The ice that has gripped the government’s policies on Kashmir is beginning to melt, but what it is revealing underneath is confusion. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s sudden acknowledgement of the reality of Kashmiriyat would have lifted hearts in Kashmir, had Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley not unveiled a “two-pronged strategy” to steer Kashmir towards peace at a press conference in Srinagar two days earlier, virtually ruling out dialogue with “separatists” till peace had been restored.
“There is a section of people that will have to be dealt with (through) security measures and a section that will have to be dealt with through citizen-friendly measures, and that is what we are trying to do”, Jaitley said. He seemed not to be aware that this is precisely the policy that the UPA government had adopted after the 2008 state elections, when a high voter turnout allowed it to claim that the insurgency had ended and only mopping-up operations remained.
Those operations, which the BJP enthusiastically adopted, have become an unending nightmare for villagers, and are directly responsible for the explosion of hopelessness and rage that paralysed the Valley last summer.
The success of a two-pronged strategy hinges on two huge assumptions: That it is possible to distinguish trouble-makers and/or terrorists from “average citizens” and “neutralise” them, and that it is possible to keep elements belonging to one group from crossing over to the other, or belonging to both at the same time. Both fly in the face of history and recent experience.
The US failed to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban in Afghanistan. The western coalition failed again in Syria, when it stubbornly insisted upon distinguishing between “moderate” Sunni rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the “extremists” of the IS (Daesh) and the Jabhat al Nusra. So, nearly all the arms that NATO funnelled to the former ended up in the hands of the latter.
It is difficult to believe that the intelligence services have not pointed this out to Modi and Jaitley. So, is it over-confidence that makes them believe they can still do in Kashmir what the US and NATO have been unable to do elsewhere? Over,confidence cannot be ruled out, but a more plausible explanation is the government’s tenacious belief that there is no longer any genuine militancy in Kashmir, and that the current unrest is being orchestrated almost entirely by Pakistan.
This was largely true in 1990, when Pakistan trained hundreds of young Kashmiris in the mujahid training camps it had set up for Afghans, and funnelled more than 5,000 small arms into the Valley. But today, it is a default assumption that starkly highlights the bankruptcy of understanding in the BJP.
The difference between the 1990s and now is that three-quarters of today’s Kashmiris have known only the coercive face of Indian democracy — distrust and animosity have therefore struck deep roots within them. The older half of this generation have families, enterprises, jobs and aspirations, and are therefore prepared to moderate their political demands in the pursuit of peace.
But it is the younger, highly impressionable half — those who are under 20 and have not yet developed any stake in stability — that are the most volatile. This is the generation whom the policy of repression first, dialogue later, has all but lost. For the police’s endless hunt for “terrorists” has made the life of anyone who has ever hurled a stone in a moment of rage, a living hell. Once arrested and “history-sheeted”, or simply caught on video, young people lose their civic rights and become the first targets of every subsequent police inquiry, interrogation or crackdown.
Never knowing when this will happen next has frazzled their nerves till almost any fate has become preferable to continuing to live in this uncertain hell. In all of us, frazzled nerves lead to increasingly frequent outbursts of anger. It is only when a 12-year-old boy is tear-gassed or sprayed with pellets, arrested and jailed, that the spasm of anger that made him pick up a stone congeals into hatred, and another insurgent is born.
That is why a political dialogue has to precede, not follow, peace. While its ultimate goal has to be a negotiated end to insurgency, its immediate purpose should be to channel the energy that is now going into anger and despair into hope. The more it succeeds in doing this, the smaller becomes the pool of potential recruits for the instigators of violence, whoever they may be. Counter-insurgency specialists call this strategy “draining the swamp”.
Rajnath Singh’s acknowledgement of the reality of Kashmiriyat therefore needs to become the starting point of a sincere political search for peace. One has only to raise one’s eyes from the immediate present to see that in a nation state that has been built entirely by accommodating, and not suppressing, ethnic aspirations to self-rule, Kashmir cannot remain the sole exception forever. India’s success in doing this is unique in modern history and this is the principal reason for the respect that it enjoys. Narendra Modi would do well not to fritter it away.
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