard were shuttered. Perhaps they should have (if they could have) removed themselves from the gaze of their official minders to share a word with street vendors and ordinary passers-by about what they were experiencing under this new “normalcy”. Perhaps they should have asked those attending to their every need in their posh hotels how the hotel trade was faring. Someone might have told them that the loss is estimated at Rs 250 crore a day in Srinagar alone. Hotel Shahenshah, where we were staying, had only two guests — us.

If, when I was in the foreign service, I had reported to my ambassador after such a trip that I had found “normalcy” in Srinagar, he would have recommended that my further promotions be frozen.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 22, 2020, under the title “In Valley, a reality check”. The writer is a former Union minister.

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