The country has withstood the worst period of militancy in Kashmir, but, given the fraught situation that currently exists, an urgent political intervention is needed. New Delhi seemingly failed to grasp the change in Pakistan’s strategy since China’s launch of the $62 billion CPEC project in April 2015, aimed at bolstering Pakistani economic growth.
Pakistan’s support to separatist militancy in Kashmir remains unabated, but since 2016, it has attempted to indigenise the movement. While India has stuck to “meeting fire with fire”, Pakistan may have rebooted its strategy by effectively creating new layers of indigenous groups involving fresh recruits. Islamabad’s aim was to wriggle out of Kashmiri militancy, at least outwardly.
From India’s perspective, a popular uprising in Kashmir cannot be controlled despite using hard force since 2016. Instead, it may have resulted in permanently losing the hearts and minds of people. The political narrative in Kashmir has changed after youths took over the reins of dissent. Things seemed to have worsened in the absence of any political process. Unless New Delhi changes tack, Kashmir will slip away.
New Delhi, for the time being, can only manage the problem, but that would also demand political skills—the ability of the top leadership to demonstrate or leverage relationships with multiple stakeholders with a clear vision. Of the solutions being discussed, that of reverting to the 1952 status is untenable because that constitutional arrangement was undemocratic and anti-people.
As for the trifurcation of the state, it would be as difficult as creating the state through a historical process 170 years back. Not only will the idea of trifurcation have to face tough constitutional hurdles but also the political contradiction within the state. Jammu & Kashmir may have an image of a coherent geo-political identity, but the state is anything but homogeneous. Besides, none of the three regions are monolithic in their ethnic, religious, linguistic and political composition. There are inter and intra-regional tensions along multiple faultiness. Trifurcation will magnify the existing problems manifold. But any attempt at a political solution would require a profound change in perception. Now that J&K has been placed under governor’s rule, it is time to bring about a change in perception about the functioning and responsibilities of the state.
It is popularly believed that power brokers or rich Kashmiris, either of the PDP, NC, Congress or the BJP, have systematically exploited the situation. The governor should revitalise all anti-corruption agencies and open all pending cases against politicians, separatists and bureaucrats. Also, New Delhi should evaluate thoroughly the cultural dimension of Kashmir vis-a-vis the nation positively, not behave like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Essentially, the Centre needs to visualise what it wants instead of envisioning what it doesn’t, so that cycle of mistrust can be broken. It needs to heal the wounds in Kashmir in an explicitly political and practical way. The first step is to set something positive in motion by engaging in a dialogue process. Kashmiris are not sufficiently empowered; even a political representation at the Centre is missing. This leaves no space even for ordinary people to communicate with the leadership.
Economically, too, a development pathway like the one mooted by Mehbooba Mufti to revive the “traditional trade routes of Kashmir” could propel a change. Initiatives have to support Kashmir’s development aspirations and reduce vulnerability, especially tackling inequalities induced by decades of mismanagement and corruption.
Another critical issue is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and, especially, the Public Safety Act (PSA), which has led to wrongful detentions of thousands of young people without charge and trial, including minors branded as ‘stone-pelters’. Preventive detention under the PSA has mostly become a ‘punitive’ rather than ‘preventive’ measure. In fact, those detained are being feted by public and treated as heroes. So, despite such laws, resistance levels have only grown stronger.
The government must revisit the PSA. A positive perception can be built among people by sending PSA for either a judicial review, amendment or annulment. Instead, it can be replaced by the more humane National Security Act (NSA). Also, diluting the AFSPA in favour of the army can make things worse. There are many examples of errant armed personnel being dealt softly, giving rise to great resentment among Kashmiris.
Only a perception change can now prevent a further rise of anti-India sentiments. A careful appraisal of building an alternative is needed to prevent Kashmir from being alienated irrevocably.
The author is a prominent figure from Ladakh