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Mainstream, VOL LX No 30, New Delhi, July 16, 2022

Recent Civilian Killings and Civil Society in Kashmir | Gull Mohammad Wani

Friday 15 July 2022

by Prof Gull Mohammad Wani

Referring to recent spate of civilian killings, the former Chief Minister, Mr. Omer Abdullah considers the failure of PM,s package a personal failure . He was the head of the government that brought employment package and implemented it. Every single person who goes back from here Abdullah considers to be a personal failure. Everything in jammu and Kashmir, he feels need not be weighed in terms of costs and benefits. Frankly, it is not the sentiment of the former Chief Minister alone that needs to be counted, the milkman and vegetable vendor (both Muslims) outside pundit transit colonies share the same empathy for kashmiri pundits. About 30 Muslim students tutored privately by Pundit teachers at Sheikhpora transit colony are also shocked by the ugly happenings. As a member of civil society, I feel somewhat embarrassed by this fresh wave of pundit migration . During the entire process of working out this employment package, civil society played a key role in organizing intercommunity dialogues. Some of these path-breaking sessions were held at Jammu and Srinagar under the auspices of Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR).The bridge-building was done through meetings and brainstorming sessions preparing ground for state sponsored initiatives viz, employment package, transit accommodation for returnees.

Pundit Package

The package was announced in 2008 by the former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh with an objective to create a template for their eventual return and rehabilitation. Six thousand migrant youths were to be given government employment out of which 3000 posts would be funded by state government and remaining 3000 posts by the central government . Additionally a lump sum amount of Rs.7.50 lakhs to build or buy houses of their own or through housing societies were to be paid to anyone who returns to Kashmir.The transit accommodation to the returnee-migrant would be provided till they build/repaired their own houses or arranged alternative provisions .Further there were provisions for self-employment, agricultural and horticultural restoration and one time grant to kith and kin of those killed in militancy. This package emerged out of willingness on the part of pundit community to return to their homes. The Indian state too was looking for ways to heal the wounds. The peace process between India and Pakistan during 2004 to 2012 also supplied brick and motor to this homecoming

However, some Pundit organizations critiqued the PM’s package on several counts. All India kashmiri Samaj ,Delhi based pundit organization attributed the package to a suit they had filed in the Supreme Court praying for fixing responsibility for rise of what they call "Theo -fascism in Kashmir valley". They believe that to counter it the Prime Minister, Dr Singh announced at Akhnoor on April 25, 2008 a major relief for the Pundits. Another Pundit organization based in Jammu critiqued the package as having very subtly tried to dilute the case of pundit migrants and made it as a "secular victimization scenario in Jammu and Kashmir " so that the governments secular credentials remain unchallenged" .Many other groups/organizations clamored for establishment of ’Truth and Reconciliation commission’ and suggested that the onus of creating conducive environment for their meaningful return lies fundamentally on Kashmir civil society. It is in this backdrop that one can recount the contribution of CDR in bridge-building and creating a multilevel dialogue framework which ushered in several confidence building measures.

Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation

The CDR under the indomitable leadership of its Executive Director, Sushabha Barve did a wonderful job in connecting communities, regions and sub-regions in Jammu and Kashmir. Common spaces and initiatives were created whereby it became possible for civil society actors and opinion leaders to share their concerns about the future of the state. Through CDR intercommunity dialogues were held in Kashmir and Jammu and sometimes participants from all communities visited the families of pundits in down town Srinagar who had stayed in Kashmir even after 1990. Under the auspices of CDR a separate platform for women was created to provide space to women whose role in peace building is universally recognized. In these intercommunity dialogues it was realized that we ought to have minimum principles of engagement between communities and it was found necessary that return of Pundits should be delinked from the larger Kashmir conflict. It was felt that Muslim narratives very much reflect the desire of the return of pundits .Additionally the participants also found that there is need for an alternative voice and such getting -together initiatives can help in deconstructing many myths that had grown around the Kashmir issue. The participants had genuine understanding of isolating humanitarian issues from the vested interest that has crept into the conflict. In all these meetings opinion leaders found that there were varied reasons as to why Pundits left the valley in 1990.The explanations for this were not uniform but multi contextual .

After the recent killing of Rahul Bhat and earlier of Makhan Lal Bindroo,a pharmacist who never migrated from the valley, the larger society and people are dumbstruck. The members from Muslim community feel somewhat handcuffed and completely neutralized on the happenings in Kashmir. The President of Kashmir Sangarash Samiti (an organization of those pundits who never migrated from Kashmir) told the correspondent of a national daily recently that "many factors have together created a worrisome situation for the pundits in Kashmir, one of them was the government’s decision to end the role of civil society in Kashmir. In 2010 and 2016 , the civil society in Kashmir stopped many bids at sparking communal tensions .Today the members fear that they will be slapped with the Public Safety Act and the unlawful Activities Act" if they take out their neck from the nest"

Backsliding of Civil Society

A Civil society anywhere and everywhere is integral to the precept and practice of democracy. Prof Neera Chandook claims that the foremost function of civil society is criticality. It has to create spaces from where all undemocratic monopolies can be challenged". We live in a precarious world. According to some reports globally the level of democracy enjoyed by an average citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. Unfortunately India continues to hold to its dubious honor of being classified as "electoral autocracy" by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute. The experts and some institutions can have difference of opinion on such surveys being conducted by foreign institutions on a post-colonial democracy but managers of Indian state are very much wedded to what political scientist Suhas Palsikar describes as a "Barricaded Democracy". While addressing Indian police officers (IPS) probationers at their passing out parade, in Hyderabad on November 11, 2021 National Security Advisor AJit Doval drew their attention to the" frontiers of fourth generation warfare in civil society, which could be subverted, suborned ,divided and manipulated by the enemies of the nation". To Ajit Doval the quintessence of democracy does not lie in the ballot box .It lies in the laws which are made by the people who are elected through the ballot box. The political ideology of the elected executive thus becomes the defining entity for the rule of law".

Keeping in consideration the democratic regression and denting of the institutional arrangement under which democratic forces and organizations operate, it becomes obvious that minorities and vulnerable groups have only to look towards the state for providing safety to them. The character of the state has undergone change and its shift towards majoritarianism has eroded its legitimacy and capacity to work as an efficient/autonomous entity. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to understand the pain and plight of pundits serving in remote parts of the valley purely on the basis of ’peoples trust’. Many explanations are being floated by experts, political leaders and security establishment for the recent killings of pundits. My own remote and informal interaction with a cross section of opinion leads me to draw some tentative conclusions:

First, the present rightwing regime’s total control over Kashmir has eroded the fragile trust between Pundits and Muslims. The abrogation of Article 370 has changed everything in Kashmir. It is no surprise that 520 pundits returned from valley after the abrogation of the article. Second, that Hindu supremacy policy executed by almighty central government has increased the vulnerability of Kashmiri Muslims which in return diluted the mutual trust and confidence. I heard many Kashmiri Muslims saying that Pundits have at least somewhere to go but we Muslims are caged and are encircled on all sides. Third, the two communities and their attitude is marked by growing isolation ,anonymity and distancing from each other. Even some express it with an air of shock that "Eid" and "Shivrarthi" greetings by members of two communities have got considerably reduced which didn’t happen even in 1990. Fourth, the ugly communal tensions and hate in the mainland has impacted the behavior of the local population who increasingly feel disempowered and in line with ideological fire. Fifth, the official promotion of film ’Kashmir Files’ has given a spin to radicalization on all sides. Members of Muslim community refer to a more "radicalized India" shaping their perceptions .The worst thing to happen is when you commercialize the sufferings of communities purely for political and electoral reasons. Sixth, there is a growing realization that Kashmir Muslims have ceased to be a majority .They may still be a demographic majority but in terms of power they stand reduced to a minority. Pertinently, apart from demography it is the power dynamics which is crucial for understanding the position of a community at a given point of time.

The culture of civil society teaches us not to get embarrassed by ones failures, learn from them and start again. A careful, well worked out mechanism for initiating multilevel process of reconciliation for sustainable peace has to be worked out. Meanwhile communities must keep their dialogue channels open and there should be no full stop to mutual cooperation and consultation .We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors , we borrow it from our children . A.C Bouquet, an accomplished expert on comparative religion pointed out" India in particular furnishes within its limits examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution of the religious problem". Gandhi used to say "God has no religion".

(Author: Prof Gull Mohammad Wani teaches political Science at the University of Kashmir)

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