Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Coerced cheers: Is Modi’s Srinagar rally attendance what it seems?

Police frisks people as they head to attend Indian PM Narenda Modi’s address at Srinagar’s Bakshi Stadium on 7th March, 2024. Photo: Zainab / Maktoob

When a host in Srinagar’s Bakhshi stadium shouted “Modi hai toh… (When Modi is…)” expecting a roaring response from the crowd, most of the gathering fell silent for a moment.

“Nobody completed the slogan but the front line. It was embarrassing,” an eyewitness present in the gathering said, requesting anonymity. “They looked disinterested, and also because they were not familiar with the slogan.”

On Thursday, 7 March, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kashmir for the first time since New Delhi abrogated the special autonomous status and statehood of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) in 2019. His visit, strategically timed before the nationwide elections in April – where he seeks to secure a third consecutive term as PM– aims to strengthen the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) support in Kashmir.

Ahead of Modi’s arrival, Srinagar’s landscape underwent a dramatic transformation. The Indian flag and the ruling party BJP’s flag were seen on almost every corner in and around Lal Chowk. The city witnessed a strong presence of government forces, who not only patrolled the streets but also navigated the river that winds through Srinagar via motorboats. Forces were stationed every 50 meters, frisking locals and setting up numerous checkpoints, depicting heightened tension and restriction.

The impact of the Prime Minister’s visit was felt across the city, with most schools closed for the day. Both the University of Kashmir and the Central University of Kashmir rescheduled all exams scheduled for March 7. As per the report by the Voice of America (VOA), many residents of Srinagar alleged that their family members had been detained by local police ahead of the PM’s arrival, and they were told that they, “will be released after Modi travels back to Delhi.”

The ‘infamous’ rally

While addressing the jam-packed stadium, PM Modi took a dig at the Congress and its allied political parties, targeting the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and National Conference (NC) without naming them. 

He said that Article 370 did not bring benefits to the common people of Kashmir but instead favored these parties. “Since the removal of Article 370, the dreams of people are getting fulfilled, and new opportunities are emerging,” Modi claimed. “Certain political parties had exploited Article 370 for their political gains, but that era has now ended.”

In his speech, he claimed that the abrogation of Article 370 has led to development and prosperity in the region. Speaking at the rally, he said “his focus was on winning the trust of the people” and told the gathering that he has inaugurated several developmental projects worth Rs 6400 crore, aimed at boosting the agro-economy and tourism sectors. “In the next five years, J-K will witness a huge change on the developmental front. Nobody can stop the J-K’s train of success, peace, and prosperity,” he said.

Mehbooba Mufti, the last elected Chief Minister (CM) of J-K, voiced her criticism against the government’s decision to mobilize its employees for the rally. “Disheartening to see employees being forcibly mobilised to paint a pretty picture that all is well post 2019  & that people here are celebrating their own collective disempowerment & humiliation,” she wrote on a microblogging site, X.

She added, “…this time Kashmiris know that everything spoken at Bakshi stadium will be to showcase the so called benefits of illegal abrogation of Article 370 akin to putting salt to their wounds. This visit is only meant to address & drum support amongst BJPs core constituency in the rest of India for the upcoming parliament elections.”

In August 2019, Modi’s government divided the former state into two territories—Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir—bringing them under New Delhi’s direct control. Article 370, which granted the region autonomy, was revoked, allowing changes to laws on land ownership and residency.

Meanwhile, Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of J-K, as per the reports of  Agence France-Presse (AFP), accused the government of arranging buses to transport crowds to the rally, claiming that “almost none” would be attending voluntarily.

NC’s spokesperson, Imran Dar, said, “People were expecting announcements related to employment packages, statehood, elections, and development schemes, but nothing was announced. It was very disappointing.”

The government elected in J-K’s last regional elections in 2014 was dissolved by the BJP’s central government in 2018. In December of last year, the Supreme Court upheld the abrogation of Article 370 and mandated state elections by September 2024. However, Modi didn’t address election scheduling in his speech.

A local resident from central Kashmir, on request of anonymity, told Maktoob that if the Indian government talks about democracy, they should start with having an opposition first, holding elections in Kashmir, “and not curbing the voices of people.”

“The rally was only for the publicity of BJP and there was only a sponsored crowd,” he said. “I was expecting him to talk about statehood first and then elections. He did not.”

The Indian government had defended the abrogation of Article 370 and said it was to bring progress to Kashmir, which continues to be one of the world’s most militarized zones. They also said that the decision would lead to the end of the armed insurgency against Indian rule in the region.

However, the move faced and continues to face strong opposition from Kashmiris, who feared that it would lead to demographic changes, with people from other parts of India being encouraged to settle in or invest in the region.

Despite the dissent, Modi asserted that the new J-K represented the aspirations of every Indian citizen. “Not just you (the crowd present in the stadium), but one lakh people across all 285 blocks are watching my speech,” he said.

Many attendees were seen clutching the fences as if imprisoned, while they faced away from where Modi addressed the crowd. They reported being restricted from leaving until Modi departed, with gates locked and the crowd contained. Photo: Hassnain Riza/Maktoob

‘Sponsored’ crowd and concertina wires

Within fifteen to thirty minutes of his arrival, a sizable crowd emerged from the checkpoint gates, visibly frustrated with the event’s management. “Why did they wake us up early and bring us here if they knew there wasn’t enough space in the stadium?” one attendee shouted angrily. “Let’s eat something, hop on the buses, and leave.”

Many attendees were seen clutching the fences as if imprisoned, while they faced away from where Modi addressed the crowd. They reported being restricted from leaving until Modi departed, with gates locked and the crowd contained. Amidst the agitation, attendees resorted to jumping over fences, breaking barriers, and expressing their frustration.

While Modi believed that he had succeeded in winning the hearts of the Kashmiri people, the people rushing out of the stadium, stomping on the concertina wires, and breaking the barriers, had a different story to tell. They were tired—simple and plain tired, as they looked. “I don’t know why we wasted our time. It was pointless,” one of them said. “Nobody trusts him here. Nobody takes him seriously.”

As per the many people that Maktoob spoke to, most of them alleged that they were either threatened or coerced into attending the rally. Meanwhile, Modi, in his speech, said J-K is touching new heights of development because the region is “breathing freely” today. “This freedom from restrictions has come after the abrogation of Article 370,” he said.

Since the G-20 summit – a premier forum for international economic collaboration – in May 2023, J-K has witnessed a significant surge in tourism, with an estimated over 20 million visitors traveling to the region last year. Modi, in his speech, flaunted about the same. “We’ve also observed a notable increase in foreign tourists. The Amarnath Yatra (religious pilgrimage) also witnessed a record pilgrim arrival last year,” he said.

While tourism is often touted as a driver of development and economic prosperity in Kashmir, which contributes 7 percent to the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), not all are pleased with this perspective, especially considering the region’s infamous yet delicate “paradisiacal” ecology.

As per the report by Al Jazeera, environmental experts blame unregulated tourism for having contributed to pollution and climate change in Kashmir. This concern arose after the famous ski resort, Gulmarg, experienced a significant snow deficit for most of this winter season.

While Modi believed that he had succeeded in winning the hearts of the Kashmiri people, the people rushing out of the stadium, stomping on the concertina wires, and breaking the barriers, had a different story to tell. Photo: Hassnain Riza/Maktoob

Back to reality

Outside the stadium, a swarm of journalists was present, seeking to interview attendees. Most of them denied it, covering their faces. 

Only national and select local media outlets were granted access, with foreign journalists denied entry. According to a report by News Laundary, the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) received 160 applications from journalists for event passes a week prior to the rally, approving 127 of them. News agencies such as the Associated Press (AP), Agence France-Presse (AFP), and the Russian news agency Sputnik were among those denied access.

A journalist working for a foreign media outlet said they were told that foreign media was not allowed. “We were instructed to apply for passes at DIPR. I gave my details and was waiting, as we were assured permission,” the journalist told Maktoob, requesting anonymity. “However, on the designated day, only Facebook journalists, portals, and young reporters received passes. The rest of us, which included foreign media and senior journalists, were denied access.”

The journalist further added that it was not surprising anymore. “It seems to be their policy to exclude international media, perhaps fearing critical coverage of the government.”

Press freedom in India, especially for Kashmiri journalists, has been severely compromised. They face intimidation, harassment, and imprisonment, highlighting a concerning decline in media freedoms. The country’s press freedom further deteriorated, with the country dropping another 11 places in the latest press freedom index, landing at the 161st position.

Forced attendance?

In 2019, PM Modi was mocked when he was seen waving at an empty lake. Now, five years later, he, as he claimed, managed to attract thousands of Kashmiris to his rally in Srinagar. However, many people at the event claimed they were compelled to attend.

At 4 am, Aijaz, a contractor by profession, was abruptly awakened by the incessant buzzing of his phone. It was his senior, compelling him to join the bus along with many other government employees of central Kashmir’s Budgam district bound for Srinagar.

“I had no intention of coming. I felt like I was being dragged out of my home,” he said. “I was explicitly told that my contract would be terminated if I failed to attend the rally.”

Aijaz believes that only about 10% of the attendees were there voluntarily. “I can guarantee that 90% of us were coerced into being here. There are just employees,” he asserted. “People are here simply because they fear losing their jobs.”

Inside the ground, where Modi was addressing thousands of people, Aijaz said he observed a mixed atmosphere: some were sleeping, some shivered from the cold, and others anxiously awaited the chance to leave the confined space. “Do you honestly think anyone would be here if they weren’t compelled?” he said.

After a while, more people, who were in the stadium’s hall watching Modi on screens, started coming outside the venue in a huge crowd. Some said they were tired of waiting for the event to end, and some were just frustrated because of hunger and thirst. “We have been here since 4 am and they haven’t even given us water,” one of the people in the crowd said. “I am a heart patient, and I needed to have medicine; they didn’t let me take a bottle of water inside.”

Amidst the chaos and preparations, thousands of government employees, including teachers, revealed that their departments and offices had effectively ordered them to attend Modi’s rally. “We were scared of losing our jobs. We would have been fired if we hadn’t come here,” requesting anonymity, said an Anganwadi teacher, who, like thousands of others at the rally, remains a daily wage earner. “People are only here out of fear. Otherwise, nobody would have shown up.”

Maryam, another Anganwadi teacher, said she didn’t know what she should say. “What can I say about why we are here? Modi sahib is here, and we were ordered by our administration to be here.”

Most of these government employees present at the event were scared to speak to the media. “Why are people scared of talking to the media?” said Aijaz, the contractor. “If we were a free or developed region, the people wouldn’t have been scared of talking. The people fear raids and detentions.”

Over the past few years, people in Kashmir have faced almost all sorts of excesses from the authorities. Many people were arrested and summoned, and some were denied passports for expressing dissent.

In September 2022, Amnesty International said that the Indian government is targeting all credible, independent sources of information in and about J-K by harassing and intimidating critical voices. “There is a silence achieved on all dissent through heavy-handed repression which has spread fear and uncertainty in the region,” they said.

Gafira Qadir is an independent jouranlist and a regular contributor of Maktoob.

Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir is a journalist based in Kashmir, covering human rights, gender, and education.

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