Corona outbreak in times of fragile peace
For the strife-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir, Covid-19 is yet another burden. It is a sad reality. As the LG administration is geared to tackle the “viral load”, can it fill the void of the popular government?
BY: UZAIR SIMNANI
Countries with the finest healthcare system available were caught unaware as the tiny microbe hit the globe. It added insult to the injury to war-ravaging regions. The major focus in these conflict-ridden areas for governments remains the continued investment in defense and security. As a result, areas such as education and public health take a back seat and are often the worst sufferers. In contemporary times, the Covid-19 pandemic definitely presents an unprecedented challenge to public health systems and economies around the globe. As of now, its political ramifications are yet to be assessed in its entirety.
Continued Kashmir conundrum is a widely debated topic. Life in Kashmir was limping back to ‘normalcy’ after reading down Article 370 post August 05, 2019 when the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was downgraded and bifurcated into two union territories. Children were finally back to school after seven months since education had become the first casualty. Even though the state administration wanted schools to reopen, but parents were anxious about sending their children to schools amidst this chaos. Internet getting restored in a phased manner was seen as a sign of normalcy being tacitly restored, though hinging on compliance of necessary law and order protocols for security in the valley. High-speed mobile internet still remains inaccessible in Jammu and Kashmir. Violence in Kashmir has dramatically declined post the abrogation, but this has not created a stable political order. Delhi has not succeeded in overcoming the contradiction between its articulated ideals of ‘‘normalcy’’ and its actual policy, which undermines those ideals.
Aug 05, 2019 decision angered people. It hurt the people of Jammu and Kashmir to the core. The people had an emotional connection with the special status and ensuing legacy of struggle for what was considered our right to freedom of self-determination. During election rallies, we used to hear “Choun Izzat Myon Izzat Trehath Satatth” which loosely translates into “your dignity and my dignity is Article 370”.
People have realized the futility of the violence post-August 05 decision. It was a big win for people who believe in non-violence, as violence begets violence. There were almost no civilian killings. No protests, no stone pelting. Nothing. Just silence. Earlier people in large numbers would gather around encounter sites and help militants flee. This would often result in heavy clashes between civilians and security forces involving Police, Army, and other central armed forces, where unarmed civilian casualties had become a new normal.
People were understandably upset with the government as the decision was taken in haste. They still harbored expectations from the government with regard to accountability and transparency. They looked for new opportunities and ambitions, especially the youth of Jammu and Kashmir, which were again not met, so far.
In times of Covid-19, when we are witnessing the administration working in full swing, day and night to control the outbreak, their efforts definitely deserve applause. But that doesn’t hide the fact that people feel cutoff with the government, especially with the administration. In past winter due to heavy snowfall, electricity remained cut off for many weeks in some areas and many areas remained inaccessible from the world as snow wasn’t cleared from the roads. In many cases, army came to the rescue, airlifted elderly, sick and pregnant women. The gap of popular government is visible on the ground.
During winters when the capital is shifted to Jammu, people from Kashmir hardly get access to top-level bureaucratic procedures and this winter happened to be one of the harshest winters in several decades, and top-level bureaucrats didn’t even visit the summer capital of Srinagar. People had a lot of expectations from the administration and state machinery in a Union Territory where they thought everything would move on a fast track basis, and there would be zero corruption and absolute transparency. There is a common consensus among people that local officers from bureaucracy or police who have been at the forefront during the times of crisis earlier have now been neglected or sidelined by the current dispensation. People feel that they are being treated like second-class citizens in their own country.
The government of India needs to stop looking at Jammu and Kashmir through a security prism only, and initiate a dialogue with people that comprises multiple stakeholders in Kashmir society. A civilian government is a must for any democracy to thrive and elected leaders must be cherished and that would be the biggest celebration of the Indian Constitution. Elections must be held as soon as possible and people should be allowed to elect their representatives, which is one of the best ways to make the administration accountable. The dialogue amongst stakeholders could be the beginning of an inclusive way of initiating a shared vision-building process for the future of the UT. Such dialogues will open up the agenda for political consideration and the resultant emergence of political will to focus on the neglected areas like education and public health besides other sectors which had suffered collateral damage from continued lockdowns and security measures curtailing normalcy over the years. An elected leadership with popular support and confidence built through multiple stakeholder dialogues can go a long way to address the concerns of the citizens who have justifiable expectations now as equal subjects and participants in the country’s democratic system.
The sad reality for people living in Kashmir is that COVID-19 is just an additional burden to their lives. What is needed is sensitive consideration of the preparedness of a conflict-ridden state going through a major political transition to negotiate its way through such a crisis of epic proportions. Public health, education, infrastructure, financial systems, quality of life, social security, can no more be compromised because of security concerns. Good governance through Rule of Law, an administration operating efficiently while following principles of transparency and responsiveness, . and last but not the least, an elected leadership that listens more to all stakeholders, dictate less and provides the space for empowered and inclusive engagement can be the only hope to make sure that Jammu and Kashmir is ready to face the future and such pandemics of global proportions in the future.
- The author is Senior Research Fellow, JK Policy Institute. https://www.jkpi.org/uzair-simnani/