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The authorities in Kashmir rarely miss an opportunity to alienate the people of the Valley. In an appalling incident last week, the Jammu and Kashmir Police stopped a public lecture at a hotel by a noted historian, Mridu Rai. Ms Rai was due to deliver an annual lecture in the memory of Pandit Raghunath Vaishnavi, a political figure of the 1950s, but the police invoked Section 144, which prevents the assembly of people and blocked the event. According to the organisers, the police threatened to seal the hotel if the lecture was held within its premises. This is a shocking infringement of freedom of expression and assembly and it only confirms the belief of Kashmiris that the civil liberties that the rest of India takes for granted are not always extended to Jammu and Kashmir.
The Valley has been relatively quiet in recent years but it is no measure of persisting disaffection with New Delhi, which these incidents can only worsen. The events of 2010 still loom large in Kashmir’s imagination. More than 120 youth were killed that summer when security forces fired on stone-throwing demonstrators. The previous UPA government recognised Kashmir to be a unique political problem that needed a “unique solution” but it neither initiated a political process to address the Valley’s aspirations nor addressed its everyday concerns. Far from the national glare, Kashmir lives on with its own set of peculiar but vivid indignities. More than 6,000 people were arrested after the 2010 protests. Regular forms of political expression are not usually on view. Student politics is discouraged, civil liberties activists are sent back from Srinagar airport while even moderate separatist leaders are prevented from taking out protest rallies. And now history lectures by accomplished historians are considered a threat.
The authorities must reflect whose interest these unsavoury tactics serve. All they do is tar India’s reputation and invite international ridicule and censure. Getting a police force to break up a history lecture is hardly consistent with plans to instil respect for democratic norms among State actors. Kashmiris are liable to wonder what forms of agency they can be entitled to if they cannot even candidly discuss their past. The State would do well to remember that illiberal practices are habit-forming and ultimately counterproductive. Denying spaces for dissent damages a democracy inherently and it sows trouble for the future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said recently that he wished “to win the hearts and minds of the people of J&K”. He must firmly indicate to the security establishment that this is no way to do so.