By Jamal Kidwai
The real challenge is not external. The Indian state and the J&K government would do well to first acknowledge the mistakes committed in the past and engaging with the people of Kashmir to find a way forward.
There have been five attacks by militants in the Kashmir valley since February, killing at least 23 security men. These attacks and the 24 June killings of eight unarmed army men by militants have once again raised the bogey of the return of insurgency to the Kashmir valley. This has resulted in a widespread conclusion that in no time at all militancy will be back in the valley; the situation has even been compared to the situation in the mid 1990s.
This is based mostly on wild speculation, such as the withdrawal of Americans troops in March 2014 from Afghanistan, which, it is claimed by hawks and defence analysts alike, will give a free hand to the ISI-Pakistani military establishment to pursue its anti-India and jehadi agenda.
A disproportionate amount of significance is also given to the random anti-India statements made by leaders of jehadi organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al-Qaeda. Such an approach is far removed from domestic political reality in Kashmir, and does not want to acknowledge that it is political initiatives, and not military solutions, that will address issues that concern the people most.
The attack on army jawans came a day before the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi visit to the valley, where, amongst other things on the agenda, they had gone to inaugurate the Banihal-Qazigund rail link. The attack was clearly aimed at not only sabotaging the visit but also at sending out a signal that the militants do not approve of any initiative that has even a vague element of political engagement between the Kashmir Valley and New Delhi.
Contrary to the theories being propagated by military and strategic analysts, what needs to be acknowledged is that every time the government tries to take political initiatives, the militants will strike, and they will target not just jawans but also civilians. This is not the first time that militants have shown their disdain for political action. They have consistently opposed elections in the valley, asked for the boycott of panchayat elections, forced elected sarpanches to resign and even killed many elected representatives. The militants and their front organisations, it will be remembered, had opposed the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad bus service that was welcomed by even those who had otherwise taken an anti-India position.
Therefore, one does not have to be a rocket scientist, as the popular phrase goes, to see that the jehadis and their backers in Pakistan and Afghanistan loathe the politics of dialogue, democracy and secularism and they will act to extract vengeance each time there is any such initiative taken. By conducting such acts of terror, the militants and the jehadists are egging on and inviting the Indian government to respond militarily, increase the already large number of security troops and conduct search operations. This, in turn, will result in more encounter killings and further acts of human rights violations, giving legitimacy to the argument that the Indian government is against the people of Kashmir and wants to keep them subjugated at any cost. But what is more troubling is that it’s not just the jehadis who seek such a response, there is a large section of the Indian military establishment, security experts and sections of media which believes that the Kashmir problem is essentially a security issue and the only way it can be resolved is through military intervention. They term human rights violations, fake encounters and disappearances as ‘ collateral damage’ and see them as minor aberrations that happen during a `war on terror.’
However, the people of the Kashmir valley have given enough indication that they want normalcy to return, despite several acts of provocation by both the central and the state security agencies. The latest being the killing of two innocent young men allegedly army on the 29 June in Sumbal area of Bandipora district.
Since the days of stone pelting, there have been almost no incidents of mass protests. What took everyone by surprise were the relatively muted protests and the lack of street agitations after the hanging of Afzal Guru. That was one incident that had, paradoxically, excited both the separatists and the hawks in Delhi and Srinagar. But the people of Kashmir disappointed both of them!
This lack of agitation has, in turn, however, given strength to the misplaced perception in the establishment in New Delhi and Srinagar that all is well in the valley and that there is no simmering discontent. An unprecedented rise in the number of tourists, the opening of new restaurants and bars in Srinagar and an overall decrease in militant violence is being cited as a corroboration of this view.
It is believed, too, that the new challenge to peace in Kashmir will come from external sources, that is, from new strategic and political developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and from the sudden legitimacy being given to the Taliban by the US after the inauguration of their office in Doha. Added to this is the perception of total control by the ISI-Pakistan military in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in March 2014 and Kashmir coming back on to the agenda of the jehadists in this newly emerging scenario.
Both these perceptions, about the prevailing mood of the people of Kashmir and an external threat to peace are highly exaggerated. Try talking to a cross section of people in the valley and see how their anxiety and anger against both the governments of New Delhi and Srinagar is very apparent.
People are also angry and feel let down by all sections of the separatist leadership. They believe that the separatists have either been bought over by the Indian state, or are just puppets of the Pakistan government. They are accused of corruption and misappropriation of funds collected in the name of azaadi. There is some truth to these allegations. People don’t respond to the calls of hartals and bandhs and the customary stone-pelting after the Friday prayers in downtown Srinagar has almost stopped.
The anger against the governments of Delhi and Srinagar is far more deep rooted, however, than the resentment against the separatists and will continue unless the two governments demonstrate some element of statesmanship, compassion and, most importantly, acknowledge their mistakes. In this the government needs to take three urgent steps that may go a long way bringing about genuine peace.
First and foremost, admit that massive human rights violations have been committed by security agencies, which have led to a large number of deaths and disappearances. Besides this, compensate and rehabilitate those who are the relatives of the disappeared and punish the guilty, rehabilitate and compensate militants who have surrendered or have passed their sentences in jail, while releasing those who are in jail for minor charges. All this may sound very radical, but these are issues related to justice, dignity and legitimate grievances accumulated over a long period of time and they require radical measures that redress the wrongs done. Withdrawal of troops belonging to central agencies and handing over the security management to the state police force is another important step that must be taken.
The second is a more live and everyday presence and engagement of the politicians with the people whom they claim to represent. There is absolutely no visibility of the political class in Kashmir. They are either scared to come out in public or are so discredited that they avoid showing their faces to the people who have elected them. One must recall that one of the most talked about events when the stone-pelting was at its peak [ besides the ghastly regular killing of protestors] was the trip made by an all party delegation to Srinagar from Delhi. The people one talks to in Kashmir still recall it as a positive step that made some contribution towards restoring normalcy.
Finally, the government must implement various welfare and constitutional schemes in letter and spirit. There is absolutely no awareness about flagship employment generation and health schemes like MNREGA and the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) amongst the people of the Kashmir valley. It should at least make political common sense to the Indian and the J&K government to implement these schemes effectively. This would bring about an improvement in the everyday life of the people and re-establish the credibility of the state.
The government of India, security agencies, media experts and all those who want a resolution to Kashmir must acknowledge that what happens in the rest of the South Asian region has relatively little relevance in Kashmir. The real answer and the formula for a resolution of the Kashmir problem can best be found by first acknowledging the mistakes committed by the Indian state and the J&K government in the past and engaging with the people of Kashmir to find a way forward.