Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives to find a solution to the Kashmir unrest may have little effect in the absence of a concrete plan to restore the Kashmiri people’s faith in New Delhi. By SHUJAAT BUKHARI
PRIME Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence over the Kashmir uprising 44 days after it began, that too only after being prodded by a joint delegation of the opposition parties from Jammu and Kashmir led by former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Modi talked about dialogue being important to finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem, albeit within the ambit of the Constitution. He had some words of sympathy for the youth when he told the delegation that met him on August 22 in New Delhi that “those who lost their lives during the recent disturbances are a part of us and it is a matter of distress whether the lives lost are of our youth, security personnel or police”. Even as many see Modi’s “reach out” as a much-awaited development, he has not specified how his government will move in this direction. There is no indication of a mechanism that would follow.
At a time when Kashmir is seething in unprecedented anger and the cry for azadi is becoming louder with each passing day, his assertion that a solution has to be found within the ambit of the Constitution may not help break the ice. Yet another contradiction is his repeated invocation of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s expressions “Jamhuriyat, Insaniyat and Kashmiriyat” to find a solution. Vajpayee’s famous “insaniyat” expression, during a news conference at Srinagar’s technical airport in 2004, was to create an atmosphere for a middle ground that would help in finding a space for dialogue. When he was asked about talking to the separatists within the ambit of the Constitution, his quick-witted reply was: “Hum insaniyat ke dairey mein karenge.” (We will do so within the framework of humanity.) That was Vajpayee the statesman, who, without offending his own constituency that would believe only in the Constitution, was offering an olive branch to the separatists who would find it difficult to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi.
By placing the solution within the framework of the Constitution, Modi has in a way closed the doors for any opportunity that is needed to address Kashmir’s situation today. In that sense he has failed his own repeated assertions about following Vajpayee’s path. According to Omar Abdullah, Modi’s statement was a marked departure from the voices within the government and the ruling party so far. “But it needs a follow-up and a concrete plan so that people’s faith in such a process can be restored,” he told Frontline.
But Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is now part of a joint platform comprising Syed Ali Geelani and Yasin Malik, said there was nothing in what Modi had said. “If a lasting and permanent solution to the Kashmir problem according to Modi could be found within the Indian Constitution, then it would have happened by now as Kashmir has been ruled by that Constitution for the last 70 years. We would not have been suffering immensely, especially for the past three decades,” he said.
At the time of writing this, most parts of Kashmir continue to be under strict curfew; 50 days of restrictions have made it a virtual prison for over seven million people. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has opened a Track-2 initiative to reach out to different sections of the people in the State, visited Srinagar on August 24 for the second time since July 8 when Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter that triggered the unrest.
Rajnath Singh’s visit came after the joint delegation of opposition parties from the State met President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Modi, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury seeking their intervention to douse the fire in the Valley. He has been trying to create a space for dialogue.
Sources privy to the initiative told Frontline that he had a series of meetings in New Delhi with those who have been handling Kashmir for a long time or with people in the know. They include former policymakers, journalists and lawyers. “Whatever the result, Rajnath Singh is trying hard to reach out and this should help,” said one of them, adding that the Home Minister seemed to be sincere in finding a solution to the crisis. Rajnath Singh’s emissaries are also understood to have got in touch with Hurriyat Conference leaders who are holding the key to the agitation that has brought life in the Valley to a grinding halt, though on the ground young boys seem to have been “in control of the situation”.
Meanwhile, two civil society delegations comprising eminent people who have been sympathetic to the Kashmir situation visited Kashmir. However, two of them, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Prem Shankar Jha, faced a hostile crowd at Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital and were forced to make a retreat amid “Go India, Go Back” slogans. Jha wrote a long piece on his return, asking, “Is Kashmir slipping away from India?” Aiyar and Jha, along with the rest of the team members, later met members of the Bar Association, the Kashmir University Teachers’ Association, traders and others.
Similarly, a group led by Sushobha Barve, who has been involved in Track-2 initiatives on Kashmir, visited Srinagar. But this group too had difficulty in meeting the people since Kashmir had been caged for over 50 days.
With most politicians in denial mode and repeatedly calling the agitation the handiwork of Pakistan and of a “handful of elements”, there has not been any direct move to address the crisis. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, who has been in the forefront of agitations against human rights violations and was known as a strong votary of dialogue with the separatists and Pakistan, sees this as a conspiracy to dislodge her government. She said in Jammu on August 22 that she was pained over the death of young boys who were being used as “human shields by vested interests” and that 95 per cent of the people wanted peace. “They [those indulging in violence] are only a handful of people. Most Kashmiris want peace. They understand that the kind of freedom Kashmir is enjoying today is not there even in Islamic countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. When gun enters a country, it is no more free, no matter how much it claims to be free,” she said. In a way, Mehbooba Mufti has endorsed what shapes the narrative in New Delhi.
A different voice that emerged was that of Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command based in Udhampur, who appealed to all sections to step back and help restore peace. In a news conference in Srinagar on August 20, Hooda said: “It is a statement of facts because everybody is involved, whether it is security forces, whether it is separatists, governments, student leaders. My appeal is to everyone. We need to find a way forward from this.” His appeal was seen by some as a reassertion of the fact that it was the Army that was in control and not the government. But many saw this as a realisation of the facts on the ground that forces such as the Hurriyat Conference were in a way key to finding a solution because politicians have been only discrediting them.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has not changed much except for the fact that killings have come down, and the incidents of stone-throwing, according to the police, are on the wane. But pro-freedom processions, especially in south Kashmir where the unrest began, have intensified. What is more worrying for those who have been involved in counter-insurgency is that militants have got a strong foothold in many areas where the police and other security forces have retreated. The fact, though denied by the police, is that militants have made their public appearance and asked people to remain steadfast in the movement for azadi. In some areas they have called for continuous protests and shutdown, which in other words would mean defying the Hurriyat protest calendar which gives relaxation in the evening hours.
What has complicated the situation is the night curfew imposed by the authorities to challenge the writ of the Hurriyat. “We will not allow the Hurriyat to call the shots, and life cannot be dictated by them, so the night curfew is a measure not to give them a space that they could use according to their wish,” said a senior police officer. But this move has evoked sharp criticism from the general public which wants to see some kind of normalcy after such a long spell of curfew. Chamber of Commerce and Industries-Kashmir president Zahoor Trumboo said that the government’s move was vindictive. “If they really care for the people, why cage them day and night?” he asked.
Besides, the unending curfew has taken its toll. The longest curfew in the past has been for 19 days, which was imposed by Governor Jagmohan’s administration in January 1990. But the current spell by the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State has set a record. It has been in place without a break for about 50 days and has been extended to the night as well in order to break the writ of the separatists.
Kashmir has had long curfews before the armed rebellion that broke out in 1989. In 1984, when Farooq Abdullah was dethroned by his brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah, the latter resorted to curfew in order to contain the people’s agitation against the coup. Today’s curfew is, however, different by all accounts and is apparently aimed at tiring out the people. The strategy involves giving the forces a free hand to beat the people, curtail their movements as much as possible and ransack their houses.
Not only is curfew being used as a tactic to browbeat the people, but after a long time the Border Security Force (BSF) has come back on the scene in Srinagar. Reinforced battalions of the BSF have occupied 20 schools in Srinagar and paramilitary forces have taken over 50 vital installations in rural Kashmir. This has literally brought Kashmir to where it was in the 1990s when everything was out of gear and no forces were in a position to control the situation. Reports suggest that in many areas in south Kashmir, those with the mainstream or pro-India parties have tendered their resignations fearing reprisal from militants and protesters.
Former Research and Analysis Wing chief A.S. Dulat, who has handled Kashmir for a long time and was responsible for bringing sections of the Hurriyat to the negotiating table, in an article in The Tribune, expressed concern over the situation which was fast getting out of hand. “Elected representatives are once again facing threats to quit, or face the consequences. The winter of 1989-90, eerie as it was, is finding echoes in the summer of 2016. Militancy, almost dead, is again back with a vengeance. It is a frightening scenario” (The Tribune, August 24, 2016).
As of now, there seems to be no end in sight. Nearly 70 people have been killed and thousands have been injured, some of them blinded by pellets. The Home Minister did talk about finding an alternative to pellets but they continue to be in use. Both for the government and the separatists it is a challenge to give a direction to the situation. The State government’s role is limited to security measures as it has lost its space for political manoeuvre. The onus of bringing about a change is on New Delhi.
Modi’s statement, notwithstanding what is needed on the ground, is a concrete plan for political engagement that can only come once the political reality is accepted. Sending more troops to Kashmir means more militarisation, which has already widened the distance between Srinagar and New Delhi. While India continues to blame Pakistan for the Kashmir trouble, its space on the ground is shrinking with each passing day. Kashmir is unlikely to give in to the tire-out strategy that comes with curfew and the reinforcement of forces. Even if it gives in, that will be temporary. Trouble can erupt any time. The years 2008 and 2010 bear testimony to this.
In case New Delhi is sincere in reaching out, 2016 may not be more frightening than 2010. All theories such as “a handful of people”, “Pakistan-sponsored”, and only five districts of the Valley are in trouble have to be pushed aside and the stark political reality taken into account. Only then can Kashmir be put back on the rails.