March 02, 2021
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The Azadi Kashmiris Want

Understanding why only certain leaders are respected in the Valley — and why Rahul Gandhi's open and unconditional support to Omar Abdullah will prove counterproductive — holds the key to Kashmir

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The Azadi Kashmiris Want
The Azadi Kashmiris Want

It is a great irony that 'azadi' a word with so many positive associations should evoke such fearful images among our political establishment and a large section of the intelligentsia in India when uttered by Kashmiris. It was Lokmanya Tilak who gave us the slogan, 'Freedom is my birthright'. Gandhi went a step further and defined 'Swaraj', as opposed to mere ousting of the British, as the raison d'etre of our freedom movement.

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that when Kashmiris come on streets demanding azadi, they do so only at the behest of Pakistani agents. There is no denying that Pakistan has injected a lot of poison into Kashmiri politics by fomenting religious strife. But it is the irresponsible deeds of our own politicians that create a conducive environment for converting the urge for azadi into a pro-Pak secessionist upsurge.

Even in states that do not harbour secessionist forces, we witness daily outbursts of discontent on a range of issues from absence of basic civic amenities to forcible acquisition of people's lands, human rights abuses, extortion rackets patronised by police and politicians, electoral frauds and deaths in police custody.

We also witness simple agitations turning violent because of the ham-handed response of the police who often beat up even peaceful agitators. Lack of transparency and accountability of the governance machinery coupled with the absence of effective institutions for grievance redressal has made India a land of "a million mutinies".

In Patna or Mumbai, such protests are taken as a sign of disenchantment with state administration. But the same action in Kashmir is invariably interpreted as anti-national. People will respond to this by saying that in other parts of India, people don't start demanding azadi when they come out to protest against their regional governments. But in other parts of India, protests against local governments are not crushed through the deployment of security forces using deadly weapons as often happens in Kashmir.

The 'special status' of J&K has ensured that unlike people in the rest of India, the people of Kashmir cannot take most of their constitutional rights for granted. Lack of azadi is visible on every road, in every mohalla, every town and village. Arbitrary arrests, crackdowns, custodial deaths and disappearances are routine events. For example, this entire phase of violence erupted because people who came out to protest against the wanton killing by the J&K police of 17-year-old Tuffail Mattoo were met with bullets. That led to more protests, more injuries and more deaths. At such times, the cry for 'azadi' is a desperate plea for a life of dignity, freedom from constant fear and assertion of democratic rights, including the right to protest against the denial of fundamental freedoms promised by the Constitution of India.

Kashmiris have proved their disapproval of terrorism by marginalising Pak-inspired militants. By mistaking their hunger for azadi, we only push them away from Indian democracy.

Wahidur Rehman, a young journalist from Kashmir, provided a valuable insight on the message Kashmiris try to deliver to Delhi by shouting "azadi". He said, ''From our childhood we have been taught by our elders that the most effective tool of blackmailing the New Delhi establishment into waking up is to start demanding azadi. They come to the dialogue table, start talking of concessions only when we rend the air with slogans of azadi. Otherwise, our pleas fall on deaf ears.''

Mehbooba Mufti once told me that even when a group of women come to meet her, if they find she is not available, they will start shouting, "We want azadi", when in fact they came for jobs or better civic amenities. This is not to belittle the urge for self-rule and having the power to call their politicians to account rather than depend on the mercy of Delhi durbar.



During the current agitation, Farooq Abdullah was heard impatiently remarking on TV: “I don’t know what these Kashmiris want”! True, both Farooq and his narcissistic son, Omar Abdullah have failed to understand the needs and aspirations of people of their state. Not surprisingly, whenever the National Conference is in power in J&K, within no time, we see the rage of Kashmiris spill on to the streets—something that works to the full advantage of Pakistan. The current joke in Kashmir is that Pakistan has decided to dispense with the services of ISI for Kashmir because they recognize Omar does a better job for them. 

Those trying to figure out what creates frequent outbursts of rage in Kashmir need to learn from those who have been able to win the respect and confidence of vast majority of Kashmiris. The names most often cited reveal a lot about the reasons for the estrangement of Kashmiris from India and what many of them mean when they cry for “azadi.” 

During my recent trip to Kashmir as part of Manushi's fact finding team I was pleasantly surprised to find that even at the height of estrangement from the Indian establishment, the most respected political figure in Kashmir is neither any separatist leader nor any Pakistani General but Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Barring the minority of die hard pro Pakistani elements, people cutting across the entire political spectrum, including a significant section of moderate separatists, say it openly that if only Vajpayee had stayed in power a little longer, he would have steered the country towards a permanent solution of the Kashmir problem. 

Muzaffar Hussain Baig of PDP was not too far off the mark when he declared in a public meeting that if Vajpayee were to contest from any constituency in Kashmir, he would have won hands down. The special affection for Vajpayee is in part due to the fact that during his tenure as Prime Minister Kashmir witnessed one of the two cleanest elections in the 60 plus year old history of parliamentary democracy. Vajpayee made sure neither the central government nor the state government dirtied their hands by tampering with the ballot boxes, thus ensuring one of the most credible elections in Kashmir in 2002 despite the threats by Pakistan inspired militants who unleashed a good deal of violence and even murdered some candidates in order to enforce a boycott of the elections. 

Even though PDP was a coalition partner of the Congress during Vajpayee’s tenure, the Centre yielded unprecedented political space to the J&K state government in addition to supporting its various “healing touch” measures. He let PDP take new political initiatives and define its own agenda rather than be a puppet of Delhi Durbar.

Vajpayee’s bigger contribution lies in the fact that he did not depend on intelligence agencies to define his political agenda and road map for Kashmir. He engaged with the entire cross section of political opinion, including the separatists and gave ordinary people hope that his government was ready to take concrete steps to resolve the Kashmir issue through honest dialogue. His declaration that he was looking for a solution within “insaniyat ka dayara” (the domain of humanity) created an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm and hope. This does not mean that Kashmiris expected him to bypass the Indian Constitution. It only indicates Vajpayee’s willingness to acknowledge that most previous governments had too often trampled upon the human rights of Kashmiris while pretending to uphold the Indian Constitution. 

It is indeed tragic that there is no one in BJP with the sagacity to build on the goodwill left behind by Vajpayee. Instead, most current BJP leaders are prone to issuing thoughtless jingoistic statements to prove their nationalist credentials without making any attempt to have direct contact with the people of the Valley which would enable them to tune in and respond sensitively to the legitimate grievances of Kashmiris and also give them the moral right to take a firm stand against illegitimate demands made by a motivated section of the people.

Nehru may be celebrated in the rest of India as a great democrat but in Kashmir, one hears people remember former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai as the respect-worthy face of Indian democracy even though he is all but forgotten in the rest of India. Kashmiris remember him with warmth and gratitude for letting them have their first taste of free and fair election in 1977. This was made possible because Janata Party came to power after defeating Indira Gandhi who had built a highly authoritarian, centralized power structure in her desire to rule all of India from her imperial durbar in Delhi. Morarji put his foot down against managing or rigging elections, making Kashmiris feel part of a new democratic upsurge in India following the Emergency.

One of the big heroes for Kashmiris is former Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh because they witnessed him make meticulous preparations for and personally overseeing the 2002 elections. George Fernandes is another respected name in Kashmir because even as Defense Minister he did not indulge in jingoistic politics and reached out to Kashmiri people even at the height of secessionist movement in the Valley. Likewise former President Abdul Kalam won the hearts of people in the Valley because during his visit he cut out needless hurdles placed by security cordon around the President and mingled freely with the people and established very warm rapport with the younger generation, especially students. He had no difficulty in getting thousands of Kashmiri students join him in singing the national anthem.

These salient names among many others provide enough evidence that majority of Kashmiris want the same freedom that all of us do. When they find their democratic aspirations crushed through brute force and devious political games emanating from Delhi Durbar with puppet Chief Ministers allowed to loot and plunder the state’s resources without any instruments of accountability available to citizens, they do get desperate. Frustration and disillusionment with Indian democracy are the most valuable assets for Pakistan in their proxy war against India. 

In the current upsurge, the cry for azadi began as a cry to be free from the present regime’s devious games and reign of terror. By ignoring it for months on end and misreading it as Pakistan- inspired trouble, the central government has offered a golden opportunity to Pakistan to exploit the resultant rage and given unprecedented clout to secessionist forces. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has himself witnessed how the constituency for secession from Indian can be made to shrink or expand depending on how responsive or ham handed the governments in the state and at the Centre are in responding to people’s legitimate grievances and aspirations. 

When their elected representatives prove capable of providing a responsive administration, especially security of life and property to citizens, along with efficiency in delivery of basic civic amenities, people start demanding IITs, IIMs, games stadia and the opportunity to become “Indian Idols”. They then show eagerness to participate in the vibrancy of Indian democracy. For example, even though Article 370 does not allow central laws to be automatically applicable to Kashmir, people have clamoured for the Right to Information Act to be made applicable to Kashmir. But when they are saddled with a callous dysfunctional and corrupt government which uses the brute might of the Indian state to crush their democratic rights, they are bound to feel estranged from Indian democracy, especially if the central government seems to be backing the brute actions of the state government and the most visible face of Indian democracy are the guns of security forces.


Omar may feel elated at Rahul Gandhi’s open and unconditional support to his regime. But if he had any emotional connect with his people he would know that this only damns him further. Any politician who tries to ride roughshod over his own people simply because he enjoys the patronage of Delhi Durbar becomes a hate symbol not just in Kashmir but other states as well. He may survive as chief minister with Rahul’s support but he cannot function as CM without the backing of at least a section of the people of Kashmir. Rahul cannot procure people’s support for Omar. He has to earn it himself.

Most people outside the Valley don’t know that Omar has forced all government offices to remain closed for nearly three months because even government employees are up in arms against him. People say government officers are denied curfew passes because he is afraid if they join duty, they might start demonstrating against him in their office complexes itself. 

The timing of Rahul Gandhi’s statement backing Omar — on the eve of the parliamentary delegation to Kashmir — was even more damaging because it sought to undermine the very credibility of the high powered parliamentary team that visited the Valley on 20th September 2010. It was interpreted in Kashmir as an attempt to influence the team since it is headed by three senior most Congress ministers in the UPA government. This has confirmed the worst fears of Kashmiris that the present Durbar in Delhi will only support puppet Chief Ministers in Kashmir, no matter how disastrous they are for the state and for India. 

The parliamentary visit turned out to be an embarrassing affair also because the Congress High Command seems to have done no preparatory work prior to sending off a whole plane load of MPs and ministers to Srinagar. It was designed to be a flying, touch- and- go- visit — ritualism at its worst! It was not structured to enable the MPs to meet ordinary people, to commiserate with the families of innocent victims, to listen to their grievances, to meet the injured persons in the hospital and to see for themselves the havoc being caused by Omar’s callous and draconian rule. The arrangements were left in the hands of state government which had a lot to hide and therefore did all it could to stage- manage the show. Neither the families of victims nor those who had the courage to give an independent version were allowed anywhere near the visiting delegation. The state government enforced a stringent 72 hour long curfew so that no one could stir out of their homes—not even to go to hospital, leave alone meeting visitors from Delhi housed under tight security. National Conference handpicked some of their own men, briefed them on what to say and carried them in government vehicles, to parade them as the voice of Kashmir. Even grass root Congress leaders and workers were denied the opportunity to meet the delegation. 

The Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar was put in charge of screening those who put in requests to meet the parliamentary delegation. Applicants were told to send fax messages along with the text of what they wanted to say to the delegation. Given the shoot at sight orders and a deadly curfew in force, how could people access fax machines? And yet some brave ones dared persevere. They phoned their friends in Delhi and other parts of India to send faxes on their behalf. Many such people had the CID men come visiting their homes in a brazen attempt to intimidate them into silence. Important business chambers, farmers’ organizations, lawyers and other professionals decided it was not worth their while to meet the delegation.

The Hurriyat leaders' open snub by their refusal to meet our parliamentarians was expected since they feel no compulsion to climb down from the high horse on which Omar has placed them. The fairly stringent conditions they have laid down for a dialogue poses a real challenge for the Centre. In less than 20 months of his rule, Omar has not only brought the hitherto marginalized secessionist forces centre- stage but also provided them such clout that they openly dictate terms to his government and now even to the government of India. For example, Omar’s administration invariably imposes a draconian curfew to match the hartaal calendar announced by the hardline Hurriyat. Curfew is relaxed at the orders of the Hurriyat. 

But some of our wise MPs saved the situation by actually going uninvited to visit Hurriyat leaders in their homes with a message of goodwill. But this act of grace and political astuteness has been — understandably — misinterpreted by people in the rest of India, especially Kashmiri Pandits and their sympathizers, as yet another instance of supine surrender before pro Pakistani secessionists. 

The parliamentary delegation would have made an impact only if a select group of senior MPs had spent several days in the Valley and held public hearings, meeting a varied cross section of ordinary citizens as well as professional organizations, students and business chambers instead of meeting a select group of politicians. This has created the impression that only hard-line separatist leaders matter in the Valley and that no solution can be found without unconditionally surrendering to all their demands.

This is not to undermine the importance of talking to separatists. Our MPs were far- sighted enough to open the doors of dialogue even with known secessionists because they know from experience that in a democracy it is vital to keep lines of communication open for all. But our Prime Minister has put himself in an awkward position. At a time when both the state and the central government appear to be trampling on the constitutional rights of Kashmiris with brute force leading to daily deaths of young men, women and children, for the Prime Minister to repeatedly emphasize that he is willing to talk to only those who abjure violence and declare allegiance to the Indian Constitution amounts to rubbing salt into people’s wounds. Instead of expecting Kashmiris to swear allegiance to the Indian Constitution as a pre-condition to dialogue, let the Prime Minister first demonstrate through concrete measures that the government of India cares for and knows how to safeguard the constitutional rights of its citizens. If this can be done, an effectively enduring solution to the vexed Kashmir problem will follow effortlessly. If not, the Congress High Command will have to bear the ignominy for furthering the political agenda of Pakistan in Kashmir. 

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and founder of the human rights/ women’s rights organization, Manushi.

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