“I need to rebuild my credibility brick by brick,” Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah admitted recently in an interview. He is right — and his opponents would be wise to draw the same lesson. The violence that bloodied Kashmir's urban streets this summer constitutes the most serious challenge the State's fragile political system has confronted since electoral democracy took the first steps towards re-institutionalisation in 1996. The ugly violence demonstrated that substantial numbers of young people in Kashmir's cities feel disenfranchised by the political system and are hostile to India. Growing numbers are turning to Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani for leadership. It is clear we haven't seen the last of these troubles, which have broken out every summer since 2005. Police stood by silently on Saturday as motorcycle-borne squads linked to Geelani's Tehreek-i-Hurriyat brutally enforced a shutdown. For all practical purposes, the fragile peace in Srinagar has been purchased by ceding control of parts of the city to the Islamist Right.
Putting more police on the streets to shoot at unarmed protesters cannot, and must not, be the answer. The reality is that Islamists have cashed in on the failure of their adversaries to address the concerns of swathes of young people. Neither the National Conference, which holds all eight Assembly seats in Srinagar, nor its main opponent, the People's Democratic Party, has chosen to organise a single peace meeting or rally. Neither has any immediate stakes in the areas where violence is taking place: the National Conference's legislators won because few people voted, and the PDP hopes resentment against them will eventually rebound in its favour. Earlier this month, the PDP chose to stay away from an all-party meeting called to discuss the violence despite a personal appeal from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to party chief Mehbooba Mufti. Ms Mufti's action was deplorably shortsighted. The growing power of the religious Right will eventually discredit both the ruling coalition and its opponents. New Delhi must do its part. Even if a peace deal with Pakistan seems beyond grasp, it could attempt to initiate a quiet process of engagement with pro-dialogue secessionists. But the principal responsibility rests with J&K's own politicians — who have often pointed out that many of the State's problems can be traced to interference from New Delhi. Experts have made many suggestions for first steps forward: for example, the setting up of local citizens' bodies to liaise with administrators and police along with investments in education and entrepreneurship as well as non-lethal crowd control technologies. But none of these can be realised unless the State's politicians step out to bat courageously.