Kashmir need not be Manmohan Singh’s last failure if he can summon the will to take the bold initiatives he promised early in his tenure
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoided any political comment on Kashmir during his recent visit to Srinagar. He focussed on developmental issues, announcing power projects and inaugurating the railway tunnel that will eventually connect the regions of Jammu and Kashmir. He said he was ready to talk to those who shun violence — but it wasn’t a voluntary statement but one offered in response to a question about separatists in a press conference.
Dr. Singh’s reticence was a marked contrast to the introspective tone adopted by Home Minister P. Chidambaram during the 2010 unrest when 120 protesters were shot dead by the security forces. In a statement then, he admitted that “Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India under very unique circumstances” and that is why “we must put our heads together to find a solution, a unique solution to this unique problem.” Mr. Chidambaram’s statement was a rare official recognition that Kashmir was not just any other federal problem, but one where issues of national belonging and political agency were yet unresolved.
Kashmiris are thus mystified by Dr. Singh’s disregard for their concerns — which include a resolution of the State’s political status (entailing at least a restoration of its autonomy, guaranteed under Article 370 but undermined over the years); addressing the presence of security forces and immunities afforded by special legislation like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); accountability for previous — and occasionally ongoing — brutalities of the security forces; and the calibrated, if not wholesale, stifling of democratic freedoms and so on.
Dr. Singh’s reserve seems to conform to several lines of reasoning in New Delhi’s policy circles. One is that the UPA cannot address Kashmir now as national elections approach — this visit was about the Congress party’s prospects in the State rather than anything else. Dr. Singh’s indifference could also flow from a sense in Delhi that inaction is a legitimate way to handle Kashmir. As Omar Abdullah alluded to such perceptions recently, the State is returning to “normal,” militancy continues to be in relative decline; Indian tourists are thronging for summer relief; some Kashmiris are doing well in Indian civil service exams and clamouring to be part of India’s growth story and its cricket team. The international community has, in any case, forgotten Kashmir as Delhi has deftly made growth of relations with Pakistan conditional on not uttering the ‘K word’ — so why bother dredging up political issues?
UPA defenders would argue that the government did indeed address Kashmir when it could, but it can no longer do so because of the uncongenial state of India-Pakistan relations and the domestic political climate. India and Pakistan had, after all, in Dr. Singh’s own words, “the most fruitful and productive discussions ever” during 2004-07 about “a permanent resolution” to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. “Intensive discussions” were held on the backchannel centring on President Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula for a non-territorial solution, based on the principles of soft borders, self-governance, demilitarisation and joint management. That process, however, got nowhere as India was then focussed on the India-U.S. nuclear deal; and President Musharraf subsequently got into domestic trouble and was eventually ousted. The successor PPP government got on well with New Delhi (despite the Mumbai attacks) but was wary of embracing a framework adopted by President Musharraf.
The Manmohan Singh government took steps on the domestic front as well. Mr. Chidambaram initiated a discreet “quiet dialogue” with Kashmiri separatists in 2009, but it floundered after Fazl Haq Qureshi was shot by militants. The separatists read that as a sign of Islamabad’s disapproval of a Delhi-Srinagar track that left Pakistan out — and backed off.
The Valley then saw massive unrest in 2010 which Delhi attempted to pacify through the appointment of three interlocutors to look into the “contours of a political solution” for Kashmir. The interlocutors submitted their report in October 2011 and recommended a “new compact” between Delhi and J&K that would involve a review of all laws passed by the Centre that “dented J&K’s special status.” They anticipated an eventual re-institution of relevant powers to the State provided it was passed by a two-thirds majority in both the J&K legislature and Parliament. The UPA — plagued by corruption scandals — lacked the authority and numbers to push through a constitutional process relating to J&K.
Not the whole truth
These narratives do not, however, capture the whole story. By privileging political compulsions, they obscure the degree of continuing Kashmiri disaffection with India and its wider political import. It is clear to any visitor, a follower of the State’s print or social media that Kashmiri anger with India has not abated in recent years. Memories of firing on protesters in 2010 are vivid and they have socialised a large cohort of young Kashmiris to a default anti-India sentiment. Nearly 6,000 Kashmiris were imprisoned after 2010 for varying periods, traumatising families and inevitably creating extorting opportunities for local notables and State authorities. Social media is believed to be carefully monitored while separatist leaders (including moderates like Yasin Malik) have been arrested or detained frequently to pre-empt civilian protests. Afzal Guru’s execution in February is another prism through which Kashmir looks at India — the failure to inform his family, his hasty burial by the state and the Supreme Court’s statement about sentencing him to “satisfy the collective conscience of society” are now part of collective lore and stoking widespread resentment. The presence of security forces across the Valley is a constant reminder that Kashmiris are not in charge.
This anger has not yet translated into a full-blown resurgence of militancy. But there are disquieting trends. Analysts have pointed out that some local militants killed in encounters this year were well educated, with degrees or diplomas in engineering, physics or Islamic Studies. Kashmiris realise that an armed struggle is impractical in view of India’s military might, but funerals for militants are again beginning to attract large crowds.
Delhi thus needs to have a policy for Kashmir, which is unrelated to the India-Pakistan bilateral calendar. This is in its self-interest — an unresolved Kashmir has a toxic effect on the Indian public sphere constantly pitting nationalists and liberals, security specialists and human rights activists against each other. Kashmir also negatively shapes the kind of actor India is becoming internationally. It is partly the reason Delhi needs to invoke non-interference in internal affairs when assuming positions on Sri Lanka, Syria, Burma, Kosovo, etc. There is also the immediate future to be mindful of. 2014 is a crucial year for the region. J&K will go to the polls while Afghan politics approaches a denouement that may hold within it a potential for jihadi energies to be reoriented toward Kashmir.
In view of such imperatives, the UPA must endeavour to create the conditions for a political process to resume in Kashmir. A few immediate options could help. First, revisit the issue of lifting AFSPA from two districts in Kashmir. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Mr. Chidambaram have forcefully spoken in favour of this but are facing resistance from the Army. The brass could be assured that its veto on a deal on Siachen would hold but it must be willing to agree to try this for a period of time. A globalising power keen on regional integration cannot have unevolved approaches to counterinsurgency in perpetuity. Two, address the perception that Kashmiris do not have a say on key governance issues, through a menu of policy interventions. For instance, key hydropower projects on waters in J&K produce energy for other States but they are not owned by State entities. J&K’s leaders want the ownership of NHPC projects to be transferred to the State to help generate more revenue — but haven’t made headway.
Three, allow democratic protests. The absence of dissenting spaces can only turn movements underground and allow their appropriation by extremist groups. Muzzling student politics in universities, incarcerating young activists and moderate separatist leaders frequently undercuts their ability to (ever) enter into a dialogue with Delhi. It also severely damages the authority of the State government, which is believed to be complicit in such measures. Such steps could, in time, prompt a rethink of outright rejectionism by separatists and prepare the ground for resumption of substantive talks on Kashmir with Pakistan.
These may be doable even when the country is in election mode. A robust Kashmir policy may be good politics for the Congress too, as it will test Narendra Modi’s efforts to burnish his inclusive credentials — and offer Dr. Singh another legacy item to strive for at the end of his second term.
(Sushil Aaron is Director of Projects at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. These are his personal views. Email: SushilAaron@yahoo.com)