Jammu and Kashmir is passing through a major disruptive transition. The waves of change are being felt by those who were in power, and hence their unease is understandable. A major factor in Kashmir is the security situation, considering Pakistan’s unabated support to anti-national elements. While in Srinagar, as the Chinar Corps Commander, I saw that the political class was falling short in countering the alienation, containing the growing radicalisation, and was not adequately addressing youth anger and consequent street violence.
The “physicians” were unable, unwilling, complicit or negligent in treating the cancer. Invariably, the line of treatment involved Central rule, and this was resorted to periodically. But, the mindset was not being treated, and the cancer remained, curbed at times by potent therapy (security forces’ actions). So, the treatment method has been surgically altered.
Was the existing structure adequate to control the increasing anti-Indian voices? In the last two decades, the National Conference and the PDP maintained control over Kashmir, whereas Jammu and Ladakh often tilted towards the national parties. The national parties continue to retain the loyalty of their votebanks in Jammu and Ladakh, with no substantive disillusionment. In Kashmir, election boycott calls of the separatists resulted in low voter turnouts, mainly by party cadres, indirectly facilitating the Abdullahs and the Muftis to retain power. The people’s mandate, hence, remained unclear.
Additionally, major faultlines had developed between Kashmir and Jammu – Ladakh. The Jammu region always felt aggrieved due to the Kashmir-centric flow of state resources. And, the special status facilitated Kashmiri patronage-based political controls. Whether the growing radicalisation, unchecked anti-national influences, the security connotation, regional mainstream political hold and dynastic control warranted a “constitutional surgical strike” is worth analysing. My take is that we couldn’t have let the cancer grow.
The political space in Kashmir is now being contested by new entrants. Dislodging existing political players is extremely difficult, and there are rare success stories. Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference tried to be a viable political alternative, but could only make inroads in the Kupwara-Handwara area. Presently, the political base of NC and PDP is under pressure, due to various reasons.
First, they did not contest the panchayat elections openly, hence most sarpanchs/panchs and associated grass root workers have newer affiliations. Second, their governance deficit is understood by Kashmiris fully, and the awaam is looking for alternatives. Third, the administrative machinery is playing to the Centre’s tune, and their patrons within the state bureaucracy stand diluted. The dilution of bias and networks with older politicians of the state bureaucracy should enable newer players to expand their following.
What are the likely prospects of these new players? Their major drawback is the lack of a united front. There are several youth brigade leaders, but many of them don’t wish to work with other such aspirants. The lack of trust is evident among them — they don’t wish to share the same platform even. So, like the proverbial “bundle of twigs” vs “separate twigs”, these new entrants may become marginal players. They may merely dilute or denude the Assembly presence of the existing mainstream parties.
And interestingly, herein lies the political opportunity: The marginal presence of new and independent faces from Kashmir, including the People’s Conference, can combine with the Jammu region’s electoral winner(s) — probably a national party — to form the government. A delimitation exercise is also underway in J&K, and we may see a balance of power emerge between Jammu and Kashmir, in terms of representational mathematics as well. We may finally witness political power shifting to the south of Pir Panjal, for the first time in J&K. Notably, the Jammu region is better integrated with the nation and is largely nationalist, whereas the Kashmir region has nurtured an anti-India stance.
Political power in the erstwhile state rested in the Valley. The shift of political power to the south of Pir Panjal is advantageous to the country, as flow of industry and trade to the new Union Territory would be easier. Better integration would occur and national social welfare schemes can be drawn into J&K smoothly. At the strategic level, Jammu-based political power facilitates better integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the Indian nation.
But this has serious dangers too. Greater alienation would develop in Kashmir, adding fuel to the fear of Kashmiris — of being swamped by “outsiders”. The turbulence in Kashmir would possibly aggravate, as they realise that their political power has reduced. It is, therefore, necessary to strike an optimal political balance between the Jammu and Kashmir regions, with sagacious leadership and deft handholding in the coming years.
The Kashmiri Pandits (now based near Jammu) can be the bridge between the Kashmiris and the Dogra community of Jammu. It is imperative that existing mistrust between these two regions is assuaged. Possibly, the “people connect” can be developed through trade relationships, student exchange programmes and re-energising Kashmir’s famed Sufi outlook. A thorny path, we will have to tread with care, maturity and by nurturing bonds.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 31, 2019 under the title ‘New turn in the Valley’. The writer was General officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Chinar Corps in Kashmir. Views are personal.