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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

In Kashmir, people’s fears about loss of identity must be addressed

It is a huge opportunity to prove to the people of Kashmir and to ourselves that the long dark night of violent hatred that began in 1989 is coming to an end in 2019. Naya Kashmir can finally look forward to a new dawn of prosperity and peace in the heart of India.

Written by Abhinav Kumar | Updated: November 23, 2019 10:37:36 am
Kashmir has not risen up in a bloody mass protest. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

For many weeks since August 5, a vocal and influential section of our self-styled Kashmir experts have been preaching doom and gloom. They have drawn fanciful comparisons with Nazi Germany — strangely never with Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China — by invoking images of concentration camps and genocide. They have been regularly breast-beating on prime time TV and in the opinion pages of newspapers about the death of Indian democracy and about violations of the Constitution. For this constituency, the weeks leading to October 31 — when the decisions announced by the Government of India on August 5 took effect — must have felt distinctly anti-climactic.

The two key elements of the worst-case scenario propagated by our desi and videshi Cassandras have failed to materialise. Kashmir has not risen up in a bloody mass protest. Neither have the prime instigators of separatism in Kashmir in Pakistan, the country’s army and its terrorists proxies, felt confident enough to indulge in large-scale adventurism using conventional or non-conventional means. At the international level, the usual suspects like China and Turkey have made the usual noises. But given China’s own challenges in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, not to mention Tibet, and Turkey’s own challenges in Syria and with Kurdish nationalism, we can safely ignore the posturing of these two great defenders of democratic norms and international law. There were a few surprises too. Malaysia, that is supposedly liberal, voiced criticism, and Saudi Arabia, that is supposedly theocratic, was supportive. That’s international politics for you.

The democracies of the West faced a different dilemma over Kashmir. An influential section of their civil society is sold on the narrative that violence in Kashmir is primarily an issue of human rights violations by the Indian state. However, post 9/11, their governments are more appreciative of India’s concerns about Islamist terror, especially with reference to Pakistan. So while the editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian may spew fire and brimstone against India’s actions in Kashmir, this media rhetoric has not had a significant impact on the diplomacy of the Western powers.

It is in this background that we must assess what has transpired in the Valley in the three months since August 5. Already, 15 civilians have been killed in 30 different attacks by militants. They include a shopkeeper, an apple grower, truck drivers and labourers. Some were local people, most were migrant workers from other parts of India. The pattern is clear. First, terrorise the locals into submission and bring normal life to a halt by forcing them to shut shops and close schools, thereby attempting to create a narrative that the entire Valley is participating in some sort of a peaceful satyagraha against the Government of India’s decisions. Second, create an atmosphere of fear for all non-locals so that the two pillars of the Valley’s economic linkages with other parts of the country, tourism and horticulture, take a huge hit and cause widespread economic hardship that finally leads to an intifada-like situation in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the apologists for jihad and azaadi go on making one absurd claim after another. First, we were told of a massive healthcare crisis. The hospitals and pharmacies across the Valley have functioned uninterrupted. Then we were told of widespread torture and concentration camps. The security forces have stuck to a deployment grid guided by preventive considerations and performed their job with professionalism and restraint. Then, we were told of an economic crisis caused by a shortage of essential commodities and neglect in harvesting apple. I recently travelled extensively across South Kashmir. The apple orchards were bereft of fruit. Unless the farmers had plucked the apples and decided to let them rot in their houses and barns, this too seemed to be a bunch of lies. Clearly, the jihadi sympathisers in the local media will have to think up a better propaganda to further the separatists’ cause.

Many have expressed concern about the hurt caused to Kashmiri sentiments by the decisions announced on August 5 and the manner in which they were implemented. Hurt is a two-way street. The security personnel are in Kashmir precisely due to the excessive importance given to Kashmiri sentiment at the expense of the sentiments of the other stakeholders as well our national interest for the past 70 years. The Kashmiri civil society must understand that in today’s India, there is no respect or protection for sentiments based on azaadi and jihad.

Some others have expressed concern about the damage done to India’s democracy and constitutional values by the style and substance of the decisions announced on August 5. I think that they have a very shaky faith in our democracy and a somewhat shallow understanding of the relationship between a Constitution and the nation-state it guides. A Constitution is meant to ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation state. And, if there is a purely non-violent democratic way of fighting separatism and jihad, then it must be the world’s best-kept secret.

October 31 has come and gone. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been bifurcated into the two union territories of Ladakh and J&K. Led by newly appointed lieutenant governors, the practical task of implementing these decisions on the ground has begun. The challenges are huge. An entire political and administrative system that nurtured separatism for 70 years, and had a two-faced approach to jihadi violence for the last 30 years, has to be now reoriented towards national integration, grass roots performance and better delivery of public services. We have to ensure that the irrational fears in the Valley about loss of cultural identity and about losing land and job opportunities are addressed. At the same time, we have to ensure that the cult of death and violence, celebrated by the ideology of jihad, that has long had a hold on a section of Kashmiri youth and civil society, is made to lose its appeal through a careful mix of incentives and penalties.

What Kashmir needs, above all else, is the restoration of the rule of law. Those propagating violence or supporting it must face the full force of the lawful authority of the state. Those who wish to carry on with their lives peacefully must be accorded every possible protection and incentive from the state. This will require nurturing a culture and grammar of political mobilisation that, thus far, has had few takers in the Valley. However, it is hoped that with the empowering of the panchayati raj system on the one hand, and the creation of the UT model of administration on the other, the earlier style of politics that incentivised separatist and jihadi posturing will slowly wither away.

What the post-October 31 changes also mean is that all the agencies of the state operating in Kashmir, civilian and uniformed, face a greater burden of responsibility. It is a huge opportunity to prove to the people of Kashmir and to ourselves that the long dark night of violent hatred that began in 1989 is coming to an end in 2019. Naya Kashmir can finally look forward to a new dawn of prosperity and peace in the heart of India.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2019 under the title ‘Starting afresh in the Valley’. The author is an IPS officer serving in Kashmir. Views are strictly personal.

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