‘Feel – good factor’

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IN South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, a familiar sequence of events played out on Saturday: local militants killed in an encounter with armed forces, the streets erupting in protest and the district shut down, several people injured in clashes between protesters and security forces, and then the long funeral processions following the bodies of the militants.

Cut to Srinagar, and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was also having a busy day. She met youth delegations from various parts of the Valley and praised them for their “perseverance” in the face of the violence that had marred their childhood. She promised to “heal their scars” and to invest in education and employment. In return, the youth were enlisted in spreading the message of peace and creating a “feel-good factor” that would be inviting for tourists.

A couple of days earlier, riding on the new Banihal-Baramullah rail link, the chief minister had spoken in the same vein to choirs of school girls singing “Hum honge kaamyaab”. When it came to the Valley, people only talked of stone pelting, the chief minister said, but what of its IAS toppers and its bright female students?

Mufti managed to keep a safe distance from the violence spreading elsewhere, as though the rising tide of discontent had nothing to do with various acts of omission and commission by governments at the state and at the Centre. If the government responds at all, it relies on a well-worn formula – development as panacea to all of Kashmir’s troubles. Both the Centre and the state government have failed to recognise the unrest in Kashmir as a political movement that needs a political answer.

A political response

The Centre chooses to crack down on separatist leaders and sending in the army to quell militancy, simultaneously announcing special financial packages for J&K. Regional parties have traditionally campaigned and won votes on quotidian issues such as roti, kapda, makaan. As militancy waned in the last decade, they went so far as to promise bijli, sadak, paani.

These were the promises that won the National Conference government the elections in 2008, for instance. But the fragile pact between the government and the people was broken in 2010, after three local youth were killed by the army in a fake encounter in Machil and stone pelters took to the streets in protests. The state government under Chief Minister Omar Abdullah swung into action by cutting off mobile and internet services, putting in place a media blackout to muzzle dissent. About 100 people, many of them teenagers, died that summer.

The Omar Abdullah government struggled to find an adequate response to more bitter discontents that ran through the Valley. At the start of his tenure, he had urged a ceasefire with militants, dialogue with separatist leaders and communication with Islamabad on the Kashmir dispute. While these bolder political initiatives went nowhere, more low-key schemes, such as rehabilitation for surrendered militants, also came a cropper.

On the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – which gives the army wide ranging powers to shoot and arrest and has been held responsible for human rights violations in the Valley – the chief minister found himself on a shrinking scale of promises. He came to power echoing the public demand for its repeal but did not act on it. In 2011, he suddenly announced the removal of AFSPA from certain districts within a few weeks. When that did not happen either, he contented himself with ever-receding deadlines for the repeal of the unpopular law. The failure to deliver on AFSPA, it is said, became a symbol of his government’s failure.

Talking it out

In a state that is believed to be on the verge of a second wave of militancy, Mufti cannot afford the same mistakes as the Abdullah government. Her party, the traditionally “soft-separatist” People’s Democratic Party, could tap into political resources that were perhaps not available to the more centrist National Conference. Mufti herself rose to fame as a political leader who made no secret of her empathy for the separatist cause and mourned with the families of slain militants. These old sympathies could now be revived for a constructive dialogue between people and government.

Moreover, in J&K, the state government has typically consisted of a coalition between a major regional party and the party in power at the Centre. At present, it means the PDP and the Bharatiya Janata Party have formed an unlikely partnership. The ruling wisdom has been that such coalitions could be used to generate synergies between the Centre and the state, sensitise Delhi to the needs of J&K. Such coalitions have had a fractious history, but it still gives Mufti a direct line of communication to the Centre, allowing her to articulate the political aspirations of the Valley to the government in Delhi.

Unless these aspirations are expressed through political channels, the discontent they cause is likely to drown out the government’s favoured narrative of development. This weekend’s protests, for instance, made sure that train services between Banihal and Srinagar were suspended.

 

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