Is A Storm Brewing In The Valley?
13 July 2003
New Delhi: The 'Healing Touch' policy of the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed Government in Jammu and Kashmir could soon be tested by sterner challenges than it has had to face so far, writes PRAVEEN SWAMI. IN 1971, airman Bakhtawar Bhat watched as combat jets screamed across the skies over Srinagar, wondering just how long it would be before a Pakistani bomb came his way. Now, more than three decades on, the jets were overhead again. This time around, though, it was for an aerobatic exhibition above the Dal Lake, put up to attract recruits to the ranks of the Indian Air Force. 'This', he says, smiling at the sight of a gaggle of excited schoolchildren cheering the jets thundering over the lake, 'is a lot better than war.' Not even the best public relations firm could have dreamt up this kind of advertisement for the 'Healing Touch' policy, put in place by the Government of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed nine months ago. Srinagar is chock-a-bloc with tourists, in numbers adequate to send hotel and taxi rates through the roof, and make it near-impossible to find even a quiet place to lay out a picnic hamper at Gulmarg or Pahalgam. The obtrusive Army presence in the State's major cities and towns seems to have dramatically thinned down, and traffic moves without hindrance until late at night. There is more electricity, the streets are cleaner, and, received wisdom has it, there is considerably less terrorist violence. It all sounds too good to be true - and the bad news is that it probably is. Storm clouds are again gathering over Jammu and Kashmir, and the 'Healing Touch' could soon be tested by sterner challenges than it has had to face so far. Enormous logs block the road passing before the Rashtriya Rifles camp at Wagar, the last-but-one military encampment before the road ends and the climb into the mountains of Lam begins. All who pass this way must enact a bizarre ritual. First, the logs must be moved to make way for the vehicle they are travelling in. Once the vehicle has inched a few feet forward, the logs must be moved to block the road again. Then, travellers must present themselves to be searched at an Army checkpoint a few metres away - and, finally, move the next set of logs before driving on. Like most officially-imposed procedures, the log ritual serves no purpose at all. The road from Tral to Lam has not been resurfaced since it was first built more than two decades ago. The awe-inspiring potholes that scar its surface are a considerably more effective deterrent against a high-speed car-borne suicide squad attack than any number of logs. Then, vehicles are not actually checked at the logs - leaving a potential suicide squad free to drive up to the checkpost, delayed only by the time it takes to complete the ritual, and do what they wish. What the ritual illustrates, however, is that that the soldiers in the camp are nervous. Areas such as these mark the frontiers of the 'Healing Touch', so evident in the towns below. Villagers in Lam reported the presence of large groups of terrorists in the forests, some over a dozen-strong. Unusually large groups have been sighted in Bandipora, Shopian and Kokernag. Prakhpora, near Chrar-e-Sharif, recently saw an encounter in which four terrorists were killed; no fire exchanges had taken place there for over two years. Even in some towns, the renewed influence of 'jehadi' groups is evident. On July 9, Tral shut down to protest the killing of two terrorists by the Army a day earlier. The strike is unlikely to have actually reflected local opinion. Tral residents, after all, elected the National Conference MLA, Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, who lost his father and two brothers to terrorist attacks. Public anger with continued violence is evident - and yet, for obvious reasons, no one wants to be the first to stand up and defy a Kalashnikov. As terrorist domination of civil society builds up, nervous soldiers often react with aggression. Villagers at Lam claimed that beatings in the course of search and cordon operations had become common once again. The story is similar in some other areas. The Army has, for example, flatly refused to reopen the Brenthi-Dayalgam road in Anantnag, citing security considerations. This means the villagers, blocked from using the road since a November 2001 fidayeen (suicide) attack, must traverse a 17-km detour. The faultline between civil society and the forces here, and in dozens of similar areas, remains. Yet, there is no denying the fact that many ordinary people in the Kashmir Valley face less day-to-day harassment than ever before. 'Healing Touch' advocates claim that the policy, where it has been enforced, has had two major achievements. First, it has contained the ugly fallout of aggressive counter-terrorist operations. On June 8, the State Finance Minister, Muzaffar Beig, announced that he would meet the expenses for the schooling of a son of Maulvi Abdul Qayoom, allegedly killed in custody by the Army. Lieutenant General V.G. Patankar, 15 Corps Commander, was by his side, a gesture impossible to imagine a year ago. Occasional allegations of custodial killings now receive official responses in quick time. Second, these gestures have helped build public faith in the security apparatus, and thus isolated terrorists. 'Healing Touch' enthusiasts - although, notably, not Mr. Sayeed himself - claim that all this has translated into lower levels of violence, and that 'jehadi' groups stand isolated. The data obtained from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs provides empirical tools with which the course of the 'Healing Touch' may be plotted. It is clear that there has indeed been some decline in violence. The data compares terrorism during eight months of PDP rule, from November 2002 to June 2003, with terrorism during the National Conference rule from November 2001 to June 2002. It makes clear that any major indicator of terrorism levels, be it the total number of acts of violence, the killings of civilians, or the deaths of security force personnel, has shown a decline. Yet, a closer look at the data shows that this aggregate impression of improvement is, quite simply, a myth. First , the decline in the number of violent incidents relates only to the first four months of this year. In May and June, terrorist attacks showed a sharp upsurge and registered numbers very similar to those seen in 2002. Killings of Indian security force personnel and terrorists followed a very similar pattern. The much-commented-on lull of these months, it is important to remember, may have been as much the consequence of an unusually bitter winter, which made movement difficult for terrorists and security forces alike. June, in a sign of what might be yet to come, saw more civilians, terrorists and security force personnel fall victim than witnessed in the same month last year. More important, though, is that one key figure has shown no meaningful decline at all - the killing of Muslim civilians. Even during the winter lull, killings of Muslim civilians remained at levels similar to those seen in 2001-2002, a sign that terrorist groups retained their ability to strike at those perceived to be security force informers, political activists, or simply hostile to the 'jehadi' control of civil society. Although killings of Hindus and Sikhs have sharply declined under the PDP rule, it could be an outcome of the realisation among 'jehadi' groups that mass communal killings undermine their already- precarious international legitimacy. Killings of Muslims rarely provoke the same outrage. It does not take much to see why terrorist groups must sustain civilian killings, whatever the contours macro- level India-Pakistan détente takes. 'Democratic politics is encroaching on the control the jehadis have over their constituency', notes the Kulgam MLA, Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, 'so they use guns to keep their flock together.' For the PDP, the recent events have been a rude awakening. The party has lost almost a dozen workers since the assassination of the Pampore MLA, Abdul Aziz Mir, in December, while Mr. Beig himself was fortunate to survive an assassination attempt in April. In the latest incident on July 8, a party worker, Mohammad Abdullah Shah, was shot dead at his home in Chansar, near Kulgam. Other alliance partners have also come under assault. On July 4, the Rural Development Minister, Peerzada Mohammad Sayeed, suffered injuries in a grenade assault that claimed the life of a bystander and injured 33. Cynics attribute the PDP's decision to press ahead with the release of top secessionist leaders, notwithstanding opposition from New Delhi, to this welter of attacks. The attempt on Mr. Beig's life, for example, was followed in quick time by the release of the top Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Qazi Ahadullah. Mr. Ahadullah is close to the Jamaat political chief, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is engaged in efforts to marginalise centrist elements in the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference. The return of his trusted lieutenant strengthened Mr. Geelani's hands, to the not- inconsiderable ire of the Jammu and Kashmir policy establishment in New Delhi. On top of it all, the 'Healing Touch' might leave the Chief Minister without the resources he needs to fight back. Signs of demoralisation are evident within the State Police force, until a year back at the cutting edge of counter-terrorism operations. In several recent incidents, police personnel have been found to have made their peace with local terrorist groups; officers posted at Nadimarg are even alleged to have aided the terrorists who carried out the massacre of Kashmiri Pandits there in March. Those who continue to collaborate with counter-terrorism measures face death. On July 4, the Assistant Sub-Inspector, Ghulam Hassan Rishi, was kidnapped and beheaded with a butcher's knife at the Government Higher Secondary School in Yaripora, near Kulgam. All this has translated into a generalised decline in the efficiency of counter- terrorist operations. Between November 2002 and June 2003, 4.5 terrorists have been killed for every security force personnel lost; the figure was 5.2 during the same months of 2001-2002. If officials are to believed, the figures might get worse. 'If I cordon off a village to search terrorists,' says an Army officer, 'I must do it in the middle of the night, when I'm most likely to find them. That means peo<147,1,7>ple will face harassment, they might protest, they might fight, someone might get hurt, and then there will be trouble. So most of us think, why bother?' Renewed hostilities are also certain to impact on development work, a key focus of the 'Healing Touch.' Put simply, terrorist pressure makes it difficult for ground- level Government functionaries to work, and becomes an excuse for inefficiency and corruption. While ordinary people understand that the Government has been in power for far too short a while to launch major works, signs of frustration are evident. 'We were promised a drinking water pipeline', says a villager of Naodal, Abdul Ahmad Bhat, 'and we've been told it will soon be built. But surely it can't take so many months to lay a pipe?' Perhaps, the one thing working in the PDP's favour is the National Conference's equally poor record in office. The National Conference workers tried to capitalise on the Government's demolition of illegally-constructed shops during the recent by-election in Pampore. 'We reminded them,' says a shopkeeper, Shaukat Ahmad, 'that we had bribed their leaders for permission to build the shops in the first place.' But it is unlikely that this sentiment will sustain any political dispensation for long. Recent increases in power availability, which has won the Government great goodwill, will leave it between Rs. 750 crores and Rs. 1000 crores in debt because of poor realisation - this, in addition to a pending backlog of Rs. 2,300 crores! The State Government has promised to freeze recruitments in return for financial assistance from New Delhi, but that too could create further problems. As things stand, Jammu and Kashmir's population of 9,000,000 includes 600,000 employees of the Government and Government-run enterprises, one of the highest ratios in the country. While there is ample opportunity for creating alternative employment - the Kashmir Valley imports Rs. 13,000-crore worth of meat each year, although it has the highest livestock-to-population ratio, and has no worthwhile fruit-processing facilities although it is the largest producer - continued violence makes investment in rural industry difficult. Plans to address these problems do exist, but will take time to implement - which the ruling alliance may not have because of its internal strains. The Panther's Party has already begun to campaign aggressively for concessions to the Jammu region, notably the creation of new districts and the implementation of constituency delimitation, which, it claims, will give it more Assembly seats than the Valley. Meanwhile, the Congress is under increasing pressure to take a more aggressive line on the PDP. Indeed, there is considerable speculation about a future Congress-National Conference alliance, sparked by the latter's July 10 decision to sever its links with the National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi. The big question, then, is: can democracy work with a gun pointed at it? If the Mufti finds a way to manage the multiple contradictions facing him, he will have pulled off one of the most sensational coups in Indian political history. If he fails, the 'Healing Touch' could be headed for an unfortunate end, trapped between a rock and a hard place.