We forget, Azadi is not a fixed term

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Madhu Kishwar remembers Indian leaders who have won the Valley’s confidence in the past

DURING THE current agitation, Farooq Abdullah was heard remarking impatiently on TV: “I don’t know what these Kashmiris want!” Both Farooq and his narcissistic son Omar have failed to understand the aspirations of Kashmiris. Not surprisingly, whenever the National Conference is in power in Jammu & Kashmir, we see the rage of Kashmiris spill onto the streets — something that works to the advantage of Pakistan. The current joke is that Pakistan has decided to dispense with ISI’s services because Omar does the job better.

During my trip to Kashmir as part of Manushi’s factfinding team, I was pleasantly surprised to find that even at the height of estrangement from the Indian establishment, the most respected political figure in Kashmir is neither a separatist leader nor a Pakistani general but former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Barring the minority of die-hard pro-Pakistani elements, people across the entire political spectrum, including a significant section of moderate separatists, say openly that if only Vajpayee had stayed in power, he would have steered the country towards a permanent solution to the Kashmir problem.

Young blood Anger explodes on the streets
Young blood Anger explodes on the streets

Muzaffar Hussain Baig of the PDP was not too far off the mark when he declared in a public meeting that if Vajpayee were to contest from any constituency in Kashmir, he would have won hands down. The special affection for Vajpayee is in part due to the reason that he presided over one of the two cleanest elections in our parliamentary democracy. In 2002, Vajpayee made sure neither the Central nor the state government dirtied their hands by tampering with ballot boxes, thus ensuring one of the most credible elections in Kashmir, despite Pakistan-inspired militants unleashing violence and even murdering candidates to enforce a boycott.

Even though the PDP was a coalition partner of the Congress during Vajpayee’s tenure, the Centre yielded unprecedented political space to the state government in addition to supporting its various ‘healing touch’ measures. He let the PDP take new political initiatives and define its agenda rather than be a Delhi Durbar puppet.

Vajpayee did not depend on intelligence agencies to define his political agenda and roadmap for Kashmir. He engaged with the entire cross-section of political opinion, including the separatists, and gave ordinary people hope that his government was ready to take concrete steps to resolve the Kashmir issue through honest dialogue. His declaration that ‘insaniyat ka dayara’ (the domain of humanity) was higher than all other mandates created an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm and hope. This does not mean that Kashmiris expected him to bypass the Constitution. It only indicates Vajpayee’s willingness to acknowledge that most previous governments had too often trampled upon human rights.

It is indeed tragic that there is no one in the BJP with the sagacity to build on the goodwill created by Vajpayee. Instead most current BJP leaders are prone to issuing thoughtless jingoistic statements to prove their nationalist credentials without making any attempt to have direct contact with the people.

Nehru may be celebrated in the rest of India as a great democrat but in Kashmir, one hears people remember former Prime Minister Morarji Desai as the respect-worthy face of Indian democracy even though he is all but forgotten in the rest of the country. Kashmiris remember him with warmth and gratitude for letting them have their first taste of free and fair elections in 1977. This was because the Janata Party came to power after defeating Indira Gandhi, who had built a highly authoritarian, centralised power structure in her desire to rule all of India from her imperial durbar. Morarji put his foot down against managing or rigging elections, making Kashmiris feel part of the post-Emergency democratic upsurge.

Another hero for Kashmiris is former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh because he personally oversaw the 2002 poll. George Fernandes is a respected name because even as defence minister he did not indulge in jingoistic politics and reached out to Kashmiri people even at the height of the secessionist movement in the Valley. Likewise, former President APJ Abdul Kalam cut through a security cordon and mingled freely with the people, establishing very warm rapport with the younger generation, especially students. He had no difficulty in getting thousands of Kashmiri students join him in singing the national anthem.

These names are evidence that the majority of Kashmiris want the same freedom as we do. When they find their democratic aspirations crushed through brute force and devious Delhi Durbar games, with puppet chief ministers allowed to loot and plunder the state’s resources without any instruments of accountability available to citizens, they do get desperate. Frustration and disillusionment with Indian democracy are the most valuable assets for Pakistan in its proxy war.

By ignoring the cry for azadi, the central government has offered a golden opportunity to Pakistan to fish in troubled waters. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has himself witnessed how the constituency for secession from Indian can be made to shrink or expand depending on how responsive or ham-handed the governments in the state and at the Centre are in responding to people’s legitimate grievances and aspirations.

When their elected representatives prove capable of providing a responsive administration, especially security of life and property along with efficiency in delivery of basic civic amenities, people start demanding IITs, IIMs and stadia, aspire to become ‘Indian Idols’ and show eagerness in the vibrancy of Indian democracy.

For example, people have clamoured for the Right to Information Act to be made applicable to Kashmir. But when they are saddled with a callous, dysfunctional and corrupt government which uses the brute might of the Indian State to crush their democratic rights, they are bound to feel estranged from Indian democracy, especially if the Central government seems to back the brute actions of the state government.

IF OMAR had any emotional connect with his people, he would not have felt elated at Rahul Gandhi’s open and unconditional support to his regime. He should have known that any politician who tries to ride roughshod over his own people simply because he enjoys the patronage of Delhi Durbar becomes a hate symbol. The timing of the statement — on the eve of the Parliamentary delegation to Kashmir — was even more damaging because it sought to undermine the very credibility of the high-powered team. It has been interpreted in Kashmir as an attempt to influence the team since it is headed by three senior-most ministers of the UPA government. This has confirmed fears that the Delhi Durbar will only support puppet chief ministers in Kashmir, no matter how disastrous they are for the state and for India.

The delegation’s visit has proved a total flop for other reasons as well. It was not structured to enable the MPs to meet ordinary people, to listen to their grievances, to see for themselves the havoc being caused by Omar’s callous draconian rule. It turned out to be a flying touchand- go visit. It was ritualism at its worst.

In order to rekindle hope in Kashmir, a select group of senior MPs should have spent several days in the Valley and held public hearings, meeting a varied crosssection of ordinary citizens as well as professional organisations, students as well as businessmen. Instead, they met a select group of politicians behind closed doors. Many important Kashmiri politicians boycotted the meeting. The state government enforced such a severe curfew that no one could stir out of their homes. The National Conference handpicked some of its own men, briefed them on what to say and ferried them in government vehicles, parading them as the voice of Kashmir. Even grassroot Congress leaders and workers were denied the opportunity to meet the delegation.

The constituency for secession in Kashmir shrinks or expands depending on how governments act

The Deputy Commissioner was put in charge of screening those who put in requests to meet the MPs. They were told to fax the text of what they wanted to say to the delegation. Given the shoot-at-sight orders and a deadly curfew, how could people access fax?

And yet some brave ones persevered. They phoned their friends in Delhi and other parts of India to send faxes on their behalf. Many such people had the CID come visiting in a brazen attempt to intimidate them into silence. The very attempt to impose strict censorship through the office of the Deputy Commissioner shows what desperate measures Omar is capable of adopting in order to survive as Chief Minister. In the process he is ensuring that he cannot function as CM.

Most people outside the Valley don’t know that Omar forced all government offices to remain closed for nearly three months by denying government employees curfew passes. He is afraid if they join duty they might start demonstrating against him in the office complex itself. Any time the separatists give a call for hartaal, Omar extends his government’s support by imposing a very strict curfew. Those few journalists or others who manage to get curfew passes often face the wrath of the J&K Police that does not hesitate to tear up the passes in their faces. I personally witnessed people being booked under PSA and other sections of IPC and locked up in police stations for daring to defy curfew.

At a time when both the state and the Central government appear to be trampling on the constitutional rights of Kashmiris with brute force, leading to daily deaths of young men, women and children, for the Prime Minister to announce his willingness to talk to only those who abjure violence and declare allegiance to the Constitution amounts to rubbing salt in people’s wounds. Instead of setting this pre-condition, let the PM first demonstrate through concrete example that the Government of India cares for and knows how to safeguard the constitutional rights of its citizens. If this can be done, an enduring solution to the vexed Kashmir problem will follow effortlessly.

If not, the Congress high command will have to bear the ignominy of furthering the political agenda of Pakistan in Kashmir.

Photo: Shome Basu

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