Comment

Regain the peace, swiftly

Once again Jammu and Kashmir is engulfed in tragedy. The death of a young militant, Burhan Wani, has given rise to violent protests across south Kashmir. The 21-year-old had become an icon for radicals on the social media and reports of attendance at his funeral vary from 30,000 to 150,000. Over 30 people have died in the past three days and hundreds have been injured, including policemen. Kashmir is on the boil as it was six years earlier, and the governments in the State and the Centre appear as unprepared as they were in 2010.

This time, however, the two governments have responded more swiftly than in 2010. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has begun a series of meetings with civil society groups and appealed to religious organisations and dissidents to help end the violence. Her MLAs have been directed to visit their constituencies. Essential supplies are being rushed to the Valley. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called two emergency meetings on the situation and the Prime Minister, National Security Adviser and Home Minister are monitoring it hour by hour. Whether anyone in the two governments has spoken to the families of the civilians and policeman killed during the protests is unclear.

Need for restraint

For the security forces the situation is more difficult. With few tools at hand, they need to exercise maximum restraint. Protesters are setting fire to police stations and attacking security installations; the police are not in a position to deter them with effective barricades, tear gas or water cannon. The pellet guns that were acquired in 2010-11 as ‘non-lethal’ weapons are, when fired in proximity, lethal. Given these shortfalls, it is unrealistic to expect that they will be able to ensure that there are no casualties, which means that the Central and State governments need to take a very serious look at what other means they have to ensure that no more deaths or grievous injuries ensue.

Should the Army work with the police forces to deter attacks through more effective barricades? Or would such a step invite even greater protest? The Army’s withdrawal to the barracks, leaving local security to the police, took several years to achieve and was an important step in security reform. Unfortunately, with limited retraining or equipment for their new tasks and operating in a political and administrative vacuum, the police were hapless. It is worth exploring whether the Army can undertake the limited role of advising and aiding the police forces to exercise maximum restraint, provided such a role would be restricted to the present situation alone.

Undoubtedly the most important step that can be taken is to seek public engagement in halting the cycle of protest-death/injury, as Ms. Mufti is now doing. But de-escalating public anger will take more than appeals. In 2010, the visit of an all-party parliamentary delegation and the subsequent appointment of a group of interlocutors, of which I was a member, began the thaw, but the absence of follow-up after our mission was completed in late 2011 soon vitiated the fragile peace that had been achieved.

Since then the State has witnessed successive waves of trouble, from natural disasters to intense cross-border shelling and displacement of people, to terrorist attacks and communal unrest. The failure to deliver by the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (PDP-BJP) coalition that took office in 2014 compounded the situation, given that they had fought a bitter electoral contest. It was expected that they would reassure the electorate by choosing a grand gesture to implement their Common Minimum Programme, but instead they were mired in controversy over Article 370, the beef ban, sloganeering Kashmiri students in the rest of India — these are all issues on which the two coalition partners were seen to be at loggerheads.

Discussion in Parliament

This is the context that the PDP-BJP government will have to overcome if it wishes to do more than contain the violence temporarily. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Mufti need to appear in sync with the pain of the bereaved and the anger of the Valley. They have an upcoming opportunity — Parliament will soon be in session and the situation in Jammu and Kashmir should surely be discussed, with Mr. Modi and Ms. Mufti briefing MPs on necessary steps to be taken, especially outreach. An all-party MPs’ delegation could be asked to visit the Valley immediately and report to Parliament. Though there will be cynicism about such a visit, given that few of the MPs followed up on their 2010 all-party visit, Kashmiris will be open to reversing this opinion if there is follow-up this time.

How serious the challenge will be is demonstrated by the fact that there was violence in Kupwara and Handwara in end April, just over two months ago, that public attendance at militant funerals has grown exponentially, that the State’s Jamaat-e-Islami has re-radicalised and that a new generation of Kashmiri youth has taken to militancy (I include stone-pelters).

In the aftermath of the terrible deaths in 2010, the government did take steps to address challenges that were present then. The Rangarajan Committee’s recommendations resulted in a large number of training and employment programmes for Kashmiri youth, but the programmes were implemented with so little knowledge or regard for the Kashmiri cultural and political background that they proved to be a costly failure and, moreover, they actually increased the Kashmiri sense of alienation exponentially.

Three lessons

Looking back, there are three major lessons to be learnt from the past 15 years. First, from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that empathy and symbolism are key to a breakthrough in Kashmir. Second, from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that raising expectations for a peace process and then failing to follow through will further exacerbate the situation. And third, from the past two years, that neglect is never benign in situations like the one in J&K.

Applying these three lessons to the present crisis would require taking the following three steps: first, a statement of empathy from the heart by Mr. Modi; second, follow-through on the coalition’s Common Minimum Programme; and third, visible, close and ongoing cooperation between the coalition partners towards a resolution of the Kashmir issue. Though influential groups in Pakistan will continue to impede all such initiatives, their powers to do so will progressively weaken if the Indian government perseveres. Can the political will be summoned this time?

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2020 9:20:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Regain-the-peace-swiftly/article14485141.ece

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