We need a counter-narrative than risk being baited on human rights, one that justifies why J&K is our internal issue
It would be easy enough to shrug off the growing concern in Western capitals about the lockdown in the newly-defined Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as one of polemics and archetypes and question their standpoint on their own human rights scenarios. Should we be preached to? Should we attach any importance to a slew of US Senators expressing reservations about the situation in the Valley, given the US’s own unilateral and unreferenced moves in the Trump era? Should we also ignore the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet Jeria’s concern about the continued curfew in the Union Territory? One could argue we should just not react and let the water slide off a duck’s back. Besides, diplomatically we have definitely scored in convincing the world, including the Islamic nations, that the changed status was indeed an internal matter of India, circumscribed within our sovereign Constitutional space. Yet it is precisely because we prioritise it as our internal concern that we need to normalise life in J&K, restore communication networks and let people reclaim their everyday lives, currently hemmed in by concertina wires of the kind, reports say, that wasn’t there during the height of militancy. It is precisely because we are a democracy that we have world opinion and expectation on our side and cannot let that goodwill slip away because of a stubborn sense of purpose. This we need to do for our own sake rather than link any delay to Pakistan’s export of terror. As it is, the bifurcation of the erstwhile State has alienated its civil society further, including those who had invested themselves in the alignment with India, what with notables and businessmen finding themselves behind bars and the economy going into a virtual freeze. If Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is leaching in despite a lockdown and is feared to become a monster once curbs are lifted, there is all the more reason for the Government to engage with the ordinary Kashmiri and demonstrate the will to change his/her lot regardless of Pakistan, not because of it. The best counter-insurgency lesson tells you not to touch the regular or create new flashpoints.
More than international perception, we need basic human rights if we don’t want to birth another generation fed on denial and propaganda which could turn virulently separatist. We need viral communicators for strategic reasons, too. How is that possible if people still have to walk 10 km to find a phone booth to connect with their folks over landline as mobile networks are pyrrhic in nature? People cannot be greeted in their own community and neighbourhood by more than 10 people as that would amount to separatist activity. Nor can funeral processions be taken out. Local reports say that Jamia Masjid has remained locked for the past month. And buying daily rations certainly doesn’t do anything for the consumerist economy as online businesses and aggregator start-ups have been forced to shut shop. The worst-hit are the tourist operators, whose bookings have been cancelled before the holiday season, and apple growers. At one of Asia’s biggest fruit markets at Sopore, prices have crashed and farmers find it cheaper to trash unsolds than repackage them. These apple farmers, already in a debt trap, have no way of clawing their way out of it as it has been a bumper year. While the Government has now decided to buy 60 per cent apples directly from farmers and transfer sale money to their accounts, it has to consider that apple orchards need to run and workers need to reach them. One may argue that the older political establishment had fuelled a terror economy to keep itself relevant for and needed by the Government. But now that its leaders are behind bars and will be reined in going forward, there are no interlocutors. That elbow room has also been choked altogether. So democratic processes need to be restored at the local governance level at least. We cannot wish away the belligerence of people, who have been yanked out of their axis as they knew it, with the prevalent national triumphalism. The last also entails an ability to absorb dissent, if only to allow freedom of expression. Pakistan has at least scored in the public relations battle, flooding the world media with reports of claustrophobic impositions in Kashmir and repeated lobbying at the UN. We need to put out as effective a counter-narrative, one that justifies why Kashmir is our internal issue, in that space. We cannot wait for the day when everybody in the world will scream freedom.