New Delhi appears determined to prove to young Kashmiris that it is a tyranny, opaque and arbitrary in its use of power.

In the charged summer of 2010, an irate cleric from the central Kashmir town of Badgam showed me startling evidence of India's plot to destroy Islam in Kashmir: an improbably large potato. The potato, he claimed, contained pig-genes which would defile the faithful.

Last month, Usmaan Raheem Ahmad — the man behind the high-yielding potatoes which the cleric had claimed induced impiety — was denied entry to India. Mr. Ahmad's path-breaking work on rural empowerment, urban entrepreneurship and women's rights had been publicly endorsed by the Chief Minister, the Governor and even the State police. He was seen by them as representing the kind of progressive intervention needed to drain the swamps of religious chauvinism and backwardness in which the Badgam cleric thrived — opening up the prospect of a new, vibrant Kashmir. For reasons no one in the Central government is willing to explain, though, New Delhi chose to shut Mr. Ahmad's work down.

Full disclosure: I made several attempts to find out why Mr. Ahmad was denied entry and to see if the problem could be resolved. I was told, variously, that Mr. Ahmad had worked on a tourist visa (not true); that he met with secessionists (true, but so does the Home Minister); that a 50-page Intelligence Bureau report concluded his organisation, the Mercy Corps, was working too closely in coordination with the United States (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, some critics say, also does). No one actually accused Mr. Ahmad of a crime.

Paralytic malaise

In the grand scheme of things, Mr. Ahmad's fate is perhaps trivial — but his story illustrates a paralytic malaise that has gripped New Delhi's policy on Jammu and Kashmir. In recent months, this malaise has manifested itself in dogged efforts to persuade young people in the State that India is a mindless tyranny, opaque and arbitrary in its use of power.

No one has seen fit to explain to the thousands of young people who saw hope in Mr. Ahmad's work why it was abruptly terminated. Nor has New Delhi explained its decision to stonewall the Chief Minister's repeated calls for phased demilitarisation. Not one reason has been given for why the government can't find the time to discuss A New Compact, the report of the three interlocutors it had appointed in 2010 to address the causes of street violence and police firing that claimed over a hundred young lives.

This pattern of behaviour isn't just mystifying: it's outright dangerous.

The report of interlocutors Dilip Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari — whose details were made public by The Hindu earlier this month — essentially seeks to put Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional future on a firm basis. It advocates limiting New Delhi's future ability to intervene on legislation that does not concern the country's security or vital economic interests. The document calls for power to be devolved to the provinces, addressing the ethnic-religious anxieties and resentments that have underpinned so much of the State's problems in recent years. It calls for economic regeneration on this side of the Line of Control, and trade across it — another issue that Mr. Ahmad was working on.

Few of these proposals are contentious: as the New Compact acknowledges, some of the ideas it deals with date back to 1952. Indeed, if there is one criticism to be made of the document, it is that the New Compact speaks to an old Kashmir: there is barely the whiff of radical idea in the document. New Delhi's decision not to begin discussing the New Compact bodes ill for the future. Kashmir is changing in ways that are imposing seismic pressures on its politics and polity, making real political dialogue imperative.

First, Jammu and Kashmir is urbanising rapidly — a process that creates huge social strains. In just the decade between 2001 and 2011, census data show, the urban population has increased from a quarter to a third of the population as a whole. It is hard to overstate the importance of these numbers. In 1951, soon after Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India, over half of the population was rural — and 10 years later, two-thirds were living in the countryside, as radical land reforms giving rural migrant workers the opportunity to become peasants kicked in.

Secondly, Jammu and Kashmir is seeing the birth of the largest youth cohort in its history — another source of strain. Three in five Jammu and Kashmir residents are either under 19 or over 60 — and the young are growing fastest. This means there is great pressure on the productive age group, and an urgent need to create new jobs for those who will soon enter it.

Thirdly, two decades of violence have left much of the population ill-prepared to deal with the new world that has emerged around it. The literacy rate has gone up only marginally, from 55.52 per cent to 68.74 per cent. The Planning Commission's last State development report on Jammu and Kashmir noted that “all the districts affected by militancy have a low literacy rate.” Kathua and Jammu, it noted, stood at the top of the pile; Srinagar at the bottom.

Himachal Pradesh — a State with terrain and social conditions not dissimilar to Jammu and Kashmir — illustrates the point: even adjusted for population, the State has better education, health facilities and tourism infrastructure.

Dangers ahead

From New Delhi-based scholar Navnita Behera's survey of media consumption by young people in Kashmir, there is some evidence that this generation has attitudes quite different from those of its elders. There remains among young people in Kashmir a substantial constituency for secessionist politics: 36 per cent of those seeking azaadi — who made up a little over half the respondents — defined it to mean independence from India, accession to Pakistan, or a shari'a-governed state. Even larger numbers — 61 per cent — however said they understood the term azaadi to denote greater constitutional and economic rights; one in 10 simply wanted the army out.

This is evidence that the secessionist constituency is diminishing. The problem, though, is this: this generation is also disconnected, as never before, from the political system. Two decades of violence strangled democratic politics. New Delhi is now delivering the coup de grace. Little empirical work has been done on the issue, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that young people in search of agency are turning away from organised politics to diverse forms of religious pietism, consumerism, or nihilist street violence.

Kashmir's jihadist movement was, at its core, a form of anti-politics that arose from a crisis just like this. In the 1970s and 1980s, pressures on small farmers — and growing hold of a new class of contractors and urban élites on the National Conference — created a reservoir of discontent among its traditional constituency. The party increasingly turned to religious chauvinism to hold on to its following. The Muslim United Front, representing the urban petty bourgeoisie and the rural orchard-owning elite, did so too. Islam, for the classes which backed the MUF, was an instrument to legitimise the protest of a threatened social order against a modernity which held out the prospect of obliterating it.

Price of failure

Kashmir, scholar Thomas Marks has argued, was flattened by “a demographic tidal wave of unabsorbed youthful males appearing in the late 1980s”, precisely the time “political issues called into question the legitimacy of the existing order”. Politics ought to have addressed these issues — but New Delhi's decades-old de-institutionalisation of democracy in the State ensured it could not. The price of failure was tens of thousands of lost lives.

From the English civil wars of 1642-1651 to the rise of European fascism, similar demographic trends have fuelled epic violence. In an exhaustive 2006 review of the evidence, social scientist Henrik Urdal concluded that “relatively large youth cohorts are associated with a significantly increased risk of domestic armed conflict, terrorism, riots and violent demonstrations.”

“War is father of all,” wrote the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, “king of all.” “Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free.” Heraclitus' aphorism has been used to illustrate the uncertain fortunes of conflict. It also, perhaps, has a deeper meaning. Efforts at peace-building often seek to discover and then fix causes that drove the emergence of a conflict. Not infrequently, they fail, because the societies they address no longer exist.

New Delhi's policy establishment still imagines it is dealing with a Kashmir that disappeared two decades or more ago: an illusion sustained by the fact that so many key actors are the children of the men who made the deals that propped up the State's dysfunctional political order. Its key instruments remain cajoling and co-optation — and, when it fails, outright bribery.

Meaningful political dialogue, least of all the new language of transparency, rights and empowerment Mr. Ahmad represented, simply isn't on the agenda. Prime Minister Singh's government won the war in Jammu and Kashmir, inflicting a decisive defeat on the insurgency. His government's actions suggest it is now doing its best to lose the peace.

praveens@thehindu.co.in

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