By Ritu Sharma*
The Indian Government has been for long using elections as an indicator of normalcy in Kashmir. But, if the Urban Local Bodies elections in the Valley after a gap of 13 years are anything to go by, it explicitly points towards a shrinking democratic space. The exercise of democracy primarily driven by the older generation is being seen as irrelevant by the youngsters, who are opting for ‘virtual militancy’ to protest against injustices – both real and perceived.
The Centre has been smug for being able to organise the municipal polls after more than a decade. The mainstream regional parties have stayed away from the elections and in a sad reminder of the 1990s, in many places people have disassociated themselves from the elections by making announcement through mosques. The result has been that in the four phases of the Municipal Elections 2018 held in Kashmir, the voting percentage has failed to touch double digits.
The apathy of the Centre has been reflected in this administrative response to the political aspiration of the youth in the valley. It could not have been more apparent as Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik talked about a “foreign educated person becoming Srinagar mayor” even before the polling started.
The arrogance with which the Central government has reacted to the boycott by the mainstream parties of Kashmir, has only made the parties more redundant in the conflict matrix. The space has now been ceded to the separatists and militants. The “hot pursuit” policy of the security forces is seen in the echelons of power to have been paying dividends with militants being killed every other day. While it is understood that killing of a person, who has picked up gun, is inevitable; the number of casualties suffered by the security forces have also spiked. So far 71 security personnel and 54 civilians have been killed in these encounters.
The Indian Government has a bigger challenge at hand that it will be coming face to face sooner than later. The latest census says 63 per cent of the valley’s male residents are under the age of 30 and 70 per cent are below the age of 35. For these youngsters participation in democracy has become undignified and the narrative of dignity in death has become alluring. The age group from 17-25 years is the recruitment age for militants in Kashmir. It is not ideology, but an age against India. In such a scenario, the question that needs to be asked is not how many militants have been killed but, how many new militants are being created.
In an uncanny similarity to the 1990s, scores of teenagers are running away from their homes to pick up guns. But, what is different this time is that instead of remaining in hiding, the first thing they do is post their photographs in military fatigues and brandishing guns on social media. Most of them well educated have died at the hands of security forces without committing any act. However, the Indian Government is repeating the mistakes of the early years of insurgency by constantly ignoring the frustration of the young generation. The need of the hour is to prevent militancy and not just killing militants.
The Indian Government has to understand that the Kashmir unrest has been passed on to the fourth generation, which has no stakes in the democracy and they are a generation of rebels with low tolerance for injustice. They are a generation that has not seen normalcy and are not afraid of bullets. Hence, the situation demands a change in strategy. The stand of ‘No talks’ have resulted in the number of militants going up from the all-time low of 78 in 2013 to nearly 360 in 2018. And the spike in number is despite the fact that since January 1, 2018 a total number of around 170 terrorists/infiltrators have been eliminated in the State so far.
The Narendra Modi-led government needs to realise that the show of brute strength in Kashmir might endear it to the non-Kashmiri population, but it would push the present Kashmiri generation to a point of no return. Framing of the Kashmir conundrum as ‘Hindu India vs Muslim Kashmir’ and branding all aspirations of Kashmiris as ‘anti-national’ has resulted in this impasse. The first step is the age-old advice that peace practitioners have been giving – talk, even though no solution might be in sight in immediate future. The template for this has already been presented by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – ‘Insaniyat, Jamooriyat and Kashmiriyat’ (Humanity, democracy and Kashmiriat).
Secondly, stop projecting every episode of discontent in the Valley as grand design of dismembering the country that further inflames hatred in the rest of India against Kashmir. The hatred has denied the mainstream political parties the elbow room to conduct politics that sometimes would involve paying platitudes to the aspirations of the Kashmiris. To simplify, a Tamil politician would sometime give statements that would be in contravention to the national policy. The Union Government many a times has accommodated their concerns about the Tamilians in Sri Lanka or pay heed to their reservation against Hindi as national language. Hence, now is time for the government to salvage democracy and save the political structure from collapsing.
Salvaging democracy would entail devolution of power to local level. For a society aspiring for autonomy, granting of some power would be a bigger confidence building measures. Also peaceful protests by people should be allowed to happen as the Supreme Court has rightly articulated that protests are safety valve for democracy. We are denying the young population of Kashmir of any means to vent their angers or frustration. They are arrested for venting their anger on social media, Public Safety Act is slapped against them for stone-pelting or for attending the funeral of slain militants. The expansion of democratic space would not result in shrinking of separatist politics in Kashmir or resolution of India’s problem with Pakistan. This would have to be dealt with over a period of time. The first step now is cool down the tempers both in the valley and the rest of the India.
*Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for nearly a decade covering defence and security issues. She has worked with the Press Trust of India, The New Indian Express and the Indo-Asian News Service. She has done her Masters in Conflict Studies from Germany and is presently in Kashmir to research for her book.