Locals stare at long road to normalcy
As Kashmir reels from an unprecedented lockdown for a ninth day on Tuesday and many families struggle to procure basic necessities or reach loved ones, there is much consternation about what lies ahead for the Valley’s five million people on three fronts -- politics, economy and security.Updated: Aug 14, 2019 00:47 IST
Two events six months apart have shaken Nazir Ahmad Magrey’s life: The suicide bombing on February 14 that killed 40 paramilitary troopers barely 100 metres from his two-storey house overlooking the Jhelum; and the revoking of Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu & Kashmir, on August 5.
The bomb attack – he initially thought it was a plane crash -- blew out his windows and shook the frame of his house, bringing the spectre of terror to his doorstep. He was questioned by the local police and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) after the strike that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
The nullification of Article 370, too, ratcheted up bilateral tensions. But Magray fears it can have very personal ramifications: the pulverisation of his fledging timber business and the bottoming out of the local economy that has the potential to hurt young men and women like his son, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in business administration.
“I fear that in 20 years big industries will take over my business by procuring cheaper raw material from India and selling at lower rates. And, if there is increased competition for jobs, it will only increase despondency among young boys like my son. It may trigger a spike in militancy,” he said, venting his disappointment with the mainstream politicians from the Valley who failed to secure the “gift” of Article 370.
As Kashmir reels from an unprecedented lockdown for a ninth day on Tuesday and many families struggle to procure basic necessities or reach loved ones, there is much consternation about what lies ahead for the Valley’s five million people on three fronts -- politics, economy and security.
Since the early hours of August 5, politics has been operating in a vacuum in the Valley – with three former chief ministers, prominent leaders of the National Conference (NC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and at least 500 political workers detained at unspecified locations. But among many locals, there is little sympathy for mainstream politicians, who are seen to have failed to safeguard Kashmir’s interests.
“These politicians have failed us, betrayed us. What was their use?” asked Bashir Ahmed, a businessman in Anantnag district’s Bijbehara town, considered a stronghold of the Mufti party that controls the PDP. Other voices in Pulwama and Awantipora underlined disappointment in elected leadership and growing support for “Azaadi”.
The biggest mass protest since India clamped curfew-like restrictions last week in old Srinagar’s Soura last Friday had people chanting Azadi slogans, waving black flags and shouting “India go back” – and the sentiment is carried by a section of those aligned with the administration. “My job is to follow orders and I am doing that. But that doesn’t mean I am not angry or hurt. Kashmir doesn’t seem like ours anymore,” said a J&K police constable on condition of anonymity.
“The move has hurt those who used to carry India’s flag in the Valley, their space has been squeezed,” said Altaf Hussain, a Srinagar-based political commentator.
What is adding to this sentiment is the widely held view that the redrawing of constituency boundaries – necessitated because the erstwhile state will be broken up into two Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir with a legislative assembly and Ladakh without one – may hurt Muslim-majority Kashmir, which currently holds 46 of 87 seats, compared to 37 in Hindu-dominated Jammu. “This is a ploy to hurt our autonomy and power,” said Muzaffar Wani, a resident of Anantnag. “The NC and PDP have no credibility anymore,” said Mukammal Wani in Pulwama.
Mohsin Alam Bhat, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the Jindal Global Law School, said mainstream parties understood that Article 370, and its existence, was key to their relevance in the Valley. “A lot will depend on what the Supreme Court finally decides,” he added.
The nerve centre of the Indian government’s security response in the Valley is Srinagar’s Badami Bagh Cantonment, the army’s heavily guarded headquarters of the 15 Corps where officials say there is no fixed time frame for the communications blackout and movement restrictions. “It is important for the Kashmiris to realise that the abrogation of Article 370 is irreversible. Our deployment across the Valley has inherent flexibility to deal with all possible scenarios,” a senior army officer said on condition of anonymity. “The restrictions are there for a specific purpose and they are likely to stay in place for as long as required if it helps saves lives,” he said.
But security experts worry that this is not a sustainable long-term arrangement. “For how long can you keep the restrictions imposed? They will have to be lifted at some stage. The security establishment must prepare for the worst-case scenario. The most important thing will be how mass protests are handled because such protests are bound to happen,” said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), a former Northern Army commander
The challenge before the security forces once the restrictions are lifted and communications are restored will be stiff, given the mood of local people. “What you are seeing now is government action, a clampdown on our freedom. What will follow is a full-fledged public agitation. This is the lull before the storm,” said Pervez Yaqoob, a college student in Anantnag town.
There has been no significant backlash so far as the government has denied “troublemakers” space for their operations by increasing troop-to-ground density and imposing restrictions, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General BS Jaswal (retd). “How long will the restrictions last? No one can crystal gaze. The government will have to recalibrate its strategy based on how the situation unfolds in Kashmir,” he said.
Jaswal cautioned against a surge in militancy in the coming months for two reasons: Pakistan will definitely not want Kashmir to be stable and political leaders with vested interests will make sure that the dissatisfaction arising from the removal of Article 370 accrues.
Kashmir has a home-grown network of industrialists and businesses that mushroomed owing to special privileges for local residents on property, land and setting up factories and industrial units – as part of a broader bouquet of autonomy that was accorded to the region until last week. But now, many residents fear that local wealth will flow out of the Valley.
For example, Magray thinks he will find it tough to compete with Indian businesses with superior supply chains and facilities, and lower rates. He fears his son will remain unemployed because young people from India will flood the Valley and take over jobs.
Bilal Wani, a resident of the old city of Srinagar, thinks that as more locals get restive and disillusioned with the administration, it will hurt businesses more. “Look at these restrictions, we cannot get to our shops. I cannot ply my auto normally or act as a guide because tourists have disappeared. My brother, who sells wares to tourists, has been sitting at home.” He said.
Precise economic statistics on the newly carved out union territory of Jammu and Kashmir are not available, as the state-level data also includes Ladakh. Latest available data (2016-17) on per capita Gross State Domestic Product for Jammu and Kashmir shows that it is worse off (Rs 74,998) compared to India (Rs 94,675). However, the recently released Periodic Labour Force Survey shows that unemployment rate in Jammu and Kashmir (4.2%) is less than the all-India average (6.1%).
Restoring investor confidence in the current crisis may not be easy though. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data showed that new investment announcements have plummeted in the state in the last three years. Annual growth in value of new investment announcements was -50%, -72% and -94% in the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
A former chief of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said on condition of anonymity that they didn’t think the economy would get a boost anytime soon. “For 30 years, Kashmir’s industry has suffered because of violence, this is why industries have not been set up despite several attempts. The current mood in the Valley don’t make me think that tensions will ease any time soon.”
A second former office-bearer of the trade body who is a prominent Valley-based industrialist agreed. “In five years, I will be working for someone else,” he said.
(with additional reporting by Roshan Kishore)
First Published: Aug 14, 2019 00:06 IST