In a year bookended by the July 8, 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani and the brutal lynching of DSP Mohammed Ayub Pandit on June 23, it has been a violent year in Kashmir. The aftermath of the Wani killing has been well documented. The deaths and injuries of civilians in the clashes between protestors and security forces have added more martyrs to the story of the “Kashmiri cause”. Those on the streets shout for `azaadi’, but talk about `shahadat’ in the name of Islam as a goal in itself.
The state government and the Centre hoped that the fires would die down with the winter that unseasonally extended into March this year, and for a while it seemed as if they had. But it was an illusion: spring brought the discontent out onto the streets again, this time with school children turning into stone pelters.
Through all this, the state government drifted along without direction, trying to keep up appearances despite the obvious tensions in the ruling alliance between the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Government functionaries and political leaders like to characterize what is going on in Kashmir today as a problem in “three and a half” districts of the Valley. Everyone, from Amit Shah downward, parrots this line. Even if that is true, the humiliating 7 per cent turn out, the violence and the stone pelting at the Srinagar parliamentary byelection still needs an explanation. It does not explain why more soldiers were killed on the LoC and in operations against militants, along with policemen, than in any year since 2002.
As security forces have gone hell for leather after militants and carried out crackdowns on civilian protestors, one assertion has been made again and again by well-meaning people: the government has no Kashmir policy. But really, it should be obvious by now that what looks like an absence of policy is actually the policy. Going by the events of this past year, what it means is that there is no likelihood of talks with Kashmiri “stakeholders”. The hunt for militants, homegrown or foreign, will continue. Civilian protests, as and when they erupt, will be tackled, as they have been, till stone pelters and protestors tire themselves out. In other words, the Indian state will display all its power and strength to drive home that its writ will run in Kashmir.
Officials familiar with the “Kashmir policy” of previous governments say the main defining feature of the Modi government’s Kashmir policy is the wooden determination not to communicate with Kashmiris. “What’s there to talk about?” has been the refrain of senior functionaries in the BJP and in the government.
The previous NDA government, and the two UPA governments until 2014, used communication to “manage” the Valley. The main channel for this communication used to be the state government, while the Centre also independently built backchannels with the Hurriyat. The state government was given enough rope to give voice to the political and other aspirations of the Kashmiris, with tacit agreement between Centre and the state on the red lines that could not be crossed. The channels with the Hurriyat ensured that some separatists were wooed, others were not, and the separatist front remained a divided house.
The Centre used “largesse” – whenever and wherever it was required, promptly, and doled it out even where it was not. There were round table conferences and an interlocutors’ report on Kashmir, all giving the impression of movement and progress, exercises in communication in order to manage the unrest.
All this ensured that even in periods of no talks with Pakistan, Kashmir remained relatively quiet. The protests in 2008 and 2010 were quickly “managed”, as were the protests at the time of the hanging of Afzal Guru. When the Burhan Wani episode exploded in the face of the government, many were surprised at what they believed to be a sudden development. In fact, this was the bursting of sentiment that had been carefully dammed through the years.
And this time, there were no communication lines through which to manage the situation. In 2014, the government had already drawn a line above talks with Hurriyat and talks with Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to relent on Pakistan, visiting Lahore to pave the way for a dialogue with the Sharif government, but that ended quickly with the Pathankot terrorist attack. The vacuum with Pakistan has continued since then.
Dialogue with Pakistan was one of the promises in the PDP-BJP agenda for the alliance. With that off and the Centre unwilling to keep another promise of the agenda on talks with “all stakeholders” in Kashmir, the state government stopped being the interlocutor between the Centre and the Kashmiris. The late PDP leader Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had justified the alliance with BJP on the ground that it would usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the state.
In 2015, just months after the new government was sworn in, PDP functionaries had already withdrawn from their voters as the anger on the streets grew over the delay in disbursing credible flood relief. After Mufti’s passing, the PDP became more distant from the people, and the people from it.
With all this, has grown the polarisation between Kashmir and Jammu, and Kashmir and the rest of India. The lynching of DSP Mohammed Ayub Pandit, marked a new low of a terrible year for Kashmir. It seemed as if Kashmiris had borrowed what they like to cite most as the new trigger of their increasing hatred for and alienation from India – mob violence against the “Indian Muslim”. The mob that lynched Pandit used the same violence against their own version of the “other”, a police officer.
Recently, a prestigious Army think tank held a seminar on how to build a “positive narrative” in Kashmir. A positive narrative cannot be artificially grafted on Kashmir. “Positive” narratives, such as Kashmiri IAS officers, Kashmiri actors in Bollywood, school children who study in Army schools and go on Army trips to other states, the Army’s helping hand to villages during floods, have fallen victim to the “let’s build a positive narrative” syndrome in the Indian establishment. Social media in Kashmir, which has become a massive catalyst of political outrage and sentiment, has proved itself adept at turning what are seen elsewhere in the country as success stories into failure, celebrating instead martyrdom and pellet injuries as the real symbols of achievement.
It is easy to say Pakistan is stoking fires in Kashmir, that Whatsapp groups administered from Pakistan are instrumental in directing kids to go out and start pelting stones, telling entire villages to gather for funerals of militants, and for ideological instruction in religious extremism. If this is true, the question is: why is Pakistan finding a ready audience for its propaganda across the state? For a perspective, ask two questions: why were Tamils in Sri Lanka so attracted by the military training camps that India laid out for them? What gave India the confidence that it could dismember East Pakistan from its western wing? The answers are well known.
The truth is, there is no positive narrative in Kashmir today, and no one in the country’s political leadership wants to offer one.