NEW DELHI — 24 days have gone by since the Modi government severed mobile connections, shut down the internet in Jammu and Kashmir, and imposed a curfew after abrogating its special constitutional status on 5 August.
Rahul Pandita was one of the first reporters on the ground following the abrogation, tweeting updates about the curfew, the communication blackout, and how people were coping with the lockdown.
Pandita, whose family was among the thousands of Kashmiri Pandit families forced to flee Kashmir in the early nineties, believes the abrogation of Article 370 is good for J&K. It is the perceived ambiguity of Kashmir’s relationship with India that has plagued the region and its people, he believes, and this decision eliminates any ambiguity, once and for all.
Pandita, however, says that the Modi government is going overboard with respect to the continuing restrictions, arrests and detentions.
A doctor has been arrested for saying that the communication blackout could cause deaths, somewhere between 2,000 to 4,000 Kashmiris are reportedly under detention, while many families have not even been informed about their whereabouts. At least three people have died in the aftermath of the abrogation.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Pandita talked about how the Modi government is hurting itself in Kashmir, the Hindu right’s penchant for pitting Kashmiri pandits against Kashmiri Muslims, and how he was catching internet in the days after 5 August. “The anger is only increasing, even for those who find themselves on the fence right now,” he said.
How long were you in Kashmir and what did you see?
I was there for 10 days. I landed in Kashmir on the afternoon of 5 August. As a journalist, in the first few dispatches, and on Twitter, I tried to give the sight and sound of the place. There was a complete communication blackout, no mobile phones, no landlines and no internet. The restrictions that I saw on the road were soft. If you had a vehicle or you were on foot, you could easily go from one place to another, except in certain areas like downtown Srinagar, which was under complete lockdown, and high security areas like Gupkar road. But apart from that, the restrictions were soft. Most of the shops were closed but if you went inside a little, you could see many shops were open. So you could get vegetables, meat, etcetera. But when you spoke to people, there was a complete sense of anger. It was my sense that 90% did not know what the abrogation of Article 370 meant.
Can you tell us how you had internet in those early days.
I really cannot. That is what my grudge was. If you’re a reporter, and you’ve been reporting from Kashmir for 30 years, like some of my seniors, then don’t tell me that you can’t get 10 minutes worth of internet, every day. There is a flicker of internet here and there. My source of internet is not a big state secret, but I’m not revealing it because I don’t want to put my source in trouble. My source was working against the government diktat. If I reveal my source ― you know the internet is still working at that particular place and some people are benefiting from it ― journalists, non-journalists.
So, basically good old fashioned jugaad?
Old fashioned jugaad. That’s the word for it.
You posted a video of traffic on one road, which got some backlash, with people pointing out that downtown Srinagar was under lockdown. What is the value in saying that there is some vehicular movement, when the overwhelming sentiment was that of anger.
People that I learnt journalism from told me that when you go to a particular place where a significant event has happened, the first thing you do in your initial dispatches is to give people a sense of what is happening. That’s what I did. If you follow my Twitter account, and my threads, I have repeatedly said that just because there are vehicles on the road, it should not be inferred that the situation is normal in Kashmir. I made continuous note of the fact that people were angry and agitated.
I also made note of the fact that there were a significant number of people in Kashmir who do not care about the abrogation of this Article. Some of them are happy about the abrogation of this Article, but they cannot come out in the open, simply because of extremism. They fear that people who support the idea of India in Kashmir have is that the Indian state has repeatedly failed to protect its interests in Kashmir, and they do not trust the Indian state for their own protection.
Under this government, people speaking against the abrogation might fear arrest, but they still do.
The fear is on both sides, but it’s not comparable. The worst the Indian state will do is arrest you…
Getting arrested is scary.
What is scarier, getting arrested by New Delhi or a militant landing up at your doorstep and killing you and your family.
In your interview with NPR, you said that “silent majority” was in favour of the abrogation. That’s a pretty big claim to make.
It is a fact.
But how do gauge that. How many people did you speak with 1, 20, 50, 100, 500?
It’s not only about my dispatches from Kashmir for the last 10 days. My engagement with Kashmir is on a day-to-day basis. So, I know from speaking to people for the past many many years that there is a significant number of people in Kashmir, who may not have any love for the idea of India, but they are wise enough to understand that their future and interest lies with the idea of India.
Now, what happened was that in 2014, when the Narendra Modi government came, they thought that it was an ultra-nationalist Hindutva government. They thought that if Mr. Modi cannot fix things now, nobody can. What happened right after Mr. Modi assumed power. They made an alliance with a party (Peoples Democratic Party) that is seen as the propagators of soft secessionism in Kashmir. A lot of these people thought that if an ultra nationalist party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also has to embrace the same people then what chance do we stand when it comes to opening up our narrative, when it comes to coming out of the so called closet and openly speaking about the atrocities that have been perpetrated upon ordinary Kashmiris by jihadi militants, by terrorists, by separatists, by stone throwers etcetera. So, they kept shut. This time, they want to come out, but they are not sure whether this is something permanent. They are not sure whether the Indian government will put them back in the hands of National Conference (NC) or the PDP. So, they are exercising a lot of caution. When things stabilize a bit, when things open up a bit, you will see in the next few months that many of these people will come out and say openly what they feel about the abrogation of Article 370.
Surely you don’t mean Kashmiri Muslims having faith in the Modi government. Do you mean Kashmiri Muslims?
Yes. I’m talking about Kashmir Valley.
So, you are saying the vast majority of Kashmiri Muslims...
I’m not saying a vast majority, but a significant number. If you speak with people of the older generation, they often speak about aar ya paar ―let this go here or let this go there. Now, they know that paar is no longer an option because they have seen the deaths of thousands of people, of the youth, of their children. In my assessment, they are not willing to make those sacrifices again, sacrificing 20,000-30,000 people at the altar of an idea to do with Pakistan. They want to give India a chance. They know what will happen if they accede to Pakistan. They know the fate of Muhajirs, Shia, Ahmediyas, and they know the kind of economy Pakistan has. They may not have any inherent overflowing love for India, but I think they are wise enough to understand that their future lies with India.
Kashmiris were already giving India a chance, but with respect to the abrogation of Article 370…
How were they giving India a chance?
It was business as usual…
That’s not giving India a chance.
Are you saying a significant number of Kashmiris want the abrogation of Article 370?
No, not the abrogation. They want normalcy in their lives. And they see the abrogation of 370 as an important step in bringing normalcy in their lives.
I was very disappointed to see just one narrative coming from Kashmir. Everything that you see is from the prism of that barbed wire. Now, I’m not for one minute saying that is not one of the truths of Kashmir, but Kashmir is about so many other things. Ten percent of Kashmir Valley is Shia, and not all of them are supporting the abrogation of Article 370, but many of them are. Have you read one single dispatch about what the Shia community feels. There are about 80,000 policemen in Kashmir Valley. Many of them are directly affected by militancy. I personally know people who live in places like Sopore, Anantnag, Pulwama, who have not been able to go to their homes in two or three years.
On the first day, you showed five or ten people in some goddamn galli in Jammu, distributing streets and dancing. Then, another set of people say that this (the abrogation of Article 370) is not good. Someone said that the circumstances in which Kashmiri pandits left in the 1990s is debatable. The truth lies somewhere in between. In the majority of the KPKM (Kashmiri Pandit, Kashmiri Muslim) ecosystem, there is no sense of victory. There is no sense of defeat. There are personal relationships that have been maintained throughout these 30 years.
I want to go back to what you said to the NPR. A significant number is different from the silent majority.
Let the people come out. We don’t know that. Maybe there is a silent majority. My impression is that there is a silent majority. If it is not now, then it will be there when things become stable and people start believing India will be a permanent protector in Kashmir. You will be surprised at the number of people who will come out and say Bharat Mata Ki Jai in Kashmir.
If there was a silent majority, or even a significant number, the very fact that government has to clampdown and cut off communication for 23 days, suggests the complete opposite.
How many people actually come out on the streets in Kashmir and in how many districts. It is less than five percent of the population. Right? Five percent of the population can create havoc from New Delhi’s point of view. (HuffPost India cannot verify the 5% figure).
I think the government has learnt a lot of lessons from 2016 because of the chaos that has erupted in the aftermath of the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani. The situation went completely out of hand. There were areas in Pulwama and Shopian, where the police and the civil administration could not enter for weeks, for months. I think the biggest fear of the government is that there are mobile phone apps like Whatsapp, the internet primarily, is used by the overground workers of terrorist groups to get people together, to incite violence. That said, I think a lot of ordinary people are suffering because of the communication blackout. The Indian Expressstory today is really heartbreaking. I think it’s high time to ease some of the restrictions at least partially if not completely.
The kind of restrictions which have been imposed for 23 days supports the narrative that the abrogation is a deeply deeply unpopular move amongst the vast majority of Kashmiris.
I feel like you through your reporting have tried to suggest otherwise.
Not really. I did two cover stories for Open Magazine. They both very explicitly say there is anger. The anger is only increasing, even for those who find themselves on the fence right now. I don’t know what New Delhi is thinking. In other places similar things have happened. During the Gorkha land agitation in Darjeeling in 2017, the internet was off for 100 days. I’m not saying that this is a justification for what has happened in Kashmir. Like you, I can only hope that New Delhi listens now and eases some of the restrictions.
The anger is only increasing, even for those who find themselves on the fence right now.
When you say the anger is increasing, where do you think this anger is going to go?
Nobody knows. The opinion is really divided even among people who are working in the security grid. There is one section of people who think that nothing is going to happen right now ― maybe ― it will turn into something else six months or a year later. The inflection point maybe something else, but the anger will be the residue of what happened on 5 August. The other school of thought is that when restrictions are lifted on the internet, there are enough mischief mongers to make use of that, and the overground workers of militants to incite people.
Like a cop said to me ’doodh mein ek ubaal to ayega’ (the milk will come to a boil). I think there is a very strong possibility that doodh mein woh ubaal ayega. Now when that happens, frankly, I don’t think anyone has a template to understand and to what extent that will go.
If the vast majority of Kashmiris are angry at this decision, then was a unilateral abrogation not the wrong way to go.
I don’t know. I can’t speak on behalf of what New Delhi is thinking. As a journalist, I’m really torn apart. On the one hand, I know for sure that apart from the difficulties that we have just talked about, it is also a fact that no casualty has happened, so far. It’s a catch 22 situation. I hope the government listens to people and at least partially eases some of these restrictions.
Three tear gas deaths have been reported and we reported on the first death of a 17-year-old who was being chased by the CRPF.
I know, I know...
(There have been two tear gas deaths. The error is regretted by the interviewer).
And you yourself tweeted about the truck driver who was killed by stone-pelting protestors. That death is also a consequence of the current situation.
I was only referring to deaths caused by the security forces. Now, there is a little controversy on what happened to the 17-year-old boy. But let’s say that three deaths have happened…
Four deaths, but that is a much lesser number than hundreds or 200 or 150. If you look at the template of 2016, a majority of deaths happened in the first ten days. So, maybe it has saved some lives at this point of time.
As a Kashmiri Pandit, how do you feel about the abrogation of Article 370?
As a Kashmiri Pandit, I feel nothing about it. There is no sense of victory or defeat. But as a journalist, as a well wisher, who has a stake in the story of Kashmir ― from what we have seen in Kashmir in the past 30 years, and what we have heard was happening in Kashmir in the past 70 years ― I think the abrogation of Article 370 will mean good in the longer run for the future of Kashmiris.
For the past 70 years, New Delhi has encouraged Kashmiri leaders to say one language in New Delhi, and say another language in Kashmir, and this has made the people schizophrenic, and I say this word very responsibly. It is schizophrenia. They feel a little bipolarity in themselves. I think with the abrogation of this article, this bipolarity will be gone and they will be aware of the fact that their accession to the idea of India is full and final.
In the last 70 years, we have heard this too often: in October, 1947, Kashmiris chose India against Pakistan. Whenever these words come out of the mouth of an activist, or an analyst, or a former army officer, it sounds as if the Indian state should have some kind of permanent gratitude towards Kashmiris who chose it over Pakistan. At the very least, the gratitude should be mutual. I think now the time has come for Kashmiris to accept that in 1947, the Indian state chose to intervene on their behalf and made Kashmir a part of India.
The time has come for Kashmiris to accept that in 1947, the Indian state chose to intervene on their behalf and made Kashmir a part of India.
Okay, so earlier we talked about how this move was unpopular among the vast majority of Kashmiris. It sounds as if you are saying that it still has to be rammed down people’s throats?
Like I said, 90% of the people that I spoke to have absolutely no idea what the exactitude of the abrogation of this Article means. I think that people are very angry about the fact that Kashmir’s two mainstream political parties have led them to nothing over the past 70 years.There is a massive outreach program underway. We will have to see how the majority of the people take it when the government hopefully ensures that industries open up, cinema halls open up. The sense that we are getting from the Government of India right now, is that they are serious about some of these things.
What about the manner in which it was done, in defiance of the rule of law and due process. Does that not set a bad precedent.
It does, it does. But I think in the longer run, if New Delhi is able to do some of these things, this will be forgiven.
But that is such a slippery slope. If they do it with J&K today, what’s stopping them from going after another state?
It could go anywhere, I agree.
Very often, the response to anything about Kashmiri Muslims, especially from trolls, is what about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. What do you think of this whataboutery?
First, let’s look at the Indian government’s attitude toward this whataboutery. The BJP has also used this whataboutery for a long time. In the nineties, the BJP became a national movement on two planks; the Ayodhya movement and Kashmir. But if you notice the pattern of conversation over the past few months, there has been no mention of Kashmiri Pandits from the government side. The new conversation is that 370 was abrogated as an answer to the martyrdom to the jawans who died from Jind to Begusarai to Bhopal. Those from the security forces, who fell in Kashmir, are the new Kashmiri Pandits for this government.
I have often said this, as an author who has written a memoir of what happened to Kashmiri Pandits, one pain does not have to exist at the cost of another pain. What happened to Kashmiri Pandits is tragic. The fact that no one cared about them in the 1990s is tragic. But that does not mean anything similar is done to Kashmir Muslims. Indians should not have any sense of victory. I think the biggest enemy of Indian state are the TV channels, right now. The kind of images and voices they are propagating are really really poisonous. Even in 2017, when I was in Kashmir and DCP Ayub was murdered, the reality was far different from the images I saw on television. I hope the government takes a view on the poisonous view of some TV channels which I’m assuring them is damaging their cause in Kashmir.
I hope the government takes a view on the poisonous view of some TV channels which I’m assuring them is damaging their cause in Kashmir.
You are saying that the abrogation might lead to good things, but isn’t ramming it down the throats of eight million Kashmiris antithetical to democracy.
I don’t know. At the end of the day, I’m just a journalist. Of course, some of these things are against the very spirit of democracy, but I guess sometimes you have to do certain things, and this is one of those things.
You tweeted about the Kashmiri doctor getting arrested. Why is the government doing this?
The government is nervous.
It is appalling. I’ve talked about the inherent weakness of the state, which it can’t do away with. And there is the brute force which the state sometimes uses. We are seeing both of them at the same time, not just in Kashmir, but also with the Gorkhas or how the disciples of Baba Ram Rahim were handled ― 36 dead in a matter of a few minutes. At the same time, the government does not understand a certain optics. Half of this war is being fought on social media. I think all of us should unequivocally protest this arrest or detention.
I think all of us should unequivocally protest this arrest or detention.
It’s not just about the optics is it? If he is telling the truth, and other doctors have made similar claims, then it is a health problem that the government is trying to conceal. That’s vicious.
But that’s true isn’t it. You saw The Indian Express report today. I think that baby could have been saved if the person could have made a phone call. I think some of these things have happened and there is no use denying that fact.
Many people have now said that the army and the J&K police are conducting raids, taking away young men and boys, even children. They are being flown out to prison in different cities. There is no due process. You can’t treat people like this.
I am aware that some people were picked up from South Kashmir, but the names that I was given were overground workers of militants. If minors have been picked up, as some reports suggest, I’m not aware of it.
There are reports of 2,000 to 4,000 people being detained, but the government is not saying who or where they are. Not even to their families.
I think the government should come clean with some of these things. I would say ease some of these restrictions. It serves no one that landlines are not working or that mobile phones are not working. If you want to switch off the internet, keep it switched off for sometime, but at least allow mobile calls. If the milk has to come to a boil once, it will come to a boil, even after two months. If you are thinking of waiting for two months, until the winter sets in, I think it is a mistake. I think they should come clean with some of the issues that reporters have been talking about including the detention of an X number of people.
If the milk has to come to a boil once, it will come to a boil, even after two months.
As someone who has reported on Kashmir for a long time, who has a sense of the threat - terror or otherwise — is this all not very excessive.
It is. At least now, it is high time that they ease restrictions. It will lead to further anger which is not in the interest of New Delhi.
Do you feel that journalists have got divided into Left and Right, libtards and Bhakts, to the extent that we have stopped engaging with each other, and it is tainting our work.
I think these classifications have happened after Mr. Modi came to power. We have just stopped listening to each other. We have just stopped engaging with each other. Engaging doesn’t mean that you have to engage with fascists. But you can engage with people who feel strongly about certain things. If you look at the Kashmir narrative right now, people make it seem like before 5 August, Kashmir was some Parisian bistro in which things were alright. And that’s exactly what you did before 2014 and after 2014. Before Narendra Modi came to power, it’s not as if India rivers flowed with milk. After Narendra Modi, it’s not as if India’s rivers are flowing with milk. So, there has to be a certain sense of proportion. I think that sense of proportion is missing from both sides. The moment you digress from a certain template that is set in the minds of certain people, you are immediately dubbed as a cog in the wheel of Hindutva forces. It is a problem.
I think that sense of proportion is missing from both sides.
But the advantage is with those who agree with the government’s point of view, like the big Hindi and English TV channels have a pro-government narrative. The so called liberals are a few websites and Twitter.
So what have the liberal journalists done about it?
Are we collectively, Left and Right, failing as journalists.
Yes, we are.