Monday, September 20, 2010

Kashmir - A Failure of Imagination

A numbing sensation of bewilderment and helplessness overwhelms the nation as every passing day brings news of further lengthening of the death toll in the Kashmir valley. Over one hundred dead since the disturbance erupted three months ago, and it'll only be a miracle if that is the last word we have heard on it. A hundred needless deaths -- deaths which should have been preventable at least ninety-percent of the time. Though everybody is grieving, both in and out of the valley, nobody seems to have any clue as to what can be done, or should have been done, to put a lid on it. The only thing one gets to hear are flogging of the dead horses, regurgitations of the same age-old positions -- 'constitutional framework' on the part of the Indian administration, 'self-determination' on the part of the separatists -- with the inevitable outcome being the continuing logjam, and the flowing blood. The distrust between the parties is at its peak, nervous stability at its lowest, the urge to continue to pander to one's own local constituencies regardless of what the situation today demands ruling the roost. There is complete paralysis on the matter of trying to carve out a creative solution -- something which can only be achieved by agreeing to yield on one's stated grounds. The thing uppermost on everyone's minds is fear - the fear of backlash from the home constituency in case one even so much as budges a little. And that fear is what plunges the situation inexorably on its downward spiral.

A number of Indians will actually be puzzled as to what was the trigger for all of this to start. It was not as if some catastrophe happened which caused everybody to be up in arms, protesting on the streets with stone-throwing. In fact, a new government was sworn in barely two years back, with an expression of democratic power witnessed in the overthrowing of the previous PDP-INC government. More than 60% of the electorate actually voted, higher than the national average, in what was widely acknowledged to be fair elections. People defied calls by the separatist Hurriyat Conference to boycott the elections, as also threats by militants. The separatists seemed to be on a downward slide, with erosion of influence markedly evident. Though, post facto, they had tried to reclaim face by declaring that people voted only on local matters of everyday governance, and not on the question of azaadi, on which their support is based. India had urged the Hurriyat to participate in the elections, and to form the government if they win. The Hurriyat excused itself. Not for the first time. They have always claimed to be the true representatives of the people, but haven't on a single occasion established what their support base is in an election - that is beneath their dignity to do. Kashmir seemed to be on the way to normalcy after the elections, with militancy largely shorn, large masses of tourists restarting their visits, the agricultural economy improving. Then all of a sudden, the protests started, weren't paid due attention, kept flaring up, and then got caught in a vicious cycle of stone-pelting and arsoning protesters, deaths in police firing, and then further violent protests.

The seed for the protests was the killing of three Kashmiri youths in an alleged fake encounter in Kupwara in June. It's perfectly legitimate for people to protest if indeed such a gross violation occurs. Some months back too there were televised reports of three ordinary civilian youths picked up on suspicion of being militants, taken to remote forests and about to be killed in a fake encounter when an army officer himself intervened and freed them. These are criminal incidents, and even if the army soldiers were involved, who normally risk their lives in fighting armed militants and the steady stream of Pakistan-pushed infiltrators, these cannot be overlooked. These encounters are completely arbitrary and illegal. They should have been met with the full force of law, as murders or attempted murders, and vigorously prosecuted. The transgressions of a few besmirch the entire nation, and in fact undoes all the good work the security forces do under trying circumstances. Instead, the government merely drags its feet, constitutes some eyewash commissions, and normally waits for the people to just forget it in time. And that is what stokes the fires which finally burn on the streets. If only people would learn the merits of putting a stitch in time...

However, it'll not be very fair to heap all blame on the Omar Abdullah government for the current crisis, though he has evidently become everybody's favorite whipping boy. From the very beginning, when the deaths could still be counted on one hand, he was issuing appeals to all political parties to help build a political environment for de-escalating tensions, instead of adding fuel to the fire. But the PDP was steadfast in its opposition, in and out of the Legislative Assembly, and looked hell-bent upon not losing the opportunity to malign the National Conference government. Mehbooba Mufti probably never wanted the deaths to be so high in number, but she definitely wanted to milk the early few ones to the maximum effect, to prop up her own fortunes, after having been roundly beaten at the last hustings. In fact, this kind of brinkmanship is hardly a new phenomenon. We have seen that already in Bengal, with Mamata Banerjee cocking a snook at ordinary civilians lives, instigating them to violence in Nandigram so that she could reap the political rewards of any deaths that happen in police firing. No less than nineteen lives were lost there too, with weeks of charged atmosphere ensuing, but Mamata's fortunes steadily climbed. Evidently, the lesson was not lost out on others across the nation.

Of course, for the separatists this has come as a windfall. After seeing the ground slip beneath their feet in most steady fashion, they suddenly can hog all the limelight again, as the messiahs of human rights, and the sentiment of Azaadi. Never mind that till a few years ago they were fighting among themselves, and even shooting each other down for taking a softer stance with respect to India. Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone was shot dead by militants for favoring a peaceful solution to the Kashmir issue, through a negotiated settlement and internal autonomy -- a fate shared by many other leaders too sharing the same set of opinions. Today his son Sajjad Lone blames the Government of India for not granting Azaadi, which forced the militants to shoot down his father. Never assume that ridiculousness knows any bounds in the political arena.

Everybody has an axe to grind here. And that axe is being ground on the heads of the ordinary citizens of Kashmir. It would be plain to anybody with any shred of sense that stone-throwing, burning government vehicles and buildings, and facing police reprisals leading to deaths would help solve no problem at all. But that'd assume that what is being sought is a solution. That, unfortunately, is quite far from the reality. In fact, the calculation is that the unrest should continue and proliferate at least till President Obama visits India next month, so that international attention can be focussed on Kashmir. The same phenomenon was observed on the eve of President Clinton's visit to India as well, one decade back. Violence had escalated, and in one incident on the day of his arrival, thirty-six Sikhs were massacred in Kashmir by the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Which brings to focus the fact that Kashmir is a political problem that needs to be solved and not merely kept pending. The Indian state has to acknowledge this and not merely stay caught up in its own self-delusion that Kashmir is like any other Indian state. If large masses of people refuse to accept themselves as citizens of India, and make it their fundamental grievance, you've got to heed it. Either take steps to get Kashmiris on board of their own volition, or give them the right to self-determination as they want. For how long can you make people stay at gunpoint? Talking of "constitutional framework" achieves merely one thing -- scuttling the chances of having a meaningful dialogue with the separatists -- with the only result that the sentiments of alienation are kept simmering forever, ready to be exploited at every opportunity. The basic premise of negotiating your way out of a situation is that you've got to be prepared to yield something, in exchange for something else. Parking away this ruse of "constitutional framework" is a small price to pay. Just hold dialogue, keeping aside any other considerations as secondary. Doesn't mean that you cannot still do things perfectly within the limits of the Indian Constitution, provided you're a skillful negotiator. What is to be achieved by merely going to town about it, thereby just making it an insurmountable impediment to dialogue?

Acceding to this demand doesn't mean you've allowed the state to secede. That's still a very far way off. Geopolitics doesn't get resolved overnight. Even China does not attack Taiwan to reclaim what it calls its own territory, but is prepared to wait. But it can buy you a promise of shunning all forms of violence till the negotiations are over. Utilize that time for a vigorous political and developmental offensive, demilitarize the area and let the people breathe a bit easier. That in fact will help the people of Kashmir to gather their wits, and think rationally about where their future lies. And then suddenly the prospect of Azaadi may not look all that rosy to them.

Practically speaking, Kashmir has no option but to remain a part of India. Even a fool can see that joining Pakistan is the road going straight down to hell. With Kashmir having hardly an economy of its own, and Pakistan's own economy on the brink of collapse, saved only by the perpetual oxygen supplied by the West in the form of aid, who is going to foot the bill of Kashmir's development? And once they sit down to reflect, with no other agitation of the mind, it'll not be lost out on them what the condition of Indian-emigrant Mohajir Muslims is over there, and the kind of treatment they get. And as bad as the situation today in Kashmir is, you still have your telephone lines working. Just pick up the phone, and talk to your brethren in PoK to know how they are enjoying over there. And an indepedent Kashmir nation is practically a pipedream -- you can last about fifteen minutes before being served a notice by China that it's all Chinese territory based on some twist of history. Pakistan has already bargained Kashmiri land with China in exchange of nuclear weapons, in the shape of Aksai Chin. And won't bat another eyelid before sacrificing the rest of Kashmir too for more. With Chinese settlers pouring in -- see Tibet -- there goes your Kashmiriyat.

There is a long-standing feeling of grievance in Kashmir. And very bold steps will have to be taken to assuage it. It has to be driven home loud and clear first of all that Kashmiris enjoy the same rights in India as any other Indian citizen. The claims of a parallel with British rule in India have to be roundly rebuffed. Just last year the top ranker in the Indian civil service was a Kashmiri doctor (whose father incidentally was killed by militants). If he continues to do well, he may well rise to be the Cabinet Secretary of India - the topmost bureaucratic position. It'll not happen tomorrow, he'll have to put in a couple of decades of stellar service before that happens, just like any other incumbent. Mehbooba Mufti's father himself has been a Home Minister at the center - not the Home Minister of Kashmir mind you, the Home Minister of India -- ostensibly the second most powerful political post after the Prime Minister. And if a good enough poltical leader emerges from Kashmir tomorrow, he may well rise to be the Prime Minister of India too. Nobody from the rest of India will have even the slightest of objection to it. So where is the parallel with British rule? Were Indians allowed to head the British Government? And the Congress and other freedom-fighting parties always swept whatever polls were held in India. When have we seen the Hurriyat winning even a municipal election?

India has already seen militancy and secessionism of the same kind in Punjab earlier. But it took the successive elected governments, and the stellar service of top cop KPS Gill to quash it. At the peak of the Khalistan movement, many if not most aggrieved Punjabis too would have voted for Azaadi, especially after the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi's assassination. But after Manmohan Singh's ascension to the PM's job, I guess there are zero takers today for the idea of an independent Khalistan. India was fortunate in some ways that a person of Manmohan Singh's caliber appeared on the scene, who helped in thoroughly burying the sentiments of grievance on the part of the Sikhs. Not all feeling of injustice -- evidently a lot needs to be done still to bring the perpetrators of the Sikh pogrom to justice, but at least the grievance against the Indian state has been quelled. Gyani Zail Singh has been President already, but then everybody knows that that's only ceremonial, not the real center of power.

It'll probably need a Kashmiri as the Indian Prime Minister to do the same trick there too. Of course, people may remind that the first PM Jawaharlal Nehru himself was a Kashmiri, but apparently, it does not cut because he was not a Muslim. So having a Muslim Kashmiri at the top job may kill two birds with one stone (no pun intended!) -- assuage the Kashmiris, and also reassure the rest of the Muslims in India that they too have got their due, and are being treated fairly and equally. Time for the Indian political establishment to give it a serious thought. If not the PM, at least a President should come from Kashmir. Symbolism has its value -- having a woman as the President for the first time in Indian history has apparently gone down well with my mother. (Though I wonder why it should, given that Indira Gandhi has already been PM, but then...)

It may well be that the obnoxiousness of everyday life under constant military and paramilitary presence, and curbing of civil liberties, is what is getting translated to the calls of Azaadi in Kashmir. The steady stream of deaths also adds to the repugnance. India must take steps to push all army towards the border, and scrap all arbitrary powers that violate fundamental rights. It's one thing to have special powers for a short duration, and another to have them ad infinitum. The same needs to be done in the Northeast too. However, the people of the state too must help to make that a reality. And not give in to clever exploitation in the form of orchestrated protests which probably do serve some people like Geelani, who apparently can't imagine Muslims living under Hindus, and is waiting for his day in the paradise of Pakistan, but does little for improving the lives and lots of the ordinary Kashmiri. They have to see through the designs of those who are intercepted as talking on the telephone as needing 'at least fifteen martyrs today' when the death toll was still four or five. Yes you paid with your lives, but who gained, did you? If not, who did...?

However, if at the end of the day Kashmiris still don't want to be part of India, then they should be allowed to have a referendum and go away if they desire. But with it having been made clear that don't come to us when you face the next invasion from a foreign army. And please, hereafter take care of all your other bills too (paid in your own shining currency if you please, which you so desire). You can't have your cake, and eat it too. India will have to take care of sealing the borders down the line in that scenario, for then the aggression posts will shift. And no, you are not taking Jammu and Ladakh with you too -- those people definitely call themselves Indian citizens. And if instead of a hundred deaths in three months of police firing, you start seeing so many deaths in every weekly suicide attack, do well to remember that you chose it on your own. Oh yeah, you resent the fact that the Indian government sends the army. Cool, go to Pakistan and have the army send you the government. 

As they say, one should beware of what one wishes for. For one may get it, and then live to regret it more.

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