September 27, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

Even before the all-party delegation comprising 39 political leaders visited the curfew-bound Kashmir Valley, it was clear that it would accomplish very little barring gaining some acquaintance with people’s perceptions of the ground situation. There was wide divergence among its member-parties on the basic approach to be adopted towards Kashmir. Logically, an all-party delegation can be productive only if it conveys a strong, broad political consensus. But the Centre manifestly failed to evolve a consensus. Instead, it substituted the all-party delegation for it.

The team was led by Home Minister P Chidambaram, the very person responsible for the Centre’s strategy towards Kashmir since the June 11 killing of Tufail Mattoo. This strategy has pitted the Indian state against the people, caused enormous human suffering through repeated curfews and other restrictions on rights and freedoms, and led to more than 100 civilian deaths. Many Kashmiris probably see Mr Chidambaram as the fox sent to guard the chicken-coop.

The delegation failed in its effort to enlist the help of Hurriyat leaders to normalise the situation by calling off hartals. Hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani curtly said India has “no legitimate rights” over Kashmir. And Hurriyat moderates said the visit “represents only an effort at short-term crisis management” and “there is no clear commitment or a path towards effective resolution of the Kashmir issue and addressing the aspirations and interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir”.

The delegation spent only 30 minutes to meet people injured in police actions. It didn’t properly connect with the Valley’s people by expressing empathy with them. Its visit didn’t give them the sense that the Indian political class is sufficiently sensitive towards their political disenfranchisement and the effective denial of citizenship to them. The Centre’s offer of a dialogue convinces nobody in the Valley because of past experience of its insincerity about result-oriented talks.

In fact, such offers can only be counter-productive within the present context, which is defined by the ascendancy of a new-generation leadership which is giving a specifically Islamist hue to the Kashmiri identity. This ascendancy is attributable to many factors.

New Delhi acted manipulatively for long years, rigging elections and imposing its puppets on Kashmir. When the azaadi movement erupted in 1989, it launched savage repression, deploying over 4 lakh troops against a population of 60 lakhs. This weakened Kashmir’s political forces, especially the once-formidable National Conference, and created space for militancy and the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.

The Hurriyat itself has since split and got marginalised. The Centre failed to seize the opportunity offered by the 60 percent turnout in the 2008 Assembly elections, considered largely free and fair. The new protest movement has arisen within this vacuum. It uses non-violent means and is largely independent of Pakistan. Its appeal has grown because of the Centre’s mindless policy of repression of peaceful protest, which provokes yet more protest. In today’s charged situation, any issue—including rumours of the burning of the Koran in the US—can inflame protesters crying for azaadi.

The protesters’ leaders and Indian security forces are playing a complex cat-and-mouse game. The leaders deliberately provoke the paramilitary and police, which insist on using antiquated, lethal means of crowd control, killing innocent non-combatants. In the Valley’s political vacuum, this has deadly effects, including breeding extreme resentment and strengthening the protesters’ determination to fight the Indian state.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently tried to pacify public anger by proposing to dilute or lift the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from key J&K districts like Srinagar. This draconian law grants immunity to any officer who opens fire upon a person merely suspected of the intention to commit an illegal act. This violates all principles of justice.

Many observers believe Mr Abdullah made the AFSPA proposal to divert the attention from his government’s dismal performance. The AFSPA is a bit of a red herring today. Almost all of the post-June 11 deaths were caused by the police and paramilitary, not the Armed Forces. Mr Abdullah has earned enormous ill-will by refusing to apologise to the victims’ families for police-paramilitary excesses, and for throwing teenage stone-pelters into the same jails as seasoned criminals and convicted terrorists.

Mr Abdullah is seen to be even more self-indulgent and callous towards Kashmiri sensibilities than his father. His removal might be welcomed if it’s seen as the first step by the Centre to reform its Kashmir policy. The removal option was indeed considered in New Delhi. But it has been effectively abandoned with Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi expressing his support for Mr Abdullah—a clear case of power without responsibility. Mr Gandhi is hardly acquainted with the intricacies of J&K politics. Nor does he have the maturity and experience to make such judgments.

Meanwhile, the proposal to lift the AFSPA has led to an extremely unhealthy debate in which the Army and Air Force chiefs have spoken out of turn. Gen VK Singh fired the first shot by blaming the Kashmir situation on the civilian government’s failure “to build up on gains” (the 2008 elections) and saying that “all those who ask for AFSPA’s dilution probably do so for narrow political gains”. Air Chief Marshal PV Naik followed by saying that “a soldier involved in performing his duty deserves all the legal protection that he can get”.

These are intensely political remarks pertaining to policy, a no-go area in a democracy for Services personnel, whose job is to implement the policies the civilian leadership makes. This convention has been recently violated. Services officials have made remarks on the possible deployment of troops and Air Force helicopters in anti-Maoist operations.

Former Army chief Gen JJ Singh did his best in 2006 to torpedo an agreement on the Siachen crisis in which India and Pakistan have sacrificed hundreds of soldiers to frostbite in a meaningless contest over “prestige”. He had journalists flown to Siachen, who dutifully reported the Army’s then-prevalent view that it wouldn’t withdraw from the killing heights—unless its present positions are recorded so that Pakistan cannot claim them in the future.

These are ominous portents. In fact, there’s a strong case for withdrawing not just the AFSPA, but the entire Army from Kashmir’s civilian areas, where it shouldn’t have been deployed in the first place. The Kashmiris’ protest against government callousness, rampant corruption and absence of jobs, and their identity-related demand for azaadi should have been treated, as in other states, as legitimate and an indication of the need to improve governance—not as an insurgency fuelled by diabolical designs.

There’s no greater reason for deploying the Army in Kashmir than in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh or Karnataka, where millions protest against Special Economic Zones and farmers’ suicides, or for a separate Telangana.

A precondition for a solution to the Kashmir problem is the Army’s withdrawal, leaving civic unrest to be handled by the civilian police which has been totally sidelined by the heavy presence of the CRPF, Border Security Force, and other paramilitary troops. Their bunkers must go if civilians are to feel they live in a half-way free society where they are not suspect by virtue of being Kashmiris.

Unless the Indian state stops treating the Kashmiris as suspects, insurgents, and actual or potential criminals, and creates goodwill and confidence among them, it won’t find a political solution to the Kashmir issue. People from both sides of the border crave one.

The best of opinion polls, including one done with a 3,700-strong sample for the British think-tank Chatham House (published in May), say that an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris want a political solution with sub-regional autonomy and “soft borders”. Only 2 percent of people in Indian J&K want to join Pakistan. Knowledgeable, mature, political assessments confirm this. Most Kashmiris don’t want a plebiscite on J&K. But they certainly don’t want the status quo either.

What the Kashmiris are fighting is what they (or at least, many) see as the Valley’s occupation by the Indian state’s coercive apparatus and the oppressive conditions of daily life in which they are compelled to carry identity cards (or a curfew pass) to be able to move about in their own homeland. What the stone-pelters are demanding is respect for the special identity of J&K.

The meaning and content of azaadi is plastic, flexible and open to various interpretations—freedom from oppression, collective life with dignity, autonomy within the Indian Union, an identity separate from both India and Pakistan, self-determination, and full sovereign independence.

The real challenge for the Indian state is how to launch a sincere, result-oriented dialogue for a moderate and pluralist definition of azaadi compatible with a “soft borders” solution in which the entire former state of J&K gets exceptional autonomy and local self-rule, guaranteed by both India and Pakistan. That challenge cannot be met by wishing away the problem, blaming Pakistan, and using the armed might of the Indian state to suppress the popular aspiration for a change in the status quo.