The man in the muddle: NN Vohra

A popular governor faces a tough task

David Devadas | July 2, 2018


#CRPF   #The Generation of Rage in Kashmir   #Kashmir   #militant   #terrorism   #Jammu and Kashmir   #Mehbooba Mufti   #NN Vohra   #J&K governor  
NN Vohra, J&K governor
NN Vohra, J&K governor

Amid a welter of images of blood and war, it is easy to lose sight of how deeply people crave for good governance. The good news from Kashmir last fortnight was that people by and large welcomed governor’s rule. “People are very happy about governor’s rule, especially with this governor,” youth activist Touseef Raina observed a couple of days after the BJP withdrew support to the PDP-led coalition on June 19. Indeed, NN Vohra has earned a redoubtable reputation during the three earlier periods in which he has directly governed the state. People by and large say that work got done each time, ranging from river dredging to garbage disposal, and corruption was reduced.
 
There is widespread hope that corruption will reduce this time too. “If corruption can be stopped, this will go down as the best administration,” said Najmu Saqib, who was associated with the chief minister’s office when Mehbooba Mufti was the chief minister. In that capacity, he has closely seen how frustrated and angry people at large are over corruption – and how tough it is to curb it.
 
The governor has made it clear that responsive governance is his objective. “The entire administrative apparatus, from the very top to the bottom shall function with efficiency, speed and accountability to serve the people and regain the trust of the common man,” he told the Hindustan Times in an interview.
 
The very day Vohra took charge at the secretariat, several instructions were issued for compliance to be reported the next day – such as on pending annual property statements and annual performance reports. No officer or head of department is to leave station without prior permission. All government offices are to immediately acquire biometric machines at competitive rates to ensure that employees clock in and out on time. The pay of employees who do not attend office may be docked. 

Challenges reemerge in the international arena

Ever since it acceded to India, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has posed an extraordinary set of simultaneous challenges. These have involved law and order, politics (both ‘secessionist’ and ‘mainstream’), inter-regional issues (not only Jammu versus Kashmir but also Leh versus Kargil), military, and diplomatic. This year may be less challenging than 1948, but it is holding out a more multi-pronged set of challenges than most years since then.

atal-bihari-vajpayeeLast fortnight, a report from the UN high commissioner for human rights on the situation in Kashmir added another dimension to this year’s variegated challenges. Even as the Governor and his team tackle the huge internal problems, diplomats should gird themselves too. The issue could come up at the UN General Assembly, not only from Pakistan but also possibly from countries such as Turkey and Iran. The supreme leaders of each of those countries publicly raised the Kashmir issue in May and June respectively last year. President Erdogan even did so in a TV interview on the eve of a visit to India.

China’s leverage
The key factor will be the extent to which China uses such opportunities to stir anti-India interventions. China’s loans to a host of countries across the globe now give it unparalleled leverage. Among the countries in which China has undertaken debt-laden projects is Jordan, the home country of the UN high commissioner who last month put out the report criticising the human rights record in Kashmir.

The region of Jammu and Kashmir in which China is most keenly interested is the vast Gilgit area, through which the Karakoram highway passes. It provides vital connectivity between China and Pakistan, and is the pivot of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China describes CPEC as the ‘flagship project’ of president Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, through which China intends to gain dominance in world trade and strategic relations.

Over several decades of sharp challenges, the finest defence of India’s position was mounted in 1994, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee led India’s delegation at the UN Commission on Human Rights, with Dr Farooq Abdullah as his deputy. It would be tough to put together such a stellar team now, but it might just be the order of the day.

 
The results were visible on the streets: a couple of days later, markets were buzzing with civil servants checking the quality of provisions and food being sold. Linking pay to attendance could have a dampening effect on hartals, which tend to be called rather frequently in Kashmir. It is notable that the hartal that was called for the day the governor took charge was withdrawn – though a hartal was called, and observed, on the following Monday to protest the killing of a civilian who had been out to protest against an encounter.
 
Militants in the field
The worrying news of course is that the frequency of encounters is bound to increase. So will stone-pelting protests against these. A large number of fresh teenagers have been recruited into militancy over the past few months, including during the Ramzan embargo on initiating operations. Plus, large numbers of foreign militants from across the Line of Control are lurking in various parts of the Valley, especially the north.
 
Many adults were pleased at the pause in operations during Ramzan, seeing it as an encouraging signal of the government’s goodwill. But teenagers, among whom militancy is largely concentrated, have been strongly radicalised by a barrage of social media and other messaging over the past few years. Countering radicalisation is a much bigger challenge than countering militancy. But various arms of the state have not even begun to make an impact on this, despite much talk and huge expenditure.
 
The irony is that political and religious radicalisation takes place among school and university students rather than in madarsas. For long-term success, the government must work urgently and hard to revamp school curricula, pedagogical methods, and teachers’ training. Teachers training colleges in Kashmir have functioned like short-course degree shops. Worse, many of today’s teachers were educated during the very disturbed period of the 1990s, when educational institutions could barely function.
 
The wise and experienced Vohra is well aware of this challenge. He stated soon after taking over that he will reach out to the youth through parents, teachers, and civil society, and has already sought the backing of political parties for this. He denied that governor’s rule meant a ‘muscular approach’.

Radicalized youth 
On the ground, the number of encounters did increase immediately after the centre ended its moratorium on initiating counter-terror operations. Some high-profile targets were killed, including Dawood Salafi, the face of ISIS-oriented militancy in the Valley. But the government must do its utmost to break the spiralling cycle of violence. The funerals of local militants are a major motivator for fresh teenagers to take up arms. In fact, a large number of boys in south Kashmir are ready for militancy, but lack arms. 
 
Even while securing armouries and ammunition silos with extra care, and showing cutting edge efficiency in dealing with militants, the forces are sensitive to the danger that their actions could push more boys towards militancy. Disciplined adherence to operating procedures is crucial. Lt Gen A K Bhatt, the Corps Commander in charge of operations in the Valley, told me a few days before the Ramzan pause that his forces were responsive to this objective.
 
In fact, at a time when both infiltration and shelling on the Line of Control has been rising like a storm over the past few years, the army must free itself as much as possible, and as fast as possible, from the internal security duties that are bogging it down in the Valley.
 
In this regard, corruption and harassment by the police are key issues. Police forces tend to be rude and exploitative, even extortionist, in different parts of the world but, in Kashmir, such behaviour bolsters secessionist narratives, and brings recruits to militancy. The late militant commander Burhan Wani, the most common hero among today’s Kashmiri teenagers, turned militant at the age of 16 after he and his brother were arbitrarily abused and slapped by special operations policemen.
 
The wide range of meetings by Dineshwar Sharma, the centre’s representative for talks in Kashmir, have helped. Ground-level initiatives to soothe the anger of youth have had far more impact than the high-spend events that took place last year – such as an Adnan Sami concert for which entry was restricted to ‘VIPs’ of various grades, and their families and associates. Those events actually alienated youth – as if they were being publicly taunted – since instructions were strictly given that students not invited by a ‘VIP’ were not to be allowed anywhere near the venue.
 
In fact, efficient and fair governance, which reaches out responsively to those beyond the charmed circles of power and influence, could do far more to assuage tempers than any number of hoopla events.
 
Wide respect
Those who are now in charge of the state government certainly inspire confidence. Vohra uniquely commands respect in both Jammu and the Kashmir Valley. He has learnt a lot about the state in the ten years he has been governor, and during the time when he was the centre’s interlocutor towards the end of Vajpayee’s tenure. In that capacity, he brought about meetings of Hurriyat leaders with the prime minister and home minister. He also brings to his work his rich experience as home secretary, defence secretary, and principal secretary to the prime minister. Not just that, he handled intelligence-related work at the beginning of his career (after the China war) and as an air force trainee officer when he was a teenager.
 
The two advisors to the governor too are well suited – one to take charge of counter-insurgency, the other to run the administration. BB Vyas held simultaneous charge of several departments in the state government before he became the chief secretary last year. And K Vijay Kumar, who was special secretary in the home ministry until May, is held in awe by the CRPF and police officers in general, particularly for his field role to counter the dreaded sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan.
 
The team’s immediate challenge is to secure the Amarnath Yatra, which began on June 28 and will continue till August 26. Security arrangements for the Yatra and for Independence Day will be their top priority. The Yatra has been a logistical challenge for the past two decades. Attacks on it are more likely this year, in light of the increased exclusivist radicalism among many Kashmiri youth. 
 
The impending general elections will give security concerns an added edge. The political fallout of possible violence during elections makes it highly unlikely that the centre would risk conducting state elections before the national general elections. So governor’s rule may continue for a second six-month term, until after the national general elections. If the next two months of extraordinary security threats pass off, this team should continue to lead the administration.
 
That would explain the dynamism with which Vohra has begun this period of governor’s rule. During his previous stints of direct power, he seemed to view himself as a caretaker. Even so, in the three months between Mufti Sayeed’s death and Mehbooba Mufti taking power (January to April 2016), he had prepared the ground for major steps, including panchayat elections and the rehabilitation of displaced persons. This time, he seems set to achieve a great deal.
 
Devadas is the author of the forthcoming book The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.

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