24 April 2024 09:15 AM



Whither Kashmir? Peaceful Outside, Burning Within

Protests that have become an almost daily occurrence in Kashmir

NEW DELHI: The passing of Mufti Sayeed, Chief Minister of a contrary coalition government and the delay in his anointed successor and daughter Mehbooba in succeeding to office in Jammu and Kashmir has led to the imposition of Governor’s rule, touching off wild conjecture and given the sensitivity of Kashmir and of its ethnic contradictions also brought into focus the very possibility of government’s working as a harmonious political entity. Yet acquiring such harmony must remain the principal challenge before any government in this diverse state

In September 1948, as the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir drew to a close, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah spoke to Josef Korbel, first Chairman of the UN Commission for India and Pakistan of his conviction that Kashmiris would be better off with India, and of his dilemma, as undisputed leader of the Kashmiri section of a multi-ethnic state, on the choices before Kashmir:

“I have meditated about four possible solutions to our problem. First or second—accession to India or Pakistan through a plebiscite. This could not take place in less than three years, because of the destruction of the country and the dislocation of its population. Even then it would be difficult to ascertain impartially the wishes of the people scattered over large areas and possibly subjected to intimidation. Would such a plebiscite be democratic, and would India or Pakistan accept the verdict?

Third, there is a possibility of independence under the joint guarantee of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the Soviet Union. I would be willing to meet the leader of Azad Kashmir, Ghulam Abbas, with whom I was once tied by bonds of friendship and a common struggle. We had been together in prison and often had discussed the future of our country.

But even should Kashmir’s powerful neighbours agree to give us a guarantee of independence, I doubt that it could last for long. There is in my opinion, therefore, only one solution open. That is the division of the country. If it is not achieved, the fighting will continue; India and Pakistan will prolong the quarrel indefinitely, and our people’s suffering will go on.”

That solution has remained a chimera. And that ‘suffering’ has never really ended. But the aspiration to freedom (azadi) never waned. Is this dream of azadi not then simply, at least in the case of India, wherein Kashmir, the font of the insurrection of 1989 is located, the free and open practice of democracy?

Insofar as India and Pakistan are concerned their dispute over the territory that might become part of each from the remains of the princely state stands resolved in concept as clarified by Mahmud Ali Kasuri, former Foreign Minister of Pakistan, having been agreed upon in the heady days when Musharraf and Manmohan Singh had come close to an agreement and acknowledged by all parties, including the Kashmiris. The resolution must then lie within the state and how it is addressed by stakeholders therein.

In the warp and weft of Kashmir’s unpredictable polity, unnoticed outside the Valley as militancy waned, an important but seldom mentioned undercurrent had begun swirling within Kashmir around the two principal religious trends that have characterised India’s Islam.

With the receding of the Sufi ambience, Islam in Kashmir is faced with a choice. On one side is the inclusive tradition of convergence and growth, characterized by Kashmir’s own religious evolution. On the other side is the pan-Islamic tradition best characterised in its extreme by the rise of al Qaeda and then ISIS in Iraq—the retreat into exclusivism in the belief that insularity will purify and revivify, a consummation of the philosophy that underpinned the thinking that had led to the partition of India—a road that Kashmir had decisively refused to take in 1947.

Until each citizen can live free from fear, democracy can only be notional. The people of Jammu and Kashmir, like any other people, aspire to a peaceful, healthy life for themselves and their children. But today with increasing frustration exacerbated by the failure of the imaginatively constructed PDP-BJP coalition government to deliver on any of its promises and the persistence of corruption in government, the youth, particularly in the heartland of the Mufti’s constituency of south Kashmir, is increasingly mulling a return to violence.

The situation in the state by the close of the first decade of the century had seen gross abuse of human rights both by security forces and by the foreign-based militant organizations, whose leadership, drawn from the cadre of international terrorists, cared little for the people whom they were purportedly there to help. Remedies were available within the system, but delivery wanting. The situation of the Kashmiri Pandit community illustrates this fatal shortcoming. There has been talk of the return of Kashmiri ‘migrants’ to their homes in the Valley since the elected government took office in the state in 1996.

The close of the ‘80s saw Kashmir spiral into a tailspin of violence, suspicion and dread. What had begun as an ethnic conflict was given a religious colour by Pakistan’s ISI. The Kashmiri Pandits, a minuscule minority of Hindus in Kashmir Valley, became targets of terrorists from both the JKLF-even though the party’s manifesto had sought to build on the original secular foundations of Naya Kashmir- and the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, supporter of secession to Pakistan, sparking massive emigration. By 2008, the Pandit population in the Valley, assessed by their Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) as having numbered 75,343 families on 1 January 1990, was reduced to but 651 families. Nearly seventy thousand families had fled in the turmoil of 1990–92. But the bulk of the emigration thereafter—over three thousand families—left when violence had been brought increasingly under control.

The Prime Minister's successive packages for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, announced in 2004 and 2008, through the issue of ID cards had given the migrants much needed recognition. But the NDA initiative of 2015, while building on the previous, seems to have been arrived at without consultation with the community, a course that could readily have been undertaken in this age of information technology. The ground situation in the valley may not reflect a threat to returning KPs. But it is the responsibility of Kashmiris within the Valley to reassure those returning of their welcome, instead of contumacious quibbling, raising misgivings in an already tremulous community.

Besides, the State must be opened up to FDI accompanied with the development of the much talked of smart cities, an imaginative flagship programme of the Modi government, which can be the new townships. This will encourage young Kashmiris, Pandit, Muslim Sikh or Christian, many of whom have achieved excellence in their chosen technologies, to invest and return to settle in Kashmir, providing occupation and living space. As peace returns increasingly to Kashmir, is it not time that it joins the rest of the country in marching ahead in bringing the economic revolution that all Indians look forward to?

Sadly, the relationship between the two principal communities of the State as a whole is under grave threat. In 2008, in consequence of the lease of forest land in the mountain plateau of Baltal being made to the Amarnath Shrine Board, an agitation broke out in Kashmir. In attempting to bring it under control by repeated police firing, forty Kashmiri lives were lost. Then, in violent retaliation for the revocation of the lease order in July 2008, the Hindu-majority areas of Jammu erupted into violence, seeking to impose an economic blockade on the Valley. In an impassioned speech to Parliament, of which he was then member, Omar Abdullah cried out: “You people [meaning the BJP] talk Amarnath . . . show me one place where any Kashmiri has spoken against the yatra . . . where they have attacked Amarnath yatris. It was an issue concerning our land. We fought for our land and will continue to fight for our land till our dying breath”.

The breach in the relationship between Kashmiri Muslim and Jammu Hindu was dramatically manifested in the results of the 2015 elections to the state assembly, when Jammu and Kashmir made diametrically different choices resulting in a government of opposites. And the communal situation in the state has only deteriorated since. Sameer Arshad Khatlani in his article “Kashmir is sitting on powder keg again” in the Times of India of India of November 6, 2015 in writing of a lynching by a mob on October 9 in an attack on a truck driven by Kashmiris in Udhampur near Jammu describes an ‘atmosphere where any form of protest is brutally muzzled in Kashmir while Hindutva forces enjoy impunity in Jammu.’

In Kashmir since 1995, the local police have increasingly resumed responsibility for maintenance of law and order. But the continuing application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to the State of J&K is at issue. No guideline, instructions or even rules have been issued by government regarding implementation of AFSPA in J&K albeit in 1997, the Supreme Court had decreed a number of dos and don’ts for the enforcement of the law.

Given the vulnerability of J&K, there could be a case for continuation of the application of the AFSPA, if the military-the agency tasked with ensuring security- so judged. Nevertheless, if it is decided that the operation of the law must continue, it is essential that the process to be followed in applying that law be spelt out, as in any other law, with details of how the powers conferred by the law are to be exercised. Although the army may have instructions or general orders on how powers must be exercised, these can hardly be a substitute for statutory Rules, enforceable by courts of law in a country which prides itself on the rule of law

Besides, in J&K the state government has continued to persist with its own Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA), a law of more universal application than AFSPA, allowing for unrestrained arrest and unlimited detention, making it the most draconian of its kind in India, although there have been amendments by the Omar Abdullah government in April 2012 to debar its application to minors, a method universally used against children by that very government in the demonstrations of 2010.

India’s civil society has begun to come to grips with Kashmir’s tragedy. These were admittedly only modest efforts but NGOs have worked to mend ruptures in Kashmir’s social fabric. The floods of 2014, unprecedented in their fury compounded by a failure of governance, were a shining example wherein NGOs, national international and local, worked together to save lives and ensure ready delivery of relief materials, including medicines, so that loss of human life in the Valley was limited to double digits, although government initiatives were wanting.

In sum then, Kashmir today is outwardly at peace, but violence is a threat as widespread public dissatisfaction persists. Pakistan’s appeal and that of separatists is on the ebb, but this has by no means been supplanted by any support for India.

Kashmiriyat is now only a sad memory for some. India is indeed seen as a land of opportunity, where the youth might seek to earn a living, but is also seen by Kashmiris as a Hindu nation of which no Muslim would wish to be part. And given the state’s experience with economic packages, the answer can hardly be found even in guarantees on implementation of programmes agreed upon.

But azadi, the theme song of Kashmir’s political trajectory, is winnable. India is indeed the land of azadi of which all sections will benefit by being part; the future must then lie in the state being allowed the full and unfettered exercise of democracy,

India’s greatest asset and the sinew that has bound India into a nation unparalleled in the world in the extent of its diversities in language, culture, caste and creed held together simply by an idea, the idea of India.

This may be placed in the context of the decentralization now mandated by the Constitution of India, making every village a self-governing unit. Such decentralization is not yet reality. But the framework exists. And it was the proposal of the last government of Mufti Sayeed on decentralisation presented in the Roundtable convened by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Srinagar in May 2006, crafted by then Minister Muzaffar Beig, today an MP, which was the most viable road map for a future that will give citizens of each region of J&K an opportunity to participate in governance, hopefully healing the cleavages inflicted by resistance to perceived prejudice.

(Wajahat Habibullah was Chairman of the Minorities Commission, ​He was ​earlier ​Divisional Commissioner of nine districts in the state of Jammu and Kashmir between 1991 and 1993, ​which​ was abruptly terminated by a near fatal road accident, while negotiating with militants occupying the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir.​)​

(These views are personal of the writer)