Paradise on Boil

S Zafar Mehdi Safvi

The horrible fears have after all come true. Alas! MK Gandhi’s ‘glimmer of hope’ was not to last any longer. It’s Jammu vs. Kashmir no-holds-barred showdown. Regional and religious sentiments, coupled with parochial and chauvinistic interests rule the roast currently, while the grand old edifice of Kashmiriyat has been reduced to rubble. The superior concepts of secularism, communal amity and brotherhood have been nipped into the bud. The state which had stood the harsh tests of time, remaining unaffected by the mad communal frenzy even during Partition days has ultimately fallen into the vicious trap of vested interests, who have always been hell-bent on tarnishing our rich social and cultural fabric and out to disintegrate state on sectarian lines. Regrettably their iniquitous and wicked designs managed to hit the arrow bang on this time. Such a long-standing and bloody impasse has been unprecedented in the long chequered history of Kashmir, eclipsing even the bigger legendary Hazratbal controversy of bygone period, aftermath of Maqbool Bhat’s execution in 80’s and outbreak of secessionist movement in early 90’s. Precious lives have been lost, and incalculable collateral damage reported. More significantly, the notions of communal harmony, inter-religious tolerance, brotherhood, and peace have failed the litmus test, and stand shaken. ‘Jam-Kash’ unity has suffered a brutal blow, almost beyond repair. And, pitiably enough, we gave in so cheaply to the impious designs of our enemies and enemies of our state.

Who actually pulled the trigger to this mess? ‘It was started by Sangh parivar,’ notes veteran political commentator Balraj Puri, reminding that now ‘neither politicians nor administration can control it. It has become a popular upsurge’. (Mail today, 9/8/08). Puri puts the blame squarely on saffron brigade for triggering this gory cauldron. Now as the ground reality suggests, it has snowballed into a full-blown communal war between two warring sister provinces and more importantly between two communities. It is assuming alarming proportions with each passing day.

It’s no more about Congress vs. BJP turf wars or BJP vs. Kashmiri regional parties; it’s more about Jammu vs. Kashmir face-off across political and communal spectrum. Many slender lines have got blurred, as prides are at stake. Many Congress and NC leaders from Jammu are openly throwing their weight behind saffron forces like BJP, RSS, VHP etc, even if that means flouting the party lines and annoying high commands in 10 Janpath and Nawai Subh complex respectively.

Similarly in Kashmir, politicians from mainstream arena are rather audaciously humming the separatist tunes, and pledging support to their every move. Notwithstanding their chalk-and-cheese ideologies and political affiliations, they have all assembled under same umbrella currently, to show their solidarity with people. Never mind their petty political gains, brazen vote-bank politics, obviously with eye on the upcoming Assembly polls in state.

But amidst this entire din, no one bothers to reason out whose pride is actually at stake, and who stands to gain from this whirlpool of brutality and anarchy. To crack this ‘Da Vinci code’, let’s trace the sequence of events that led us to this impasse.

Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was constituted on Feb 21, 2001 by J & K government, for the smooth conduct of Amarnath yatra (pilgrimage). It carried out its task admirably, without any fuss for many years. Then after a long while, all of a sudden, a novel bug struck then Governor S K Sinha (also chairman of SASB). Earlier he asked for extension in yatra duration, which was granted. Then he wanted huge mass of Government land for construction of facilities for yatris. This time he got it terribly wrong. But, he was adamant on getting the deal inked IN SASB’s favor. So after constant persuasion by SASB, backed enthusiastically by Sangh brigade, state government had permitted SASB use of forestland on May 29, 05. Not by a sheer co-incidence, Shrine Board’s CEO was Governor’s personal secretary, and Forest department’s principal Secretary was CEO’s wife. CEO’s wife in capacity of being Principal Secretary of forest department had granted permission to SASB on May 29, 05 to use forestland for pilgrimage. But as eminent civil rights activist Gautam Navlakha notes,’ It was not in accordance with provision of J & K Forest Conservation Act 97, so state government later withdrew the order’ (Economic and Political weekly, July 26, 08). Later SASB moved the court and Division bench of High Court stayed the withdrawal. In between, Governor Sinha, also then chairman of SASB shot the letter to Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Beigh, seeking 400 acres land for Amarnath Development Authority. On June 03, government eventually but hastily transferred 100 acres land to SASB; even though Beigh later publicly admitted to have been ‘blackmailed’ into giving his approval. (Indian Express, July 16, 08)

Then, on June 17, Governor’s notorious Principal Secretary and SASB CEO kicked up a storm by declaring land ‘diversion’ as ‘permanent’. It drew scathing criticism from all quarters. More importantly it brought the two estranged Hurriyat factions together, and they found the time apt to bury their hatchet and leave all differences aside for the cause of motherland. They constituted a joint coordination committee and vowed to fight tooth and nail against what they termed ‘land-grabbing’ by Govt. They launched a stir across valley with main thrust on the environmental impact that the controversial land-transfer deal would have. Soon, as tempers ran hot and high, pent-up sentiments came into play. However their actual argument merits serious consideration.

Amarnath Yatra has never faced any threat from any section of Kashmiri society, nor from militants. In fact Kashmiri Muslims have stood by Hindu Yatris (pilgrims) through thick and thin for decades. So yatra isn’t the cause of worry, but granting huge chunks of land and paving way for more environmental hazards certainly is. As any environmentalist or ecologist would approve, it poses grave challenges to the ecology of the area, which is the route to some top tourist destinations. As Naulakha stresses, ‘Environmental damage caused is enormous. Yatris defecate on the banks of Lidder River and throw tones of non-degradable items like polythene, plastic bags, into the river, resulting in deteriorating quality of water’. He also points to the threat it poses to local inhabitation there, ‘Also, threat to local inhabitants from crowding of ecological fragile area where they have to compete to retain their access and rights to resources, both water and land’ (E & PW, 26 July 08).

Hurriyat leaders in the meantime managed to mobilize the tremendous support of Kashmiris, and thus a mini-revolution kicked off in valley against ‘land-grabbing’ by the government. It was a kind of strand that pulled together farmers, laborers, students, lawyers, activists, businessmen, employees, and you name it. Violence erupted soon after, leading to deaths unarmed protestors. As valley was already on boil, Jammu began its tryst with counter-stir. Azad administration caught in catch-22, finally decided to revoke the deal in favor of voices in Kashmir. But not before, its ally PDP already sealed his government’s fate. Hopping mad by the Volta-face of the government on land-transfer deal, saffron forces in Jammu resorted to extreme steps—blocking the Srinagar-Jammu highway, and cutting the essential supplies to valley. With economic blockade, they virtually declared war against Kashmir. Situation took ugly turn in Jammu when one of the agitators committed suicide, out of desperation. Jummuites went berserk thereafter, attacking local Muslims and Kashmiri truck drivers at will, besides razing down Mosques and other Muslim structures. Police virtually gave them free hand to commit grave communal crimes. RSS’s Tilak Raj Sharma, who spearheads Amarnath Sangarsh Samiti called it a ‘do-or-die agitation’, whose final outcome would be ‘trifurcation of state into neat communal compartments of Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh’ (Mail Today, Aug 09, 08). At centre, Hindutva veterans resorted to their customary vitriolic and venomous campaign against Muslims. LK Advani gave a green signal to saffron cadres at a rally in capital, exhorting them to launch an agitation against ‘anti-Hindu’ mindset of UPA govt. He asked them to gear up for ‘do-or-die agitation’ and supports the ‘courageous’ people of Jammu.

Terming the wanton communal carnage in Jammu by saffron fanatics as act of ‘courage’, it didn’t even provoke so-called civil rights activists in capital to give him a mouthful. And, coming from a prime-ministerial contender, it says a lot about the hyped-about plank of secularism in this largest democracy.

Things spiraled out of joint when separatists after getting an unlikely supporter in PDP called for ‘Muzaffarbad march’ to protest against economic blockade by Hindutva fanatics. Scores of protestors were killed, including a senior Hurriyar leader Sheikh Aziz, when police and paramilitary troops resorted to indiscriminate fire on protestors. But People defied curfew call and braved all odds to turn up for the march. Separatists from Mirwaiz to Sajjad Lone vehemently denounced the economic blockade of valley by Saffron forces in Jammu, terming it an ‘act of war’. Social and trade organizations and student unions like JKCCS, CCIK, KHAROF, Trade Union Centre, KU Students, and Kashmir Pandit Sangarsh Samiti fully backed the ‘Muzaffarabad chalo’ call by Separatists. Though politicians at Centre called the economic blockade as ‘myth’, it didn’t mask the truth, which eventually made its way into international community. It was apparent with New York Times running a headline ‘ deadly force used to halt march in Kashmir’ on Aug 12. Other widely read foreign papers like Guardian, Washington Post; LA Times followed the suit.

Now as the situation prevails on ground, it looks due for a long haul. Deep religious fault lines have developed, sectarian split has widened and the virus of regionalism has spread its tentacles all across. Every politically correct actor has determinedly tried to cash in on this crisis to reap petty political dividends ahead of Assembly polls. In Kashmir, PDP has been a vocal cheerleader for anti-deal lobby represented by Hurriyat. But, it’s also pertinent to note that it was PDP leader and then Forest Minister Qazi Afzal, who had given thumbs up to the land-transfer deal, and that, would not have been possible without the blessings of Big Boss Mufti. Besides him, other signatory was senior PDP leader Muzaffar Beigh, then Azad’s deputy. Beigh says he was ‘blackmailed’, while party boss Mehbooba goes a step further saying, his ministers ‘misled the party’ on the details of deal. Cheap talk this! National conference may have played second fiddle role in this anti-deal rhetoric but its leaders Omar Abdullah, Rahim Rather have been vocal about party’s stand. But their maverick patron Senior Abdullah had ruffled many a feathers when he demanded return of land to SASB, although soon following it up with a corrigendum. Omar meanwhile has stepped up the tempo, threatening to resign from Parliament in case violence against Kashmiris doesn’t end. The same person who declared himself in an emotional outburst to be a proud Indian in parliament not too long ago is today questioning the claim of New Delhi that Kashmir is India’s ‘atoot ang’. Customary Double-speak this!

Congress finds itself in a precarious situation. It is the chief protagonist in this reality-show. Siding with Jammu people at this juncture would mean annoying the Kashmiri vote-bank (if there is still any!), and standing by Kashmiris would be akin to inviting wrath of Jammu voters (the traditional bastion of Congress). So Azad and company have decided to refrain from swimming in troubled waters.

Separatists meanwhile have made maximum out of this stalemate. They have shot back into limelight and struck emotional chord with hyper-sentimental Kashmiris. Leading the charge from front in these trying times, they have rightfully emerged as torchbearers of the movement. It has also refreshed the memories of early 90’s, when young boys would daringly pour out on streets in defiance of draconian norms. More importantly the present cauldron has managed to break the ice in separatist camp, with two estranged factions calling peace with each other. Azadi chants are again reverberating in air, international spotlight is back on Kashmir, and popular support in valley has swung back in favor of separatists. Mirwaiz faction seems to have made peace with militant outfits, Geelani though has emerged as an unlikely hero, and Yasin Malik has again shown by example why he is different from rest of the flock. Lastly Shaheed Sheikh Aziz has given fresh fillip to the freedom movement, and further strengthened the resolve of those who fight for it.

In Jammu too, politicians of all hues across party lines have vowed their support to pro-transfer deal agitation, spearheaded by Saffron brigade. These include prominent leaders from Congress, Panthers Party and N. C. But the potent force remains Saffron lobby represented by BJP, RSS, VHP, Bajranj Dal, et al. They have cashed in on this crisis to regain the lost ground in Jammu, and wipe away Congress from the region ahead of Assembly polls. They have unleashed a reign of terror on Muslims there and resorted to grave crimes, which is not unlikely of them. Double standards have again been at play. While in Kashmir protestors were beaten with disdain for breaking the orders, and fired on indiscriminately, and even faced raids at nights (in downtown Srinagar areas); while in Jammu, agitators were literally given free hand to indulge in mindless violence. Hence little wonder, just 2 were killed in Jammu in 20 days of chakka-jam protests, while the toll has crossed 30 in valley in just a week. In valley not even a single case of attack on local Hindus and Pandits has come to fore, while in Jammu, local Muslims have gone through hell in last few weeks, forcing them to migrate to safe places outside the region. These hindutva fanatics have played havoc with the rich cultural and communal fabric of our state. As Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti president Sanjay Tickoo maintains, ‘Amarnath Yatra is being used as a tool by some elements in Jammu to fulfill their own interests’. That merits a serious thought.

Centre meanwhile has gone pitifully bang in hammering out a solution to this crisis. Government’s trouble-shooters are cooling their heels elsewhere. Government had dispatched Art of Living guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as peace emissary, to discuss a way out of the current crisis with Hurriyat hawk SAS Geelani. But he went back dejected, as expected. Arya Samaj leader Swami Agvinesh also came calling on the septuagenarian leader, and hailed Hurriyat as ‘sole representative body’ of Kashmiris. That must have created flutters in New Delhi. All part delegation from center headed by Home Minister Shivraj Patil spent two grueling days trying to hammer out a solution but in vain. It’s reported that Sangarsh Samiti’s demands-3r formula led to failed talks: removal of governor, transfer of Baltal land, and removal of army from Jammu which didn’t find favor with delegation members.

As of now, return to normalcy looks a distant dream. With no solution in sight, and no camp willing to budge even an inch from their stands, the crisis is due for a long haul. Hope the better sense prevails. While politicians only stand to gain from this bloody cauldron, it’s the pride and honor of state and its people that is at stake. God save my troubled land.

The author studies Human Rights at Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. Feedback can be sent to [email protected].

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