Here’s What the European Union MPs in Kashmir Will Not Get to See
If you saw pictures of smiling MPs of the European Parliament in a pretty shikara on the Dal Lake in Srinagar, you may think this is a new turn of events for the Valley. It’s part of the strange new picture being ‘force-painted’ in Jammu and Kashmir. One day before the state is officially bifurcated into two (to be implemented from 31 October) Prime Minister Modi briefed 27 members of the European Parliament on Kashmir, and then they were taken on a tour of the Valley to ‘see for themselves,’ the situation after the taking down of the state’s special status.
Still, they got to meet the PM and the national security advisor. ‘Private capacity’… but even as the delegation went in, the attempted prettification of the horrific Kashmir picture blew up in their faces as five migrant workers from Bihar were killed in what seemed to be a targeted attack on outsiders, in the Kulgam district of South Kashmir.
Earlier, as the photo-ops were being carefully arranged, there were clashes in parts of Srinagar between people trying to enforce a complete shutdown in protest, and the few shops and restaurants that tried to stay open for a few hours in the day.
Discontent Among Jammu’s Majority Hindu Population Is Being ‘Muzzled’
It’s the strangeness of the picture that needs to be underscored here. Local representatives continue to be in jail whereas foreign reps, from mostly right-wing parties including those pro-Brexiters, were sent in, smiling, after being hosted and briefed first by the very state that has put the Kashmir valley under siege.
But the place where this farce becomes even more of an abomination, isn’t in the Kashmir Valley – it’s in Jammu.
A group of traders and transporters – Hindus and sardars sat around a hotel table in Jammu with their heads in their hands. The people who were supposedly bursting crackers on 5 August when Home Minister Amit Shah announced on the floor of the Parliament that Article 370 was being read down. The story being spun was that the people of Jammu, who had always been ‘neglected’ and ‘overshadowed’ by Kashmir, could finally shine. Their trade and businesses would do better. But on this grey October morning, the atmosphere was exactly the opposite.
“We voted for Modi because of the wave, but we’re fed up,” one of the traders said.
Another put it more sharply.
“Kashmir has had one eye taken out, Jammu has had both eyes removed.” One ‘eye’ was the trade and commerce of Jammu, which is linked arterially to Kashmir. Apples are transported from orchards in Kashmir to Jammu, and from Jammu to the rest of the country. With Kashmir deciding to shut their businesses as a protest against the abrogation of 370, Jammu’s symbiotic apple trade is virtually at a standstill.
Jammu Was Meant to Keep Up ‘Appearances’
The worst part about Jammu’s distress is that is isn’t meant to be. I was part of a four-member citizens’ group. We had gone in to Jammu and Kashmir undercover, not preceded by a meeting with PM Modi like the EU group. But even for us, at first glance, the optics were distracting. Everything looked ‘normal’. Unlike the Kashmir Valley, Jammu was not in a lockdown. Landlines, mobile networks and Wifi connections were working. Internet was also available, albeit at Neanderthal speed. But at least it existed. Shops were open. You could connect with people by and large. Restaurants were open until 11 PM so you could get food when you needed. Malls were open.
The security forces that were omnipresent in Kashmir, were much fewer and far between. Beneath this seemingly normal situation, the fear in Jammu, for the half that wasn’t celebrating, has been far greater than amongst the people of Kashmir.
Unlike Kashmir, in Jammu, more than half the people we tried to meet refused to even speak with us on the phone, despite our repeatedly telling them we were not going to name them.
65 percent of its population is Hindu, and Hindus were meant to be ‘happy’ about decisions taken by a Hindu-friendly government. They just had to be happy, or else. What if they complained? Strike that. It wasn’t even a possibility. Those who did try, were silenced.
Distress of Transporters in Jammu Post Scrapping of 370
We were told by reliable sources that the Jammu Commerce and Trade Federation tried to hold a press conference critiquing the government’s decision on 370 but it was stopped. They asked for “the restoration of communication in Kashmir and safe passage for transporters,” an insider told us. And added, “no one heard us.”
Transport, they argued, is a Rs 35,000-crore business in Jammu. Its modus operandi is trucks carry mainly government items – from the Food Corporation of India. The abrogation hit the frequency of trains carrying goods in from the food corporation. “If there were 500 vehicles at the railway station every day, they take goods from the trains to nearby towns within a 50 km radius. Earlier these 500 trucks would have a trip a day which got them 800-1000 rupees. Post abrogation, that has come down to one trip in four days,” a transporter explained. That’s business cut down to a quarter.
Some transporters also said there is a deepening rift between transporters in Kashmir and Jammu. “Now Kashmiris are saying they won’t load goods on trucks coming in from Jammu. Because Jammu is largely in favour of the abrogation and things are near normal, so the Kashmiris don’t like it. So, there’s an unwritten rule now that any vehicle coming from Jammu should not be entertained.”
The voices of discontent began to cascade.
One said, “We had 25-30 tourist buses going every day to Kashmir. Now there’s no one to take tours. Not one bus is going out.”
“Next Set of People to Commit Suicide Will be Transporters”
Kashmir has lived with lockdowns for over thirty years. Jammu has not. It is not used to this rupture with the norm. It is unused to hoarding away for the winter. Another businessman added his tale of woes to the list. “I have a garments business. It’s at zero right now. I have three months’ worth of payments pending from Kashmir. That’s not happening. 50 percent of my business is with Kashmir. Then tourists come to the Pir Panjal ranges to buy stuff. That’s also stopped.” He continued, “Initially we were very happy with the abrogation because we had no idea how it was going to affect us. Then a curfew was imposed. Now there is no clarity about anything. I’ve had to sack most of my workers.”
The government was making it out as if it was in order to improve their business that they had acted. ‘We’re doing this for you! ‘Smile, please,’ was the hard message being fixed to their faces like rigor mortis. Stiff. One transporter said quite plainly, “The next set of people to commit suicide (in this country) will be transporters.”
Plight of Minority Students At a Hindu-Majority Campus
If this was the state of the Hindus of Jammu, who make up 65 percent of its population, then what could be happening to minorities? We hadn’t thought much about this until we had a conversation with a group of students from various minority groups studying at Jammu University. It’s a pretty campus, and unlike the monoliths of grey concrete and pre-fab malls that have taken over the town, the university is full of sprawling trees and big, green lawns. And toxic air. Students from various minority groups – mainly nomadic tribes listed under the scheduled castes and tribes list, sat in a huddle and said that they fear for their lives. This is a Hindu-majority campus and the politics of hate is doing its job.
“We have our local identities here,” said one student. “We are Gujjar, Bakerwal, Pahadi, Dogra. But we are increasingly being termed only as Kashmiris and looked upon as if we are all terrorists and Pakistan supporters. There is no one amongst us who has not voted or who didn’t believe in the Indian democracy. We were firm believers in the Constitution of India. But from 5 August it seems as if a particular community is being targeted across India.”
Another student said, “What was said to us by online trolls is now being said face to face. The same abusive language.”
Do You See Jammu’s ‘Second-Class’ Citizens Celebrating?
The students spoke in unison when they said that their university is now an ‘RSS hub’. “After 5 August the RSS has been organising programmes openly within the university campus,” a student said. “About 20-25 professors are part of the RSS and they organise shakhas or the RSS group meetings on campus, and play these out on loudspeakers. Some 4-5 professors have RSS programme posters in their rooms.”
We could not verify the students’ claims independently for fear of putting them at risk, when we had met them undercover. But the fear they radiated was palpable and real. We understood clearly, that this was the reason that, of the numerous people we contacted while we were in Jammu, less than half agreed to meet or even speak to us on the phone. Whatever the Indian government tries to spin, fear was our only overarching takeaway from our visit to Jammu. As we left, the words of the students we met rang in our heads.
“We have accepted we are second-class citizens. In one of the discussions with our classmates, we said – it’s okay, you take away our rights, even the right to vote. But at least discuss some important issues. The economy has derailed, at least talk about it.”
This is probably not what the European delegates on their two-day visit will see or be shown. The rest of us however, can choose to look with other eyes.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)