The changing chessboard of Kashmir

THE peace process initiated between India and Pakistan in 2004 held the promise of a meaningful forward movement on Kashmir. The global mood post-9/11, the will of the leadership at the helm in both countries and the cessation of violence in the valley delineated the contours of a workable strategy, underlined by a two-pronged process of engagement between India and Pakistan on the one hand, and India and the moderate voices within Kashmir on the other. India seized neither.

However, the entire process was brought to a halt with the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. The few rounds of talks that were undertaken with the separatists ended up eroding their standing due to the lack of concessions by India in return. The demoted status of the separatists, nevertheless sat neatly with New Delhi’s larger designs for the region. With militancy curbed, the hardline elements used New Delhi’s diplomatic advantage by pegging them with the larger bogey of terrorism and the moderate leadership discredited, it led to a closure on the institution of dialogue, extending the premise for India to uphold the status quo. This, in turn, enabled India to stave off mounting American pressure externally whilst creating the groundwork for its gambit in Kashmir internally.

What followed was a systemic strategy to restrict the separatists on the one hand and claim the sentiment of separatism on the other. This gave birth to the concept of ‘soft separatism’ or the more self-explanatorily — ‘mainstreaming dissent’. As the separatists got increasingly consigned to the periphery, the mainstream parties progressively encroached their turf. The process was institutionalised into the political structure of the state by engineering the creation of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), an amalgam of electable individuals coalesced under an umbrella organisation headed by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, a former Congress party stalwart of the state. It is pertinent to mention that Sayeed had been India’s home minister in early 1990s at the height of the insurgency in the state and had been instrumental in advocating India’s case on the diplomatic front whilst also facilitating its counter-insurgency efforts in the state.

Created on the eve of the Kashmir State Assembly elections of 2002, the PDP had multiple vested functions. Its foremost utility was the fragmentation of the Kashmiri vote. This was aimed at arresting the gain of majority votes by a single Kashmiri party, thus reducing its stakes to power. Consequently, giving rise to the politics of coalitions, it institutionalised the role of the Congress party in the government-formation of the state.  Unable to gain the majority vote in the state, either of the two Kashmiri mainstream (pro-India) parties — the National Conference (NC) or the PDP had to rely on the Congress to form the government as was the case both in 2002 and 2008. Through the creation of the PDP, the Congress was deftly integrated into the political equation of Kashmir by positioning it as the indispensible power broker within the state, a far cry from the times it was resented for representing New Delhi’s unwelcome interference in the state.

The other utilitarian function of the PDP was to provide a viable democratic alternative to the dysfunctional NC, headed by Farooq Abdullah. The result of a more academic analysis, it premised on the fact that the underlying reason for Kashmiri youth to turn to the gun was a lack of political alternatives in a monopolised single-party polity. By providing a political alternative, which additionally gave the veneer of democratic virtue, New Delhi sought to channelise Kashmiri grievances within political structures of the state rather than external and especially violent alternatives. It was also a means of reigning in on any ‘stray’ proclivities of both the PDP and the NC by creating a mechanism of counter-balancing each by the threat of the other, hence making New Delhi’s grip on the state more firm.

In the meantime, India was also building an alternative narrative of expanded stakeholders to Kashmir with the aim to dilute the stakes of the Kashmiris. By incorporating the stakes of other regions, such as Jammu and Ladakh, along with the claims of Kashmiri pundits and ethnic sub-sects of the region, like the Paharis and Gujjars, New Delhi aimed to weaken the case of the Kashmiris as sole representatives of the Kashmir dispute. It aimed to drown out the voice of Kashmiri aspirations in the clamour of alternative stakeholders. The maneuver was inaugurated by inviting the newly identified stakeholders to the round table conferences initiated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Kashmir in 2006 as a means of institutionalising their role and stakes. The gambit remains an essential element of New Delhi’s offensive against the separatist narrative.

As upcoming elections loom large on Kashmir’s horizon, New Delhi is keen to entrench its meticulously crafted political architecture. Dismal governance by the incumbent NC regime and rising violence in Kashmir has sharpened its urgency. India has thus initiated a series of pre-poll rigging mechanisms to facilitate the PDP. Having historically ‘managed’ Kashmir by patronising a few individuals, New Delhi has with times improvised its approach by creating and patronising an entire political entity. What response to this ploy has the separatist leadership in place? Having tacitly supported the PDP in its bid for power in 2002 through the Jamaat-e-Islami, it is inadvertently facilitating the same by a call for a poll boycott. Proving a useful tactic in the early years of the movement, it has of late only proved to New Delhi’s advantage.

Elections will take place irrespective of the boycott which, in the long run, will strengthen the hands of both the NC and the PDP as their supporters come out to vote as others stay away. A limited voter turnout thus benefits mainstream parties as it allows them a playing field heavily tilted in their favour. Greater electoral turnout enables more transparency and both encourages and provides a level playing field to candidates beyond the pale of New Delhi patronised cliques. By enabling a plurality of candidates in the electoral fray beyond the New Delhi propped oligarchies, it loosens India’s grip on the Kashmiri noose, which it tightens through its two patronage recipients. In this backdrop, separatists need to keep up with New Delhi’s devices and notch up their responses.

A starter would be to move beyond tactics which have long lost their shelf-life. But will the separatists be up to it? Only time will tell. Source: The Express Tribune

Asma Khan Lone holds a Post-graduate degree in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. She is married to politician Sajad Gani Lone.

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