Anxiety in J&K over lockdown period

It is now over 20 days and the average citizen of the nation’s most sensitive border State, Jammu & Kashmir, remains cut off from friends, relatives and the rest of the world. Landlines have begun working but the restoration appears to be slow. There is no word on when the restrictions will be fully lifted. It’s a process of one step forward, two steps backward (or the reverse), amid huge uncertainty, anxiety and stress for the ordinary people. The restrictions began with the week of Aug. 5, when the day changes to Article 370 were introduced and the special status accorded to the State came to an end. From then to now, there is an official account that says things in the Valley are normal, that there have been no protests and that shops are well-stocked. The reality that is emerging is very different.

Movement is heavily restricted. Many have been injured in cases of pellets fired by the authorities. People are angry. How long will the BJP government and Governor Satya Pal Malik keep the people in their homes? This clearly is one more action of the government with little planning other than the use of blunt and naked force. It didn’t matter how things unfolded in the State because, as the Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said, “As a legislator, I firmly believe Article 370 should've been removed long ago. As a minister, there was no confusion in my mind about the consequences of removing Article 370.” This is as close as one can get to saying that the merits of the action do not matter, the pros and cons need not be studied and a mind that is made up must act, irrespective of the consequences of the action. The latest news is that the J&K flag, which used to fly along with the Indian tricolour, has been removed from the J&K civil secretariat, the seat of the local government.

Movement is heavily restricted. Many have been injured in cases of pellets fired by the authorities. People are angry. How long will the BJP government and Governor Satya Pal Malik keep the people in their homes? This clearly is one more action of the government with little planning other than the use of blunt and naked force.

The symbolic action reinforces the marks of a conquest. Like all actions that do not involve the people of J&K, this is one more to a list that will make it more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the people and help bring back a democratic form of government. That will be the ultimate test of whether J&K is back to normal and has found its place, dignity and respect in the Indian Union. But only a week before the J&K flag was discarded, activists in faraway Karnataka raised a banner of protest on the hot topic of jobs, by hoisting the Karnataka flag to demand jobs in the State, in the private and the public sector, be reserved for Kannadigas. One important comment from the organisation that led the protest: “We have done this to register our protest against gradual erosion of federalism in the country robbing States of their autonomy. We are Kannadigas first and then Indians. India is a country made up of States and not the other way around.”

The statement brings to focus not only the pressure on jobs and the weakening economy but also the gap between rising regional aspirations and declining opportunities, more so when attention shifts from managing economic affairs to managing strife and discord. It is only a question of time before new sets of protestors across the nation begin to ask new questions about the autonomy and power of the States under our federal structure. Talking of unintended consequences, we wanted a tighter embrace with J&K but what we may risk is a weaker, poorer and a strained relationship with the States in general.

The Congress party along with other Opposition leaders have at last begun speaking up on the situation and particularly on the harsh restrictions placed on the people of Jammu & Kashmir. The party is of course politically too weak at this stage but the visit of Rahul Gandhi to J&K following the invitation of the Governor and the fact that he was not allowed out of the airport tell their own tale of the state of affairs. While the government’s anxiety can be understood, the fact remains that the lack of leadership in the State (all leaders are under detention), the mistrust with the authorities and the frustration of a population under lockdown make for a dangerous mix that can bring explosive consequences.  There are no worthwhile channels of communications with representatives of the people. So how will normalcy be restored? In any disturbance, the authorities can offer some help, some support and some cover. But without the participation of the ordinary people through a local set of leaders who carry credibility, no peace process can be initiated, let alone be effective or enduring.

While the government’s anxiety can be understood, the fact remains that the lack of leadership in the State (all leaders are under detention), the mistrust with the authorities and the frustration of a population under lockdown make for a dangerous mix that can bring explosive consequences.  There are no worthwhile channels of communications with representatives of the people. So how will normalcy be restored? In any disturbance, the authorities can offer some help, some support and some cover. But without the participation of the ordinary people through a local set of leaders who carry credibility, no peace process can be initiated, let alone be effective.

There is also the question of where the nation and its institutions have moved with the movements in J&K. Take the media. There was a time the BBC and some international media had greater standing among Indian audiences than Indian media did. That time has come back again, particularly in the light of reporting in Kashmir. As a student, the first I heard that Raj Narain had defeated Indira Gandhi in Rae Bareli in 1977 was from the BBC Hindi bulletin. It’s irrelevant if Indian media reported it earlier than the BBC. It was the BBC that stood out. All of this changed with the passing of the Emergency. As journalists from the post-Emergency era, we saw and became a part of a robust reporting pool that had learned to be sceptical of the establishment. Over time, with the magazine boom and later the television boom, news read out and written out and videoed by Indian journalists working for Indian papers, channels and agencies came into its own and the international agencies were less relevant in India. Now, it’s back to reading about Kashmir through Reuters and BBC and the others. They appear to have the story better, faster and more on the ground. This is a huge fall not only for the media but also for the nation. 

In the end, what must be understood is that no law or provision in the constitution can guarantee freedom though the time may have come to debate the "reasonable restrictions" imposed on freedom guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution. It was Dr. B R Ambedkar who had noted: “However good a Constitution may be, if those who are implementing it are not good, it will prove to be bad. However bad a Constitution may be, if those implementing it are good, it will prove to be good.”

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)