Crackdown on militants allows politicos to return to south Kashmir; mainstream seeks to reclaim space from separatists

Chawalgam, Kulgam: On Tuesday afternoon, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah arrived in Kulgam. Abdullah was in this village of the restive south Kashmir's Kulgam district, to chair an election rally. Things have changed in south Kashmir: a few months ago, a visit here was impossible for mainstream politicians, mainly due to the threat of militants. The politics of engagement with the grassroots had vanished as the ‘new age insurgency’ took hold of Kashmir.

Crackdown on militants allows politicos to return to south Kashmir; mainstream seeks to reclaim space from separatists

File image of Omar Abdullah. PTI

But with the situation now changed — largely due to a sweeping crackdown on militants and their sympathisers — Omar looked relaxed. In Kulgam — one of the areas most affected by the militancy in the southern part of the Valley — a small, jubilant crowd cheered as as the former chief minister, wearing a grey pheran (a traditional Kashmiri outfit) and tan shoes, began speaking. Omar struck all the right notes. “Our endeavour would instead be to embrace the youth and not abandon them. To understand the problems of people, their grievances and why, since 2014, so many youth are taking up guns rather than joining the mainstream. We would like to understand that anger and try to address it,” Omar said.

“It was the biggest rally since 2016,” Imran Nabi Dar, the National Conference (NC) leader from south Kashmir, said. While the NC seemingly lacks credible faces to give the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) a tough fight in its bastion, this election could throw up a surprise.

Attacking Governor Satya Pal Malik for his remarks that there was “nothing like Operation All-Out” in Kashmir, Omar said he and his party, if given a mandate, would never allow “such operations which become a reason for peoples' sufferings”. “The crackdowns, killings or excesses, whatever you call them, we won’t allow such operations,” Omar added.

The task of returning normalcy to south Kashmir has been an uphill one for security forces and politicos. Although under the strict watch of security agencies, regional parties are now attempting to fill the void created by the past three years of turmoil. And the party that risks engagement in south Kashmir is likely to benefit electorally.

“South Kashmir is an open field,” Gul Mohammad Wani, a professor of political science at Kashmir University, said. “This is because of the lack of serious engagement for the past three years by reluctant political parties. Those that engage, not just with the youth, but also with the victims of violence, could benefit electorally. Earlier, PDP was blamed because they were in government and south was its bastion. However, as elections approach, every political party wants to engage in this region because it could throw up an electoral surprise.”

Which is what is giving the PDP,  which won 11 out of 16 seats in south Kashmir in the 2014 Assembly elections, sleepless nights (NC won two seats, the Congress won two and the CPM won one). The anger against the PDP could play a part in driving voters to the polls on election day.

But PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti isn't about to let that happen. While Omar was addressing the rally, Mehbooba was in Anantnag — where she spent two days and a night — meeting the public at the garrisoned Dak Bungalow. Political stalwarts said Mehbooba’s party might not make much impact in the other areas of the Valley, but south Kashmir remains her bastion. Dozens arrived to meet Mehbooba, many asking the former chief minister to get their sons, who are languishing in jails, released. In south Kashmir, one PDP activist told Mehbooba every police station has at least 50 people slapped with Public Safety Act for "no reason".  Mehbooba promised to help.

“Not just with the Hurriyat, but the government should hold a dialogue with militant leadership too. Because they are the ones who have guns and they only can stop the violence,” Mehbooba said later, speaking to reporters in Anantnag, in a statement clearly targeted at the youth. It is this usual political activity that has been missing in south Kashmir for the past three years. However, the venues remain under full glare of the security apparatus. A militant attack can never be ruled out and even though the back of ‘new age insurgency’ has been broken, holding such meetings is still risky.

“If the party (NC) field right candidates, I think they will win this time around,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, who attended the Chawalgam rally. “The party which takes the first step of engaging with public will benefit. It can be dangerous, but the field is open.”

“It is strange that despite having so much security, hardly any political leader visited Kulgam in the past two years,” Ghulam Nabi Ahangar, a resident of Chawalgam village said. “The problem, however, is despite the previous government (PDP-BJP) being responsible for the mess, because the NC has no presence there are few options other than the PDP. However, Mufti and her party's absence could be an important factor and perhaps contribute to their defeat."

The Jammu and Kashmir Police recently issued an advisory urging political parties to remain cautious during their rallies. In the past three decades of insurgency in the Valley, hundreds of political workers have been killed by militants for representing New Delhi at the grassroots. The NC, which ruled Kashmir for decades, faced the brunt of these killings, with hundreds of its workers being killed.

When the Kashmir unrest broke out in 2016 and close to 100 people joined the ‘new age insurgency’, scores of NC workers fled after militants broke into their homes, beat them with sticks and ordered them to tender public apologies and dissociate from mainstream politics. Just a few months ago, the dark era of the early 90s seemed to have returned in Kashmir. However, slowly and surely, mainstream politics is seemingly reclaiming the space it was forced to cede to separatists.

“The wheels of the mainstream had been halted,” PDP spokesperson Najmu Saqib said on Tuesday. “But now we are back. Our leadership spent one night and two days in every district. It is going to be a massive outreach, but we are being careful. A single bullet can undo all of our work.”

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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2019 17:54:06 IST

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