Ramananda Sengupta: Handwara: Wrong message to all sides

The demolition of bunkers, besides demoralising military forces, tells separatists that violent protests can force the government to give in to their demands

Ramananda SenguptaAs Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed, the newly elected chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, launched their mutual admiration society in Katra Vaishno Devi and Jammu city on April 19, residents of Handwara, some 350 km north in Kupwara, were celebrating, though for a different reason.

Handwara shot into the headlines last week after reports that army personnel had molested a young schoolgirl returning home. Though the girl later told officials that some locals, and not military personnel, had molested her, protestors stormed military bunkers in the town, forcing troopers to open fire and subsequently impose curfew. Five people including Nayeem Qadir Bhat, a budding cricketer, were killed in the ensuing violence.

But it was not the lifting of curfew that the residents were celebrating April 19. It was the fact that four heavily fortified army bunkers in the town, including the massive one in the central square, were vacated and demolished despite army reservations. These bunkers were built across the state in the early 1990s, following the spate of violence in the valley. Delighted locals unfurled a huge banner naming the town square as ‘Shaheed Nayeem Chowk’ after the young cricketer who died in police firing.

Meanwhile, addressing the 5th Convocation of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, some 50 km from Jammu, Modi said his government had injected the colours of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” into Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s vision of ‘Insaniyat, (humanity) Kashmiriyat (Kashmiri ethos) and Jamhooriat (democracy).’

He had earlier inaugurated a 250-bed super specialty hospital at Kakryal near Katra, the base town for the famous Vaishno Devi shrine. Lauding the chief minister, he said, “Mehbooba-ji does not talk about the weather, but she always talks about the bridge, road and development. When leadership has such dedication towards development, then development becomes imminent.”

On her part, Mehbooba Sayeed declared, “I have great hope and expectations from my party’s alliance with the BJP. My father said on many occasions that when he shook hands with Modi, he was, in fact, joining hands with a billion people of India who had reposed their faith in his leadership.” Intriguingly enough, while declaring that Kashmir ‘was in pain and needed a healing touch”, she compared the recent violence in Handwara to the killing of four of a Hindu family in Baljarala, Rajouri in 1999 and the massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chittisinghpora in 2000. No mention was made of the January 25, 1990 incident in Handwara, when BSF troopers went on a rampage killing 21 protesters and injuring at least a 100. Soon afterwards, the army starting building heavily fortified bunkers across the city, including one in the main chowk.

But despite all this apparent bonhomie and camaraderie, both Modi and Mehbooba face several long-festering challenges in Kashmir that cannot be resolved with just words.

Chief among them is the rising discontent among the youngsters in the state, mostly due to the lack of governance and extreme corruption in the bureaucracy, which siphons of most of the money meant for the state’s development. The other is the lack of a clear, long-term vision for the state. The recent face off between local students and those from other parts of the country at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar is just a small indicator of the fault lines beneath the surface, being gleefully exploited by external forces.

Another is the mollycoddling of rabid separatist leaders in the state, who are protected and fed by the same central government that they constantly abuse. If the dismantling of the military bunkers had taken place before the recent protests, it could have been chalked up as a confidence building measure.

But today, apart from demoralising the military forces in the state, all it does is send out a message to the separatists that violent protests can force the government to accede to their demands.

Which perhaps explains the Indian Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag’s visit to Kupwara and Srinagar-based Chinar Corps at the same time that Modi and Mehbooba were wooing the students in Jammu.

“In his interaction with the officers and troops, the army chief expressed satisfaction at the operational preparedness of the units deployed along the LoC and hinterland,” said a spokesman.

Which perhaps also explains a ceasefire violation by Pakistan along the International Border in Sabma district of Jammu and Kashmir, provoking retaliation by the BSF.

Perhaps Modi would do well to heed the lessons of his April 3 visit to Saudi Arabia, which was touted as a major breakthrough. Barely two weeks later, at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Turkey, Riyadh endorsed a resolution expressing concern over the “human rights violations and abuse of the basic rights of the Kashmiris,” and supporting the Kashmiris right to self-determination.

In politics, as in real life, kindness is often seen as weakness. And Modi, of all people, should know that by now.

The author is a foreign and strategic affairs analyst, and a Consultant Editor with Indian Defence Review.

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