Kashmir has just emerged from three days of hartal beginning from February 9. The avowed aim of the strike calls given by separatist groups was to remember Muhammad Afzal Guru and Muhammad Maqbool Bhat both of whom were hanged by New Delhi and buried in the premises of the Tihar jail. Both are considered to have given their lives for a cause. Maqbool Bhat enjoys the status of a resistance icon, while Guru, executed last February, is seen more a victim of oppression than a hero. But the three-day hartal has an odd date in between, February 10, which is associated neither with Bhat nor with Guru. Probably, in the competitive politics of hartal calls, with conflicting claims, leaders think that hartals will enhance their political profile.
The curious fact is that the hartal have now synchronized with state policies. If the so-called separatist groups call for a strike, the government enforces it vigorously on the ground, making it a grand success – even when the objectives of the Government differ from those of the separatists. The obvious objective, which the Government has now raised to a high moral pitch, is to protect public life and property by preventive measures. The state fears that incidents of violence could spiral out of control and trigger a 2010-like situation. The fact of the matter is that hartals have lost their capacity to further any anti-occupation agenda.
The unfolding year has enough in store to inspire separatists into giving hartal calls, Parliamentary and Assembly elections being one. The recent three-day strike is an indication that many such calls are likely to be repeated in the coming months. This again means that the separatists have not reconsidered or reevaluated the usefulness of this strategy. The senior-most separatist leader says that hartals are the only option left with people. There is no denying that people like Bhat and Guru must be remembered. But there should always be a difference between a day of remembrance and a hartal. A day of remembrance could be more inclusive, and more historically rich and productive than a hartal which cages people indoors and impairs their livelihood. A hartal puts the burden on the shoulders of the common people. It does not stop the institutions of the state, more so its occupational instruments, from functioning.
During British rule, Gandhiji invented hartal politics to directly impact the productivity of India’s colonial masters. But in contemporary times, hartals signify little else than aloofness from, and anger against, the state. A people on hartal are sympathetically considered by a welfare state. Not so in Kashmir. Since the state and the people are at opposite ends, it is always highly unlikely that a hartal would make the state give sympathetic consideration to the masses’ demands. It did not happen in the past two decades. How can it happen now?
Elements of exaggeration seem deeply embedded in our character. Hartals and exaggeration make a strange brew of politics here. Whenever there is some incident or tragedy, the actual facts are blown out of proportion, which distorts the actual course of events. In case of Muhammad Afzal Guru, the issue discussed and commented upon for long was that he fell victim to a state conspiracy because of being a Kashmiri Muslim. In the whole episode, Guru was innocent and hence victim. The famous Indian firebrand writer wrote a long story in the “Outlook” magazine on the same lines, and finally when he was hanged on February 9, 2013, the Supreme Court had no solid reason except that the “collective conscience” of the (Indian) nation was satisfied. The actual facts were always lacking. And later, established moral and legal formalities of informing the family and handing over the dead body were, shamefully, not fulfilled.
But just within a year, a new discourse was started, showing Guru as a committed guerrilla who actually had dreams and plans of carrying out what the state had accused him of. The case, and the execution, was a rare moment when the Indian state and society was put to shame for what it had done to the life of an innocent Kashmiri Muslim youth. But the latter discourse obviously washes the shame off the state.
Even the Kashmir University Students Union (KUSU) said in a statement that Guru was the Omar Mukhtar of Kashmir. Such exaggeration, quite wrong on facts, is never helpful for any nation. In this case, the fact of innocence is much stronger and nearer to truth than undue bravado associated posthumously with a person.
Coming back to the politics of hartal, it would be prudent to say that this needs serious review and reconsideration in view of its results in the past two decades. People have had enough of this strategy, and it has little to show as results except public resentment – and unnecessary burdens on people’s shoulders. This is not to say that there should never be any hartal, but that it should not occupy the centre stage of competitive separatist politics. In the absence of any positive and working agenda, hartal politics only puts a veneer on the actual reality. Everything cannot be defined by hartals. The various, and far-reaching, changes made by the political system of New Delhi through its local lackeys are overlooked as insignificant, be it the formation of new administrative units, the extension of the 73rd Amendment of the Panchayati Raj to the state, or other measures. Such moves have irreversible consequences.
In any struggle or system, the people, their interests and their survival should come first. All their human and political rights are legitimately fought for only with strong consideration to the real situation they live in.