Naya Kashmir’s unapologetic new ‘heroes’

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When Kashmiri unionists addressed an Indian audience, they often blamed Kashmir’s popular sentiment for their inability to deliver. When they spoke to Kashmiris, they held New Delhi responsible for their shortcomings.

This doublespeak — which critics of Kashmiri unionists call “demonising” India — was tolerated by New Delhi till it abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy in August 2019 and took the region under its direct control.

Since then the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal government has shrunk the middle ground in Kashmir, choking the manoeuvrability of Kashmiri politicians and seemingly leaving them with just one option, they are either with or against New Delhi.

Amid the chokehold on politics in “Naya Kashmir”, new voices are emerging — many with overt state patronage — unapologetically in favour of New Delhi, even hailing its unilateral decision on 5 August 2019 that Kashmiris perceive as a final assault on their existence.

India or Pakistan

Two months after the abrogation, these emerging voices were showcased on the Indian television channel Republic, widely criticised for its brazen endorsement of the government and the ruling BJP, as future leaders of Kashmir.

“These voices you will see on the debate tonight…” declared Arnab Goswami, the channel’s owner and perhaps India’s most widely recognised television anchor whose proximity to the ruling party is well known, “are the true representatives of Naya Kashmir.

The debate pitted the “real representatives” against the television channel’s usual troupe of opposition panelists. The televised match was the debut of the politics to be espoused by – as Goswami called it – a Kashmir “emerging” after the abrogation.

“The middle way, which some [in Kashmir] have espoused for seventy years, has ended,” proclaimed activist Sajid Yousuf, among those projected as the real representatives. “Either you have to be with India or you have to be with Pakistan.”

Hailing from north Kashmir’s Kupwara, Yousuf is a regular face on Indian television and on social media, defending India and offering an alternative to what is the popular sentiment of Kashmir. A lawyer by qualification, he heads the non-government organisation All J-K Youth Society and is the founder of Real Kashmir news portal.

Interspersed with footage of Kashmir youth lining up for recruitment at an Indian Army centre in north Kashmir, the debate was also participated by Mir Junaid of the J-K Workers Party, a new party that has picked a fight with virtually every political party but the BJP.

Soon after the abrogation, pictures went viral of Mir wearing a three-piece suit in New Delhi’s heat to meet the Home Minister Amit Shah. He, too, is a regular on television and had, along with Yousuf, taken out an unprecedented public protest on the streets of Srinagar against Pakistan on 22 October 2020, the day marking the tribal invasion of J-K.

In another debate with largely the same participants, Mir presented his vision for J-K. “As we grow, I am coming up with a roadmap with a hell lot of solutions,” he said as he handed a black hardbound book to Goswami, who then read it out for the audience: “One Prime Minister, One Nation, One Constitution… that is the solution.”

Joining him on the real representative’s side was activist Touseef Raina, who defeated the resource-rich Apni Party to take over as the head of the Baramulla Municipal Committee. He envisages a future where youth “live for Kashmir” and not die.

“We gave militancy a chance, we gave the National Conference a chance, we gave the PDP a chance… [but] where are [Kashmir’s] youth? They are in graves,” Raina said on the show. “I tell the youth to not pick up guns. You have given everyone a chance, now give us a chance as well.”

Stooge or separatist?

Beyond the emerging leaders are also those like Srinagar Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu, who after switching parties finally ended up in the Altaf Bukhari led Apni Party, derided as the “King’s party” by Mattu’s former senior colleagues in the National Conference.

Mattu has also remained steadfast on the Indian side, even if he has remained reluctant about committing to one party, ever since he wound up his pro-freedom political past. A former investment banker in the United States, Mattu is also the president of the Apni Party’s youth wing.

His decision to once again switch parties, Mattu had told The Kashmir Walla in an interview last year, was based on “a principled stand — to contribute to the emergence of an alternative.” He is in favour of the restoration of J-K’s limited autonomy but believes that it can be only through the Supreme Court and the parliament.

But it is a former politician and bureaucrat-in-limbo Shah Faesal’s defence of India and the BJP that stands out from the rest. A household name in Kashmir after he topped the highly competitive Indian Administrative Services exam in 2010, Faesal resigned from service to form his own political party. 

He was self-statedly inspired by Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. On 13 August 2019, Faesal had tweeted that the “Abolition of Article 370 has finished the mainstream. Constitutionalists are gone. So you can either be a stooge or a separatist now. No shades of grey.”

He was soon detained and came out a different man when released ten months later. The “elimination of the grey zone from” J-K’s politics, he now contends, is “the most heartening development that will bring a lot of respite to the lives of the people in the days to come.”

Since his release, Faesal’s only online activity has been heaping praise on New Delhi’s politics. His politics is perhaps best described by a headline in the rightwing blog The Frustrated Indian: “Shah Faesal beats the most seasoned Bhakts in worshipping Prime Minister Modi.”

“Real Heroes”

In March 2021, the South Asia Peace Movement headed by Tariq Bhat, who also owns the Asian News Network (ANN), invited Indian parliamentarians to Srinagar to present “Real Heroes” awards to those “who had been ignored by the system”.

The families of bureaucrats and politicians, Bhat said had “done enough in the past seventy years, had usurped a lot. Now new people should come forward.” The event was to propel them into the limelight.

“Parliamentarians have a constitutional post. An award from them is like a blank cheque, you can cash it anywhere,” added Bhat. “If a government employee, even police, receives an award from them, it gets recorded in their service book. It is not a small thing.”

“People who were for an independent Kashmir or [merger with] Pakistan earlier have taken up the flag today to prove that they are with India but such people can never be our own,” he said. “They are the biggest traitors who shouldn’t be trusted.”

This was precisely the criteria used by the jury – kept a secret by Bhat for “security reasons” – to judge the “more than five thousand applications”, he said. The awards were presented to Srinagar Mayor Mattoo, Mir and Yousuf as well as their television nemesis Majid Hyderi besides several members of the police force, journalists, and social activists among others.

Bhat has organised several events in the past before the Real Heroes event and said that more events – “all at central level” – will be held in the future, with another award ceremony this summer with a larger delegation of parliamentarians to give out “superheroes awards”.

Kashmir had changed, said Bhat. “People are not saying that we don’t want this award because it is Indian,” he said. “Many people complained that we were not awarded.”

A day before he was detained, Faesal had told the BBC that New Delhi had betrayed and alienated each generation of Kashmiris since 1947. With the abrogation in 2019, “it’s my generation which has now got the taste of betrayal.” 

Will this generation of unapologetic Kashmiri leaders — as Shah had said before his change of heart — also taste New Delhi’s betrayal? Time will tell.

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