Srinagar: The Union government has dropped the soft-gloves approach it adopted towards pro-independence protests of the past few weeks in Kashmir and reverted to a tough line in dealing with the separatist campaign in the valley.
Ghost town: CRPF personnel keep a vigil during curfew in Srinagar on Tuesday. A tight curfew has been enforced in the city and 10 districts of Kashmir since Sunday to deter protests. Photograph: S. Irfan / PTI
A tight curfew has been enforced in Srinagar to deter protests. If Friday, at the Idgah grounds, belonged to the protesters and their slogans of “azadi”, or freedom, the clampdown since Sunday has turned Srinagar into a ghost city. The historic Lal Chowk, where Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani were supposed to lead a silent protest on Monday, has become a virtual garrison.
The clampdown followed the arrival in Srinagar last Wednesday of national security adviser M.K. Narayanan, with Intelligence Bureau chief P.C. Halder and defence secretary Vijay Singh in tow.
Several government officials as well as those outside government in positions of authority, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Narayanan’s visit indicated a hardening in Delhi’s handling of the Kashmir Valley.
Narayanan is seen as the most powerful man dealing with Jammu and Kashmir today.
The government’s new line envisages an end to the “pandering” of Kashmir’s separatist calls for freedom, and dovetails a package currently being worked out with the Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti (SASS) in Jammu on the use of land for Hindu pilgrims headed to the Amarnath shrine in the Kashmir mountains.
Over the last few weeks, the Kashmiri separatist campaign included protests ranging from the “Muzaffarabad chalo” (To Muzaffarabad) march to the Line of Control on 11 August to the Idgah rally on 22 August, attended by an estimated 400,000 people.
In Jammu, the anti-valley campaign, meanwhile, intensified.
On Saturday night, SEN, a local television network in the valley, broadcast an hour-long interview with the pro-Pakistan United Jehad Council leader Syed Salahuddin, a Kashmiri who has lived in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, for several years.
The Cable Regulation Act was enforced and SEN taken off the air on Sunday, coinciding with the imposition of the curfew.
One of two cable operators in the valley, SEN retaliated by taking off the air all the national news channels being distributed on the network in Kashmir.
“India could not be seen to be weak in the face of the separatist challenge, and moreover, seen to be relinquishing its advantage in Kashmir, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan,” said a Kashmiri observer, who declined to be named.
Several Kashmiris, pointing out that Delhi’s “militaristic approach” to the valley has failed in the past, are asking why the Centre is refusing to adopt a “political approach.”
A Congress party politician in New Delhi indicated that after home minister Shivraj Patil’s failure to deal with the crisis, both in Srinagar as well as in Jammu, the level of dialogue with both sides may well be upgraded.
The politician, who declined to be named, noted that external affairs minister and government’s chief trouble-shooter Pranab Mukherjee had already been named head of the recently revived Kashmir cell of the party.
Jammu has been largely under a self-imposed civil curfew over SASS’s demand for the transfer of 100 acres of land to manage the Amarnath pilgrimage expanded to include an economic blockade against the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh, on the ground.
The campaign, backed by the extreme right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as well as its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), widened the communal divide in the state.
As they wrapped themselves in the Tricolour, Jammu’s agitators taunted Delhi for keeping quiet in the face of “pro-Pakistan Kashmiris,” who, as BJP state president Ashok Khajuria said, “only wanted to wave the green flag.”
With the visit of Narayanan, it appears as if Delhi has decided that if the Jammu agitation was to be contained, it had to be balanced by a crackdown on separatists in the valley.
Analysts in Srinagar said they were surprised it took so long for the government to assert itself by imposing curfew on Sunday, 48 long hours after the Idgah rally demonstrated a profound anger as well as rising frustration against Delhi.
Kashmir separatist leaders were all set to underline the strength of their movement at the Lal Chowk on Monday. Except, the Mirwaiz and Geelani had been arrested Sunday morning and the residences of other Hurriyat leaders such as Shabir Shah and Naeem Khan were raided, although both had already left home.
Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik courteously courted arrest at the Lal Chowk on Monday morning, indicating that the movement was beginning to lose steam.
Still, small pockets of resistance continued to be reported, for example from Beerwah town, some 35km from Srinagar, where protesting crowds have repeatedly defied curfew and challenged the army into firing bullets in the air.