Less than a week after the PDP-BJP alliance government took power in Jammu and Kashmir, the hands at its helm would appear to be aiming it towards the rocks. The angry parliamentary exchanges over the release of Islamist leader Masrat Alam Bhat from prison threaten to give hardliners in both parties an opportunity to shape the coalition’s agenda. It may not be possible to fault the chief minister on principle. Though there are at least 18 criminal cases pending against Alam, for charges ranging from inciting violence to attempted murder, prosecutors have failed to secure his conviction for years. Instead, the state government used its controversial Public Safety Act, which allows for preventive detention of up to six months at a time, to keep him in prison for over four years. In effect, Alam has been paying with indefinite prison time for the state’s dysfunctional legal system.
Behind the principle, though, there is also the politics. The PDP’s electoral victory drew on support from constituencies sympathetic to secessionists, who are worried that it will now do the BJP’s bidding. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has shown he’s willing to give the BJP its pound of flesh in return, revoking a long-standing ban on Pravin Togadia visiting the state. The danger is that the government will get locked in a cycle of appeasement. It’s also anyone’s guess if by releasing Alam, the PDP will indeed gain the backing of secessionists or, instead, create a headache for itself. That, however, is a matter for the state government to account for and deal with — not New Delhi. In Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused the J&K government of keeping the Centre in the dark on Alam’s release but this may be a moment to step back and recognise that New Delhi needs to reorient its approach if it doesn’t want to repeat past mistakes. In more than small part, the crisis in Kashmir grew because elected state governments were not allowed to govern.
The BJP-PDP government has the opportunity to redress deep-seated wounds in a communally fractured state — arguably the most important political task in J&K. From the unhappy experience of other pacts and compromises before it, though, both parties must recognise that intentions won’t be enough. The 1977 Jamaat-e-Islami-Janata Party alliance and the 1987 National Conference-Congress accord, and the 2002 PDP-Congress alliance all sought to forge ethnic-communal reconciliation — and all fell apart because they failed to address tensions. The PDP-BJP alliance rode to power on the back of hopes that it would build bridges and deliver good governance. It will ignore these expectations at its peril.