The rest of India has acknowledged, celebrated and moved on from the news of Article 370 being nullified. However, Kashmir still lives under restrictions. There are curfews. There is no access to mobile phones and the internet. While i grew up without these technologies, today i would hate not to have them. To not have the internet to book tickets, send emails or communicate with friends/ relatives/ business associates/ customers would play havoc with a person’s quality of life. Hence, voices that say what is happening is unfair on Kashmiris are not totally wrong.
Nevertheless, Kashmir routinely has internet shutdowns. Even in Gujarat (Patidar protests) and Rajasthan (Gujjar protests), internet was shut down when tensions were high. Of course, these only lasted a couple of days. In Kashmir, it has been over three weeks. It must be hard, really hard. And while it is for the security forces and local administration to decide when, we hope the restrictions are lifted soon.
However, before one goes on a tirade against the Indian government’s brutality – many are, including several Western media publications and some of our own elite English language journalists – one must understand the situation. The Indian state may have had little choice. There is context, and precedents from the recent past.
One of the Valley’s popular militants, Burhan Wani, was shot in a 2016 encounter. Wani was young, handsome, bold, social media savvy and passionate. He would post pictures with his militant buddies, all holding machine guns. This won him some fans in the Valley. However, it didn’t change one thing – he was a terrorist. He may have had a cause, but he took up guns for it. He was therefore shot, like any other terrorist would be anywhere in the world. However, his popularity meant some two lakh people attended his funeral, protests broke out in the Valley, over a hundred people died, and over 15,000 injured. As restrictions were not in place crowds could gather, anti-India messages could be circulated, and a small percentage of the fans could be tapped to commit violent acts. In other words, hell broke loose.
Curfews followed, and Kashmir was in an internet shutdown again for over 50 days (yes, similar to now). It took months for things to calm down. Security forces learnt an important lesson – if an event can trigger violence, one has to prepare for it. Hence, for Article 370 nullification, they did the same. As a result, we do not have the scale of violence that happened after Wani’s killing. Now if you were in-charge of the area, and had to make this decision, what would you prefer? A broken internet connection? Or people dying around you?
Ideally, you want neither. And let us hope the internet will be back soon. However, normalcy in Kashmir will need more than the restoration of the internet. It is a peculiar situation – if two lakh people attend the funeral of a militant, what do you do? Surely you can’t brand all those people as terrorists. But neither can you accept a sentiment that supports violent movements.
Over the next few years, the Indian government will have to work extra hard to strike this balance. Of using security forces and deterrents, along with schemes that attract Kashmiri youth. Of winning the trust of the Kashmiris, but also not starting a never ending round of appeasement politics. Fortunately, the entire population of J&K is only 12 million, the Valley is only 7 million. It’s a small number for a country of 1.3 billion. Even if we spend some resources to resolve the situation, it is worth it. As specific suggestions, here are five things the government can do.
One, offer employment to almost all Kashmiri youth who need it. Move government call centres there, open new ski resorts or build more infrastructure. An enhanced MGNREGA of sorts – for white collar, blue collar or labour oriented jobs is needed. Two, a retrospective immunity and amnesty ‘clean slate’ scheme for all militants and their sympathisers. A new date can be announced, after which certain activities – stone pelting, taking up arms, joining militant organisations, circulating terror related content – would become serious crimes. You won’t be hounded for your past, but you will have to behave in the future.
Three, give a monthly allowance to Kashmiri youth (till they get their job) for the next few years. With money in their pocket people tend to feel less angry, more secure, strive to build a better life and hence have less chance of being radicalised. Four, reservations for Kashmiris (for a limited period). I am no fan of identity-based reservations, but if it helps them get better opportunities in India and makes them feel welcome we can offer them this. Their numbers are so small it would not alter the overall national picture much. The last two suggestions do veer towards appeasement. However, sometimes you have to be practical in life. Kashmiris will benefit from the schemes. And the government will too. Defence budget savings from a peaceful Kashmir will be far more than what any of these schemes would cost. It is a win-win for all.
Despite naysayers, Kashmir can and will be integrated into India. Kashmiris and other Indians have enough cultural ties. Indian tourists have been constant visitors over the past few decades. India is already a diverse, melting pot country. Kashmiris will thrive as an integral part of India, with business coming from trade, investments or tourism.
Yes, the need of the hour is to lift the internet ban. But the need of the next decade is to take the state to a point where we never need to shut the internet down again.