Each new event or initiative in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) opens floodgates of sentimental commentary dominated by desires and expectations, or by ideological proclivities, rather than any direct confrontation with reality. Much of the commentary on the Centre’s latest ‘initiative’—appointing Dineshwar Sharma as its representative to “initiate and carry forward a dialogue” in J&K—falls into this these categories.
The most counter-productive trend in the current discourse on the ‘Kashmir problem’ is the search for magical solutions —one ‘formula’ that will ‘solve’ the ‘problem’. This is wrong at every level. There is no ‘Kashmir problem’—there is a complex of problems, each of which requires different, often divergent, initiatives. There is the problem of terrorism, of separatist mobilisation and violence, of subversion, of communal radicalisation, of polarising politics, and of course, the proxy war waged by Pakistan; there are problems of governance and of development, of demography and of constitutional status. No one initiative can ‘resolve’ all these at a stroke.
Much of the critique of Sharma’s appointment is based on such flawed expectations. Commentators have either rejected the move as an admission that the Centre’s ‘muscular’ policies have failed, or have imposed an impossible mission on Sharma—to bring the Hurriyat leadership to the negotiating table, to address the people’s ‘unfulfilled aspirations’, and to resolve Pakistan’s disruptive role.
None of this is intended or can be expected from this limited initiative. The issue is not up for a negotiated settlement—at least, not till Pakistan and its proxies give up the idea of using violence to secure their ends, which they will not do till they realise that violence cannot serve their ends; a realisation that can only be imposed by inflicting unbearable losses on them.
For those who believe ‘no progress’ is being made, it is useful to review the trends over the past 28 years. J&K experienced 17 years of high intensity conflict (over 1,000 fatalities a year) between 1990 and 2006 (all data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal), peaking at 4,507 in 2001. From this crest the trajectory remained consistently downwards till 2012, when fatalities fell to 117, but violence has been increasing since, significantly due to escalation by Pakistan, resulting in 181 fatalities in 2013, and going up to 267 in 2016 and 298 in 2017 (till October 29). But even at this level, present fatalities are a small fraction of the toll through the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Most recent fatalities (61 per cent) have been inflicted on the terrorists, and among these are top field commanders of all active groups. Equally important, while the entire Jammu and Kashmir divisions (excluding the Ladakh region) were highly affected by terrorism through the peak years, the distribution of present violence is extremely limited: 14 of J&K’s 22 districts account for all the fatalities in 2017; at the tehsil level, just 32 of 82 tehsils recorded fatalities; crucially, the worst five tehsils accounted for 48 per cent of all fatalities.
This constitutes major gains on the part of the state, and the assessments of a worsening situation are unfounded. Perfect peace is eminently desirable, but to believe that a state can abruptly return to such a condition after nearly 30 years of conflict, and with mischief orchestrated by a hostile neighbour, is unrealistic. Indeed, compared to other theatres of enduring terrorism across the world, where entire regions are devastated and the lives of millions reduced to anarchy and terror, the relative stability of J&K is an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of the Indian state.
A permanent resolution of the ‘Kashmir problem’ can only result from a sustained strategy on the part of both Centre and state. No such strategy has been pursued for any effective length of time. Policies have been conflicting and contradictory, polarising communities and raising issues that inflame public sentiments, and then reacting with panic when the result is an escalation of violence.
Sharma’s long-term goal is to lay the groundwork for a broader dialogue, but that must wait—unless we are willing to accept a replay of September 2016, when separatists contemptuously dismissed a delegation of MPs. Operational successes against the terrorists, the containment of the stone-pelting mobilisation, and action against separatist finance have created pressures within J&K; Sharma’s immediate task is to provide an avenue of escape to those who seek to exit the cycles of violence.
(The writer is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management)