In this era of post-nationalism, it is possible to preserve the distinct Kashmiri cultural identity in an autonomous political framework that is not at odds with the idea of it being part of a larger Indian Union.

While bleakly pessimistic readings of the escalating violence in the Kashmir Valley are already declaring that India's more than 60-year painstaking quest to retain the picturesque State within its Union has collapsed, there are strong signs that the situation can be easily pulled back from the brink. What is called for is not just deft political management but some transparent introspection that can be shared loud and clear between New Delhi, Srinagar and the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

It will have to be a conversation that is audible to the outside world, so that it has authenticity and thereby credibility. But most important, the dialogue must reach into history, examine the commitments that have been made especially in recent years and ensure that the faith of ordinary people in the capacity of politics and in the political system is substantively renewed.

The fast moving events in the Valley with the death count of innocent youths rising every day since June 11 in the increasingly violent standoff between civilian protesters and the security forces, served as a wake-up call for New Delhi. The Srinagar stone-pelting campaign brought back the unsavoury memories of the movement for azadi as the slogans shouted on the Srinagar streets were mainly for India to “go back”.

It was a rude jolt to the United Progressive Alliance's self assured and even complacent perception that the peace process initiated in 2006 by the Manmohan Singh administration was in place. The reconciliatory process was clearly in shreds and the situation had spun out of control. Officials and politicians in Srinagar and New Delhi were evidently overwhelmed by the vehemence and intensity of the anger that was spilling out on to the streets.

Some of that realisation appeared to reflect in the Prime Minister's rueful recalling of the steps that his government had taken since 2004, in his meeting with the all-party delegation from Jammu and Kashmir on August 10. Noting that his government had invested heavily in the peace process, having been given the space by the “brave rejection” of militancy by the people, Dr. Singh signalled his recognition of the inevitability of a dialogue with Pakistan on the historical dispute over Kashmir's status. He also admitted that what was needed was “a political solution that addresses the alienation and emotional needs of the people” which could only be achieved through “a sustained internal and external dialogue.”

The Prime Minister sought to remind his audience that his government had set up a number of round tables and working groups in order to bring about a durable peace. Yet in his recounting of the past, he did not offer an explanation of the sudden ebbing of momentum in that very process as a result of the gap between these professed intentions and what had actually transpired in the last three years after the last roundtable concluded in April 2007. There is no doubt that the fatal blow to the Manmohan Singh initiative on Kashmir was the abandonment of the working group process after 2007. After showcasing the Roundtable meetings and working group process as the “way forward” in addressing the alienation of the Valley, for New Delhi to have dropped that entire process was a disconcerting signal.

At the end of the third roundtable conference in April 2007, the Prime Minister had proposed that as a sequel to the constitution of the working groups, a “standing committee of the roundtable conference” be set up “to meet as and when necessary to take stock of the implementation of the recommendations of the working groups.” He had also left it to the Chief Minister to finalise the membership of the standing committee. At that point it was a Congress-PDP coalition that was at the helm with Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress candidate as the Chief Minister. Yet inexplicably, the concept of a standing committee to oversee the implementation of the working group recommendations never took shape.

It has been argued that because of the change of regime in Srinagar and the various agitations such as Amarnath and Shopian, the stakes that New Delhi had invested in the peace process could not be successfully sustained. But to have left the Kashmir peace process, an issue of critical national importance, to the vagaries of partisan party politics is an unacceptable lapse of judgment. As a result, critical political and strategic space has unnecessarily been conceded to the separatists.

Yet it is not at all too late for New Delhi to regain the initiative. First, the South Asian regional dynamics have radically changed as a result of the post-9/11 context. The 1990s were dominated by the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, when campaigns for self-determination and cultural nationalist assertions received worldwide attention and empathy. But vastly different political currents are driving the 21st century, with the global powers led by the United States and including China, for their own strategic reasons having little stake in encouraging fragmentary and breakaway impulses, founded on ethno-nationalism.

Recognising these changed dynamics, the former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, offered his four-point formula which in essence suggested rendering boundaries irrelevant by allowing a substantive unification of the two Kashmirs, a proposal that New Delhi felt had potential. The key point to recognise in approaching the Kashmir issue is that in this era of post-nationalism, it is possible to preserve the distinct Kashmiri cultural identity in an autonomous political framework that is not at odds with the idea of it being part of a larger Indian Union.

New Delhi's bureaucracy, traditionally suspicious of any formulations that would loosen Srinagar's ties with New Delhi, has failed to grasp the enormous creative potential in engagement with interlocutors such as Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq, a visionary who is fiercely anti-fundamentalist but seeks to protect Kashmir's unique political identity. In a recent interview in the August issue of the new Srinagar periodical Conveyor, Mirwaiz explained that he believed that the Kashmiris were “in a situation where things have changed, it is not 1947 and the realities are entirely different in 2010.” He also said “we have to move beyond history now and look at options where we can create opportunities of addressing the problem.” Significantly he added “Self determination should not be viewed as a limited or closed thing … we have to look at the broader concept of things.”

The potential in Mirwaiz's views must be explored as also the ideas of the Mehbooba Mufti-led People's Democratic Party, the Congress party's erstwhile coalition partner, which envisage cross-border power-sharing arrangements between the people on both sides of the Line of Control to be able to “gain an uncontrolled access to our own resources and the bounties of nature that are shared by our region as a whole”. In the PDP proposal for self-rule is also a careful acknowledgment that the present national boundaries of India and Pakistan must be preserved.

The Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, has the historic responsibility of ensuring that the much delayed constitutional, political and economic processes that enable a radically autonomous status for the State under Article 370, are set in motion. In June 2000, it was his father Farooq Abdullah, then the Chief Minister, who got the J&K State Assembly to adopt a path breaking resolution based on its State Autonomy Committee (SAC) Report proposing that “matters in the Union List not connected with … Defence, External Affairs and Communications … should be excluded from their application of the State”.

It is time for India to uphold the unique circumstances of Kashmir's accession to India and accept the inevitability of loosening its ties to the Union. One positive signal would be to agree to the SAC proposal that the word “temporary” which couches the provision on Article 370 be replaced with the word “special”, thereby protecting the State's special status from the frequent political assaults on it, especially from Hindu nationalists.

The second important aspect of the task ahead is to assure the support of both the Centre and the State government for the project to revive genuine kashmiriyat, the historically unique ethos of the Kashmir valley that is in essence syncretic, harmonious and independent of both the national constructs of India and Pakistan. Respecting kashmiriyat is not by any stretch of imagination anti-Indian. Kashmiriyat is as much a part of the sub-continental heritage as is the rich Dravidian culture of Tamil Nadu.

Kashmiriyat is a proud assertion of a unique Kashmiri cultural identity that is unabashedly pluralist in its moorings, inclusive in its orientation that embraces both Muslims and Pandits. It is as far removed from the hard-line Islamists who seek to hijack this sentiment and turn it into a movement for self-determination, as it is from the Hindu nationalists who demand Kashmir's complete integration with the Indian Union.

The way forward is to revive the true spirit of kashmiriyat. It is a test of India's political ingenuity to find ways and means of upholding it without necessarily compromising the larger issue of national boundaries.

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