New Delhi's Normalisation Game-plan

As the first month of the new year enters its second half, a discernible strategy in New Delhi's plan to restore normalcy in the Kashmir Valley is becoming apparent. There will be no automatic concessions; people in the Valley, leaders included, will have to earn freedoms. Sounds drastic but looks like that is the way it will be.

16 January 2020

As the first month of the new year enters its second half, a discernible strategy in New Delhi's plan to restore normalcy in the Kashmir Valley is becoming apparent. There will be no automatic concessions; people in the Valley, leaders included, will have to earn freedoms. Sounds drastic but looks like that is the way it will be.

As it is, in other parts of the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir, apart from the Kashmir Valley, things have been back to normal for many weeks now. Apprehensions might linger, along with doubts about the course of the future, but nothing really has changed for the people of the Jammu and Ladakh regions. Even in the Valley, the sense of loss is not so much material as psychological.

It should be admitted that the clampdown in the Kashmir Valley today is more self-imposed or an effect of Separatist diktat than the result of government pressure. For instance, there was no government move, not even a proposal, to shut shops and public transport in the Valley as this would only inconvenience the common man.

Separatists never gave a formal bandh call and initially the closures of shops and business establishments were largely. Self-imposed. Subsequently, terrorist threats, posters from militant outfits and civilian killings by terrorists kept the markets closed and vehicles off the roads.

In some parts of the J&K union territory, the Separatists, militants and their sympathisers ensured that shops remained closed for months on end and public transport stayed off the road by issuing warnings. They also prevented fruit growers in some areas from shipping their fruit to markets in other parts of the country. They wanted to show the world that the Valley was protesting in this manner. The net effect was only to destroy all economic activities and drive the marginal wage earners to the brink of starvation. Gradually, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and tour operators began defying the Separatist orders and started to resume their businesses.

The government, on its part, had locked down all telecommunications and Internet services on 5 August 2019 after announcing the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which effectively stripped the state of its special status. The erstwhile state was also divided into two Union Territories - Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.

The fear probably was that Separatists would attempt to rally large numbers of people in the Valley in protest against New Delhi's decision. That did not happen but the Internet was cut off and mobile services snapped.

At that time, there was also an apprehension regarding mobilisation and provocation by mainstream leaders. Some of the statements issued by mainstream leaders were openly inflammatory and designed to stir unrest. Several political leaders were detained and many were charged under the Public Safety Act. Many prisoners already in various jails who were identified as potential for further unrest were shifted to prisons outside the state on 8 January 2019.

Since then services have been restored in steps as and when the local administration has felt the situation so demands it. Thus, mobile voice call services were restored in all districts of the peaceful Jammu region as early as on 30 August, except only partially in Ramban and Poonch districts. The next day, Internet services were restored in Kargil district and all Jammu districts. As Kupwara and Handwara in the Valley showed no sign of unrest Airtel post-paid mobile services with incoming facility were activated here on 2 September.

When some misuse of Internet services in Kargil were noticed, it was again shut down on 9 September 2019. Internet services in this district were re-started only on 26 December 2019. On the other hand, the Jammu region was rewarded on 2 November 2019 with the resumption of broadband Internet services on landlines.

To be fair, the UT administration tried its best to normalise education activities as soon as possible. As early as on 17 August 2019, the opening of schools was announced - 18 August for primary and 21 August for secondary schools. In some parts, angry or scared parents and Separatist threats kept children away from schools.

Then on 1 October 2019, the administration announced the opening of secondary and higher secondary schools from 3 October and colleges from 9 October. Most students resumed their studies except in troubled pockets. Normalcy in academic life was finally tested in 29 October with the successful start of Class 10 and 12 board exams.

On 14 October, post-paid mobile services were restored in Valley. Pre-paid users, who are difficult to monitor, were not allowed the services. But they were always welcome to shift to post-paid services.

Meanwhile, New Delhi was trying its best to assure the rest of the world that normalcy was being successfully restored in the state and there were no mass killings as alleged by the Pakistan government. With this in mind, the government brought a team of European Union Members of Parliament to the Union Territory including the Kashmir Valley for a first-hand experience.

Much had indeed normalised in most parts of the two union territories. The first block development council elections had been announced, held and results declared by 24 October which meant that the districts of the erstwhile state now had democratic representatives at the lowest levels of governance.

Several other moves also showed that things were proceeding as before. On 3 November the J&K government administrative establishment commonly known as the Darbar moved to the winter capital, Jammu. Trans services from Baramulla were gradually restored all the way to Banihal by 17 November 2019.

Restrictions continue to be lifted in areas where there is no apprehension of misuse. Thus, machine generated mobile SMS services have been allowed since 11 December. By the end of that month, broadband internet in hospitals and SMS services on post-paid resumed in the Kashmir Valley.

When a 15-member delegation of foreign heads of missions visited J&K UT on 9 and 10 January this year, including the Kashmir Valley, they found complete signs of normalcy except the detention of mainstream political leaders. The Kashmir Valley is limping back to normal, how fast it gets there will depend not so much on New Delhi but its own people. Like it or not, that's the bottom line.

Md. Sadiq

16 January 2020