The things we do: Revive a dead Kashmir resistance, then stay frozen at home

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How then can a dialogue happen, when there’s no one willing to talk on our terms?

Prem Sankarjha JhaIAPPEAL TO the youth to go back to their schools and colleges and allow classes to resume. I ask their parents: what future is there for Kashmir if your children are not educated?” In saying this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh betrays no understanding of what brought the boys out on the streets. There is not a word in recent speeches condemning the three Machil killings by the army that turned the desultory stone-throwing of the previous 20 months into a serious weapon against the State; not a word of recognition that the use of bullets against unarmed people, even in self-defence, is unacceptable.

If the prime minister’s expression of sympathy sounds hollow, his offer to resolve issues through dialogue is unreal. Dialogue with whom? All those he had been in touch with since 2001 and with whom he could have crafted a solution are in jail or under house arrest — put there by the very state government that his coalition is determined to support. By removing them from the political arena, the J&K government inadvertently transferred power to the only leader who openly asserts he would not be satisfied with anything less than azadi. This is separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

The extent to which the state government lost control of the Valley was glaringly obvious when, after failing to enforce curfew, it turned to Geelani for help. A single statement by Geelani, instructing the protesters not to burn buses and attack police stations and vans and to hold only peaceful demonstrations, sufficed to avert a showdown. Instead, it should have lifted curfew and managed processions, as Governor NN Vohra did in August 2008 to cool down tempers after the bloodbath during the fruit-growers’ march to Muzaffarabad.

After two months of suppression and 63 deaths, it may be too late to woo Kashmiris into giving Indian democracy another chance

Today, while the prime minister waits for a Godot with whom he can restart a dialogue, Geelani, back in jail, and Masarat Alam, now in hiding, continue to announce calendars that the Kashmiris follow scrupulously. These include dates, places and times when they will break the curfew or Section 144 and take out processions. These are not randomly selected. Srinagar, Sopore, Baramula, Anantnag, Bijbehara, Badgam, Kreeri, Pulwama, Tregam, Pattan, Bomai, Ganderbal, Safapora, Sumbal, Naidkhai, Tral, Kokernag… locate these on a map and the goal becomes obvious. It is to spread the intifada methodically from the largest and most politically disaffected cities to the smaller towns and district centres, until no part of the Valley is left without its quota of young martyrs. And like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they scent victory.

Behind the prime minister’s homilies, one detects a bankruptcy of thought and strategy. A rabbit caught in the headlights of a car freezes as it does not know which way to run. That is New Delhi’s plight today. The truly epic achievement of Manmohan Singh, one which history will never forget, is that he has managed to revive an insurgency that had already ended. His advisers did not even know that it had ended.

What Kashmiris are demanding is not Pakistan or a re-installation of the Mufti Sayeed government by hook or by crook, but simply that someone must be held accountable for the readiness to use lethal force on unarmed youth that has plunged 63 families into unfathomable misery. New Delhi’s adamant resolve to deny them that accounting strengthens the conviction that they must break free from an India that neither trusts nor respects them, regardless of cost.

A special anger has been reserved for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). On 15 August, when suspended Kashmir policeman Abdul Ahad Jan threw a shoe at Omar Abdullah, it took Srinagar only hours to spread two stories — that Jan was a disgruntled cop with a screw loose, and that he had been paid to throw the shoe by Nizamuddin Bhat, general secretary of the PDP. It did not occur to the J&K government’s spin doctors that he could be one or the other but not both. Jan had, in fact, been decorated for bravery in 2006 when he saved IGP Rajinder’s life after a bomb explosion.

ONE SET of figures tells the story. In 1977, the first election after Sheikh Abdullah came back to power, the turnout in the Valley was 72 percent. In 1983, just after his death, it was 71 percent. In the 1996 election, it was around 20 percent. In 2002, it was 30 percent. In three by-elections in the heart of the Valley in March 2006, it was 69.02 percent! The conclusion is inescapable. Something happened in the three years of PDP rule that made Kashmiris stop voting against Indian democracy. Nor did the effect of that something end with the crackdown in August 2008, for four months later the turnout in the rural areas was still close to 60 percent.

Smoke and firing Jammu & Kashmir police on the streets of Srinagar are targets as well as perpetrators
Smoke and firing Jammu & Kashmir police on the streets of Srinagar are targets as well as perpetrators

To understand why this happened, one has to look at Kashmir’s experience of democracy. From 1952 to 1977, every election in Kashmir was rigged by the National Conference (NC) through the simple expedient of disqualifying all but NC candidates in half the seats in the Valley. The purpose of the rigging was to ensure a sufficiently large NC majority in the Valley to overwhelm the non-NC MLAs of Jammu and create a permanent ruling majority for Kashmir in the J&K legislature. But its sideeffect was to prevent the rise of any democratic opposition in the Valley. Between 1963 and 1965, this did not matter as the only opposition, the Plebiscite Front, was boycotting the election. But when it began to consider fighting the elections after Sheikh Abdullah’s first release from house arrest in 1964, a Congress–led government in Srinagar hastily added the requirement that every candidate must swear an oath of loyalty to India in front of the returning officer. This closed the doors for the rise of a democratic opposition.

In 2002, therefore, very few Kashmiris believed that the election would indeed be free and fair. Most therefore boycotted it. The first crack in the wall of their disbelief occurred when, even with a 30 percent turnout, they were able to unseat the NC and bring in a government of their choice. Mufti’s adroit handling of local politics over three years gave them the feeling, for the first time since independence, that the government was accountable first to them and only then to Delhi. They experienced for the first time what Tamils, Telugus, Bengalis and Sikhs take for granted.

Had Mufti Sayeed been allowed to continue as chief minister for another three years, insurgency would by now have faded in memory. All issues would not be solved — the army, for instance, would remain so long as there is no settlement with Pakistan, but the sense of democratic empowerment would grow. Not for the first time though, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh gave precedence to internal Congress politics.

What Kashmiris are demanding is accountability for the readiness to use lethal force on unarmed youth that has plunged many into misery

After two months of relentless suppression and 63 deaths, it may be too late to woo the Kashmiris into giving Indian democracy another chance, but the effort needs to be made if we are not a nation of monsters.

Constitutionally, the government of J&K has to be held accountable. The only way to do this is to remove it from power and hold fresh, truly free elections and take modify or partially repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act. That will give Kashmiris the confidence that Delhi sincerely wishes to make a new start in Kashmir. This will create the space for dialogue.

I am perfectly aware that the transition to an election has pitfalls. But if Delhi makes this an excuse for inaction, Kashmiris will continue to read it as blind support for a despised stooge regime. In a few months, Kashmir will be truly lost.

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

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