Siddharth Varadarajan

The fabric of belonging

NEW DELHI: 20/01/2011 --- Senior BJP leader, L. K. Advani along with party leader Ananth Kumar (left) hand over the National Flag to Bhartiya Janta Yuba Morcha National President, Anurag Thakur during a function to flag-off "Rashtriya Ekta Yatra", in New Delhi on Thursday. January 20, 2011. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India but the people of Kashmir can be forgiven for believing their country has forsaken them.

Throughout the summer of their most recent discontent, when a hundred young men and women lost their lives in police firing, leaders from the ruling and opposition parties acted as if nothing untoward had happened. Six months earlier, the mere threat of violence in Hyderabad led the Union Home Minister to declare the government had agreed to the formation of a separate state for Telangana. In Rajasthan, the blockade of national highways by agitating Gujjars produced an instant offer of dialogue and negotiation. But in Kashmir, the corpses kept piling up while the government, the Opposition (with some honourable exceptions) and civil society in the rest of India reacted with the kind of detachment reserved for death and destruction in faraway lands like Darfur and Iraq.

The fact that the public mood in the valley began to soften slightly only after an all-party delegation visited Srinagar and condoled with some of the victims' families underlined something quite unpleasant about ourselves. That the indifference of mainland India to the suffering of the ordinary Kashmiri is as much a factor in the alienation of the State as the politics of separatism and the violence of extremist groups operating with the tacit and sometimes overt backing of the Pakistani military. With characteristic indecisiveness, however, the Manmohan Singh government failed swiftly to capitalise on that initiative. When a group of interlocutors was finally appointed with a fairly open-ended mandate to listen, talk and report back, the mood in Kashmir had once again begun to harden. The fact that Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari have still managed to make some headway in their interactions is more a result of their own personal commitment to changing the terms of New Delhi's engagement with the valley than with the attitude of the Centre and of Political India, which continue to send mixed signals.

One day, the Union Home Secretary tells reporters the government is prepared to pare down the presence of the security forces in Kashmir, the next day this statement is bluntly contradicted by the Defence Minister. The Prime Minister and Union Home Minister speak of amending the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act while the Army Chief announces publicly that he will never accept this. In the Machchil fake encounter case, the same general declares that his soldiers — who are accused of kidnapping and killing three young Kashmiri men — can never get justice in Kashmir, as if the State is not a part of India. Only the Army, he said, will be allowed to investigate the matter. Of course, in the Pathribal fake encounter of 2000 — where the Army has taken the Central Bureau of Investigation all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent its officers from standing trial for murder — the Army has not seen fit to even proceed against them under its own authority. Surely such a cavalier attitude to justice ought not to be tolerated in an integral part of India?

The Government of India rightly protested when Beijing began treating Kashmir-born or Kashmir-domiciled Indians differently from the rest while issuing visas for travel to China. But the same government does not mind treating Kashmiri Indians differently when it comes to issuing passports for them to travel. A Srinagar-born colleague of mine whose family left Kashmir to live in Delhi as part of the forced migration of Pandits from the valley in the 1990s was recently told by the Passport Office that she had to provide additional documentation that other Indians are not required to do in order to obtain a passport. As for Kashmiris applying for Indian passports in Srinagar, a recent documentary film by Ashvin Kumar, Inshallah Football, documents the heartbreaking experience they have to endure before the country which so emotionally claims them as its own will allow them to travel abroad.

Hoisting the flag

As the Centre's three interlocutors plough a lonely furrow through the infertile and even hostile soil of distrust and alienation, patiently listening to and cataloguing popular grievances, the Bharatiya Janata Party wants to rekindle a sense of estrangement by staging a provocative and high profile yatra to Srinagar in order to hoist the Indian flag at Lal Chowk in the heart of the city's commercial centre on January 26.

There is nothing patriotic or noble about the BJP's plans and intentions. Instead of a reassuring voyage of solidarity and empathy aimed at reassuring the people of the State that the party will fight for the sacred values of truth, justice and inclusiveness which the flag embodies, the party is planning an expedition based on the flawed belief that meaningless symbolism is all that is required to win hearts and minds and cement Kashmir's status as a part of India.

If a sense of national belonging can be instilled and solidified by the mere hoisting of a flag, 60 years of official ceremonies in Srinagar ought to have ended the sense of alienation that is writ large over the valley. Even if the BJP goes ahead with their mindless yatra, it will not alter the realities on the ground one bit and would actually make the situation worse. Whatever we may say or do or wish, surely Kashmir will be an integral part of India in a meaningful sense only when the residents of Srinagar themselves throng to Lal Chowk and hoist the tri-colour themselves. The challenge for the Indian polity is to create the conditions for that to happen one day, however difficult that may seem today. But the BJP's proposed flaghoisting is not just an exercise in naivette or cynicism. It is the product of a mindset that considers Kashmir to be terra nullius, an empty landscape to be coveted and possessed rather than a land with a people and soul who acceded to India in 1947 on the basis of a covenant which must be respected in full measure and who have as much right to a life with dignity as those elsewhere in the country do.

A politician can drape himself in the national flag but it is the texture of his politics which will determine whether he truly cares for the nation and its peoples or not. Today, the Congress politician and businessman Naveen Jindal is known not for fighting a landmark case over the right of ordinary citizens to fly the flag but for his endorsement of the obscurantist tradition of khap panchayats. Ministers and officials will preside over flag hoisting ceremonies on Republic Day throughout India even as their policies and actions in the preceding year have bled the hallowed earth on which they stand dry. Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the people of India know this only too well. If the BJP really wants to do something for the country, let them take their yatra to Karnataka. There is a large plot of land in that State which the party's chief minister signed over to his relatives. Let the process of safeguarding this country from those who are undermining its foundations begin by planting the national flag there.

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