I have been a journalist for the last 22 years and I feel my curse is to write the same story, again and again. That story is Kashmir. It is in essence a single story where like Sisyphus’s rock, efforts to resolve the dispute go through a similar and endless journey each time it is pushed up the mountain.
There is a script, a standard operating procedure is put into play each time Kashmir erupts, seeking “azadi” from India. So this time, when after more than a month of total lockdown, killing of 56 young Kashmiris, and blinding of hundreds of others, New Delhi finally decided to hold an all-party meeting, I am not wondering about the outcome of this effort. It has happened before. I have seen it.
There will be a promise of a “dialogue with all stakeholders”, with the compulsory disclaimer that J&K is an integral part of India. A group of parliamentarians may go to the Valley to “meet and ascertain” the reason for the uprising as if it is unknown to those in the corridors of power in Delhi. By the time the all-party delegation gets to Srinagar, Indian intelligence and security agencies would have gathered the same handful of groups for the meeting.
Like in 2010, wholesale mutton dealers will show up, shikarawallas will be rowed in and apple growers will be brought. Voices palatable to New Delhi will be told to spell out their requirements, while a few bureaucrats-turned-civil society members and former Ikhwanis-turned-politicians known to New Delhi’s dialogue circuit will be shooed in.
This time, though, the ground has shifted. There are two reasons for it.
First, the complexion of the uprising has changed on the ground and the movement for azadi has transcended human rights issues. Unlike previous upsurges in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the protestors aren’t angry against a civilian killing. Though there are a number of reasons for this accumulated anger, the trigger for this massive outpouring explains the shift.
These large gatherings aren’t a protest against the killing of Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani. Instead, Kashmir has risen to endorse what Burhan stood for and the consensus seems to be around one theme: “We don’t want to be part of India.” The language of the people has never been so clear.
When Kashmir erupted in 1990, it was a sudden explosion, the heavy cost of such a demand for freedom was unknown. The Kashmiri youth who decided to pick up the gun in 1990 were of my generation and as classroom after classroom emptied to join the militancy, there were few who understood the scale of the state repression that it would draw. Once the state crushed the initial phase of the militancy, the azadi movement turned into a lament, centered on human rights abuses. Each time armed forces would conduct cordon and search operations looking for militants, the entire male population would be herded at one place. One by one, they would be brought before a masked informer. There was so much fear, hardly anybody would protest.
In the beginning of the new millennium, while azadi continued to be the main demand, militancy started to take a backseat and hopes for a negotiated settlement arose. By 2008, there was a strong realisation that peaceful means alone would help. In 2008 and 2010, there were scores of instances where people made human chains around a security bunker or a vehicle of the armed forces to avoid a confrontation. People would throw stones only when the government disallowed peaceful marches. The government’s response to the rallies and the marches was the same as against the militant movement. The peaceful protests were called “agitational terrorism” and sought to be crushed.
In 2016, there is no illusion that anything would convince New Delhi to accept and engage with the evident reality that a vast majority of Kashmiris don’t want to be part of India. The fear seems to have evaporated completely. The young men, who go out to confront the armed forces, are aware of the costs.
The hints for dialogue by New Delhi, the constituting of parliamentary committees and civil society groups that are sent to visit Kashmir after every uprising, are seen as nothing more than a façade aimed at soft surrender. Unlike in the past, the known structures of separatist politics too aren’t in control of the street. The oligarchs of separatist politics are exhausted. The state hasn’t allowed them to do politics, leaving a big void. This uprising is run by a new generation born after 1990 — the children of the conflict, as they are called — and they are deeply suspicious of the customary peace talk.
The second reason is the policy shift in New Delhi. The reason why the Centre doesn’t want to even acknowledge the ground reality in Kashmir isn’t an aberration or a reactionary response by a few hawkish officials. It is a manifestation of the Modi government’s Kashmir policy.
Ever since P.V. Narasimha Rao declared that the “sky is the limit” for resolving the Kashmir dispute, New Delhi’s policy had been rooted in the belief that managing the conflict, maintaining status quo and delaying resolution will ultimately tire out the majority in Kashmir and end the political problem. While New Delhi used force to suppress the separatist movement, the “sky is the limit” promise was aimed at convincing the National Conference to participate in the 1996 assembly polls.
By getting an NC government to replace governor’s rule, New Delhi managed to put up a Kashmiri political face without upsetting the status quo and without losing direct control of Kashmir. When in June 2000, the NC passed the autonomy resolution in the assembly, the Vajpayee government rejected it summarily. It, however, kept the veneer of dialogue intact.
While maintaining and controlling the status quo, New Delhi kept sending emissaries — first politicians, then bureaucrats — and mostly, the talks were only about the modalities of talks. The emergence of both the PDP and the moderate Hurriyat between 1999 and 2004 was an outcome of New Delhi’s policies to create a favourable buffer between the pro-azadi camp and the integrationists.
Even Vajpayee’s much-hyped promise of a dialogue “within the ambit of humanity” was only a vague expression to allow the separatists to avoid the “taint” of surrendering by agreeing to talk within the framework of the Constitution. For New Delhi, the engagement itself became the objective. The UPA government set up working groups but didn’t consider their recommendations, sent interlocutors but disowned their report. There was a tacit understanding on Article 370 too: Erode it gradually to the point where there is no need to remove it.
The Modi government has only pulled the iron fist out of the velvet glove. Its policy is based on the ideological position of the RSS, which wants Kashmir’s “complete assimilation” by removing constitutional hurdles such as Article 370 and the Permanent Resident Act. The RSS calls the Kashmir dispute a myth, insists that the problem is limited to Sunni Muslims of the Valley and that even if Muslims are a majority, “85 per cent of the area is Hindu or Buddhist dominated”. In a speech in Kargil in 2014, Modi talked about his government’s focus on “20 per cent of J&K’s population”, clubbing together “the West Pakistan refugees, Kashmiri Pandits and victims of militancy”.
The recent speech where Modi refered to Vajpayee’s “insaniyat” framework is a repeat of what he said in Srinagar in 2014. Arun Jaitley has explicated the regime’s understanding: “The political debate on the constitutional framework of J&K is no longer linked to the aspirations of common people.”
As Kashmir erupts again, I look back at the two decades of stories I wrote. I wrote about promises for resolving the conflict and the sterile notes of fact-finding teams and parliamentary committees. I wrote of despair as well as hope. It seems that I wrote only one story that is repeating itself.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘What the Valley says’)