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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kashmir: No end in sight

The alternative media has it that over the last year over 70 youth are reported to have died in stone pelting related violence in Kashmir. They were agitating against the alleged rape and killings of two women in Shupiyan. The year prior, Kashmir had taken to the streets over the Amarnath land transfer issue. This year the toll is close to a score. Complacency of the state is breathtaking in that the lessons in crowd control of the previous two years were completely ignored. Given the past pattern and the coming talks with Pakistan at foreign minister level, the eruption in the Valley was entirely predictable.

Speculation is that this owes to a governance deficit. With development and a corruption free delivery system, the problem would go away. Realists have it that the agitation is manipulated by separatists, themselves orchestrated from Pakistan. The government has released taped conversations to prove the linkages. Given the ‘foreign hand’, a law and order approach is necessary lest the word get out that the state can be held to ransom.

The fact escapes attention that even the tapes suggest that the agitation has gone out of hand of those manipulating them. Consequently, attuned and empathetic observers have discerned that brutalization over the past two decades has resulted in the intifida-like expression of angst by youth. There is little doubt that this is a generation lost to militancy. There is little India can do to eliminate their alienation. There is little India is not already doing. The writing on the wall is that alienation persists. With a whole life ahead, India has little choice but to get along in one unaddressed direction – the political approach.

The methods of expression of disaffection can only get more innovative. That militarization of the present movement has not occurred indicates the capacity for learning from the past mistake of early nineties. Then the militants had hijacked the agitation for ‘azadi’, thereby legitimising the military ‘crackdowns’. Borrowing a leaf out of the Indian legacy of the freedom struggle would be strategically portentous. Already the central government is considerably embarrassed in having to deploy the army in a ‘standby’ role for the first time since the mid nineties when the Army ceased operations inside Srinagar.

Even as India was moving into a self-congratulatory mode in gaining the upper hand in Kashmir, it has been reminded that placing a military lid on the situation does not make it go away. This has been acknowledged by both the Kashmir Chief Minister and the Army Chief calling for ‘political’ steps.

There have been promises aplenty going back to Narasimha Rao’s formulation that the ‘sky is the limit’. The parameters since have included ‘the four corners of the constitution’ and ‘insaniyat’ (the principles of humanity). The state autonomy report was laid by the National Conference government when in power last in 2000. The UPA government initiated the five working groups during the second round table conference on Kashmir in 2005. Four groups tendered their reports in the third conference in 2007 and action on them is underway. The last, that of Justice Sagheer Ahmed, on center-state relations did so only in December last year. The report did not command credibility. KC Pant earlier and NN Vohra later were to progress talks. Reports have it that the latest initiative, that of ‘secret diplomacy’ by the home minister, was also discontinued recently. All these political initiatives testify that the intent exists and that there are promises to be kept. These require to be made good.

Why the state has held back is a valid question. The first set of reasons give the state the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, India’s nation building project is a work in progress. It is wary of demands of its constituent subnationalities. While it can accommodate demands made by ethnic groups through creating autonomous councils etc, it is less constitutionally venturesome when it comes to the major cases, such as, among others, those of the Nagas and Kashmiris. It fears that setting a precedent may encourage the others through working of the ‘demonstration effect’. The domino theory in this case would conjure up an eventual unraveling of India. Secondly, the complexity of Kashmir’s case is daunting. There are two other regions to contend with. Thirdly, Kashmir cannot be seen in isolation of India’s problems with Pakistan. The proxy war Pakistan has waged cannot be allowed to be seen to succeed through Indian concessions, even if these are solely internal.

The second set comprises reasons more critical of the state. Firstly, the right wing in India’s polity is stronger than its electoral showing may indicate. Even during the Nehruvian period the presence of Sardar Patel and stalwarts such as GB Pant indicated the strength of conservatives in the Congress party. Nehru’s early Kashmir initiatives faced a strong riposte by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and the Praja Parishad. This led to Sheikh Abdullah’s reservations on credibility of Indian secularism. The pattern of conservatism holding India’s Kashmir policy hostage persists till today. While the NDA government expectedly ignored its alliance partner in 2000 on the autonomy question, the Congress does not have the political strength or will to make any political overtures. The fear is that even if reasonable these would be criticized as ‘competitive communalism’. This fear of its own shadow explains India’s lack of follow through in reaching out to Pakistan; Sharm es Sheikh being the most visible example. Absence of any preparation of ground in terms of selling the necessity and contours of a political agenda to shape public opinion indicates that the political approach is ruled out as an option.

Secondly, the ‘insurgency economy’ in terms of vested interests of all players – be it separatists or security forces - has grown roots. For instance, a political approach would inevitably imply reconsidering the AFSPA and the militarization of the state. Anticipating this, the input of security forces in any such consideration would be that it is inadvisable since it would play into Pakistani hands that are behind the agitation. A government with deficit in political will would in such a circumstance take prudence as the better part of valour. Such a play can be discerned from the recent utterance of the Army Chief that demands for dilution of the AFSPA originate in hope for ‘narrow political gains’. That the Army Chief was allowed to get away by the Army making a subsequent clarification that the remarks were directed at ‘local’, ‘separatist’ politics indicates the underside of India’s civil-military relations.

A clear eyed assessment indicates that the problem thrown up for India is unlikely to nudge India down the political road, though this is its sole option. India’s reluctance would be especially attenuated at a juncture when it contemplates reengaging Pakistan. Therefore, this can only be yet another wasted summer of wasted lives. Regrettably, the inescapable conclusion is that a state fearful of its own shadow may prove an unbearable burden on a future with a nuclear backdrop.

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