“There is no Hindu or Muslim question in Kashmir,” Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah said in 1948, “we do not use such language.” Inside of eight weeks in 2008, the shrine-land wars that scorched the State succeeded in reducing it to a hate-driven dystopia. Sunday’s agreement between the Shri Amarnathji Sangharsh Samiti and the Jammu and Kashmir government is an important step forward in bridging the communal divide. While the agreement falls short of a full resolution of the crisis, it has doused the flames of Hindu chauvinist reaction in Jammu. Now the State government can concentrate on engaging with the still-unresolved crisis in Kashmir. Predictably, secessionist groups as well as the People’s Democratic Party, whose electoral prospects seem dismal, have assailed the agreement, calling it one-sided. However, National Conference leader and ex-Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, has welcomed it as a “good sign,” saying he was delighted that the “hatred that was developing between communities in the State has come to an amicable end.” Almost alone among the State’s major league politicians, Dr. Abdullah appears to understand the need to engage with all the State’s peoples, not just parochial constituencies in Kashmir or Jammu. Dr. Abdullah’s record as an administrator may be arguable — but he must be commended for showing the instinctive secularism and democratic spirit J&K so desperately needs.
Many steps remain to be taken if the fears — real and imagined — feeding violence in Kashmir are to be stilled. Islamists in Kashmir have stoked concerns that the disruption of commercial traffic along the Jammu-Srinagar highway by Hindutva groups is the prelude to a larger ‘genocidal’ campaign. New Delhi could re-establish its bona fides by persuading Islamabad to open the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road for cross-Line of Control trade. Pakistan promised to allow commerce across the LoC in August, but subsequently pushed back the date to October 1. It does not appear to have built the customs bays and warehousing facilities needed for cargo movements to begin. Given its preoccupation with internal political problems, Islamabad seems unlikely to give priority to cross-LoC trade. However, it has a real opportunity to win goodwill in both New Delhi and Srinagar by delivering on its promise. At home, all political eyes will be on the Election Commission of India, which has conducted a series of Assembly elections over the last year and more with consummate skill, defying dire predictions in some cases. What it needs to do right away is to consult all the relevant political parties democratically and with an open mind — to explore the feasibility of holding J&K elections as early as possible and, in any case, no later than January 9, 2009, keeping in view the date of dissolution of the Assembly.