65 days after lockdown, officials in Valley caution: Don’t call this ‘normal’

P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Adil Akhzer
Unlike in the past, when militancy surged following an incident, there has been a calm this time.

More than 60 days into the lockdown in the Valley, many officials on the ground, both in the civilian and security establishment, have begun to say that the political imperative, from New Delhi, to sustain an “everything-is-normal” narrative is turning out to be challenging — and could even be counterproductive.

Internet and cellphones are still down, the disruption caused by these touches virtually all aspects of life — from seeking health care to connecting with friends and family; schools and colleges are shut; hundreds are in detention; and although yesterday the Governor’s office withdrew the order restricting tourists, hardly any are visiting the Valley. All parties, barring the BJP, Tuesday announced they will not contest the October 24 Block Development Council (BDC) elections which the state announced late last month.

“We used to say that security forces watch the clock while militants have all the time but now it’s the other way around. It seems the Government’s strategy is that it has all the time while residents in Jammu and Kashmir can keep a watch on the clock,” said an officer. “We aren’t sure how effective this tire-them-down approach will be but what we are sure of is that this is not normalcy and all of us need to accept that.”

“Mudda (issue) and masla (problem) are two of the most common words you hear in conversations with people here. Have you heard them since August 5,” asks a top-ranking police officer, “Just because no one mentions these words, does it mean things are normal?”

The decision to let some National Conference leaders meet Farooq Abdullah, officials said, is a step in the right direction but chances are it will remain a photo-op. Unwilling to be a prop, this is exactly the reason Mehbooba Mufti refused to meet her party colleagues. Even this outreach by the government came with an eye on the BDC elections.

In the BDC polls, panchs and sarpanchs have to cast their vote to elect the Chairman for the BDC to which their wards belong. While the state said the elections will be on “party lines,” many panchs say it lacks credibility since 61% panch wards and 45% sarpanch are vacant. Further, since both PDP and NC boycotted panchayat elections last November, election on party lines sounds farcical.

Over a week, The Indian Express spoke with more than a dozen bureaucrats and police officers in Srinagar and in the two South Kashmir districts of Shopian and Pulwama. “Delhi thinks if no major incidents have happened so far, things are normal. This hypothesis is wrong,” said a senior bureaucrat who sits in meetings where coordination issues between the civilian administration and the security establishment are resolved.

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“That there have been just two civilian casualties is more due to elaborate planning, preparedness of the establishment and close coordination at the ground level between the civilian government, the Army, CRPF, Border Security Force and the J&K Police,” said another senior official, who also did not wish to be named.

“National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was in Srinagar for 11 days beginning August 5. Every evening, he held a meeting to discuss the events of the day and actions to be taken over the next 24 hours. The decision-taking horizon was not more than one day,” said a senior official.

After Doval left Srinagar on August 16, K Vijay Kumar, Advisor to Governor, chaired these meetings. At present, these meetings happen every alternate day, reviewing events over the previous two days, and deciding on actions for the next 48 hours.

Private traffic is picking up, some doctors have opened their clinics, and shops are at best half-open for a couple of hours.

Said a senior police officer, among the key decision-makers in the Valley: “In many places, locals, of their own volition, do not want to open the shops.”

According to him, police are tracking five key indicators to make an assessment of militancy suggests these haven’t shown any spikes as they did after the Burhan Wani killing in July 2016: Slogan, Flag, Rumours, Intimidation, Posters.

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Unlike in the past, when militancy surged following an incident, there has been a calm this time. “There is a permanence to the change in the status of the state and the people post August 5. Silence, humiliation, resentment, anger and protest in the nature of self-imposed curfews has been the reaction so far. It hasn’t manifested in violence. So far,” said another key official in the security establishment.

“When a janaza is lifted, you expect people to cry. But nobody is reacting to a decision which permanently changes the character of J&K - bifurcation, abrogation of Article 370 and doing away with the special dispensation under Article 35A. I don’t know what this silence means but to call it peaceful or normal is certainly not accurate,” a top police offer told The Indian Express.

Another bureaucrat points to how the police is already re-calibrating its formulation. “You will hear the Director General of Police saying things are under control. He doesn’t say, it is normal anymore,” the officer notes.

In fact, the J&K police, and the Army are also speaking about infiltration attempts from across the border. Sources in the district administration in Poonch, Rajouri, Gulmarg, Shopian and Pulwama, say villagers are reporting that they have sighted intruders in small groups.

The government was considering a proposal to allow mobile services for BSNL post-paid connections two weeks ago but has had a rethink. “Even bureaucrats and police officers do not send their children to school. Restoring partial mobile connectivity would have given comfort to parents that they can be in touch with schools and their wards,” said an officer, who had made a case for restoring partial mobile connectivity.

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A view of Lalchowk in Srinagar. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

Private traffic is picking up, some doctors have opened their clinics, and shops are at best half-open for a couple of hours. This gives many a semblance of normalcy. “But to say increased car traffic points to normalcy only shows a pedestrian understanding of Kashmir,” says another officer. Residents admit they are caught in a double bind. Some shop-owners open up prodded by the government, and some others want to just get on with their lives and earn to support their family. But shops still open only for a few hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening even in Srinagar.

“We had planned for three months - till November 5,” said a senior Army officer, who did not wish to be quoted. But, on the ground, officers in the security establishment say they fear this narrative of normalcy may be counter-productive. The security establishment has stretched itself — the J&K Police had not granted leave to its men since June 15, and then again cancelled leaves after August 5.

A big action was taken on August 5. We don’t know what the reaction will be, and neither do we have any clue on its timing. We cannot be lulled to believe things are normal,” said an officer, reiterating that no big incidents have happened only because of the extreme preventive measures, and a dominating presence of the forces.