If the Prime Minister does not take bold steps to address the grievances of the Kashmiris, there's no telling where the next eruption will take us.
Whatever his other failings, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah deserves praise for acknowledging that the protests which have rocked the Kashmir valley these past few weeks are ‘leaderless' and not the product of manipulation by some hidden individual or group.
This admission has been difficult for the authorities to make because its implications are unpleasant, perhaps even frightening. In security terms, the absence of a central nervous system means the expanding body of protest cannot be controlled by arresting individual leaders. And in political terms, the spectre of leaderless revolt makes the offer of ‘dialogue' or the naming of a ‘special envoy' for Kashmir — proposals which might have made sense last year or even last month — seem completely and utterly pointless today.
Ever since the current phase of disturbances began, intelligence officials have been wasting precious time convincing the leadership and public of India that the protests are solely or mostly the handiwork of agent provocateurs. So we have been told of the role of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI, of the ‘daily wage of Rs. 200' — and even narcotics — being given to stone pelters. A few weeks back, an audio recording of a supposedly incriminating telephone call was leaked to the media along with a misleading transcript suggesting the Geelani faction of the Hurriyat was behind the upsurge. Now, our TV channels have “learned” from their “sources” that the protests will continue till President Obama's visit in November.
Central to this delusional narrative of manipulated protest is the idea that the disturbances are confined to just a few pockets in the valley. Last week, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters the problem was limited to Srinagar and two other towns. No doubt, some areas like downtown Srinagar, Sopore and Baramulla were in the ‘vanguard' but one of the reasons the protests spread was popular frustration over the way in which the authenticity of mass sentiment was being dismissed by the government. For the women who came on to the streets with their pots and pans and even stones, or the youths who set up spontaneous blood donation camps to help those injured in the demonstrations, this attempt to strip their protest of both legitimacy and agency was yet another provocation.
In the face of this mass upsurge, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has two options. He can declare, like the party apparatchiks in Brecht's poem, that since the people have thrown away the confidence of the government, it is time for the government to dissolve the people and elect another. Or he can admit, without prevarication or equivocation, that his government has thrown away the confidence of the ordinary Kashmiri.
This was not the way things looked in January 2009, when Omar Abdullah became chief minister. Assembly elections had gone off well. And though turnout in Srinagar and other towns was low, there was goodwill for the young leader. Of course, those who knew the state well had warned the Centre not to treat the election as an end in itself. The ‘masla-e-Kashmir' remained on the table and the people wanted it resolved. Unfortunately, the Centre failed to recognise this.
It is too early to gauge the reaction to Mr. Abdullah's promise of a “political package” once normalcy is restored. But the people have thronged the streets are likely to ask why this package — which the chief minister himself admitted was “long in the pipeline” — was never delivered for all the months normalcy prevailed. What came in the way of amending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act? Of ensuring there was zero tolerance for human rights violations? Of strengthening the “ongoing peace process both internally and externally”, as the all-party meeting in Srinagar earlier this month reminded the Centre to do?
At the heart of this missing package is the Centre's failure to craft a new security and political strategy for a situation where militancy no longer poses the threat it once did. The security forces in the valley continue to operate with an expansive mandate that is not commensurate with military necessity. Even if civilian deaths are less than before, the public's capacity to tolerate ‘collateral damage' when it is officially said that militancy has ended and normalcy has returned is also much less than before.
The immediate trigger for the current phase of protests was the death of 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo, who was killed by a tear gas canister which struck his head during a protest in Srinagar in June against the Machhil fake encounter of April 30. Many observers have blamed his death — and the deaths of other young men since then — on the security forces lacking the training and means for non-lethal crowd control. Tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon are used all over the world in situations where protests turn violent but in India, live ammunition seems to be the first and only line of defence. Even tear gas canisters are so poorly designed here that they lead to fatalities.
Whatever the immediate cause, however, it is also safe to say that young Tufail died as a direct result of Machhil. Though the Army has arrested the soldiers responsible for the fake encounter, the only reason they had the nerve to commit such a heinous crime was because they were confident they would get away with it. And at the root of that confidence is Pathribal, the notorious fake encounter of 2000. The army officers involved in the kidnapping and murder of five Kashmiri civilians there continue to be at liberty despite being charge-sheeted by the CBI. The Ministry of Defence has refused to grant sanction for their prosecution and has taken the matter all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to ensure its men do not face trial. What was the message that went out as a result?
Had the Centre made an example of the rotten apples that have spoiled the reputation of the Army instead of protecting them all these years, the Machhil encounter might never have happened. Tufail would not be dead and angry mobs would not be attacking police stations and government buildings. Impunity for the few has directly endangered the lives of all policemen and paramilitary personnel stationed in Kashmir. There is a lesson in this, surely, for those who say punishing the guilty will lower the morale of the security forces.
Mr. Abdullah may not be the best administrator but his biggest handicap as chief minister has been the Centre's refusal to address the ordinary Kashmiri's concerns about the over-securitsation of the state. Today, when he is being forced to induct an even greater number of troops into the valley, the Chief Minister's ability to push for a political package built around demilitarisation is close to zero.
At the Centre's urging, Mr. Abdullah made a televised speech to his people. His words do not appear to have made any difference. Nor could they, when the crisis staring us in the face is of national and international proportions. Today, the burden of our past sins in Kashmir has come crashing down like hailstones. Precious time is being frittered in thinking of ways to turn the clock back. Sending in more forces to shoot more protesters, changing the chief minister, imposing Governor's Rule — all of these are part of the reliquary of failed statecraft. We are where we are because these policies never worked.
The Prime Minister can forget about the Commonwealth Games, AfPak and other issues. Kashmir is where his leadership is urgently required. The Indian state successfully overcame the challenge posed by terrorism and militancy. But a people in ferment cannot be dealt with the same way. Manmohan Singh must take bold steps to demonstrate his willingness to address the grievances of ordinary Kashmiris. He should not insult their sentiments by talking of economic packages, roundtable conferences and all-party talks. He should unreservedly express regret for the deaths that have occurred these past few weeks. He should admit, in frankness and humility, the Indian state's failure to deliver justice all these years. And he should ask the people of Kashmir for a chance to make amends. There is still no guarantee the lava of public anger which is flowing will cool. But if he doesn't make an all-out effort to create some political space today, there is no telling where the next eruption in the valley will take us.