The News International, July 19, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

The Kashmir crisis has shown not just Chief Minister Omar Abdullah but the Indian state at its worst. Instead of defusing the turmoil by diplomacy and dialogue, the Home Ministry inflamed the situation with its crude militaristic approach. Absent remedial measures, popular alienation could again generate pervasive unrest and mass insurgency in Kashmir.

The recent protests were triggered by the disclosure in May of the Machil “encounter”, in which an army major had three innocent men killed. He falsely claimed they were terrorists. About the same time, the J&K government admitted, for the first time ever, that the army had forced civilians in North Kashmir into hard labour, night patrolling and other operations, without paying wages.

According to independent MLA, Engineer Rashid, the entire male population of 24 villages was conscripted into “humiliating” forced labour for up to 13 years. The International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-administered Kashmir recently claimed there are 2,700 unmarked graves in North Kashmir, containing 2,943 bodies.

Public anger at these disclosures erupted into an Intifadah-like movement. Youth pelted stones at police and Central Reserve Police Force troops. These retaliated by slinging stones, and worse, firing. This was impermissible: civilised police don’t seek revenge against civilians.

Real trouble started on June 11, when the police fired a teargas shell at a 17-year-old student, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo, from close range, puncturing his skull and killing him. As protests snowballed, the CRPF became more brutal. On June 13, it beat up a 25 year-old man to death. It vengefully targeted teenagers in Srinagar, Sopore and Baramulla. On July 6, it hit a 17-year-old student in the head with rifle butts. It denied having arrested him. His body was found the next day.

As mosques started belting out azaadi songs on loudspeakers, Abdullah panicked and called in the army, bowing to the home ministry’s pressure. Harsh media censorship was imposed. Even Facebook messages were criminalised as “waging war” against the state.

Yet, until July 12, nothing was done to soothe hurt sentiments or inquire into police excesses. Abdullah didn’t mobilise his own MLAs or eminent citizens. He belatedly called a meeting of mainstream parties. The main opposition, the People’s Democratic Party, boycotted it. Meanwhile, the home ministry accused separatists and the Lashkar-e-Taiba of orchestrating the protests.

This was a red herring. The protests may not have all been spontaneous. But they undoubtedly reflected widespread resentment at state repression. The separatists and the PDP tried to exploit the crisis politically. But they didn’t manufacture it. What triggered it was the CRPF-police brutality and the government’s cynical attempt to cover up its mistakes. Abdullah was holidaying in Gulmarg as the protests gathered momentum. He only took a one-day break.

Abdullah is inexperienced in Kashmir politics and impervious to advice. He hasn’t fulfilled his promise to set up elected local bodies (Kashmir has no district-level government). There’s a yawning divide between the NC-Congress alliance and the people. Young protesters have filled the vacuum. The situation has presented the two factions of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, both in a shambles, an opportunity to revive themselves.

However, India’s central government is primarily responsible for the deterioration of the Kashmir situation. It’s the centre which has deployed 4 million security personnel in the Valley. It defines the approach to security within which the state government operates.

The centre doesn’t comprehend three fundamental realities: widespread disaffection in the Valley; the emergence of a young generation which grew up under militancy and counter-insurgency; and the futility of violent crowd-control methods.

Many in the Indian establishment interpreted the 60 per cent turnout in the 2008 J&K Assembly elections as popular approval of Kashmir’s integration with India. True, the elections were largely free and fair. But the people probably voted in a more friendly local government which would buffer them from the centre. This shouldn’t be confused with endorsement of the larger status quo.

Disaffection with India persists in J&K — although there is growing disenchantment with the militancy too. According to a first-of-its-kind survey of 3,700 people, conducted in September-October 2009 by the London-based Chatham House think-tank, less than 1 per cent of respondents in J&K endorse the status quo. Only 2 per cent of J&K’s people want the state to accede to Pakistan. But support for integration with India is limited (28 per cent).

As many as 43 per cent of J&K citizens prefer independence. The proportion is a high 75 to 95 per cent in the Valley. There’s all-round opposition to militancy (84 to 96 per cent in the Valley) and good support for the India-Pakistan dialogue process: 55 per cent believe that dialogue improved security. The survey may not be perfect, but it’s a good pointer.

This situation offered India another opportunity to build peace in J&K and launch a dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue. Considerable progress towards resolution was made in 2008 — until the Mumbai attacks happened.

It was imperative to explore a solution, even the second-best solution, acceptable to India, Pakistan, and the people of J&K and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. But New Delhi became complacent and lost the opportunity offered by the successful elections and Pakistan’s recent withdrawal of large-scale support to the militancy.

Second, recent violence, including the 2008 Amarnath yatra imbroglio, and protests against the 2009 Shopian “rape” and “murder” of two women, has followed tactical errors by the government. Mindless repression of protests, within a climate of distrust, created large-scale turmoil — even though the Shopian rape and murder didn’t happen.

The new generation grew up in a climate of militancy and repression. Many have suffered deaths in the family or seen their mothers and sisters humiliated. Unemployment is rampant in the Valley and young people face a bleak prospect. The government hasn’t created conditions for a better life for them. For them, pelting stones means defying the Indian state — necessary for self-esteem.

Finally, the futility of violent crowd control. There’s no excuse for firing on protesters armed with stones. The principal methods of crowd management must be non-lethal, including water-cannons, stun-guns, stink-bombs and tasers (which deliver a stunning, largely harmless, electric shock). Firing can only be the last resort, in self-defence. The targeting of individuals “to teach them a lesson” must be illegalised and exemplarily punished.

What J&K needs is healing — and restoration of long-denied citizen rights and freedoms. This can best begin with the scrapping of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and other draconian laws, releasing political prisoners, thinning out security forces, and retraining the state police. No less important is dialogue with Pakistan.

Pakistan too faces a challenge — that of resisting the temptation to fish in Kashmir’s troubled waters. It must behave like a responsible state and sincerely cooperate with India to resolve the Kashmir issue within a soft-borders formula. Such cooperative effort has become imperative.