Sunday, September 19, 2010
Being Realistic About Kashmir
More than 100 civilians have been killed in the last 3 months as Kashmir boils in a fury that we have not seen in recent times. There is a clear revolt in the streets of the Valley and we must face it – it is not a Pakistani plot but led by enraged young men and women. No party has any idea on how to quell the violence and the state bleeds as violent protests and demonstrations paralyze it. The National Conference demands autonomy, the Congress prefers status quo (something that Narasimha Rao had elevated to an art) while BJP wants to crush the revolt.
Omar Abdullah has not gained any brownie points for his governmental incompetence – but seriously, would changing the Chief Minister make any difference? When the State is besieged by rebellions throughout the year and the administration is left to the army, can the CM change things? You could argue that only a man in touch with the Kashmiri common man can make a difference; but then this is just as true for any political leader in this country. Those who think that Farooq Abdullah would have done a better job, better think twice – are we talking about one of the men who was responsible for the 1987 poll rigging in Kashmir, a turning point in its politics?
Everyone knows the history of Kashmir – the fact that state which may have become independent or part of Pakistan is now in India primarily because Maharaja Hari Singh agreed to cede to India in order to protect his kingdom from Pakistani tribal warlords. But that was 63 years back and we still have not been able to resolve the Kashmir issue that rocks every conference where India and Pakistan try to sit and talk to each other. No one has a magic wand to resolve it and all the smart alecs who talk about giving solutions are living in a fool’s paradise.
The Government’s announcement of 50,000 jobs and the creation of a panel to study the creation of more jobs are small efforts that are taken with a pinch of salt in the Valley. The economic package will only work with a proper political one but then India has never won any fans for its dismal and insensitive handling of provincial challenges. The strategy never changes – whether it is Kashmir, North-East or Punjab; the Centre props up a few leaders, buys or bullies its way through other factions and finds itself in a position where it is stuck in a Catch-22 situation.
The 2002 elections were a starting point of a change in the ground realities in Kashmir. Elections were held and there was wide participation by the people; the extremist groups slowly started losing their hold on the masses and there was a hope that moderate groups like the Hurriyat can be brought into the administration. Negotiations with moderates like Sajjad Lone, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Farooq were attempted but all this has come to nought in the past couple of years. New Delhi must take most of the blame for dilly-dallying and not doing enough to rope in moderates and allowing hardliners like Geelani to call the shots once again.
Currently, the biggest stumbling block is the controversial AFSPA – the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which was passed on September 11, 1958. It conferred special powers upon armed forces in "disturbed areas" in the states of North-East and was later extended to Jammu and Kashmir in July 1990. The Defence establishment is not very keen on repealing this abused act and though most political parties (except the BJP) are keen to repeal it or at least dilute it in Kashmir, no decision has been taken on it.
AFSPA was meant to be used under special conditions but unfortunately, a draconian act like the Act can never serve its purpose for long. There is no doubt that the AFSPA is the biggest obstacle in trying to bring immediate peace – we must do away with it in totality or at least gradually – and release important political prisoners. Today’s Kashmir is not what it was in the 90s – foreign influence is on the wane and the state election turnout has been very positive. Kashmir needs a proper civilian government and the government has to be run through proper political administration and not by the military.
The State police force needs to handle the ground job and get the army only to protect its borders. The Armed Forces are not equipped to handle law and order problems and you cannot justify using them against your own people. As the death toll rises in clashes between the armed forces and the protesters, witness the reaction to other protests like the Jats going berserk in Haryana. They did much more damage than the stone pelters in Kashmir but no army was brought in; it was left to the police to settle things and there were no deaths reported due to police firing.
In the last one year, India has lost ground majorly and allowed separatists to make a comeback. Knee-jerk reactions like banning SMSs, pre-paid mobile connections, media and cable channels will only increase the burning rage; the State must learn to respect the civil society and safeguard its rights. Today, there are powerful forces demanding a trifurcation of the main regions of the state – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – into separate administrative units but this is dangerous.
While the onus is primarily on the State and Central Government to understand the Kashmir psyche, it is also high time for Kashmiris to be realistic about their options. Are choices like independence, autonomy or alignment with Pakistan workable?
Azaadi is a utopian dream; there is no way any self-respecting country can relinquish land mindful of the geographical and political complexities of the place. Kashmiris would be foolish to believe that they can survive independently surrounded by India, China and Pakistan. Independence will only encourage the likes of Taliban to try to wrestle their way through to occupy the Valley, with tacit support of Pakistan and China, thus creating another Afghanistan like situation. Kashmir is not about the majority Muslims alone; ask the minority Kashmiri Pandits (who have been victims of ethnic cleansing making them homeless) and Sikhs and they would be happier to be aligned with India.
Bad governance is a malaise that is present everywhere in the country. Police excesses, administrative apathy and corruption have corroded India everywhere and this is not a Kashmir specific problem. The Indian bureaucracy has treated Kashmiris no better and no worse than they’ve treated the rest of India. Will throwing out the Indian element of the administration cure that? I doubt that.
Autonomous Kashmir can be a way out but then isn’t the Indian Government answerable to the rest of the nation too? If Kashmir can be autonomous, why not Tamil Nadu or Manipur or Gujarat? Historical and cultural differences are hardly significant to treat Kashmir separately – those reasons are applicable to just about any other state in India. Doesn’t Article 370 give Kashmir a special significance which we don’t have? Kashmiris need to be convinced that they are governed by somebody from among them and not a candidate whose strings are being pulled by the Centre. What we need is greater decentralization and that is the need in every state and not just Kashmir but again this is not specific to Kashmir alone; local level empowerment and devolution of power can help in making a more federal India.
Aligning with Pakistan is not a very popular option now even for Kashmir. PoK is miles away from any autonomy while Mohajirs are second class people in Pakistan. Hardliners like Alam Bhat and Asiya Andrabi may want to be a part of Pakistan but they are perceived by most Kashmiris as fundamentalists who do not understand Kashmir and its soul. But the political environment is changing; the pan-Islamic identity of the Kashmir struggle is slowly gaining ground. In the last 2 years, the moderates find themselves more and more sidelines and separatist leaders like Geelani have started calling the shots again.
Historical prejudices are hard to resolve but then if we start trying to correct every perceived historical wrong, there is no end to it. LoC is a reality that we better accept; there is no scope for ambiguity – Kashmir is an integral part of India and this is the only way forward. Improving on the existing reality is critical but ignoring the very ground reality is foolishness...
Image Courtesy - http://www.twocircles.net/2010aug16/tcn_cartoon_kashmiri_leadership.html