|Is the presence of so many Indian troops the real thorn in Kashmir’s side? [Credit: Showkat Shafi]|
It is a rare August in Kashmir. For the first time in three summers, it is business as usual on the streets of Srinagar. Around this time last year, stone-pelting young men were in a face-off with armed security forces. Every day, the death of at least one young protestor made the headlines. Then by mid-September it all came to a head.
That is when I got the call. Can you be on a plane to New Delhi in about four hours? From there the crew and I would make our way to Srinagar.
So as I packed, I called home to let my Indian mother know I was heading out of Kuala Lumpur. She forbade me to go to Kashmir. The conflict has dominated most of her life, and to her it was worse than going to Kabul or Baghdad.
The Indian government seemed to comply with her wishes. At the height of the violence, I arrived in New Delhi only to be told there was no way of getting into Srinagar. Flights were cancelled, borders were closed and areas were under a strict 24-hour curfew.
Thirty-six hours later there was a partial lifting of the travel ban and we were on a flight from New Delhi. But by that time, according to Human Rights Watch, 112 protestors had been killed by Indian security forces.
I was also in Kashmir in December 2008 when elections were held. For the voting period there were 700,000 troops maintaining order according to the Indian government. The elections were hailed as the most peaceful in Kashmir’s history.
After that, any dissent in Kashmir was mostly hushed or ignored. The next time the Indian government would pay full attention to the enclave was in September 2010, after blood was spilt on the streets – and the whole world was watching.
‘Shocked and distressed’
On September 15, 2010, Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, said he was “shocked and distressed”. Days later he dispatched a delegation of politicians, headed by P. Chidambaram, India’s minister of home affairs.
Amid much fanfare they went to Srinagar to attend lots of meetings. They ignored the ubiquitous barbed wire. They were not fazed by the armed paramilitary dominating the empty streets, nor the checkpoints located at every few metres. It did not matter that the average Kashmiri was effectively still under house arrest – kept at home by a 24-hour curfew. Instead, the team of well-meaning politicians held talks with various carefully picked social and political groups.
After days of talks the government decided to set up interlocutors – civil society people who would engage with a cross-section of Kashmiri society. Over the past few months they have been collecting grievances. They will be making their recommendations officially known sometime towards the end of this year.
Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch says the process has credibility and that the interlocutors have already made some fairly strong recommendations regarding human rights, including releasing those detained for participating in protests last year.
But, she says, the problem, the thorn in Kashmir’s side, remains – the Indian security forces. Armed to the teeth, the uniformed men patrol the streets day and night looking for so-called suspicious activity. They are seen as oppressive and known to abuse their power. It is not unusual for young men to ‘disappear’ after being questioned by them.
Under current laws, army officers in Indian-controlled Kashmir can search homes and make arrests without warrants. They can shoot anyone suspected of being a separatist and can blow up a building or a home if they think insurgents are using it.
Zahid G Muhammad is a Kashmiri columnist and contributor for various international publications. He has also taken part in dialogues on a solution to the Kashmir conflict. At the turn of this year, he wrote: “I see peace for 2011. I see no city, colony, town, village wrapped up in concertina, spools of razor wires, barbwire, with thousands of helmeted, gun toting soldiers. I see no caged life for me.”
That was soon after the delegation put forward an eight-point programme for peace. But he now says that none of those points were implemented and his vision has not been realised.
‘Enforced surface calm’
True, this summer is a calm one. But that is mainly due to fatigue and a lack of will to disrupt daily life and stir up the wrath of the security forces. Separatists and Kashmiri politicians have not been calling for protests and have instead been telling people to go about their business as usual as much as possible. And the average Kashmiri does not want to lose out on the summer tourist season this year. It is one of the few times of the year when they can make a proper living.
But do not let the quiet fool you. Sankarshan Thakur, a Kashmir expert and editor of the Indian newspaper The Telegraph, says he gets nervous when little is heard from the territory. He says that on the face of it, Kashmir is much more peaceful, but to him it is alarming, because when there is talk of peace in Kashmir, something happens to shatter it.
As for the delegation that came and went, Thakur says there has been no movement on the fundamental issues since their visit.
Mehbooba Mufti, the leader of Kashmir’s Peoples Democratic Party, who talked at length with the delegation last year, perhaps sums it up best in her brief blackberry message to me. She says: “Nothing much has changed except an enforced surface calm.”