Olive branch in the Valley

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The issue of redeployment touches upon security concerns as well as property rights.

Jammu and Kashmir has been under governor’s rule for a month. Though it was widely expected that after Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s untimely death, his daughter and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chairperson Mehbooba Mufti would take over, it did not happen. At first, it appeared as if the PDP’s coalition partner, the BJP, was fighting shy because its members distrusted Mehbooba. Now Mehbooba, with the backing of her party, has announced that the coalition must agree on confidence-building measures (CBMs) and a roadmap for their implementation before she assumes chief ministership.

Why did she make this announcement and what lies behind it? The BJP-PDP coalition came into power almost a year ago. Since then, it has been dogged by unnecessary controversies, such as over Article 370 and the beef ban (to which an innocent truck driver lost his life). Central annual assistance to the state took a long time to negotiate, with PM Narendra Modi announcing what was admittedly a whopping Rs 80,000 crore as late as November. Disbursement has been slow to follow and long overdue work on flood relief and infrastructure repair will only now begin in March/ April.

Accompanied by rising militancy, these factors have led to mounting frustration in the Valley, which is often displayed in shows of public support for militants. Whether these are intended to demonstrate anger against government rather than support for militancy is unclear; perhaps it is sophistry to ask. Whichever way, their impact is to strengthen a primarily security-focused approach to the state, rather than the humanitarian “insaniyat ke dayire mein” approach that Atal Bihari Vajpayee initiated, which was fostered by the first PDP-led coalition in Jammu and Kashmir, then in partnership with the Congress.

It is unsurprising that Mehbooba should look to that period to underline those CBMs that remain unfinished or suspended. Two of the three CBMs that she has proposed — refraining from provocative issues as agreed under the coalition’s “agenda for alliance”, speeding up post-flood relief, and either revoking Afspa or withdrawing the “disturbed areas” order from selected areas — were floated in 2002-05. Yet it is worth noting that even then, and for 10 years thereafter, there were formidable obstacles to resolving the Article 370 and Afspa issues. The relatively successful CBMs comprised cross-border trade and travel and peace talks with Pakistan that encouraged a decline in militancy. Indications are that the coalition was moving towards next steps on both in tandem with the Union government, though only after hectic back-channel negotiations between BJP and PDP representatives.

On the face of it, Mehbooba’s proposal that the coalition re-establish itself with a roadmap for the three CBMs she outlined is an olive branch. Her offer will not only rescue the government, it will also rescue the two coalition partners. Each had fought the election on diametrically opposed planks and each had to concede to the other in the “agenda of alliance”. The first response to the coalition was one of vocal disbelief and reproach in the Valley; the response was more muted in Jammu. Both parties’ constituencies asked how the BJP and PDP could work together, and thus far, have received little answer. Both her party and the BJP have lost credibility during the 10 months of coalition non-performance.

In this context, it makes eminent political sense for the coalition to restart under a new chief minister with a clear-cut roadmap of concrete action. The question is, what should this action comprise? There is no arguing with the proposition that Article 370 should be put on a back burner for now, given that recent demands for its rollback have only further estranged the Valley from Jammu, Ladakh and the rest of India, and provided another propaganda tool to spoilers, including those inciting militancy. But putting something on a back burner is not exactly action, indeed it is the opposite.

The political need of the hour is to build bridges between Kashmir and Jammu, through a combination of dialogue, devolution and connectivity. While Central assistance to the state includes large provisions for the latter, dialogue would need to be tackled politically and devolution administratively. There are innumerable government reports suggesting ways to overcome the communal divides in the state, as well as for administrative devolution. Many of the suggestions are feasible and require only a modicum of political will. Should they be implemented as policy, they will pave the way for a serious, rather than confrontational, discussion on Article 370 and whether it needs amendment.

The Afspa issue is more complicated. It bundles two quite separate issues into one: First, whether and what protections the army requires to battle terrorism and/or insurgency; and second, whether the army should redeploy out of relatively calm areas. The first issue is easier to deal with than the second: The Supreme Court has already laid down strict guidelines for counter-terrorism operations that have contributed to a large decline in human rights violations by the military. While the issue of Afspa remains an important one for the country to explore with human rights defenders, in Jammu and Kashmir, police reforms have become more important for daily life than military reform.

The issue of redeployment touches upon security concerns as well as property rights. The army is right in saying it cannot be expected to refrain from pursuit of terrorists should they flee to calm areas, and it is absurd to imagine a security grid that applies to some parts but not the whole. But modernisation of the forces to create rapid reaction units would automatically thin their numbers. And return of leased lands to the government or owners is their right.

None of these issues can be tackled in a populist way, but they can be solved — indeed several solutions have already been worked out by the innumerable committees that the Central and state governments set up over the past five decades. If the BJP grasps the PDP’s olive branch, the coalition could agree on mechanisms to tackle each and get on with the business of government, which is what they were elected to do.

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