Nearly a hundred people have died in clashes between police and protesters in Kashmir this year — more lives than have been lost in combat between troops and terrorists. The protests have made a bonfire of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's central policy vanity: the promise that he would pull off a grand resolution of the six-decade old conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir, where so many of his predecessors had failed. Monday's horrific religion-fuelled violence, which claimed at least 15 lives, was sparked off by television images of the desecration of the Koran by a mischievous protester in New York. But the fact that Islamists were so easily able to exploit the issue points to a larger breakdown of faith in both democratic politics and dialogue with the state. For that, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ambitious but pathetically executed pursuit of peace is at least in part to blame. Efforts to engage secessionists in dialogue, promises of phased demilitarisation, and a final peace deal with Pakistan itself: each of these enterprises ended in impasse. Each failure engendered cynicism and bitterness, which in turn legitimised Islamist hawks who contended from the start that peace was a miasma.
By talking big while having little to offer, New Delhi has unwittingly fanned the flames in J&K. Earlier this month, in an ill-advised gesture intended to inject fresh capital into Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's battered political fortunes, the central government let it be known that an Eid peace initiative was imminent. Made up in the main of a promise to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from some parts of Kashmir, the decision would have meant little change on the ground: the areas from which AFSPA was to be lifted have a minimal or zero military presence. But even this move was stalled by differences within the Cabinet. The abortive Eid package strengthened the hands of Islamists. If the central government wished to build bridges with ordinary people in Kashmir, all it had to do was allow the prosecution of soldiers charged with human rights violations. The State government, for its part, could have placed before the public a clearly thought-out, credible programme for rebuilding the police force. It could have thus paved the way for a phased pull-out of troops now involved in counter-terrorism duties. Both the State and central governments could have begun a serious dialogue on the content of federal autonomy, which must form the basis for any sustainable political solution in the State. Jammu and Kashmir is poised on the edge of an abyss. Firm, generous-spirited action to win over the people is needed, not post-dated promises and grandstanding.