The prime minister’s televised statement, calling for resumption of dialogue and the willingness to consider the NC’s autonomy proposal after meeting a delegation of MLAs from Kashmir on August 10, marks a welcome change from the imperious statements that used to emanate from New Delhi, dismissing all public outburst as the handiwork of pro-Pakistan agents. However, it would be naïve to believe that the PM’s appeal for calm will work like a magic wand in the Valley.
Just a couple of days ago, Chidambaram’s statement in Parliament expressing the Centre’s readiness to “resume dialogue” with Kashmiri leaders, including pro-Pakistan Syed Ali Geelani, was summarily snubbed because by now, the separatist leaders have come to occupy centre-stage and they have no compulsion to catch the next flight to Delhi. In fact, the timing is bound to strengthen the feeling that unless people take to violent protests, New Delhi does not listen. This will only legitimise the politics of violence and mob fury. It also amounts to an open admission that apart from interacting with select ruling-coalition politicians, the Central government had blocked the channels of communication with all other political voices out of sheer complacency, due to a good turnout in elections.
Today, knowledgeable leaders within the National Conference also admit that their "autonomy" proposal is outdated and has serious limitations. During my recent visit to Kashmir, I heard most people laugh it off saying "all it amounts to is change in nomenclature. The J&K CM will get to be called PM and become even less accountable to his people. Among other things, the NC formula for autonomy denies people access to the Supreme Court of India and will put J&K elections out of the jurisdiction of the National Election Commission." In recent decades, the stock of the Election Commission has risen high in Kashmir with J.M. Lyngdoh and T.N. Seshan celebrated as the two most credible faces of Indian democracy. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India, despite occasional lapses, is seen as an important institution for enforcing fundamental rights promised by the Indian Constitution. It is incomprehensible why the PM had to revive the issue of autonomy instead of letting new solutions emerge out of the dialogue process, when most Kashmiris have outgrown the autonomy demand.
To restore the credibility of the much-discredited dialogue process, the prime minister must take concrete steps to show that this time, the Centre is sincere in taking the dialogue to its logical conclusion instead of smugly abandoning it midway once there is a semblance of normalcy on the streets.
One way of demonstrating serious intent is for the PM to appoint a high-powered team of interlocutors to engage, in a consistent manner, all sections of J&K, including representatives from Jammu, Rajouri, Poonch, and the Ladakh region towards finding an enduring political solution. Such a consensus within J&K is absolutely vital for the success of talks with Pakistan.
The prime minister needs to personally visit Srinagar, not to make formal speeches but for an in-depth dialogue with a large cross-section of people, to assess the ground-level situation. Action taken following such discussion will give people a sense that their opinion matters, and that decisions are not taken in secret meetings held behind closed doors in the Delhi durbar. In addition, teams of parliamentarians from all over India need to visit the state to engage with the people so that they can be reassured that they have the competence to bring about necessary course correction in the Government’s Kashmir policy.
Through this agitation, numerous young people, including school-going children, have been booked under the draconian Public Safety Act. The use of PSA against those who pelt stones amounts to using an AK-47 to kill mosquitoes. Cases against all the young men, women and children booked under PSA and other criminal charges for stone pelting need to be withdrawn expeditiously after securing undertakings from their families and mohalla committees that they will not indulge in violent protests.
In addition, the government must release all jailed political leaders and set up a high-powered committee for swift release of all political prisoners who are not implicated in any serious crimes and those who have already served unfairly long jail terms.
The presence of gun-toting security forces in every galli, mohalla and at every few hundred yards on every street is the biggest irritant, and creates the image of a people and a land under occupation. The government must demilitarise Kashmir and deploy CRPF only for counter-insurgency operations, not for dealing with public protests. It is noteworthy that there have been no attacks on army convoys, nor has it come for bitter criticism because the army is acting far more judiciously than the CRPF. The army will do a better job of combating cross-border terrorism if it can concentrate on securing our borders and sensitive roads and installations.
The prime minister has announced that the J&K police will be strengthened and given primary responsibility for maintaining law and order. The Central government should work closely with the J&K government to make the state a laboratory for introducing radical police reforms and ensure that the its best officers are posted in key positions.
Currently, the best officers are either on punishment postings or out of the state on deputation or given insignificant jobs while the least trusted are believed to be manning the most sensitive and key portfolios. That is why the J&K police has become rudderless and corrupt. There is an urgent need to re-haul the working of intelligence agencies, many of whom are believed to create more mischief than provide intelligent inputs to the government. They need to be made more accountable and evolve better coordination so that they don’t work at cross-purposes.
Omar’s rule has ensured that all arms of the state have completely withered away. The bureaucracy is demoralised and dysfunctional because the best among them are marginalised. People of J&K must be given space for engaging in the process of judicial and administrative reforms so that they can effectively call their elected representatives and the bureaucrats to account.
Most important of all, the government must learn to own up to the people of Kashmir, instead of remaining obsessed with the geographical entity called Kashmir.
Madhu Purnima Kishwar is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi and founder editor of Manushi