December 13, 2019
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A Pilgrimage To The Shrine Of Reason

The cascading impact of the land transfer issue calls for astute handling

A Pilgrimage To The Shrine Of Reason
A Pilgrimage To The Shrine Of Reason
Only two weeks ago, both North and South Block were congratulating themselves on 'solving' the Kashmir problem. Cross-border infiltration was at an all-time low, tourist arrivals were breaking records, and the political system was gearing itself for the coming election in October. All soundings showed that the turnout in the Valley was going to be high—if not the 71 per cent of 1983 and 72 per cent of 1977 then certainly far higher than the 30 per cent of 2002.

New Delhi refused to forgive the Hurriyat Conference for boycotting the round table discussions with the prime minister and it was staring at political irrelevance. The party decided to boycott the election, but New Delhi believed this was because the Hurriyat had been left with no platform from which to advocate rejection of the polls. Most of the suggestions that their leaders had aired from time to time as a possible basis for a reconciliation between Kashmir nationalists and Delhi had been appropriated by the National Conference and PDP.

The Hurriyat, in any case, was at sixes and sevens with each other and with other representatives of Kashmiriyat, like Yasin Malik. So even if they did change their minds and fight the election, they were almost certain to be decimated. New Delhi, therefore, had to do nothing but sit back, ensure a fair election, and let the exercise of democratic power bring the insurgency and alienation in the Valley gradually to an end.

There were a small minority of us—many in the media—who tried to point out to policymakers that they were living in the land of make-believe. The reason why the Hurriyat could not fight an election was not that it stood to lose, but that fighting an election under the existing dispensation would amount to a betrayal of the 60,000 or so Kashmiris who had died in the last 18 years. It is this, not electoral arithmetic, that would destroy them. Indeed, it would put their very lives in danger.

We warned the government that the alienation had gone too deep to be erased by simply conceding what the Kashmiris should never have been deprived of in the first place. Too many families had lost children, siblings and breadwinners; too many had been plunged into a vale of sorrow from which they would never fully emerge. A political settlement that gave meaning to the death of their loved ones was the indispensable first requirement. Without it, Kashmiris might vote, but they would do so because it was better to live under a government of their choice than the one thrust upon them by New Delhi. The bitterness would remain—a time bomb waiting for someone to light the fuse.

That bomb has exploded. Since the middle of June, Kashmir has been engulfed in an expanding wave of violence that has left hundreds, including 60 policemen injured, and four dead. It has come close to destroying the middle ground in Kashmiri nationalist politics, with whom Delhi could have arrived at an accommodation, and it has brought Ali Shah Geelani, the arch enemy of any ongoing relationship with India, back into centre stage, after five years in the wilderness.

The fuse was laid by three interconnected decisions: the creation, in 2000, of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) with the governor to head it, if he was a Hindu; the extension of the pilgrimage period this year from one to two months; and a proposal to acquire a large tract of land, from Pahalgam to Amarnath, and from Baltal (on the route from Sonamarg) to Amarnath, to be administered by the SASB. It was lit on May 26 when the Ghulam Nabi Azad government took the decision to transfer 39.88 hectares of forest land to the SASB. Kashmiris were easily convinced that this was the beginning of a sequestration of land to create a permanent Hindu presence in the Valley.

There is a naive justification for all three moves. The number of pilgrims visiting Amarnath had grown from year to year, in spite of the unsettled conditions in the state. The yatra's duration had already been increased from two weeks to one month in the nineties, and the move had been welcomed because it brought in a lot of additional income at a time when tourism had been all but destroyed. The extension to two months could be seen as a way of relieving the rush that developed in the present one-month period.

The creation of the SASB could also have been passed off as an attempt to impart professionalism to the management of pilgrimage, and check littering, pollution and proliferation of ugly temporary and permanent structures on the route to the shrine. But the provision that the SASB would be headed by the governor made it a creature of the Centre, and a direct imposition on the people of Kashmir. Indeed, this was rubbed into the Kashmiris in early June when the SASB refused to answer a question posed by an MLA in the legislature about the transfer of forest land to it on the grounds that the governor was not answerable to the state legislature.

As if that was not bad enough, the condition that the governor could head the SASB only if he was a Hindu turned the body into a tool for the injection of communalism into what was striving with all its might to remain a secular, syncretic society. As one Kashmiri intellectual put it to me, "You are driving me and everyone else like me into becoming radicals". It was against this background of increasing insecurity in the secular Kashmiri intelligentsia that a Congress-led government, headed by a chief minister from Doda district in Jammu, who was intent upon warding off the bjp's challenge in Jammu by propitiating Hindu sentiment, quietly transferred 39.88 hectare of forest land to the SASB. This not only confirmed the Kashmiris' worst fears, but also gave the Hurriyat the boon they had been looking for.

The J&K cabinet's decision to rescind the transfer of land has been hailed by the 'mainstream parties' as a victory for the people and a vindication of democracy, but it is too little and has come far too late. Humpty Dumpty is in pieces. On June 19, the two factions of Hurriyat, which split in 2003, came together again but they did so on terms that amount to a virtual surrender by the Mirwaiz Umer Farooq group to Geelani. The Mirwaiz, accompanied by Shabbir Shah, went to Geelani's house. And it was Geelani who addressed the media after their 6-hour unity talks. He spelt out the purpose: to fight 'India's cultural aggression in Kashmir'. Geelani also told the media that the Mirwaiz faction had accepted that the purpose of Kashmir's struggle was the holding of a plebiscite on 'tripartite' discussions between India, Pakistan and the Hurriyat. The only concession to the Hurriyat (Mirwaiz) was a commitment to carry on the struggle peacefully.

As for the Mirwaiz, his statement to the media underlines the magnitude of India's defeat in winning the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri nationalist core in the Valley: "India and its stooges are killing Kashmiris and occupying their land. The Hurriyat has decided to have a joint strategy to tackle it, as it is the question of our future. We have to expose New Delhi's nefarious designs. We discussed India's cultural aggression on Kashmir. I'm happy that our efforts are going in the right direction." These are not the measured tones of the person who stood up against mounting pressure within the Valley and in Pakistan for two years as he stoutly defended solutions for Kashmir that would accept the constraints that India and Pakistan were likely to impose on its sovereignty.

New Delhi has two choices: it can dismiss Mirwaiz and Geelani as men sold to Pakistan, doing Pakistan's bidding. It can point to the Mirwaiz's visit to Pakistan, to the well-known fact that both branches of Hurriyat have obtained their financial sustenance from Pakistan, and to Islamabad's near-simultaneous decision to appoint a task force to raise international awareness on the Kashmir issue, and claim all this is part of a fresh conspiracy to destabilise peace in Kashmir, which should be met by force.

Or it can accept the magnitude of its political insensitivity, and of Azad's folly, and turn crisis into opportunity. The Amarnath yatra has become an annual inundation of Kashmir by people imbued with a Hindu fervour that is alien even to the Pandits of the Valley. But all were welcome so long as the influx had no political overtones. The NDA government's decision to make the governor the head of the SASB, provided he was a Hindu, turned a pilgrimage into a political action. It was also a surreptitious violation of India's constitution, for it directly made the central government the protector and propagator of a religious event.

New Delhi needs to accept the errors that have been committed. It should force Azad to amend the 2000 law and take the governor out of the equation. It should also leave the issue of extending the yatra to the next elected government. Above all, it should find the political courage to resist the fear that Jammu politicians will seek to infuse into it, that this will cost the Congress all of its remaining influence in Jammu. Finally, it should turn the newfound unity of the Hurriyat into an asset by engaging it in a discussion on the future of Kashmir.
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