OPINION | After Initial Reservations about Art 370 Abrogation, Kashmiris Turn to Desire for Development

Somebody once wrote, “October is about trees revealing colours they've hidden all year, people have an October as well.”

Last month, on a fact-finding trip to Kashmir, we were too early to experience the beauty of the fall hues adorning the chinars but in time to see some home truths that none of the media reportage had revealed. Meeting a cross-section of people across the Valley, our team found the people responsive and eager to talk about their reactions and expectations after the nullification of Articles 370 and 35A. After decades of fear-mongering over what might happen if these controversial legislations were even touched, it was heartening to see the Jhelum flowing as usual and life going on as normally as possible in a place disturbed by terror attacks for the last 30 years.

When it comes to politics, Kashmiris are ebullient and ever ready to have lengthy discussions. So, right from the shikara-wallahs to the college professors, businessmen, doctors and surrendered terrorists we met, everyone had an opinion to put forth. It was interesting to hear them all expressing resentment over not having been consulted before the nullification, as though any form of “consultation” would have yielded a result.

While the man on the street stubbornly insisted that Article 370 was a part of the Kashmiri identity that had been snatched away, the more evolved respondents expressed anger over their beloved state having been reduced to a Union Territory. At times, it was clear that the vehement support for Article 370 was not accompanied by an understanding of exactly what the Article had entailed. A young lady sarpanch, on being asked why she felt Article 370 had been important for Kashmiris, sheepishly admitted she couldn’t say what it was, but had been told that it was a part and parcel of their lives.

In Srinagar, time seems to have stood still, not much seems to change from one year to another. The flea market near Polo View, which has been there for years, is now bigger and sells more varied stuff than the woollens meant for Bangladeshi refugees that were its first offerings. The beginning of October, when shops opened for specific hours, saw this and other such markets doing brisk business.

Decades of uncertainty and rampant corruption seem to have made Kashmiris loathe the political leaders who enriched themselves while depriving the common man of development and progress. Having realised how certain political families used the bogey of Article 370 for decades to further their personal interest, people are happy that the central government has placed them under house arrest. They expressed no concern over the release of the leaders and, in fact, expressed hope that corruption charges would now be initiated against these habitual offenders. The members of civil society whom we met indignantly demanded to know why non-entities like Mehbooba Mufti’s daughter Iltija and upstarts like Shehla Rashid were being promoted by the media in Delhi. They underlined the need for a new crop of leaders, free of dynastic trappings and connected to grassroots politics in Kashmir.

Once past the initial reservations about the abrogation, most people expressed a desire for development and employment, which they hope will now be possible. A doctor we met said the BJP, unlike the political parties they were used to, seemed blunt and honest in its approach and brought a promise of development, which attracted Kashmiris towards the party. He also said that several villagers had already started benefitting from BJP schemes such as Ayushman Bharat while others had got gas connections and free housing. He reiterated that education, security and development were what the people primarily need from the Ggovernment. Article 370, according to him, had benefited only the Abdullahs and the Mufti family.

Hospitals were functioning normally and the doctors we met had not seen any patients with pellet injuries. The heavy troop presence, repeatedly mentioned by some journalists, was definitely not evident on the roads. In fact, a journalist mentioned how security forces, once regarded as the “enemy”, were now treated with a kind of familiarity and how he would often see locals sitting down with them to share detailed explanations of local issues and problems. Minority groups like the Sikhs, Shias and the Kashmiri Pandit government employees, all felt hopeful that governance under the Union Territory status would ensure more equal and fair treatment, which they had been denied all these years. They were optimistic that with the direct intervention of the Centre, the security situation would also improve.

Sadly, not one of the respondents admitted that an injustice had been done to the Kashmiri Pandits -- they resorted to blaming the then Governor Jagmohan for the 1990 exodus. While some claimed that most of the Kashmiri Pandits were still living happily in the Valley, others said those who had left were not interested in returning. As a Kashmiri Pandit, it was distressing to hear such unfounded assertions.

Meeting surrendered militants was a unique and not entirely comfortable experience. Fortunately, they were amiable and eager to make their point. Expressing utter disillusionment with Pakistan, they said the nation had deceived Kashmiris, treating them as “bearer cheques”. According to them, Pakistan is just a puppet in the hands of China because of which the neighbouring government cannot even condemn China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslims.

However, they were keen that Prime Minister Narendra Modi start a dialogue with his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan. Speaking on behalf of the militants, a masked ex-terrorist said most of them were now thoroughly disillusioned with the country where they had got their training and should now be allowed to surrender. Scoffing at our question regarding a “shortage of medicines and food”, as reported by sections of the media, he called it a blatant lie. Kashmiris are used to storing food for the winter months, so every household has sufficient supply, and chemist shops were always open, he said. During our trip, we had also noticed that all pharmacies were functioning.

It was suggested by some people that we visit the psychiatry department of a local hospital. The carefully prepared presentation and discussion enumerated the negative psychological effects of encounters and the closure of schools on the minds of children. Evidently, this was a regular pit stop for most fact-finding teams headed for Kashmir.

While the doctors explained the various “coping mechanisms” employed to deal with the disturbed situation, one of them mentioned in passing how a Kashmiri youth, accidentally injured in crossfire between militants, had opted for a positive coping mechanism despite becoming a paraplegic after the incident. He did not allow this misfortune to embitter him but started an NGO to help other victims. There are some who would have cited this as reason enough to pick up a gun, but this young man turned it into an opportunity to help others. Such positive instances are somehow never highlighted by those who seem to have made “Kashmir” their concern.

Whatever some habitual naysayers may say, sane Kashmiris are definitely ready for change. Every conversation finally veers on to jobs, development and peace, which denotes a fatigue with the status quo that has gone on for three decades. Anyone who knows Kashmir understands that everything is not negative, as some would have us believe. There are good days and there are bad days, but life goes on as it always has over the years.

(The columnist is an associate professor at Delhi University. Views are personal.)