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AFSPA removal: Why Tripura and J&K are very different

By Sanjeev Nayyar
June 02, 2015 14:20 IST
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My travels made me realise how different the ground situation and people's mindsets in the two states are. People seemed happy and secure in Tripura whilst there was only complaining and suspicion in J&K, says Sanjeev Nayyar.

Last week, 18 years after the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was enforced in Tripura, the state government decided to withdraw the act. Under pressure Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed said thereafter that 'his government will achieve its objectives regarding revocation of AFSPA in J&K’.

I visited Tripura and Jammu region in late 2014 and like to share some observations of ground situation and people interactions.  

From Silchar, Assam took a 6 am bus to Dharmanagar, Tripura to see bas-relief sculptures of Unakoti. On entering Tripura could sense the difference. Roads smooth, forests/farms on either side and importantly helpful people who welcomed me to their state.   

The rock-cut Shiva head at Unakoti, Tripura.

The rock-cut Shiva head at Unakoti, Tripura. Photograph: Sanjeev Nayyar

Unakoti is in forests, is very well maintained and has marvellous rock cut carvings of Shiva, Ganesha, Shri Ram and Lakshman.

Dharmanagar to Agartala took about eight hours by bus. We drove through villages/towns and forests. Houses were well laid-out and clean, markets active, people smiling and students in bus spoke about desire to progress.

In contrast entrance to the Martand Surya Mandir in Anantnag was blocked by apple boxes. The board which gives history of the place was rusted and difficult to read. Enroute saw burnt down homes of Kashmiri Pandits that brought back memories of the 1990s.

Reached Agartala at 8.30 pm. It was an hour's drive by auto to the outskirts of Agartala where I was staying. Felt unsafe for starters but the auto driver put me at ease.  

It was about 6.15 pm in Anantnag and I was advised to leave immediately. During the drive to Verinag we got lost. Every time we stopped and asked for directions here is how the conversation went. Car stops, local first looks at car number to know where the car is from (JK01 is Srinagar, JK02 is Jammu, JK03 is Anantnag, JK10 is Ladakh etc), peeps in to know if you are Hindu or Muslim, tries to know which part of the country you are from and then came the advice.

Drove to Mahamuni Pagoda i.e. about 140 kms from Agartala. All through the journey in the hinterland felt very secure because everyone we spoke to was so helpful. Met children at the Dhamma Dipa School who were interested in knowing what Mumbai is like. The tribal homes I went to had dish antennas and wanted to discuss India's cricket performance. All seemed content with no anti-India sentiment.

Conversely, the 240 kms drive from Jammu to Poonch via Rajouri was stressful. We drove  at night only after the driver virtually absolved himself of any responsibility for our safety. Inspite of the presence of the armed forces one never knew what could happen when. 

Burnt homes of Kashmiri Pandits in Anantnag.

Burnt homes of Kashmiri Pandits in Anantnag. Photograph: Sanjeev Nayyar

In the Valley people are suspicious too. Here is the gist of a conversation in Verinag (river Jhelum rises from a kund in Verinag). During an early morning walk asked a local how a small stream caused so much damage in Srinagar. He said the stream was joined by smaller rivers but avoided referring to the construction over water outlet channels in Srinagar. In an aggressive tone he asked, why all this quizzing, are you a journalist? I said ‘improving general knowledge’. He smiled and told me that what is the source of Jhelum was a question by Amitabh Bachhan in the television show Kaun Banega Crorepati.  

Since I stayed on the outskirts of Agartala, I used a share-auto to reach town. Nearly every time I shared an auto with college going girls or homemakers. In Delhi/Mumbai one usually sees who is in the auto but not in Agartala. I asked a girl how come she was so cool? She said women felt very secure.  

Do women in Jammu & Kashmir feel so secure? Unlikely! Seeing the way women avoided my path in Poonch/Anantnag never felt it appropriate to speak to them!

I walked through the markets of Agartala till as late as 8.30 pm. The area was buzzing with activity. It did not seem like security or AFSPA was an issue with them. The few people I spoke to said violence is history.

A key difference between the two states is good administration provided by the state government of Tripura.

At a government office, I tried to provoke a tribal officer about differences with Bengali culture. He said that Tripura culture is an amalgamation of tribal and Bengali identities and added that in local kok-borok dialect Lord Shiva is called Subrai Raja, worshipped by local tribes.

He stumped me by saying that famous music director Rahul Dev Barman belonged to the Tripuri tribal community, that once ruled Tripura. The officer tried hard to conceal his irritation at my attempt to create a rift between the two communities.

Conversely all through the 1,900 kms drive in the Jammu region I heard people complaining of discrimination by the Valley-controlled state government.

In the Valley even ordinary people made political statements. During early morning walks, locals in Verinag and Kishtwar asked whether I had visited Srinagar. When I said no, they seemed aghast. Now such a question tells you how Valley-centric the state has become, a complaint often made by people of the Jammu and Ladakh regions.

Just as I was driving to Jammu Airport saw a spirited protest by Pakistan Occupied Kashmir displaced persons in 1945, 1965 and 1971. They want an immediate, comprehensive and permanent settlement package. 

The travels made me realise how different the ground situation and people's mindsets in the two states are. People seemed happy and secure in Tripura whilst there was only complaining and suspicion in J&K.

Can removal of AFSPA be linked to fall in violence alone? If mindsets continue the way they are, even a small trigger can lead to violence.

Sanjeev Nayyar is a travel photojournalist and founder

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