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Valley of unrest

Print edition : Jul 30, 2010

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Once again Kashmir erupts in violence, and the government's decision to involve the Army is widely seen as having affected the peace process.

in Srinagar

EVERYTHING was going well for Kashmir Valley this year economically. The summer tourist season witnessed a boom. With all the rooms in hotels and the houseboats on the Dal lake full, the year was set to surpass all previous records in tourist arrival. Then came the violent unrest, as in the two previous prosperous summers. This time the valley erupted over the killing of a schoolboy by a teargas shell fired by the police in Srinagar on June 11 during street protests. Since then seven other Kashmiri youth have been killed, and the unrest has been spreading to more towns in the valley.

There is a clear link between the current upheaval and what happened in the two preceding years. In 2008, the region saw much disturbance for over two months over the specific issue of allotment of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The following year, the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian saw the valley burn.

In fact, even after the current turmoil began, there was no significant decline in the tourist rush. But when the State government decided to call out the Army as a last resort to restore normalcy, the hopes of having a normal tourist season were dashed.

Why is Kashmir on fire again is the question on everyone's lips, but there is no satisfactory answer that can assuage the feelings of both the sides the agitators and the government. Of course, the mishandling of the law and order situation by the Omar Abdullah government is one of the reasons for the anger in the valley.

According to Omar's opponents, he finds little time to address the problems in Kashmir. His hard posturing in defence of the Central Reserve Police Force (too much of antagonism against the CRPF will be of no use as it will only disrupt the law and order situation in the State) and the police, at a time when more and more civilian killings were reported, aggravated the situation. Making a fresh appeal for peace, the Chief Minister insisted that Kashmir was a political issue and needed a political solution. But apparently it came too late as pro-freedom and anti-India slogans were getting louder.

The absence of a genuine political initiative on the ground has given a fillip to the trouble, and this has been used as an opportunity by the hardliners in the separatist camp to revive their strategy. In a way, they have been running a parallel government. It is not completely true that the fear of militants being behind the hardliners makes them relevant. Moderates such as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik have been further marginalised by the way the hardline group led by Syed Ali Geelani has used the turf to achieve its political ambitions. A low-rung functionary of the Geelani group is calling the shots, and the entire State machinery has gone into overdrive to arrest him. When the violence broke out, even mainstream politicians chose to stay indoors, fearing reprisal from unruly mobs. Mainstream politicians have been marginalised. We feel cornered. Our leaders can't go out. People call us Hindustani kutte [Indian dogs], said People's Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti.

The situation in Kashmir has always been fragile, but policymaking in New Delhi, which has remained one track, has only helped to aggravate it further. The Centre has disconnected itself from the ground reality in Kashmir and listens more to the experts sitting in the Delhi studios of various television channels. It may be true that those taking the law into their own hands do not constitute a major section of society, but their proliferation has put both the State and Central governments on the back foot.

The government's response to the initial trouble, which began on June 11, was devoid of any strategy. It failed to notice the burning anger among the youth. On June 11, Tufail Matto, 17, was killed in a police action in downtown Srinagar when he was supposedly returning from a tuition class. The original spark that ignited the public anger actually came from a fake encounter in the Machil sector of Kupwara district. In the mayhem that followed, 15 civilians, all of them in the age group of nine to 25, fell to the bullets of the CRPF and the police. The government had, apparently, decided to adopt an iron hand method to restore normalcy.

Confidence eroded

The past 14 years have seen massive development and creation of employment opportunities in Kashmir with a large number of schemes touching ground. The Prime Minister's Reconstruction Plan made the construction of vital roads possible. On the face of it, the problem should have been resolved if the alienation element was linked to misgovernance or lack of development. But the recurring change in the situation shows that the unrest is linked to political issues rather than the demand for development.

Since 2006-07, Kashmir's political landscape has gone through enormous changes with confidence-building measures between Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistan-occupied territory and improvement in the relations between India and Pakistan. This created an optimism that something was happening to resolve the Kashmir tangle. There was political stability during those years as people connected themselves with that rapprochement, which had been initiated by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who had emerged as leading lights of the process for peace and reconciliation. People devoted themselves to routine work in the hope that New Delhi and Islamabad were working on a solution.

But as the initiatives between Srinagar and New Delhi and the confidence-building measures reached a deadlock, the confidence that the people of Kashmir had gained in the process was eroded.

Sheikh Showkat, Professor of Law at Kashmir University, sees the unrest as the fallout of unproductive processes. Even Mirwaiz and other moderates were Geelanised as they felt irrelevant in this situation, he said.

That became evident on July 7, when Mirwaiz threatened that the new generation was ready to take on India. The baton of the freedom struggle has now been passed on to the next generation who, by sacrificing their precious lives, has reinforced the universally accepted fact that it might be possible to annihilate the body by killing it but no power on earth can subjugate the yearnings of a nation for freedom, he told Frontline.

Experts say that the Army's deployment can defeat the efforts of the Omar Abdullah government to restore normalcy. Amid demands for the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the thinning of troops, calling the Army out on the streets is bound to worsen the situation. What after the Army is withdrawn? is a question being asked in Kashmir.

The last line of defence has been used, if it fails to put a break on the protests, who will control it? asks Bashir Manzar, a senior journalist and editor. Even former Army chief V.P. Malik opposed the decision to call out the Army. The Army is not meant for riot policing but for defending the country and fighting insurgency, he told a news channel.

By all accounts, the coming days will be crucial for Kashmir. A drastic change in New Delhi's policy towards Kashmir has become all the more inevitable now.

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