Mankind is no stranger to wars, and the brutal reality in wars is the fact that civilians are the biggest sufferers. In the two World Wars, military casualties are estimated at 30 million but civilian casualties were double that number.
After 1945, when the horror of wars between nations and the destructive power of the atom bomb became evident, armed conflict between nation states became extremely rare. However, war did not disappear, just transformed into “war among the people”, further killing innocents in its wake. The two countries that have fought the most conventional conflicts after 1945 are Israel and India. Israel, in all its wars, has lost about 15,000 soldiers, while India, where figures are not officially released, has a slightly lower number. Compare this with the war against terror in Afghanistan which has claimed more than 11,000 civilian lives in 2016 alone. The Syrian war figures are 4,00,000 dead in six years. This is the grim picture in countries where extremism has taken root.
Kashmir is today at a crossroads. The run-up to Eid was bloody, with 10 policemen killed, a majority of them belonging to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Al Qaeda has raised its head in Kashmir. Thankfully, the footprint is small but the ideology is vicious and it could find some resonance among an alienated and radicalised youth. The separatists seem to have no strategy other than calling for bandhs and have almost completely forfeited their appeal.
Kashmir has also lost its international attention. The declaration of Hizbul Mujahideen as a foreign terrorist organisation has totally diluted the theme of the Kashmir problem as an internal struggle. Attempts by the separatists and Pakistan to internationalise the Kashmir problems find little hearing abroad.
The government, with its single-minded “muscular” approach, does not have a narrative which could appeal to the people. There is thus an uneasy vacuum which presents both a danger but also an opportunity. Many changes in society have taken place through people’s movements outside state intervention. Can the civil society of Jammu and Kashmir take a leading role to stem the slide of its youth towards radicalisation? It could also perhaps provide the answer to the question which is invariably asked by the government: “With whom should we have a dialogue?”
I know this will not be easy. For too long, civil society has been caught between the guns of security forces and the terrorists. There are also sharp divisions between the three regions of the state which make the finding of a common solution difficult. But I think there are no other options. With the vast majority of Indians seeing the problem as merely one of terrorism and radicalisation, and therefore to be tackled with a primarily military bias, the local citizen of the state has to take direct responsibility to arrest the downward spiral.
There are many successful examples of civil society movements. In 1984, the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) was formed to fight the drug and alcohol menace in Nagaland. Subsequently, the NMA made “Shed No More Blood” its motto and took on the task of negotiating between various underground groups to check violence in the state. In neighbouring Manipur, the Meira Paibi (women torchbearers) was formed in 1977. One of the largest grassroots movements in the world, its initial focus of fighting alcoholism and drug abuse has now expanded to countering human rights violations and the development of society at large.
Obviously, there are cultural differences between the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir but these stories go to show that civil society can play an important role in conflict areas.
As a start, the representatives of the three regions should sit together and find a cohesive way forward. While Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh may appear to have many differences, there are also many linkages. Disturbances in Kashmir also trouble Jammu. In the first 40 days of the July 2016 agitation in Kashmir, Jammu businessmen incurred a loss of Rs 1,000 crore. There is common ground which can be found for people who have lived together for centuries.
There already are civil society groups in Jammu and Kashmir like the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. With all respect for their effort, these groups have taken a very strident anti-government and anti-army stance, and now seem unable to move beyond this narrative. They should look to reform themselves. The civil rights movement in America, the Arab Spring and the Otpor organisation in Serbia succeeded because they also managed to attract the support of people in government and the security forces. The Naga Mothers’ Association and Meira Paeibis have a large measure of respect from the army because of their neutrality in dealing with violations, whether they are human rights or social evils.
The political class must also play its part, and the first step must be backward. Although Rajnath Singh’s current visit to the state was very encouraging, the Centre’s current strategy seems to inhibit it from applying the healing touch. It must step back from this approach, as should the Opposition parties from exploiting the situation in Kashmir. Then all can step up to find genuine solutions.
There is a tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. Pictures of crying mothers and daughters will, as DIG S.P. Pani put it, continue to sear our hearts. We must be clear that it is not only a section of the Kashmiri population which is getting radicalised, it is also a part of the population of India. And the effects of this radicalisation cannot be geographically isolated, as Europe has learned at great cost.
Is it possible for the Centre to change its narrative in accordance with the prime minister’s message on Independence Day? Will the armed and unarmed groups in the state permit the emergence of a strong civil society movement? And can the civil society shake off its past fears and emerge as a force? These are difficult questions, but it is only when the costs become intolerable that the best solutions are found.