Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Thursday marks the second anniversary of India scrapping the special status of the portion of Kashmir it administers – the most far-reaching change in the disputed region in more than 70 years of Indian rule.
The August 5, 2019 move, which split the Himalayan region into two federally controlled territories, saw New Delhi imposing a months-long security shutdown and forcing hundreds of people, including top politicians, activists, separatists and young men into prisons, some under stringent anti-terror laws.
To tighten its grip over the Muslim-majority region also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan, India’s Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi abolished laws that protected the rights of the local residents over their lands and allowed non-Kashmiris from the mainland to buy land and settle.
To challenge New Delhi’s moves, the region’s pro-India political parties formed an alliance in October last year seeking restoration of its partial autonomy and statehood. The People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), popularly known as the Gupkar alliance, is a coalition of six parties: the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Awami National Conference, and the People’s Movement.
The coalition, initially labelled as “Gupkar Gang” and an “unholy global alliance” by Home Minister Amit Shah, was invited to New Delhi in June for the first talks with Modi since the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir was scrapped in 2019.
Mohamad Yusuf Tarigami, PAGD convener and spokesman and former CPM legislator, who was also present in the June 24 meeting, tells Al Jazeera he has little hope from the current Indian government.
Excerpts from Tarigami’s interview:
Al Jazeera: How has Indian-administered Kashmir changed in the last two years?
Tarigami: Whatever the claims of the government, the fact remains that because of the assault on the constitutional provisions and the authoritarian way of conducting the business, every field has been badly affected. The economy is virtually in shambles, be it handicraft industry or agriculture. In comparison to the rest of India, Jammu and Kashmir (as the region is known in India) suffered two lockdowns, coupled with crackdowns since August 5, 2019. The government might be claiming to build a New Kashmir, but the facts speak otherwise. Anybody objectively assessing the situation on the ground can feel that.
Al Jazeera: How have the relations with the federal government changed – from being termed as ‘Gupkar Gang’ to meeting and a group photo with Modi?
Tarigami: The political relationship of Jammu and Kashmir with India has a unique history. With the abrogation of Article 370, the Union dismantled the constitutional provisions between Jammu and Kashmir and India. It was a humiliation of our people and their political leaders. Even on August 4, 2019, when rumours were in the air about abrogation or bifurcation or trifurcation, we the political leaders appealed to the prime minister to not do anything that was in the air then. We appealed that we must be heard before considering anything vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir. But that midnight, the crackdown began, political leaders were detained and communication lines were snapped. The connectivity of J and K with the rest of the world was cut off.
Then we were termed as a “gang”, as if participating in elections was a crime. And then, all of a sudden, to our big surprise, we got a call from the government of India that PM is holding a meeting and inviting you. We (PAGD) discussed whether to go or not, but we came to the conclusion that every opportunity to express ourselves must be availed. However, we were not under any illusion that there would be any redressal.
Al Jazeera: What was discussed in the June 24 meeting with PM Modi?
Tarigami: We were given ample opportunity to express our concerns to the prime minister. We particularly conveyed that the (August 5, 2019) decision taken by the government was neither in the interest of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India nor useful for the peace process in the region that we had been working and desired for.
Unfortunately, since the meeting, there has been no follow-ups from the government. We were expecting that authorities would take some measures to build confidence. The fact remains that we did not get any concrete assurance. The meeting only generated more hopelessness.
The prime minister didn’t say anything on abrogation (of special status) and only talked about “Dilli aur dil ki dooriyan” (“distance between Delhi and hearts should be narrowed down”). But no measures have been taken regarding this, except for the politics of rhetorics. Hence, I say the meeting has not created any hope among people and the environment is seen to be much more hopeless.
Al Jazeera: The government only invited pro-India leaders. Does the alliance also feel Kashmiri separatists are not a stakeholder?
Tarigami: It was the prime minister’s choice, not ours. We got an invite from the government.
We suggest that if there are possibilities of any political dialogue, it must be productive and credible, and not like the one we had with the prime minister. Just giving a hearing is not enough, there must be some responses from the government.
Kashmir has remained in serious crisis and successive Indian governments have not been averse to the idea of talking to all shades of opinion. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure (ex-India PM from Modi’s party), the then Deputy PM Advani even met the militants (rebels). So it is nothing new if we demand that dialogue at any level has to be broadened, and made more inclusive and credible.
Al Jazeera: Do you think international factors, like the crisis in Afghanistan, forced New Delhi to restart dialogue with Kashmir’s political leadership?
Tarigami: All of us know that Jammu and Kashmir is a border state and the atmosphere in the region is bound to have its impact and naturally might be the concern of India and many others in the world. After destroying Afghanistan, the Americans are withdrawing now. In my opinion, Americans did not do a good service by occupying Afghanistan for a long period. Again, the way they have left has disappointed those with whom they were holding Afghanistan till now. So it must be a matter of concern for India.
There should be an objective analysis of the situation and the sensitivities around it must be taken care of. That is why we say the way the government of India is dealing with Kashmir is highly counterproductive. Such processes which are harmful for the peace of the region and not in the interests of the country as well must be put to an end.
Al Jazeera: What do you think of the human rights situation in the region in the last two years?
Tarigami: PAGD stands by the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh and their rights. The situation seems like there is no rule of law. It seems the constitution of India doesn’t work here.
In the meeting with PM, we were told that cases of the detainees would be reviewed. Now the government says there are no political detainees. What do you mean by it? Our argument is to have a relook at those cases. There are several examples where people are arrested and found not guilty and released after long years. How would the government compensate such people? There are huge detentions and ample evidence available which suggest that indiscriminate arrests are being made of our youth.
The government does not accept our version that there are many people in jails who have not committed any crime. This is highly objectionable and illegal. We assure our people, whatever the situation, we will raise our voice for the people who are languishing in jails.
Al Jazeera: Most people in Indian-administered Kashmir call the Gupkar alliance a pro-India political formation and feel cheated by its politicians. How do you respond to that?
Tarigami: The PAGD is not claiming a political monopoly. We welcome all the people of Jammu and Kashmir and political formations to join the alliance in defence of a dignified life. Does it not concern each one of us, even those who are not part of the alliance? Some may agree or disagree with me or anybody and that is why it’s an alliance and not a merger. Ultimately it is the voice of people that matters. If Jammu and Kashmir is this situation, it must be a concern for everyone in the rest of India including media, civil society, intelligentsia, writers and others.
Suppose any other state is put under central rule and downgraded to a union territory, what would be the reaction of that part of the country? That is why I appeal to citizens of India that they must rise up and at least share our pain.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.