On the boil

Print edition : August 29, 2008

Inter-regional tensions are at the core of the protests over the Amarnath land issue.

in New Delhi in Jammu

Police personnel clash with protesters in Srinagar on August 7.-DANISH ISMAIL/REUTERS

ON the morning of August 9, Union Home Minister Shivraj V. Patil led an all-party delegation to Jammu with the express intention of making a first-hand assessment of the situation created by the violent agitation on the Amarnath land transfer issue.

On August 8, reports from Jammu said the region was relatively quiet after nearly three weeks of unrest. The delegations trip was projected by the Home Ministry as a significant initiative by the Central government to work out a solution. However, many members of the delegation, including those belonging to the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), had doubts about its efficacy.

In fact, as the delegation reached Jammu, there were doubts that the whole exercise would be futile as the Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti (SASS) had made it clear that it would not meet the delegation. It was unhappy about the presence of Kashmiri leaders such as National Conference (N.C.) patron Farooq Abdullah, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti and Union Minister of Water Resources Saif-ud-din Soz in the delegation. Its objections were overcome after protracted negotiations and finally the delegation went ahead with its mission.

In spite of this success, two senior members of the delegation, belonging to the UPA, described the visit as a half-hearted measure that might not achieve anything substantial. You may lead a hundred delegations to Jammu and Srinagar, but unless core issues of the region are addressed in all their complexities, we may not make much headway, the members pointed out. Both members felt that the Union government, particularly those in it who have handled the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir, has neglected disturbing signals from the State for too long. The touchy situation created by the agitation is essentially a consequence of that, they said.

In Jammu, a protest on August 7 against the State government, which reversed the lease of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board.-AMIT GUPTA/REUTERS

By all accounts, the points highlighted by these two leaders were also made in the discussions between the UPAs constituents and allies, which preceded the all-party meeting convened by the Union Home Ministry on August 6. Shivraj Patils line of defence at the meeting was to blame vested interests belonging to political and sectarian groups, but that found only partial acceptance. Sources told Frontline that a wide array of leaders belonging to important UPA constituents such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the new ally, Samajwadi Party (S.P.), did not concur with this line fully.

The vested interests that Shivraj Patil referred to obviously belonged to the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar, which was actively involved in the SASS activities and which was trying to aggravate the communal dimensions of the crisis. While accepting Shivraj Patils contention that the Sangh Parivar constituents were trying to exploit the situation to advance their political interests, many constituents of the UPA wondered how the Central government, especially the Home Ministry, had allowed the state of affairs to deteriorate so much that Hindutva outfits could play their game with audacity. Clearly, the argument that seeks to put all the blame on vested and sectarian interests has no takers even among UPA constituents.

Broadly, failures on four fronts have been identified as the reason for the crisis in and around Jammu. The first failure was that of the intelligence agencies, which could not detect the SASS preparations and the manner in which it targeted security agencies, including paramilitary forces.

The second was administrative failure as reflected in the actions of the former Governor, Lieutenant-General S. K. Sinha. Many UPA allies hold him responsible for giving the land transfer issue a communal colour. This aspect was discussed seriously in the August 6 meeting. LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan pointed out that the Governor and his officers were responsible for the misinterpretation of the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board. Forest land was given on a temporary basis to the shrine for creating facilities for pilgrims as there has been a huge jump in the number of pilgrims to Amarnath. The order makes it clear that no change in ownership would happen, yet the Governors office gave an impression that forest land had been permanently transferred to the shrine board and that permanent structures would be erected. This was used to whip up communal passions, Paswan pointed out.

The third failure was political. The government failed to prevent the former Governor from going ahead with his insensitive steps regarding the land transfer, to evaluate the gravity of the agitation that was brewing, to foresee the political agenda of the Hindutva organisations and, finally, to devise political strategies to counter the Hindutva game plan.

In Srinagar, protesters shout anti-India slogans on August 8, the fifth day of a strike in the city.-

In fact, it is widely admitted that the UPAs leadership was on an SOS mode when its chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, called up Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh seeking his intervention to control Sangh Parivar cadre and to stop them from fomenting trouble. Such was the intensity of the Parivars intervention that even senior security officials had perceived the situation to be out of control. The fourth failure was the long-term neglect of the regions development.

The result of all these failures was evident when the situation went out of control in the last week of July. Protests erupted again on July 24 when Sangharsh Samiti activist Kuldip Kumar allegedly committed suicide. The agitation, which was sparked off in the first week of July by the cancellation of the order diverting land to the shrine board, had subsided after some time.

The protests became widespread after the administration tried to cremate the body of Kuldip Kumar before sunrise. Curfew had to be clamped on August 1, the day Governor N.N. Vohra called an all-party meeting to diffuse the crisis. Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah were held hostage at the Jammu airport by enraged protesters for three hours before they were whisked away to Raj Bhavan for talks. The N.C. and the PDP had opposed land diversion to the shrine board. Commodity supplies to Jammu and to the Kashmir valley were affected as protesters blocked all road links. Even rail links were severed for a day. Over 250 police personnel were injured during their attempt to quell the protests. Later, the Army was deployed to restore order.

The SASS was a group of 35 social, religious and political outfits, including Sangh Parivar outfits such as the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and non-Hindutva organisations such as the Jammu Bar Association. B.S. Salathia, chairperson of the Bar Association, is an active member. Non-Hindutva members of the SASS repeatedly pointed out that their agitation was non-communal, but as the days progressed it was clear that they were losing control and that communal elements were taking over.

Union Home Minister Shivraj V. Patil and the all-party delegation at a meeting with the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti in Jammu on August 9.-PTI

There were attacks on Gujjar Muslims living on the periphery of Jammu. Incidentally, their non-communal ways have made them the target of terrorists in the past two decades. The timely intervention of the civil society and condemnation by SASS leaders arrested this trend to an extent. In due course, even the economic blockade imposed on the Kashmir valley was lifted.

The all-party delegation took note of all of this and expressed the hope that the situation would improve. But the governments track record of failures does not give much cause for hope. The most important task before the government is to address non-religious, regional concerns of the different parts of the State. Inter-regional tensions between Jammu and the Kashmir valley, or even between the Kashmir valley and Ladakh, have been on the rise for years now. Politicians of all hues have been loath to tackle this problem effectively. This failure is responsible for the steady transformation of secular regional identities in the State into communal identities.

The SASS agitation has come as a grave warning to the political class that it can no longer ignore the regional concerns. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has hinted that tackling regional tensions in the State will be a priority of his government. But mere statements will not do. Policymakers and those connected with the affairs of the State need to comprehend the complexity of the situation. Without creating political institutions at various levels to accommodate the secular aspirations of various sections, it is impossible to establish lasting peace

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