As a citizen of the trouble-torn state of Jammu and Kashmir, I am finally at peace. I have felt the pain of every mother who lost a child and each son who has been orphaned across Kashmir. Every coffin takes us away from hope. But optimism has returned, and hope revived. The unilateral ceasefire announced by the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir is the biggest Confidence Building Measure (CBM) since Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s initiatives for peace and reconciliation.
The situation in Kashmir has not presented an encouraging picture. Crowds are growing at the funerals of slain militants. Pictures and videos of gun-wielding youth in army fatigues on social media have become a common trend. The “last call” audio messages by the militants to their families present a depressing picture of how Kashmir youth are choosing the path of “dying in battle”. They no more long for “azadi”, which most know cannot be achieved. They want to “fight and die in honour”.
A simple internet search about the number of militants killed in Kashmir during 2018 leads to “Operation All Out” — a special page created on Wikipedia. The operation has been summarised as “a joint offensive launched by Indian security forces in 2017 to flush out militants and terrorists in Kashmir until there is complete peace in the state”. With regard to the current year, the free online encyclopedia (created and edited by volunteers) claimed that a total of 70 militants and 15 security personnel have been killed in operations till May 6, 2018. This is in addition to around 30 civilians who have lost their lives in incidents of cross-firing, stone pelting and other violent incidents across the Valley in 2018.
What is of note here is that some of the militants killed over the last two years were from affluent families and well educated, including an assistant professor from Kashmir University who died a day after joining an armed group in Shopian district earlier this month. If the official figures are to be taken into account, around 90 per cent of the militants killed in these encounters were locals. The state government had, during the budget session, informed the Assembly that around 280 youth have joined the ranks of militants in Kashmir in the last three years, with 126 last year alone, the highest since 2010.
The figures, be they of killings or youth picking up guns, are alarming for any democratic country. They present a gloomy picture where the gun, on both sides, is being used to settle a political issue. It may give sleepless nights to anyone at the helm of affairs, in New Delhi or Srinagar. The youth joining militancy or resorting to stone pelting are in the age group of 13 to 30 — it is the generation which has witnessed peace only in brief intervals, especially between 2002 and 2008.
The demand for a unilateral ceasefire put forth by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti following an all-party meeting should not thus be seen in isolation. The head of a democratically-elected state government was making an appeal to the Union government — to give her government an opportunity to restore the trust and confidence of people in the democratic set-up; to tell them that their issues and grievances can be heard without them restoring to violence.
The experiment, as the CM has said, is not new. A similar exercise was done in 2000 when Vajpayee was heading the NDA government at the Centre. The ceasefire lasted for five months and there is no evidence to show that during this period, militants had a greater opportunity to regroup or the security apparatus was disturbed.
The CM has made frequent appeals to militants to return, urged parents to intervene, asked religious scholars to desist from provocation and even extended “azadi” to separatists if they help in the restoration of peace. She has been subjected to severe criticism at home for “speaking truth”, while at the national level every attempt has been made to project her as a “soft separatist”. She struggled to persuade PDP ally, the BJP, to be on the same page with regard to the peace process.
Every time she suggested, sought and demanded anything from the Union government, her political rivals — including the National Conference and Congress — projected her as “power hungry”. The suggestion of the first woman chief minister of the trouble torn-state has finally been accepted. Her understanding of the ground situation has been honoured. The announcement by the central government, asking the armed forces to suspend all operations during the holy month of Ramzan, has been made amid criticism that Mufti was facing, even from her ally in the state.
Peace is a paramount requirement for any political engagement or reconciliation process. Those within the BJP who challenged the idea of peace were actually confronting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his Independence Day speech last year, he said: “Na goli se, na gaali se, Kashmir ki samasya suljhegi gale lagaane se” (Kashmir’s problems can be solved only by embracing the people of Kashmir, not with bullets or abuses”).
Vajpayee too had underlined the necessity of dialogue. “I assured the people of Jammu and Kashmir that we wish to resolve all issues — both domestic and external — through talks. I stressed that the gun can solve no problem; brotherhood can. Issues can be resolved if we move forward guided by the three principles of Insaaniyat (humanism), Jamhooriyat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s age-old legacy of amity)”, Vajpayee had told Parliament on April 23, 2003, after his return from the state.
The time has come for us to seize the opportunity to “cease the fire”. The efforts of the state and Union governments must be reciprocated by every individual and organisation, irrespective of their ideology and political affiliation. Let’s not spill more blood in the name of regionalism or nationalism. Let’s give peace a chance. The initiative will be criticised, questions asked, fingers raised and every attempt will be made from across the border and within the state to create hurdles. Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat will be put to the test. But let’s hope we can steer ourselves to an era of peace.