Kashmir’s unending tragedy

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The dreadful violence and low turnout in a by-election in Kashmir has again raised intense debate in New Delhi. Unfortunately this debate has been mainly abusive rather than productive, and as a result it has masked the real issues.

Somehow we have created a binary in which there are only two opposing groups — those in mainland India who consider Kashmiris to be pro-Pakistan Wahhabis who support terrorism, and those in the Valley who consider Indians to be rabid communalists. Each has a grain of truth insofar as there are constituencies of extremists on both sides, but only a grain. The majority of Kashmiris want to live in freedom, peace and dignity, just as the majority of Indians do, and we all look to our governments, at the Centre and in Jammu and Kashmir, to provide us with these.

Towards the extremes

The growing influence of this ugly mutual propaganda, seen not only in social media but also on our television channels, will drive more people to extremism and that, surely, is a cause for concern to citizens as well as the government. There is no denying that the Islamic State-type perversion of Islam has gained ground amongst a few in the Valley, nor that stone-pelting has been organised in many instances. But there should equally be no denying that anger in the Valley is higher than it has been in two decades and has reached alarming proportions. Nor can we deny that at least one major cause of this anger is the lack of a peace and reconciliation process, which the Bharatiya Janata Party-Peoples Democratic Party (BJP-PDP) coalition promised, or that another major cause is the lack of an honest and accountable administration.

We have allowed our security forces (Army, Central Reserve Police Force and State police) to be the only visible face of India in the Valley — our legislators and civil government are not to be seen. The security forces have had to bear the brunt of public anger, and after almost a decade of being stoned, it is not surprising that they commit human rights abuses. But that does not, and must not, mean that we justify abuse or add to it. We need rather to focus on the restoration of trust in administration so that our forces are no longer needed for internal security. We have done a gross injustice to our troops by keeping them in internal conflict situations for decades on end. The forces can at most contain internal violence and that too only if it is a short-term task; after that it is the responsibility of the administration and political representatives to step in. In the absence of a political and reconciliation process, asking security forces to show restraint in the face of constant stoning is not feasible.

Peace process and violence

Past experience shows that when there has been a peace process, incidents of violence, including stone-pelting, have died down. In 2010, when I was one of three interlocutors sent to the Valley, the government initiated a multitrack process combining humanitarian and political dialogue with security reforms that ranged from tightening the anti-infiltration grid to distinguishing between first-time offenders and ringleaders, and tackling economic woes. It was the combination of these elements that worked then, and they created conditions for political talks that could have significantly improved relations between the Valley and the rest of India.

I am often asked what happened to our report. All I know is that the United Progressive Alliance government, the parliamentary delegation that had recommended the creation of our group, as well as the State government failed to follow through on any of our political and constitutional recommendations, while the BJP rejected it in toto. That failure was a major setback, especially for the several thousand people who spoke to us.

Another such opportunity was offered by the Agenda for Alliance. The BJP and the PDP had fought a bitterly divisive election campaign against each other, and their coming together held out a hope of reconciliation for the State. There are political commitments in the Agenda for Alliance that would go a long way to alleviating anger in the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh and they could have been implemented without alienating any of the regions. They still can be, and it would be an important confidence booster if the leaders of the two parties sit down and choose which of the political commitments to honour.

If the government wants to restore peace to the Valley, it cannot do it by force — talks with dissidents is the only option. The demonisation of Kashmiris by ruling party spokespersons — all stone-pelters are traitors, really? — does not give much hope. Perhaps the Supreme Court will help.

True, the failure to sustain a political process until resolution can be found is not new. It has been repeated for decades — indeed we could go back to the 1950s — but that only compounds the problem, it does not justify continuing inaction. It is more difficult to make peace today than it was five years ago, and it was more difficult then that in the previous five years. That means it will be even worse in another five years and soon it will be insuperable.

What about the role of Pakistan? History shows us that they have tried to foster an anti-India jihad in Jammu and Kashmir since 1947 but without much success until the late 1980s, by which time Article 370 of the Constitution had been rendered a dead letter. By 1988, repeated Indian interference in J&K’s internal political processes led thousands of young Kashmiris to an armed uprising. Since then we have struggled to put those years behind us, and succeeded insofar as free and fair elections are concerned. But our failure to seize windows for political reconciliation has played into Pakistani hands and it is doing so again, while we waste our time in futile debates about who is more nationalist amongst Indians and who is more traitorous amongst Kashmiris.

As innumerable commentators have pointed out, the best way to prevent Pakistan from making hay is for talks with Kashmiri dissidents. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti recently said, on her discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that there will be a political dialogue, but only after some peace is restored. Talks and de-escalation, however, go together, and it is not wise to make them sequential.

Nor is it clear whom the government will talk to. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court a few days ago that the government will not talk to people who demand independence or secession. Presumably he meant the Hurriyat, JKLF and allied groups. Such a position makes talks a non-starter — to repeat a platitude, you do not make peace with your friends but with your opponents. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the then Home Minister L.K. Advani saw this point clearly, as did their successors, Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. Mr. Vajpayee’s most brilliant strategy was to accept the Hurriyat’s offer to act as a bridge to Pakistan — the Pakistan government could not refuse to listen to Kashmiris. Of course, in their usual way, the Pakistan government did not wind up its training, arming and sanctuaries for Islamist guerrillas fighting India but they did get them to lie low, and as a result the lack of public support for militancy was able to make itself evident.

Address rights abuses

We should not also forget the Hurriyat and dissident leaders, including of armed groups, who gave their lives in the search for peace with India. Abdul Ghani Lone, the People’s Conference leader who said that the time for armed militancy was over, was assassinated in an Inter-Services Intelligence operation. Pro-Pakistan militants murdered Majid Dar, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who engaged in talks for a ceasefire with army representatives. More recently, Hurriyat leader Fazal Haq Qureshi was shot by local militants for talks with Mr. Chidambaram, and almost died. There are many within the Hurriyat who would consider talks again, just as there are many in the Valley who are worried about the lumpenisation of Islam that the stone-pelters represent. None of them, however, will or can cooperate as long as we fail to offer them a political process and redress human rights abuses.

If the government wants to restore peace to the Valley, it cannot do it by force — talks with dissidents is the only option. The demonisation of Kashmiris by ruling party spokespersons — all stone-pelters are traitors, really? — does not give much hope. Perhaps the Supreme Court will help.

The Article First Appeared In The Hindu

 

 

 

 

 

 

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