Valley of fear

Print edition : October 28, 2016

An Indian Army soldier stands guard outside his base camp at Langate in Jammu and Kashmir on October 6. Photo: Mukhtar Khan/AP

People living close to the Line of Control receive food at a relief camp set up inside a government-run school after they were evacuated to a safer place on the outskirts of Jammu, on October 2. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

A war-like situation heightens the uncertainty in Kashmir.

THREE months have passed since Kashmir slipped into an unprecedented phase of turmoil following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8. Not much has changed. The sufferings of the people have come first in the form of curfew, the longest-ever Kashmir has witnessed since 1990, and now in the form of continued strikes called or protest calendars issued by the joint platform of separatists led by Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik. The cost has been heavy: 90 deaths at the hands of the police and paramilitary forces, injuries to 11,000 people and, above all, pellet injuries that have left scores of young boys and girls blind.

So far, the government’s response has only been harsh curfews, and bullets and pellets. The government sees it as a law and order problem that is to be dealt with a “tire-out” strategy as was done during the political unrests in 2008 and 2010. However, by all accounts, those protests were mild compared with the current phase of unrest, which shows little sign of a let-up.

Kashmir today faces what can be termed a humanitarian crisis. With businesses shut, educational institutions closed and hospitals full of injured, the Valley is as good as dead. There is hardly any dialogue within and outside, as the governments—both in New Delhi and in Srinagar—and the separatists have locked horns with each other. In the meanwhile, there seemed to be some engagement when an all-party delegation visited Srinagar and Jammu on September 4 and 5. It left the door ajar for hope. But that also fizzled out.

The all-party delegation was the outcome of the persuasion of the Congress and the Left parties and also because of a volatile turn the events had taken in Kashmir. However, the visit was taken up without proper groundwork, and some of the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members who tried to break bread with the separatists were left red-faced. While Geelani did not even open the door, Mirwaiz and Yasin refused to engage with them.

However, the fact is that the government wanted to have dialogue with them while keeping them under detention—obviously not the way dialogues are conducted to resolve conflicts. One of them told a Member of Parliament: “We are caged. We have not been even able to talk to each other. How can we respond to what you are saying?”

No respite

Apparently, there is nothing in sight that could promise a respite in the situation. The average Kashmiri youth is armed with a different weapon this time besides the stones in his hand. He believes it is a do-or-die situation for him and is “convinced” that this will lead to the political solution of the Kashmir problem, which in his thinking is “azadi from India”. Even as it is not clear as to how this feeling has crept into Kashmiri minds, it has brought Kashmir to a grinding halt.

The government has its own theory of terming the uprising as the handiwork of Pakistan and a handful of elements who want to keep the pot boiling for their “own interests”. But the fact is that the government has hardly done anything to bring about a change in the situation and has only resorted to the use of force, which has only led to tensions spiralling. Even schoolgoing children are seen protesting on streets, holding placards that read: “No to exams, no to education till the K-issue is resolved.”

Though the government claims to have opened schools in many rural areas, the general trend belies this. The government also announced the schedule of examinations for Classes X and XII, but the separatists have opposed it. However, this has not gone down well with many people who in subtle ways are questioning the wisdom of the separatists to endorse the continued closure of educational institutions.

The government is to be blamed for this seeming point of no return. Except for accusing Pakistan and a few elements for the situation, it has not seemed to be addressing the problem as a political one for which dialogue and engagement is the only way. Obviously, when the approach to the crisis has been flawed from day one and the same people are in charge of crisis management, the dynamic can seldom change. The fact that any form of political outreach is missing has only created a vacuum.

On top of it, one of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) founder members and MP, Tariq Qarra, resigned from both the party and Parliament criticising the way the situation had been handled. This may not have rattled the PDP, which is ruling the State in coalition with the BJP, but it is a huge challenge to its moral authority. For the PDP, one of its architects has walked away. And for the BJP, which is heading the government in New Delhi, it is a reprimand.

New Delhi has been arguing vehemently about elections to be held in Kashmir with the participation of the people. But Qarra was an elected representative who defeated none less than former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and that too from Srinagar in 2014. So how does the Central government explain the resignation of an elected representative in the interests of his electorate?

Even as Kashmir continued to burn, a fearful attack on the Army’s Uri base on September 18, which claimed 20 lives, shifted the focus on the war-like situation between India and Pakistan. Earlier, at the United Nations, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif used belligerence to nail India by devoting his attention to Kashmir in his speech and even projecting Burhan Wani as a Kashmir leader. The crisis that had led to brutalities by the forces claiming 90 lives was the focus of his speech. The Indian side responded with equally harsh words, first by the First Secretary at U.N. Mission Eenam Gambhir and later by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The real pain and suffering of Kashmir got lost in the din created by the neighbours.

Following mounting pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government by the majority of the national media came the “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control. Now it is all about a war-like situation. The bone of contention between India and Pakistan is undoubtedly Kashmir. It has all the possibility of further aggravating into a deep crisis. Not only have people been suffering because of the apathy of the government in the last three months; now the residents of border areas, who have faced the brunt of India-Pakistan hostilities since 1947, live in the shadow of fear.

What has added to the chaos and confusion is the absence of political engagement and continued denial by New Delhi that the unprecedented protests on the streets are deeply rooted in political problems. India might have “succeeded” in isolating Pakistan globally by taking advantage of the Uri attack, but that will not help it steer clear of the crisis in Kashmir. Today Kashmir is poised for a direct confrontation with the Army, which has resorted to burning paddy stacks and damaging apple production, probably to force people into submission and take “revenge” for their “anti-India” sentiment. But that will only further widen the gap.

Whatever has happened in the last three months has only cemented the pro-azadi sentiment. No one has answers to the question whether continued strike will bring azadi, but people are not ready to alter their ways. There is a strong need to create conditions for dialogue. Whether New Delhi recognises the likes of the Hurriyat Conference as representing the people or not, the road to peace will have to include it. An unconditional offer of dialogue to find a solution will put the ball in its court.

In the past one month, Prime Minister Modi has made some favourable gestures. On September 25, he addressed Kashmiris in his “Mann ki Baat” programme on All India Radio and said: “I am confident that we will resolve all issues together through discussions, will find ways and jointly lay the track for the future generations of Kashmir.” In his 35-minute broadcast he specially said he wanted to speak to the people of Kashmir. The statement was encouraging and could open up a space for dialogue. But such statements need to be followed up with a constructive approach of engagement.

Kashmiris, as pointed out by former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat, has “never been averse to dialogue”. But the way successive governments in New Delhi have handled it, there is hardly any reason to believe them. Past exercises were failures and the level of trust and confidence is near zero.

To end the current crisis, Kashmir has to be delinked from the fresh phase of India-Pakistan hostility, and an out-of–the-box ideation to engage with the people is the need of the hour. By adopting a “wait-and-see” policy, the government is pushing the Kashmir situation towards a dead end. It will further create space for extreme ideologies and a new phase of militancy since many youths have joined the militants in the last three months. New Delhi might be pursuing a policy of fighting militancy with a large number of troops on the ground, but the ideology that is against India is too difficult to be quelled with the power of the gun. A war-like situation should not overshadow the harsh reality that exists at the core of the tension between the two countries—Kashmir.

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