February 22, 2020
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What Can Be The Lasting Cure For Festering Wound Called Kashmir?

The conflagration of the present must not lock us into myopic anger. What we must seek is an enduring solution.

What Can Be The Lasting Cure For Festering Wound Called Kashmir?
Convoy To Hell
The scene at Lethpora, on the Srinagar-Qazigund highway, after the suicide bomb attack
Photograph by Getty Images
What Can Be The Lasting Cure For Festering Wound Called Kashmir?

War, oddly enough, sometimes begets peace. At a time when apprehensions of war—indeed, exhortations to war—fill the air, it’s time to reflect on an earlier turn of the wheel. The last real opening for a solution in Kashmir had come in the first decade of the century, close on the heels of the Kargil war, with one pivot being the hitherto war-mongering general, Pervez Musharraf. During a period that straddled the Vajpayee and the Manmohan Singh years, India and Pakistan had crafted a détente—an admittedly difficult and fragile peace but one where, despite moments of grave provocation, radical and innovative solutions to the Kashmir tangle came close to wresting a consensus. Even a hardliner like L.K. Advani could hold talks with the Hurriyat in 2003. At this point in 2019, that time seems far away. With the Lok Sabha elections two months away, the Pulwama terror attack—the biggest in the Valley since independence—is threatening to overshadow all other issues in a cloud of belligerence that’s producing a lot of heat, but no light.

The decade since 2008 has been like a sheer cliff for Kashmir: the Amarnath land row, the 2010 summer protests, the Afzal Guru hanging in 2013, Burhan Wani in 2016…each inflection point created a lower ebb, to the point that the nightmare of the early ’90s seems to be upon us again. But through each of those crisis points, there was a track that New Delhi allowed to wither away. The only time anything resonated in Kashmir was when the Centre tried to talk, genui­nely talk—and listen. It was a revelation that, even through the veils of mistrust, Kashmiris had responded. Even more of a stark surprise that the Centre never really followed up on what seemed like the only good chance.

“Ultimately, you have to talk to the people. Even the Irish settlement was done through negotiations.”
A.S. Dulat, Former RAW chief

The first time, it was like a dam had burst. The all-party delegation of 2010—led by P. Chidambaram, and including Sitaram Yechury, Arun Jaitley, Ram Vilas Paswan and others—had created a buzz across all sectors of opinion in Kashmir, with even separatist leaders opening up. But with New Delhi alm­ost dreading any real movement or commitment, the law of diminishing returns soon caught up. A formal (if more lightweight) group of interlocutors led by Dileep Padgaonkar held sustained talks, but their 2011 report became a catalogue of good intentions never acted upon. A citizens’ initiative led by Yashwant Sinha struggled against hardening opinions in both Kashmir and New Delhi. By the time it came to the 2016 all-party delegation led by Union home minister Rajnath Singh, separatist doors slammed shut on Indian faces became the photo-op. And the 2017 ‘initiative’, with former IB head Dineshwar Sharma named as special representative, was as good as dead on arrival.

Anger is the overpowering emotion at present; sabre-rattling and dem­ands for revenge fill the air. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known for adopting a tough stance on Pakistan-sponsored terror, especially with the post-Uri surgical strikes in 2016 under his belt. But it’s a set of tricky options for him. This is election year, and not seen to be doing anything to “make Pakistan pay” is not something the government can afford. Government sources duly talk of a “befitting response being planned”, perhaps to be unleashed closer to elections for maximum gains. But going for a strike is not a problem-free option. Pakistan has promised retaliation, and a protracted, bloody conflict cannot always be managed to one’s advantage. But all that, finally, is for the short term. What of the medium and long term?

While the government mulls its dire options in a heavily polarised atmosphere, questions are being raised about its muscular policy in Kashmir. Strategic experts and intelligence offi­cers claim the Modi government’s ‘Operation All Out’, launched in 2017 to flush out terrorists from the Valley, combined with its political policies, have destabilised the state, making it easier for Pakistan to exploit the situation. A.S. Dulat, former special director of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), feels all-out aggression has only backfired. Dulat, who served as advisor on Kashmir in A.B. Vajpayee’s PMO, cites the trend of local boys joining the terror ranks. “It was generally Pakistanis who came in and indulged in acts of terror. Our own boys willing to become suicide bombers is new. The government must keep this in mind as it plans a response,” Dulat tells Outlook. A solution will not flow from the muzzle of a gun, insists the former spy, who has also authored the book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. “Ultimately you have to talk to the people. Even the Irish settlement was done through negotiations. There’s no other way,” says Dulat.

“The political families of Kashmir do not want a solution...it is in their interest to let it fester.”
Avinash Rai Khanna, BJP vice-president

The political sphere too was filled with snafus, as far Dulat is concerned—especially the ill-fated PDP-BJP alliance that never worked on ground. “Going into the alliance, the late Mufti Mohammed Syed overestimated himself and underestimated Modi. The state’s expectations were not met by the Centre. The state, for example, expe­cted money for flood relief that never came. When the PM visited Kashmir, Mufti saab asked him to talk to Pakistan but was publicly snubbed. It only added to the disgruntlement.” Mehbooba Mufti tried to continue the alliance but differences stalked the ties, especially in the wake of young Hizbul commander Burhan Wani’s killing in July 2016. The BJP finally pulled out of the uneasy alliance in June last year. Ham-handed attempts to form a new government—both by the BJP, with Sajjad Lone, and by a PDP-NC-Congress combine—formed a sorry post-script, on which the curtains were brought down by Governor Satya Pal Malik dissolving the assembly.

Counter-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni says the instability and mass anger provided fertile ground for Pakistan to radicalise the locals. Lamenting the lack of a credible elected government in the state, he also expresses misgivings about the administrative acumen of Governor Malik, who is “just a politician furthering the BJP’s agenda”. And the agenda, according to him, is “polarisation of the atmosphere for Hindu votes by raising the issue of Articles 370 and 35A.” Sahni says conflict assessment must not be led by ideology but by ground reality. “The government’s Kashmir policy has been led purely by ideological imperatives while being tota­lly blind to reality. In 2012, the fata­lities in Kashmir had come down to 99. It was again up to 456 in 2018. The government is part of the problem,” he says. Sahni is not against the use of power to quell terrorism—“Left Wing Extremism too was controlled by using force. The security agencies should go hammer and tongs at terrorists but through focused operations.”

Former home secretary G.K. Pillai belie­ves it’s imperative that a new leadership emerges in Kashmir at the grassroots. “Parties like the PDP, NC and even Congress have had a stranglehold over state politics for 60-70 years. The BJP is relatively a new entrant. The parties have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” he says.

Highlighting the problems of the local population in villages, he says the people have to go to either Srinagar or to Delhi to get the smallest of their problems resolved. Power must be decentralised from Srinagar by holding regular elections to local bodies and panchayats, he says. “In any counter-insurgency operation, the key aim is to win the hearts and minds of people. The average Kashmiri is looking for safety, security and self-respect,” he says.

Winning hearts and minds seems a long shot, however, with Kashmiris in other parts of the country being targeted and many students, professionals and traders forced to go back. Former army chief Gen V.P Malik tweeted – “Hurting or harassing innocent Kashmiris anywhere in India is counter-productive. Our duty is to take care of them like all other Indians.” Gen Malik, who led the army to a victory in the Kargil war, also offered this advice: “Some suggestions for Governor J&K. Conduct UHQ (Unified Headquarters) meetings regularly to ensure better co-or­­­­dination & effectiveness. Separate regular meetings with politicians, NGOs, Teachers, Business leaders & local professionals. Robust civil military activities in South Kashmir. Spend more time in Srinagar.”

While speculation is rife that the J&K governor may be replaced, another governor appointed by the Modi government decided to jump into the picture. Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy, who describes himself as a “right-wing Hindu socio-political thinker, writer, ideologue” on his Twitter handle, advocates near-isolation of the state’s people. He tweeted, “An appeal from a retired colonel of the Indian Army: Don’t visit Kashmir, don’t go to Amarnath for the next 2 years. Don’t buy articles from Kashmir emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri. I am inclined to agree.”

His tweet evoked strong reactions from Kashmir politicians, including Omar Abdullah, who responded: “These are the bigots driving Kashmir over the abyss. While you are at it, Tathagata, why don’t you stop using our rivers to generate your electricity as well?” He added, “People like Tathagata want Kashmir but without Kashmiris. They’d sooner see us driven into the sea. He’ll be best placed to know he can’t have one without the other so what’s it to be?” PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti demanded his sacking. “Deplorable statement…GoI must sack him immediately,” she said, or else it would mean “he has their tacit approval” and it’s “an election ploy to polarise the situation”. Mehbooba is not the only one who believes the government intends to keep the Kashmir pot boiling for electoral gains. Nor has anybody in the government or the BJP come out to condemn Roy’s statement.

BJP vice-president and J&K in-charge Avinash Rai Khanna denies the charge of polarisation or an exclusively aggressive policy, citing efforts towards ensuring development and prosperity. “There are so many ways to win hearts and minds,” he says. Even the coalition government was formed with the best intentions, says Khanna. Closely invol­ved with the PDP-BJP ‘Agenda of Allia­nce’, he tells Outlook that they saw it as a chance to bring normalcy. “Modi went there over a dozen times. No other PM has visited the state so often,” he says. He also cites the sanctioning of a Rs 80,000 crore development package and of two state-of-the-art AIIMS hospitals, one each for Jammu and Kash­mir, and the (seemingly paradoxical) fact that “over 3,000 Kashmiri youths applied for jobs in the Indian army”.

He defends the BJP raising Articles 370 and 35A. It is not meant to polarise, he insists, but to remove regional and gender discrimination—women lose their right to property if they marry outside. At present, people from outside the state cannot come and buy land to set up factories. “Unless that happens, how can employment be generated for local youths? The railway project provided so many jobs. The state needs more factories and development,” Khanna says. He is also in favour of holding regular local body elections. Since the 73rd and 74th Amendments are not implemented in J&K, the state government is not bound to delegate funds for local elections like other states. “The political families of Kashmir do not want to delegate power. They don’t want a solution…it is in their interest to let it fester,” he claims.

BJP leaders admit they do want to project the party as strong and uncompromising, but that it also has to be seen as reaching out to the people of Kashmir with empathy. “We have realised the people of Kashmir do not have a problem with the BJP but only with the muscle-flexing. The effort is to balance Modi’s muscularity with Vajpayee’s insaniyat philosophy,” says a senior BJP leader.  Knowing the present dispensation and its exigencies, exp­ect something unexpected.

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