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India’s inability to make the Kashmiris feel at home

Editorial

by Economic and Political Weekly, 20 September 2008

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(Economic and Political Weekly, September 13, 2008)

India and Kashmir
- India has been unable to make the Kashmiris feel they are part of the Indian Union.

A fortnight ago the Jammu and Kashmir government signed an agreement with the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS) on the use of forest land for the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine. The protesters are now off the streets in Jammu, the criminal road blockade the Jammu protes- tors had imposed on Kashmir has ended, a nine-day long curfew imposed in late August throughout the Kashmir Valley was lifted on September 2 and the Election Commission has even held dis- cussions on the possibility of holding elections in D ecember. But, far from there being any “peace” in Jammu and K ashmir, the state is now in the midst of yet another troubled phase which poses new and major challenges to its relations with the rest of the Indian Union. Elections in the state at this point will have two distinct faces: in Jammu they will be the site of a contest between shades of Hindutva; in Kashmir they will be held only under the barrel of a gun. Yet, not to have elections now will be an open admission that the state can be administered only with the rule of force. The upheaval in both Kashmir and Jammu over land for the Amarnath yatra has changed politics irrevocably in these divi- sions of the state, but the two very different movements were only symbols of deeper trends. In Kashmir, it is now self-evident that the relative calm since 2004 was a false peace, the product more of ennui with 15 years of violence than of a movement for- ward in settling people’s grievances. All that was required was a spark for people to return to the streets. That spark, however mis- represented it may have been by the fundamentalists in Kashmir, was provided by the allotment of 40 hectares of land to the A marnath yatra by the former governor, S K Sinha, who was a llowed by a sleeping New Delhi to take a decision that everyone realises, in retrospect, to have set the Valley on fire, and then, with its revocation, Jammu as well. In Jammu too, the Amarnath issue was only a symbol. Hindutva groups were quick in that part of the state to take advantage of an issue that gave vent to anger about widespread perceptions of the region being discriminated against and to long-standing complaints of a lack of autonomy. The agreement between the state government and the agita- tors in Jammu was about the use of land in Kashmir for the Amarnath yatra; yet the negotiations did not involve anyone from the Valley. The accord may not go as far as the May 2008 order which transferred the land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), but because of the way it was negotiated and because of the tactics the agitators in J ammu used to pressure the govern- ment (such as choking the Valley), the “agreement” will never enjoy legitimacy in Kashmir.

The larger developments go beyond the Jammu accord. First, one outcome of the chain of events over four months from the May decision on allocation of land to the SASB is that Jammu has been strongly communalised. There was always an undercurrent of communalism in the Jammu division, but even in the worst years of insurgency it was held in check. Now though, the A marnath issue has allowed Hindutva forces to become deeply entrenched in that part of the state. This communalisation f orebodes ill for the Muslims of Jammu and for the future of J ammu, Kashmir and Ladakh.
The second, and perhaps the more important development, has been in Kashmir. The anger in the Valley, first over the allocation of land, then over the blockade of the only road into Kashmir from the rest of the country, and finally, over the brutal clampdown in late August must force the State to confront a certain reality. The upsurge in May and more so in August was distinctly different from the past in that there were no “external forces” involved and if there was violence it was perpetrated by the administration. The turnout of lakhs of people on the streets in early August – demanding ‘azadi’ – was remarkable for the largely peaceful man- ner of protests. After an initial attempt to not interfere with people having their say peacefully, the governor’s administration – under prodding from the bureaucrats in New Delhi who had taken over decision-making from a bankrupt p olitical class – came down with a heavy hand. A state-wide curfew for as long as nine days, more than 35 people killed in police firing, the arrest of h undreds for participating in the demonstrations, attacks on the local media and even restrictions on movement of ambulances, together con- veyed an ugly message about state power to the p eople of Kash- mir. The consequence is that the fundamentalists have become more powerful in Kashmir and in the process what remained of the ‘Kashmiri insaniyat’ has been destroyed. It is apparent that with the peace process in shreds, New Delhi and its representatives in the state have no idea about what to do other than to exercise force. The only item currently on the agenda is the early opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road for move- ment of goods (thereby reviving the old links within un divided Kashmir). Even if Pakistan were to oblige with expediting the opening of this route, it is unlikely that, at this point, this will mean much to the Kashmiris.

Since 1947, the government of India has lurched from one form of control to another in the state. Barring a few brief episodes, relations between New Delhi and the people of Kashmir have steadily deteriorated. In the tragedy that is Kashmir, what is truth and what is a lie can no longer be known for sure. But what we do know with reasonable certainty is that the people of Kashmir are now resentful of what they see as an “occupying power”. The calm after 2004 offered an opportunity to alter this perception, but this was wasted since the ruling consensus in New Delhi on the “Kashmir problem” is such that no serious attempt beyond the convening of “round table conferences” was made. Since 1947, the idea of India as a democracy of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society has faced serious challenges on a continu- ing basis. While Punjab in the 1980s, the north-east since the early 1950s and Assam in particular since the 1990s have asked major questions of India, there has hitherto been only one threat with the potential to tear asunder the very idea of India. That threat arose from the processes that led up to the destruction of the Babri masjid in 1992 and the events thereafter, which posed a funda- mental question mark over the nation-building project, a question which is yet to be settled and continues to strain the country. Now another such question is before us – the new u pheaval in Kashmir and the State’s inability to respond to it in a civilised manner. One argument that is now clearly irrelevant is that as the only Muslim-majority state in the Union, Kashmir offers proof of I ndia’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious character. If that means the State needs to continuously exercise force to administer Kashmir, then there is little to be said for this “multi-ethnic, multi- religious” character. Instead, India must now face the fact that after six d ecades, it has not been able to make the people of the Valley feel they are part of the Indian Union. During these decades, oppor- tunities have been repeatedly squandered and mistakes multi- plied so that, today there are no “moderates” left, mainstream parties lack legitimacy or relevance, and both polity and society are under constant pressure from the fundamentalists. The ques- tion that matters now is how state and society in India respond to the “Kashmir problem”, for that will define – if it has not already – the kind of society we are going to be in the future.