Burhan Wani's death and a year of living dangerously

Living in denial on Kashmir

The latest uprising in Kashmir, triggered by the encounter killing of the young Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani, was waiting to happen for some time. The writing on the wall has been clear to those who cared to read it: that Kashmir would soon bounce back to the days of home-grown insurgency, with religious radicalisation acting as a force multiplier this time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi, in its impatient race for power in Srinagar, did not care to read the signs, and when told, it didn’t care to listen.

The Kashmiris knew that things were not going to be easy for them if the BJP were to come to power in the State, and so they voted in large numbers to keep it out. But they were in for a rude surprise when BJP interlocutors sweet-talked the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) into believing that the “Agenda of Alliance”, that the two parties put together after months of negotiations, would be an inviolable document for political action. The PDP has since been silenced and the so-called guiding document has been cast to the winds. We are perhaps one last stop away from the Valley slipping into another full-blown insurgency: with Rawalpindi aiding and abetting it, disaffected Kashmiris being hopeless and edgy, and clueless New Delhi playing with fire throwing all caution to the winds.

A decade of follies

There was a time, a decade ago, when we were close to ending the Kashmir insurgency. It was the heyday of Manmohan Singh’s proactive diplomacy with Pakistan on the Kashmir question even as his interlocutors were quietly negotiating with the dissident leadership in Kashmir on a ‘Kashmir formula’. As per anecdotal evidence, a majority of the dissident leadership in the Valley, barring Syed Ali Shah Geelani, was on board the formula. Not only were the Pakistanis supporting the process but had even tried to reach out to the dissidents in the Valley to convince them of the proposed solution! Dr. Singh held extensive consultations with the Kashmiri leadership both publicly and privately. While Dr. Singh lost his political nerve in mid-2007 to take the initiative to its logical conclusion, his counterpart, Pervez Musharraf, lost his domestic support thanks to the lawyers’ agitation, and as a result, the deal that would have settled both the conflict in Kashmir and over Kashmir disappeared into oblivion.

Kashmir has never been the same again. Anti-India feelings were steadily on the rise after over 120 Kashmiris were killed at the hands of the J&K police and Central forces in 2010. The seeds of a new indigenous insurgency were sown by the hasty manner in which Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013 during the Congress-led UPA regime. Let’s remember that all this was happening during a decade when terrorist infiltration from Pakistan was lower than ever before thanks primarily to the border/Line of Control fence that was erected in J&K in 2004.

The combined result of this mishandling has been a sharp, and worrying, spike in the number of home-grown militants: educated, armed, religiously inclined and ideologically motivated, and not necessarily shepherded. Second, years since the violent insurgency of the 1990s was put down, there is today a disquieting rise in the legitimacy for armed militancy among civil society and the educated classes of the Valley — Burhan Wani’s father, who is convinced of the righteousness of his son’s mission, is symbolic of that radical change. Anti-Indianism has become fashionable once again. A society that was exhausted by violence and gun culture has suddenly started justifying it. Finally, a decade of mishandling Kashmir has fundamentally damaged the liberal political space that could have politically and ideologically countered the return of militancy. Even the moderate Hurriyat faction finds it difficult today to converse with the youngsters thronging Kashmir’s dark alleys and war-torn mofussil towns, shouting for azadi, throwing stones, and ready to die.

Still losing the plot

Its miserable history of mishandling Kashmir has hardly taught New Delhi how to deal with Kashmir, despite fighting the insurgency for close to three decades now. While it was the Congress’s greed for power that historically, since the 1950s, alienated Kashmiris from the Indian political mainstream, it’s now the BJP’s turn to emulate the Congress with, of course, far more chest-thumping and name-calling.

Having cleverly hemmed in the Muftis, BJP strategists seem to believe that they have finally won the battle of wits in Kashmir, which they may well have. Yet, by being ignorant of the big picture, by investing heavily in short-term strategies and being insensitive to both the disaffected Kashmiris and its beleaguered coalition partner, the PDP, the BJP government in New Delhi is miserably losing the bigger battle for Kashmir and its people.

When these two unlikely partners came together to form a coalition government in early 2015, there was hope that things would get better for J&K given the PDP’s popularity in south Kashmir and the BJP’s historic mandate in Delhi: one and a half years down the road, however, all that J&K is left with is the PDP’s political isolation and helplessness, and the BJP’s inflexible political positions. Both the Muftis, first Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and now Mehbooba Mufti, have repeatedly reminded the BJP on the need to deliver on the promises (such as “the coalition government will facilitate and help initiate a sustained and meaningful dialogue with all internal stakeholders, which will include all political groups irrespective of their ideological views and predilections”) enshrined in the “Agenda of Alliance”.

However, not one of the key objectives outlined in the document has been taken up by the coalition so far, not even for discussion. I am reasonably confident that if the coalition had reached out to the dissidents in Kashmir in the past one and a half years that it’s been in power, things would not have looked this bad today.

Judicial observations on AFSPA

On the day Wani was killed, the Supreme Court came down heavily (though in the context of Manipur) on the shocking extent of immunity provided to the armed forces. Indeed, this stinging indictment of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — AFSPA — has come at a point in time when the BJP has been playing hide and seek with the PDP, and Kashmiris in general, on the AFSPA question even though a need for a relook at this draconian law was clearly mentioned in the coalition work plan. The court’s redefinition of the situation in Manipur as ‘internal disturbance’, summarily rejecting the Central government’s plea that it is a ‘war-like situation’, has undeniable implications for how New Delhi deals with Kashmir and the debates on draconian laws like AFSPA.

It is not enough to issue occasional feel-good statements like ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’ — we should respect their human and political rights and not snatch away what the country’s Constitution guarantees in Article 370. In fact, the court has, on various occasions, made its views sufficiently clear on both AFSPA and Article 370. And as the court noted, every human life is important and therefore extrajudicial killings cannot be allowed. Those of us who justify extrajudicial killings in the name of fighting terror should take a careful look at what the court has said on the matter: “It does not matter whether the victim was a common person or a militant or a terrorist, nor does it matter whether the aggressor was a common person or the State. The law is the same for both and is equally applicable to both.” Has any accountability been fixed for the killings of 2010? Has a proper inquiry been conducted into the thousands of unmarked graves in Kashmir?

Immediate next steps

In our country, the government and the political class look for solutions only when there is trouble in Kashmir: they make calls for peace, and send an occasional all-party delegation to the Valley (as happened in 2010) and promise to look into the genuine demands. Sometimes even a team of interlocutors is appointed to negotiate with the dissidents. The tragedy is that once the trouble subsides, promises are forgotten and the committee reports, as usual, get ignored. There is therefore a need to look for sustainable political solutions if the government is serious about pacifying the conflict in Kashmir. The more you wait, the less appetite will there be in the Valley to talk to New Delhi: there was more positivity in the Valley about talks a decade ago than is the case now.

In difficult times such as these, hard decisions have to be taken and the political class should show courage to do so. Here are some suggestions to bring normalcy back to Kashmir: repeal or at least amend AFSPA, release political prisoners, institute a broad-based inquiry into extrajudicial killings in Kashmir, and open a result-oriented dialogue with the Valley’s dissidents to discuss the larger political questions as promised by the ruling coalition. If the Indian state could strike a peace deal with the Naga insurgents, why not Kashmir, which is even more central to India’s national security?

This round of agitation will eventually end, but the Kashmir issue is certainly not going to go away: it will keep simmering, with occasional eruptions such as this one. With terrorism engulfing the region and the Islamic State waiting at the gates for an opening, India can ill-afford not to pacify its domestic insurgencies. Let’s face it, branding dissent as terrorism would only frustrate our efforts to deal with real terrorism.

Moreover, we should shed our national habit of pointing fingers at others when trouble brews in our country, and own up to our share of mistakes.

Finally, India and Indians need to speak to Kashmiris, openly and without prejudice, but not through prime-time shouting matches by TV anchors some of whose ignorance of history and politics, or basic discursive decency, could both shock and embarrass us.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 8:53:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Living-in-denial-on-Kashmir/article14486818.ece

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