Saturday, August 7, 2010

Kashmir: Echoes from 20 years ago

When columns of the Indian Army drove through Srinagar on July 7, rifles pointed out at the city, it was meant as a show of force; to tell its 'mutinous' population -- and those watching elsewhere -- just who was really in charge. Disconcertingly for the Indian government, it has had the opposite effect. Alarm bells have been sounding off: the situation in Kashmir is again explosive; the lid looks ready to blow off. Although the army has for years virtually controlled rural Kashmir, images of grim-faced soldiers on a 'flag-march' in Srinagar carried a different symbolism. For Srinagar has been the exception -- the showpiece of 'normalcy', of a possible return to the bosom of India's accommodating heart. Typically, the well-publicised entry of the soldiers was followed by a flurry of obtuse clarifications: the army was not taking over Srinagar; this was not a flag-march, only a 'movement of a convoy'; yes, it was a flag-march, but only in the city's 'periphery'. The contradictions seemed to stem from a reluctance to deal with the elephant in the room: after more than 15 years, the army had once again been called out to stem civil unrest in Srinagar.
When the Indian Army was deployed in Kashmir during the 1990s, the rebellion seemed to be fast spinning out of India's control. Twenty years later, what has changed? There is now a massive investment in a 'security grid', built with more than 500,000 security personnel and shored up by a formidable intelligence network, said to involve some 100,000 people. The armed militancy, too, has officially been contained. Meanwhile, the exercise of 'free and fair' elections has been carried out to persuade the world that democracy has indeed returned to Kashmir. (Elections certainly delivered the young and telegenic Omar Abdullah as chief minister; but about democracy, Kashmiris will be less sanguine. They will recognise it the day the military columns and camps are gone from the valley.) Yet July was haunted by echoes of the early years of the tehreek, the movement for self-determination. As a brutally imposed lockdown curfew entered its fourth day, there was no safe passage past the paramilitary checkpoints not for ambulances, not for journalists. For those four days, Srinagar's newspapers were not published; local cable channels were restricted to just 10 minutes a day, and still had to make time for official views. SMS services remained blocked the entire month; in some troubled towns, cell-phone services were completely discontinued.But Srinagar still reverberated with slogans every night, amplified from neighbourhood mosques: 'Hum kya chahte? Azadi!' (What do we want? Freedom!) and 'Go back, India! Go back!'

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