Generations of Indian politicians have pledged the obvious: Kashmir is an “integral part” of India. But how about the Kashmiris ? Are they also an integral part of India, or is our policy a real estate venture: the land belongs to India and the Kashmiris can shove off wherever they want to go? Right now it very much appears to be the policy of the NDA government. Over the last week or so mainstream India – government politicians and spokesmen, the often obnoxious social media, news channels of the TIMES NOW and NEWS X xenophobic variety – certainly convey the impression that the Kashmiris don’t matter, they are collateral damage in our face-off with Pakistan, or, even worse, collaborators with the latter, and that they deserve what’s coming to them. There is absolutely no sympathy for the more than 40 who have died, the 100 or so who have been blinded for life, the 1500 admitted to hospitals with serious injuries, the millions who have been locked up in their houses for the last one week. Their double standards are so disgustingly obvious: these are the same people who will bring the roof down if the Delhi police beat up someone at Jantar Mantar! For them, Kashmiris are not Indian. Why then should they be shocked if the ordinary Kashmiri has now started reciprocating this feeling?
Kashmir is part of India, yes, but it right now resembles nothing more than an occupied territory where human rights have been mortgaged to the “security concerns” of the state. According to the latest available information there are almost 500,000 security personnel deployed in the valley, comprising 3,37,000 army, 60 battalions of CRPF and 80,000 police (this figure was 41,332 in 1997). This does not include the scores of additional battalions that are pushed in whenever there is a problem (as now). This is by far the highest per capita deployment in any state, except perhaps in the north-east, even after allowing for the army needed for the border with Pakistan. Such massive display of force for decades is bound to effect the psyche of the people. A recent report by Medecins sans Frontieres states that 45% Kashmiris suffer from mental illness. Studies from other occupied territories in the past – Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Afghanistan – have shown that long term deployment of armed force in an area leads to feelings of tension and conflict in the local communities.
Added to this is the complete legal immunity provided to the armed forces under AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the thousands of hectares of private land and buildings forcibly occupied by them; the constant beatings, mid-night raids, detentions, disappearances and the occasional rapes; the frequent curfews, suspension of the inter-net and mobile telephony, and even press censorship (as was ordered last week for three days). No right thinking man would call this concoction the spirit of democracy or the lot of a free people. And the digiterrati of Delhi still wonder why the Kashmiris feel alienated?
Mr. Modi had inherited a Kashmir on the mend. Post 2010 there had been no major disturbance in the valley, the economy was finally looking up, tourism was booming again. Even militancy was on the wane: militancy related deaths were consistently coming down – from 4507 in 2001 to 2542 in 2003 to just 174 in 2015 (these are figures released by the government.). Both the Panchayat elections in 2011 and the Assembly elections last year saw an overwhelming turnout in the face of threats by militants. The transfer of power from the NC to the PDP-BJP combine in 2015 was more orderly and smooth than in most other states. The queues of local youth lining up for recruitment in the army and police were growing longer (even the army commanders were pleasantly surprised by this!). More young Kashmiris have joined the civil services in the last five years than in the last five decades. Following the initiatives taken by Vajpayee and Advani, Mamnmohan Singh had even reached out to the separatists leadership. The golden tree in our own Eden had begun to bear fruit, slowly and painfully, but the green shoots were visible.
Mr. Modi and his NDA (egged on by channels such as Times Now and NewsX) have squandered this legacy in just two years and taken Kashmir back two decades. In a fatal misjudgement Mr. Modi and his hawkish advisors have inexorably linked Kashmir with the Pakistan imbroglio, have failed to distinguish between terrorists and common protesters, and have refused to recognise that the alienation of the average Kashmiri is due to INTERNAL reasons and not to the festering problem of terrorism from across the border.
The central government has refused to talk to anyone in Kashmir. It has arrogantly treated the separatists like lepers, and even called off talks with Pakistan on this churlish issue, forgetting that far wiser statesmen from their own party like Vajpayee and Advani had engaged with them. One cannot choose one’s adversary according to one’s convenience, and the separatists are a force to reckon with in the valley: two separate Chief Ministers of Kashmir (including the present one) have acknowledged this by secretly requesting them to persuade the people to call off their protests, but New Delhi persists in doing the Dhritrashtra thing.
It also forgets in the process that, historically, separatist agitations in the north-east have been resolved by TALKING to their leaders – with Laldenga, the ULFA, the Bodos. Ironically, the latter two are now the BJP’s partner in government in Assam, and it has just signed a peace deal with the Nagas ! Does history have to be two thousand years old for the BJP to acknowledge it ? The separatists are a divided lot in the valley, with extreme and moderate factions: by refusing to engage at least with the latter Mr. Modi has displayed exemplary arrogance and a hermetically sealed mind.
He has committed another policy disaster by putting all his eggs in the Pakistan basket, effectively eschewing any initiative or action on Kashmir unless Pakistan plays ball. In other words, peace in the valley has now been made hostage to the issue of Pakistan inspired terrorism – this is an Indian decision, not a Pakistani one! Yes, cross border terrorism has to be handled firmly, and we have been successful in doing so: in the early years of this millenium there were at least 3000 foreign terrorists operating in the valley, the figure now is only 54. All the more reason, you would think, to finally provide the healing touch to this ravaged paradise-start implementing some of the recommendations of the Group of Interlocutors appointed by the last government (gathering dust for two years), consider partial withdrawal of AFSPA, return their lands to the Kashmiris, start compensating the dead and dying in police excesses (as in other parts of the country), reduce the ubiquitous presence of armed forces in the valley, start talking to all influential shades of opinion ?
The government thinks differently. It looks at Kashmir only through its Pakistan prism and keeps parroting the alibi most convenient to it, viz. that the Kashmir problem is exclusively Pakistan’s creation. It was, to begin with, and still is to some extent, but more and more it has become a New Delhi created problem because the centre refuses to consider the valley as an “integral part of India” but as an occupied territory with a hostile population who have to be suppressed by force. It fails to see that the alienation and anger in Kashmir is no longer a Pakistani export, but home grown, and its roots lie in the mounting distrust of New Delhi and its complete loss of credibility. For the first time, according to the army itself, the number of local terrorists has exceeded the foreign ones: of the 145 terrorists operating in Kashmir, 91 are local boys and only 54 are foreign. This former number will grow exponentially after the latest botch up. The writing is on the wall, written in the blood of generations of Kashmiris, but New Delhi will not read it.
The reason is obvious. The BJP of today, with its strident and aggressive brand of a unilateral, majoritarian, religio-cultural nationalism, has painted itself into a corner. Kashmir, unfortunately, cannot be separated from the BJP’s Muslim agenda. It is India’s only Muslim majority state, and the DNA of the BJP will not permit it to make peace with the Muslim community. Any such effort , it fears, will alienate its own xenophobic vote bank with which Mr. Modi and the RSS hope to return in 2019. Hence, no concessions can ever be made to the community, no compromises, no give and take, no words of comfort from the PM for a suffering population (only the dispatch of more battalions to the valley), no apologies in Parliament but only a proforma appeal. That is why obliging channels have been coopted to condemn the Kashmiris as traitors, trolls let loose on social media to stifle any contrary view. That is also why, in spite of being in power in Kashmir along with the PDP, the central government has effectively emasculated the Chief Minister and constantly seeks to push its own agenda in the valley – raking up Article 370, beef ban, the issue of the state flag etc. periodically. In the myopic view of the government any hostile action by Pakistan is adequate justification for inaction in Kashmir.
The BJP is genetically incapable of healing the wounds in Kashmir or of applying the balm of conciliation. This fatal flaw in its DNA is the cause for its inability to bridge the trust and confidence deficit in the valley. The consequences will be disastrous. Kashmir is being pushed into a Gaza like position where opposition to the Indian state can only become more entrenched. This oppression in the valley is creating space for ISIS and Al Qaeda to establish a foothold in the valley (something which they have not been able to do in India so far), which can then become a launch pad for inserting terrorism into the rest of the country. The signs are ominous: for perhaps the first time, army and police stations and pickets are being targeted, grenades being hurled, police personnel being taken hostage and a vast store of arms have been looted. The state will retaliate with even more naked force, human right violations will increase and the international community shall have to take notice, which is the last thing India would want. Already even China has started making noises and cautioning India: it now appears to be making common cause with Pakistan even on this issue. The Muslim community in other states in India cannot long remain unaffected by this alienation and suppression in Kashmir. Only Mr. Modi has the power to transcend the anti-Muslim baggage of the BJP and break this vicious cycle of history, to which all parties have historically contributed. What is needed from him is a Vajpayee like vision and statesmanship. He HAS to speak up and give up this sphinx-like silence. He HAS to realise that the time has come to break the old mould in which our Kashmir policy has been shaped all these years. The only solution now is to honour our 60 year old pledges to the people of Kashmir, to give them greater political, legislative and administrative autonomy, and eschew the majoritarian mind set with which we have been viewing Kashmir all these years. India must regard not only Kashmir, but also Kashmiris, as Indian. He has to create a new template for Kashmir. Is he up to it ? And are the other parties, all equally lacking in any vision, prepared to support him in the unlikely event that he finally shows some real statesmanship? I am not optimistic. Time is running out for the Indian government – soon there shall be no one to talk with: such is the anger in the valley this time that even the local parties – the PDP, NC and Congress – and even the separatists are a discredited lot and running out of influence to shape events. A revolution without a leader is the most dangerous, as history has repeatedly shown.
In the meantime, of course, Pakistan is inching closer to its goal and General Raheel Sharif is no doubt laughing all the way to the bunker.