Something rather historic happened in Kashmir between August 16 and August 18. Huge numbers of Kashmiris came out on the streets of Pampore (City of Lotuses), a small town near Srinagar, and then in the very heart of official Srinagar, to chant slogans, burn effigies, wave banners, plant green and black flags, demand azadi, and urge India to get out of Kashmir.
Throughout both days the Kashmir police, backed by the crpf, manned sensitive points on the demonstrators' routes, but stayed out of sight. But nothing happened. Not a single head was broken nor a vehicle burnt. Not a single person was beaten, shot, injured or killed.
Hawks in the home ministry and security forces are shaking their heads, declaring it a defeat for the Indian state. According to them, the government should have closed the roads to Srinagar, declared a curfew, put up road blocks at the exit points from sensitive parts of the city, and put the leaders of the Kashmiri separatist parties under house arrest, if not preventive detention.
But Governor N.N. Vohra chose to do none of these things. Instead, through intermediaries, he urged Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the Mirwaiz, Yasin Malik and other members of the coordination committee to ensure the processions remained peaceful. All of them readily agreed, and on both days made elaborate arrangements with their own pary members to keep the crowds under control. The state, on its part, deployed forces but kept them well out of sight.
As a result, something happened in Kashmir that was utterly without precedent. Nearly 1,00,000 people took active part in the demonstrations on both days, but tempers never flared. Within half an hour of the end of the August 18 rally, Srinagar had returned to normal.
But this is the smallest of the milestones that Kashmir passed on that day. For the first time since the insurgency began in 1989-90, instead of treating Kashmiri nationalists as troublemakers and clamping down on them, the state entered into negotiations with their leaders. These led to reciprocal commitments, and the commitments were honoured by both sides.
Negotiations imply equality. The state's willingness to enter into them and to abide by its commitments also implies trust. And this presupposes respect. This was the first time during their 19 years of struggle that Kashmiri nationalists had seen the Indian state place trust in them. Small wonder that Kashmiri nationalists now feel empowered in a way they never have in the past 61 years.
The lead editorial in Greater Kashmir on August 20 summed up this development with complete lack of ambiguity: "...what made the 'Monday march' to the United Nations different was its orderliness and discipline.... The conducting of such a mammoth public meeting suggests that the people of Kashmir, after having passed through various phases of struggle, have matured enough to take their struggle to its logical conclusions through peaceful means...." The editorial went on to compliment the state government for showing restraint.
Trust begets trust. There is already a palpable reduction of anxiety over the outcome of future demonstrations. Every time a demonstration passes peacefully, it will add to the mutual respect and trust between the state and its Kashmiri citizens. If both the Hurriyat coordination committee and the government continue down this road, it will lead them, inevitably, first to negotiations with each other, and then to the induction of the latter into talks with Pakistan to shape and implement the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh agreement of April 2005.
But we have begun this journey at the darkest hour in our relations with the Kashmiris.... For Jammu has declared an economic blockade on the Valley and the Indian state has been unable to break it and protect the Kashmiris. Kashmir's pear crop has largely rotted and time will soon run out for its much larger apple crop. Traffic on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway remains a trickle. The government's attempts to clear the blockade by making the superintendents of police of the areas through which it passes responsible for public security have been only partially successful, as the police frequently run away when faced by a mob and leave truck drivers to their fate.
The state administration's assurance to New Delhi that there is no blockade is blatantly false. Even if it had not been, Kashmiris believe there is a blockade, and that is what matters. For a blockade is an act of war. If the Centre does not demonstrably break the blockade very soon, indeed even before this appears in print, then India will forever forfeit its claim to the allegiance of the Kashmiris.