Kashmir at the crossroads of History

Anand K Sahay

The BJP’s hankering for power in Jammu and Kashmir – the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been brazen. Its opportunist posturing to secure that end is striking. Its footwork has been crude. The party’s own rank and file are confused about what the party may be up to, and fear it is giving up its known positions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed

The Massarat Aalam episode has provoked bitter chauvinist rhetoric in Parliament and the media on Kashmir in a way that can open wounds without offering India the smallest benefit.

On the other hand, we should be alert to the fact that after a long time a new opportunity may just have come our way — thanks to processes that have evolved over the years — that can help us work the Kashmir conundrum in a manner that can broadly satisfy the principal constituencies, namely the people of Kashmir and the rest of the country.

Does India have the mettle to grasp the chance which history offers?

The BJP’s hankering for power in the country’s only Muslim-majority state has been brazen. Its opportunist posturing to secure that end is striking. Its footwork has been crude. The party’s own rank and file are confused about what the party may be up to, and fear it is giving up its known positions. Its spokesmen on television are clearly nervous when confronted with questions relating to Kashmir. But it would be a mistake to be so consumed by BJP’s discomfiture as to not see that the Centre, in tandem with the J&K government, whatever their hue, can gainfully move in a direction that brings a wider sense of relief to the Valley and helps bury old ghosts.

In such an enterprise, chasing after issues such as the release of a trouble-making minor political operative, who enjoys little standing in the Valley, is a sterile diversion. Mr Aalam, it appears, has come to be known in the Valley more now — after the tabloid-style Indian television broadcasters began calling him names, and typically uninformed Indian MPs began shouting blue murder — than he was ever before, not excluding 2010, when he became the designer of the stone-pelting agitation that claimed many lives.

It is indeed unlikely that even the separatist combine, the Hurriyat Conference, will be overjoyed at Mr Aalam’s release. Seen in political terms, the Muslim League activist walking free is a non-event, although it has made the BJP squirm and has made national headlines. More to the point, however, should a pro-Pakistan Kashmir political activist be locked away for good? What message does that send for Indian democracy?

No less foolish than all the fuss over Mr Aalam, and infinitely more dubious, is the attempted vilification of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed by some in our visual media as “the pro-Pakistan chief minister”. The Mufti may be all full of warts — like politicians tend to be. For instance, most recently, he tried to short-change history when he said that Pakistan and the separatists allowed the November-December Assembly election to be held peacefully, while the truth was that the extremists didn’t issue their traditional boycott call as this may have enabled the BJP to pick up seats in the Valley (and they didn’t want that) with as few as a thousand votes in a constituency.

For all that, Mr Sayeed is not a pro-Pakistan politician. He has never been that. But he, like many others in Kashmir, may want to keep Pakistan suitably placated — unlike people in other parts of India — because Pakistan has shown itself capable of consciously causing dangerous levels of harm in Kashmir on a sustained basis, historically. This is an important distinction to keep in mind.

It is also necessary to remember that extremist politics is likely to gain in Kashmir (and that will benefit the likes of Mr Aalam) if New Delhi seeks to torpedo the Mufti. Close to 70 per cent voting was recorded in the last state election. If a government born of such a propitious exercise, regarded as probably the most transparent ever in Kashmir, can’t fetch relative stability, it will reflect poorly on our capacity to conduct democratic politics.

With just 28 seats, Mr Sayeed is not in as strong a position as he may have liked since both the National Conference and the Congress picked up way more seats than their rivals bargained for, with the Congress becoming the only party to win seats in all the three regions of the state — the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh. If the chief minister is sought to be weakened further through reckless play by his alliance partner, then it would be handing an easy advantage to extremist tendencies.

This brings us to the question of the special conjuncture — a happy one — that Kashmir finds itself in today, a “sweet spot”. Ordinary Kashmiris have long realised that the ’90s were Kashmir’s lost decade. In the main, they fell for the Pakistan-inspired illusion that a revolutionary situation was at hand. But it soon became clear to all, including to Pakistan, that the capacity of the Indian state to defend its interests had been vastly underestimated.

Kashmir’s simple folk suffered a double blow. Their so-called liberators — the terrorists who came from Pakistan and the home-grown jihadists — killed more Muslim Kashmiris than suffered at the hands of the Indian security forces, as scholarly writing and episodic evidence alike show. The Pakistani journalist-author Arif Jamal offers a specially sturdy endorsement of this.

Subsequent events took a heavy toll of indigenous support for a cause that had been nursed with external help, and some 10 years on the structures sustained by ground-level encouragement to extremist and terrorist violence have withered, effectively speaking. Occasional militant strikes do not disprove this.

Something else has also happened, meanwhile. Pakistan’s capacity for mischief has been vastly degraded partly because Islamabad has lost credibility in the Valley (no matter how many meetings Pakistan’s high commissioners in Delhi have with Hurriyat leaders), and also because using the instrument of terrorism as state policy has begun to bite Pakistan hard. Its repeated attempts to infiltrate and shoot and kill on the Line of Control are but flickering flames of a dying lamp.

The context offers India the opportunity of a generation to stabilise Kashmir on a humanitarian basis. For instance, prisoners who are not serving time for brutal murders can be set free and helped with rehabilitation. This would be a meaningful gesture with Valley-wide appeal, unlike the case of Aalam. Young Kashmiris who had crossed over to the other side of the LoC in the militancy years (many are virtual hostages there) but yearn to return home could also be encouraged to do so. Some of these young people could go astray again, but structures to absorb them are no longer standing. A good deal depends on the wisdom we can summon.


♦The author is a political commentator based in Delhi

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