DDC Poll: BJP’s Botched-Up J&K Plan

Some diehard, liberal optimists are yet again jumping the gun with fake optimism by overwhelmingly asserting that the District Development Council (DDC) election results for about 278 seats in Jammu and Kashmir is “a return to democracy”. There also seems to a view that the election results have proved that the BJP is the single largest party of this former state and new Union Territory, and, therefore, it has been absolved of the arbitrary abrogation of Article 370, the prolonged communication & social lockdown, mass arrests and the military clampdown. This, too, is flagrantly off the mark.

In this freezing cold, the winter of discontent has yet again been reaffirmed and expressed unanimously by the people in the Valley, with all their mistrust and misgivings about the mainstream politicians of the various mainline parties. The DDC polls, if at all, are a reminder, that all is not well in the restive region, and the Valley desperately needs freedom, peace, dignity and democracy. A restoration of the autonomy which was forcibly snatched from the people in early August 2019 by the BJP-led government in Delhi.

The tally of 75 seats for the BJP is a pointer to the sharp religious polarization witnessed in Jammu and Kashmir, especially since 2014. The fact that the BJP had an alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) earlier, against the popular mood, which led to another round of mass unrest in the Valley, has not been forgotten in the region. Certainly, it did not help in mainstreaming BJP in the region, especially in the Valley, more so, after it broke the alliance, as arbitrarily as ever.

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The military clampdown followed by the arrests of scores of politicians and ordinary people, the total communication and social and political lockdown which continued for months, including a tacit and overt clampdown on the local media, has not erased from popular memory. If at all, the DDC polls have only highlighted the serious lack of faith, the universal bad faith, and the total alienation witnessed in the valley since August last year.

The BJP winning a large chunk in the Jammu region is predictable, though even the Congress and the National Conference led by the Abdullahs have made inroads there. The Congress won 26 seats. The alliance has won in both mixed areas, as well as in Muslim-dominated areas, overwhelmingly.

There have been palpable fears in the Jammu region that outsiders might usurp their land in the current scenario, and this fear has been widely shared in the region of Ladakh as well. Despite that, the Hindu-dominated Jammu has voted for the local candidates of the BJP. The independents have won over 50 seats. Predictably, there are allegations that the BJP is trying to appropriate the independents.

Members of the Gupkar Alliance in Kashmir

Significantly, the BJP has got only 3 per cent odd votes in the Valley, and three seats in the Srinagar region. The Farooq Abdullah-led People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), comprising the PDP, the CPM, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference, and others, have overwhelming won the mandate with 110 seats. And it has not been easy for the alliance, with its leaders such as Mehbooba Mufti and Sajjad Lone widely seen as compromised leaders who had earlier aligned with the BJP, going against the popular mood.

Besides, there were complaints by the alliance that they were not allowed to campaign freely, their movements were restricted, that the central agencies were making life difficult for them, and that their top leaders were not able to reach out to the masses in the interiors. There were also complaints of the BJP using the state machinery to its benefit, as much as pumping in huge money and resources to win the polls.

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Let it also not be forgotten, that the Apni Party propped up by Delhi has done badly with only 12 seats. The fact is that the Centre’s manipulative moves to change the course of the region’s politics has not really succeeded, especially in the Valley. Since the military clampdown, the Centre has tried to create a new and alternative leadership, sponsored by the Indian State and aligned to BJP, from the local level leadership, such as the panchayats and the districts. This move has not only boomeranged, but failed singularly in creating an alternative leadership, with most of these local, sponsored chieftains unable to even visit their areas due to the fear of a collective backlash.

Several other myths seem to have been broken by the final results of the polls and the process of campaigning. The BJP’s campaign to remove dynasties simply did not work. Despite the bad faith, the people have restored faith in the old dynasties, including Sajjad Lone, Mufti and the Abdullahs.

Second, the DDC winners will involve themselves with strictly local issues — health, water, infrastructure, among other factors. These are municipal issues and in no way reflect the big political picture and social process of the state. People have clearly voted to make a categorical point in the Valley and in the mixed population areas elsewhere – that they unilaterally and unanimously oppose the abrogation of Article 370, the dissolution of the assembly, the arrest of mainstream leaders and others, the lockdown and the clampdown, and the totalitarian method adopted by the Centre under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah since August last year.

If anything, the poll results yet again reflect mass resentment and anger at the state of affairs and are a signal that the entire strategy of the ruling regime in the region has moved from one political failure to another.

In this context the rhetoric that the polls would end militancy or extremism is much too far-fetched. If anything, Pakistan-backed armed militancy has only increased since the state was turned into a union territory, and there is no sign of it abating. With China fishing in murky waters in Ladakh, hitherto a part of Jammu and Kashmir, allegedly occupying Indian land, despite the high-level talks, the border region will continue to be restive.

Indeed, with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris coming to power in America, there is speculation that the human and fundamental rights issue might be again raised by democrats, involving Kashmir. Pakistan is sure to raise it yet again internationally, tacitly backed by China. And with the new American leadership’s stated position in support of democracy, secularism and freedom, if there is a shift in American foreign policy on Kashmir, that surely will be another big headache for the regime in Delhi.

Despite all the shadows and black holes, the DDC poll campaign and the results are a good sign. It restores minimalist electoral democracy in a state under siege and virtual occupation. It also promises the final restoration of autonomy and the state assembly under federal principles of the Indian Constitution, whereby people of the region might once again choose to vote for an elected state government – and not a power structure controlled by the Centre with military clampdown.

Chronicles Of An Arrest Foretold

I was 20, and I won’t let anyone say those are the best years of my life
– Paul Nizan, Aden Arabia

On social media platforms, there has been a new celebration of nostalgia in lockdown: #MeAt20, pictures when you were in the 20s.

While many discovered old forgotten memories and fresh, open-ended, non-dogmatic, young and idealistic faces from the past, mostly in black & white, the vicious signs of the contemporary times in India came back like a sudden jolt. Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photo-journalist in her 20s, was booked under a stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for uploading “anti-national” posts on social media. The action is repetitive and inevitable, and it seems shocking, surprising, lacking both sanity and humanity, every time it arrives in its bitter ritualism. Why, you ask yet again, knowing so fully well the depressing answer. For God’s sake, why, and that too during a global ‘Mahamari’, amidst death and dying?

However, what do you do with those who love the sinister and the diabolical like in a compulsive, obsessive, B-Grade horror movie, constantly looking for ‘potential victims’, using their constitutional powers like feudal, unaccountable, revengeful monarchies and dictatorships? And what do you do when the old and the ageing, in the last phases of their life’s illustrious graph, choose to become so vindictive and hateful against the young, especially the educated and the professional young, that they want to hurt them so badly, demonise and dehumanize them, clamp draconian laws against them, brand them ‘anti-nationals and jehadis’, among other clichéd ‘badges of honour’, and, finally, lock them up in prisons, even while the justice system seems so tragically distant and indifferent?

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Can parents hate their children? Can teachers hate their students? Can gurus hate their shishyas? Can a good coach hate the sportspersons he is teaching the difficult craft of the game? Can the ageing and the powerful so hate the young, instead of celebrating their brilliance? Are they not the future of hope, and the hope of the future, the nation’s scaffoldings?

Yes, it seems, if we look at contemporary times in India, which is gloomy and foreboding, not because of the young, but because of the old: the bitter, Hobbesian old.

There are many pictures which Masrat Zahra has taken in her young career as a photo journalist, including on women, in places not many journalists would dare to go in a ‘conflict zone’. Her pictures have been authentic and non-partisan. Homai Vyarawalla was an ace woman photojournalist during the colonial period, and there have been rare and few instances of women taking up the camera. Young Masrat’s pictures in Kashmir’s sublime and difficult terrain are loaded with subliminal depth, sensitivity and angst; they capture news as much as transcend ‘news as instant history’.

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This is no mechanical reproduction of art or current affairs. This is the craft of story-telling and visual history, this is time unfolding and recorded with a spontaneous click of the camera. There is nothing spontaneous in her camera, or her art of photography. It is built through years of observation, silence and absorption of the unhappy and uncanny reality in Kashmir, now under a military lockdown since August 5.

As a photo journalist, surely, she has the right to photograph all she sees: the falling of the leaves in sad autumn, like Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, the leaves becoming kaleidoscopic; or, the stillness of the Dal Lake during an entire day’s life, as if life’s infinite sadness has stopped the ripples of the waters; or, the barbed wires and the barricades. So, why is she being hounded, a young and brilliant person with great promise? Instead, India, and its government, should be proud of her.

And why hound Peerzada Ashiq as well, the credible correspondent of The Hindu in Srinagar? If this is not a direct attack on the freedom of press, as it was when they tried to hound Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Wire, then what is it? Siddharth only did his duty as a professional journalist, he only reported what many others were doing. So why pick and choose, while all those who run the flourishing hate factories can get away with fake news, planted stories, character assassinations, doctored videos, communal and social hatred in full public glare, and again and again, like a chronicle of a tale foretold?

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They have booked some of the brightest young people in our intellectual horizons without any iota of evidence. Safoora Zargar, a MPhil scholar in Jamia, significantly also from Kashmir, Meeran Haider, from Jamia, both doing relief work in difficult circumstances, Gowher Geelani, a journalist, and, once again, Umar Khalid, who has done his PhD from JNU, and against whom not one charge has been proved despite their best efforts to demonise him, including with doctored videos. Besides, Khalid Saifi of United Against Hate and Ishrat Jahan, both working in relief operations after the riots in Northeast Delhi, were arrested. Khalid was allegedly tortured too, with his legs in plaster.

Is it, because, they are all Muslims?

Fortunately, barring the compulsive sell-outs, the entire journalist fraternity has stood up in protest and in solidarity. Said the Editors Guild of India: “The Editors Guild of India has noted with shock and concern the high-handed manner in which the law enforcement agencies in Jammu & Kashmir have used the prevailing laws to deal with two Srinagar-based journalists, Masrat Zahra, a young freelance photographer, and Peerzada Ashiq, a reporter working for The Hindu.

“Any recourse to such laws for merely publishing something in the mainstream or social media is a gross misuse of power. Its only purpose can be to strike terror into journalists. The Guild also believes that this is an indirect way of intimidating journalists in the rest of the country as well. The journalists should be put to no harm or further harassment. If the government has any grievance against their reporting, there are other ways of dealing with such issues in the normal course. Mere social media posts of factual pictures can’t attract the toughest anti-terror laws passed for hardened terrorists. And in the case of The Hindu reporter, the correct course was to escalate the complaint to the newspaper’s editor. The Guild demands that the Union Territory administration of Jammu & Kashmir withdraw the charges forthwith.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) said that it is shocked at the manner in which the law enforcement authorities in Jammu & Kashmir, over the last few days, have invoked laws to clamp down on freedom of speech and expression that violate fundamental rights laid down in the Constitution. The IWPC notes that the intentions of the authorities in J&K is to strike fear in the hearts of journalists who are simply doing their job. This is a clear message that the Union Territory will not tolerate dissent.”

Several civil society organisations and collective bodies of journalists, including the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and the Network of Women in Media, India, have protested against the intimidation of journalists. The international media is also reporting on the gasping breath of the largest democracy.

Indeed, if this government wants only a puppet media, a loyalist intellectual community, and a youth which should only toe its line, then Indian democracy is in serious danger. Perhaps, we have already crossed the line of control. And that is bad news.