Why jailing Kashmir’s leaders is wrong, undemocratic and unwise, writes Barkha Dutt
We live in an age of dwindling attention spans and shrinking public memory. So, we may have already forgotten that moment from August in 2018 when Farooq Abdullah, the patriarch of Jammu and Kashmir politics, raised both his arms and invited the audience to chant with him: “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. He was speaking at a memorial to commemorate the late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For raising these slogans, he was heckled by separatists when he went home to Srinagar. He stood by what he had said.
This octogenarian former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir has, in the past, also told Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani president, where to get off, and passionately opposed the release of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, during the hijacking of IC-814.
Whatever his other flaws may be — and like dozens of others of our elected representatives, Farooq Abdullah has many — in a state plagued by secessionist and extremist politics, you cannot accuse him of not having stood with India.
It’s now been six months since he, along with other former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, has been arrested. All three face charges under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA).
Enough has been said about the absurdity of using the PSA against prominent mainstream politicians. The dossiers against them are unconvincing, and seem hastily put together. The PSA is obviously an ex-post-facto excuse to keep them and their party workers away from political activity. In one dossier against former Peoples Democratic Party minister Naeem Akhar, the charges include criticism of the home minister Amit Shah. Omar Abdullah is considered a threat to public safety because he is able to get the vote out during the peak of militancy. And that Mehbooba Mufti was “Daddy’s girl” was considered a problem till the police chief explained that this was not part of the final official order, and such language should not have been used in police documents.
A serving government employee I met in Srinagar told me that, with the arrests, Delhi had shown the mainstream politicians “their place”. “Now everyone knows how little they matter. It’s clear that the government in Delhi can just lock them up in a cage whenever they wish.”
But that there is little mass outrage on the streets of Srinagar against the political detentions should not be an I-told-you-so moment for the BJP. In fact it should be a matter of great concern. Most ordinary Kashmirs now believe that elected representatives in the Valley have no authority— and worse — no dignity or standing in India’s political hierarchy. Even those who were once lauded by the BJP, like former civil service exam topper Shah Faesal, have been booked under the PSA. Sajad Lone, who called Narendra Modi his brother, and whose party has been an electoral ally of the BJP, was also locked away.
The Modi government may want to believe that it can foster a new Kashmir polity. But at the moment, the vacuum and messaging has only emboldened the separatists and the jihadis. The abject humiliation of those who have chosen to participate in the electoral process has left the separatists and the jihadis and their supporters with the last laugh.
This has little to do with the worthiness or performance of these leaders. And yes, there may be an element of karmic irony in the detentions, as many Kashmiris point out. The PSA, which permits detention for up to two years without trial, has been weaponised against hundreds of Kashmiris on the watch of administrations helmed by some of the detained leaders. In 2010, when the streets erupted in clashes between the paramilitary and protesters and more than a 100 young men were killed, Omar Abdullah’s government, for instance, used the PSA against more than 600 individuals.
But while that may trigger some petty schadenfreude, it does not in any way make these detentions either morally correct or politically useful from India’s point of view. The government can offer many explanations for its decisions in Kashmir— a complex history, a desire to integrate the country under one law, Pakistan’s patronage of terrorism, the misuse of social media by terror groups — but it cannot find a single rational or intelligible reason to explain the detentions of those who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution. And if, indeed, the situation on the ground has improved enough for foreign envoys to visit, how or why should anyone be scared of normal political activity, including peaceful protests against the abrogation of Article 370?
The prolonged detention of Kashmiri politicians is not just anti-democratic, it is against India’s interests. It is, to borrow from the right-wing, anti-national .