J & K settles to a simmer

A SHORT visit to Srinagar tells you that bullets and bunkers have not lessened in Kashmir. It is still a cantonment. People's alienation has not decreased. In fact, they are more indifferent than before, as if they have seen the worst. But they are vocal and the incipient press they have is bold and articulate. However, the insurgency is practically over, although the embers of militancy continue to burn. The Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, admits that persons are still picked up by the security forces. The authorities also concede that there are ``deaths in custody'' but they claim a marked decline. The main bazaar, where the famous Lal Chowk is located, is far more crowded than it was last summer. The police are prominently visible. Once in a while, a military truck goes up and down. Otherwise, local vehicles and people throng the place.

``The situation,'' a top official said, ``was returning to normality when the Kargil operation disrupted the security apparatus which had been built over a long period.'' Things would be all right in a few months from now, he said. Normality may take time to prevail because fear still stalks the land, the fear of militants and of security forces. In the countryside, people are harassed by both, the militants wanting shelter and food and the security forces wanting to know their whereabouts.

Interrogation centres have gone down in number but searches continue in the same old fashion. There are still scores of people in detention under the Public Safety Act (PSA). The latest Amnesty International report says: ``The law has been used by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir to arbitrarily detain political activists. People held in preventive detention include those who have not committed any offence and have not used or advocated violence, as well as those who have used violence and committed offences. Some amongst both groups may have been charged with criminal offences but the State uses preventive detention legislation to detain them when it anticipates their release on bail granted by a court. All are held on the purported presumption that they may in the future commit acts that are harmful to the State.'' The State Human Rights Commission has vainly reported certain instances of excesses. Many habeas corpus petitions are pending before the State High Court. In some cases, the police have not complied with orders directing the release of certain persons.

The problem of the common man is not so much the security forces or the militants as his living. He faces economic hardships more than anything else. At least, one lakh educated unemployed youths are looking for jobs. This is a combustible material. Some of them are going across the border for training and getting arms. Last year the number had gone down but it has increased once again. The money offered is Rs. 10,000 a month and Rs. 1 lakh for the family. Avenues for employment are limited. It was evident from the response the Army had when it advertised for local recruitment. Five thousand young men turned up for some 60 vacancies. ``Had public and private undertakings in India given jobs to the young Kashmiris and taken them to the different parts of the country, the problem would have been solved by this time,'' says Dr. Abdullah. ``Even now it is not too late.''

The State Government's resolution on autonomy and, more so, the Centre's rejection, are the topic of discussion. Hurriyat Conference leaders may say that the resolution does not affect their demand for independence. But the fact is that they were worried when the resolution was passed. In fact, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, who has the largest base amongst them, says autonomy can be a starting point of discussion for azadi (independence). In any case, the Centre's rejection of the resolution has disappointed the Kashmiris. It may turn out to be a popular plank for Dr. Abdullah when the State goes to the polls next year.

The Valley has very few Hindus and Sikhs left. However, the hold of fundamentalists has weakened. There was a time when cinema halls were closed on their order. They are now open and running to capacity. Music was banned but it is now louder than the traffic. People were prohibited from going to the Moghal Garden in Srinagar. They frequent it like they did in the past. Also burqa-clad women are a rare sight. Young boys and girls are seen at cafes and restaurants without any elder accompanying them. The Government is trying to bring back the Kashmiri pandits. But it does not seem possible because what was known as ``Kashmiriyat'' is a thing of the past. The atmosphere has become so parochial that you can taste communalism in the Valley and Jammu. Ladakh does not want to associate itself with either of them. Still there are many who miss the togetherness of the past. One senior Muslim editor told me at Srinagar that he would give anything to have the Kashmiri pandits back. ``I want to hear them talking in my language,'' he said. ``Their absence is, indeed, what you call the violation of human rights.''

Amnesty International has reconstructed the killing of Sikhs in Chithisinghpora, a village in Anantnag district. On the evening of March 20, according to its report, 15 or 17 unidentified gunmen, some in Indian army uniform, entered the village. They ordered the Sikh men to assemble and systematically shot 34 of them dead from close range. Several of them were injured, one of whom succumbed to his injuries later. A unit of paramilitary Rashtriya Rifles (RR) stationed close to the village failed to intervene and only visited the place of incident the following morning. Whereas members of the Hindu minority have been targeted frequency by the armed groups, Sikhs and Muslims have lived in harmony without a single attack on Sikhs, says Amnesty International. The fact that many members of the army and central police force stationed in Jammu and Kashmir are Sikhs did not have any negative impact on their relations with the Muslim majority. After the incident, Muslims pleaded that Sikhs - many of whom felt insecure - should not leave Jammu and Kashmir. The community has stayed back. Three human rights activists from Punjab investigated the incident in mid-April. They found that between 15 and 20 Urdu-speaking armed men had come to the village several times prior to the massacre and mixed freely with the villagers. According to the local population, they were careless with their arms, hanging them on trees while playing cricket with local boys. Several of them had visited the village earlier and were reportedly recognised as the attackers of March 20. Some local observers told the activists that they did not believe the attackers to be ``foreign mercenaries'' as they had returned repeatedly to the village and handled their arms very casually.

The human rights activists concluded that ``dress, language, careless handling of arms and behaviour are all factors that speak against the security forces' involvement in the unlawful killing,'' Amnesty International quotes in its report. For the first time, it has said in its report that Pakistan was not only helping the Kashmiri militants morally and politically but also supplying them with arms. This statement seems to be in line with the observation by some European and American organisations which blamed Islamabad for helping the militants.

As if to make amends for the bad name which some Muslims have given to Islam, the affluent Muslims in Kochi have come together to retrieve its prestige. They have constituted an organisation, Faith and Fraternity, which conducts every year an essay competition on Islam for Hindu students from all over the country. ``Islam as I know,'' was the topic of the last essay competition. Some 1,500 Hindu boys and girls participated in it and the 76 winners journeyed to Kochi at the expense of the organisers to receive a cash prize, as much as Rs. 80,000, for the first position.