Asma Khan Lone
Thursday, March 03, 2011
After a tumultuous summer the Kashmir valley has returned to a tense calm. The lull however seems transitory as no serious efforts to address the situation seem to be forthcoming. Despite a summer on the brink, the impact of which reverberated through mainland India and beyond, India seems to be weighing options strewn with “ifs” and “whethers.” With the drastically changed dynamics, the situation has a window of opportunity which India cannot afford to lose.
From violent defiance the movement has transitioned to tactical non-violence sobered by realism and the need for a meaningful political process. An indigenous uprising, the present phase of the movement is driven by the youth who having grown up amidst the carnage of the 90s. These young people are driven by an intense idealism coupled by a sense of purpose and focus, yet are receptive to meaningful engagement. With the clarion call for “Azadi” signifying complete independence, the present phase also shows a divergence of approach. With the emotional affinity with Pakistan very much intact the movement seems to have diversified on the political and ideological plane. Pakistan, on its part, is keeping aloof, allowing the movement to acquire an indigenous character. This is partly due to Pakistan’s own domestic compulsions and partly because it wants to allow the movement to gain credibility, and thereby international acceptance.
This mix of realities allows ample room for India to start a forward movement and deliver. Addressing the internal course is as intrinsic for any enduring settlement as the external dynamic. In this regard, the visit to the valley, at the peak of the unrest in October, of a parliamentary delegation drawn from almost all major political parties was a step in the right direction. Despite being refused audience by the separatist leaders, these parliamentarians turned up uninvited at these leaders’ doorsteps, displaying both humility and a desire to discuss and, more importantly, listen. This generated general goodwill and positive anticipations and helped dissipate the seething anger.
The fact that there were no more killings after the visit, with nerves calmed on both sides of the divide, resulted in cautious expectations. Announcement of the appointment of interlocutors to address the situation added to the hope. The general expectation was that a high-powered multiparty delegation will be constituted representing the entire spectrum of the Indian polity, vested with the authority and calibre to deal with the issue and set rolling a substantive process forward.
However, the individuals eventually nominated proved to be a comedown and dampened the enthusiasm. Though eminent luminaries in their own right within the capacity of their conferred responsibilities in Kashmir, they neither had the political weight nor the authority to undertake the required movement on the issue. The whole exercise was seen as suspect, bringing things back to intractability.
The events that followed only added to the disillusionment. The announcement by Home Secretary G K Pillai of a phased troop withdrawal from the valley was shot down by the army chief, who claimed it was non-feasible. The permanent outsourcing of fiscal responsibilities of the state to the Reserve Bank of India on issues of financial indiscipline within the indigenous J&K Bank was perceived in Kashmir as an encroachment on its financial autonomy. Caught between an inflexible bureaucracy and pragmatic caution, India displays indecision.
Realities are however changing and fast overtaking faltering decision-making. The peaceful struggle within Kashmir has been able to up the ante, bringing the situation to a precipice, forcing the main players to show resolve. It has also earned international recognition and credibility, a reversal of the post-Kargil positioning. More importantly, it has been able to stir considerable debate within India.
Civil society is becoming more vocal, with leading figures championing the Kashmiri cause, as in the case of Arundhati Roy. Meanwhile, a subtle but importantshift is taking place in public opinion. These are significant developments, marking the synchronising of two essential pressure points to compel India into action. No amount of external pressure would have worked. What was needed was pressure and indispensability from within.
Outstanding regional disputes also don’t sit well with India’s evolving international stature and aspirations (an issue ostensibly also reiterated in private by President Obama) as do the unfolding regional dynamics. Picking up the strands where the all-parties delegation (APD) left, India should initiate a substantive process aimed in the immediate term at bridging the trust deficit. Starting with the less sticking issues such as the release of youth picked up during last year’s agitation moving up a notch to the release of political prisoners India will have to take an incremental approach steadily progressing towards the more intransigent areas. It will also at some stage have to address the draconian and abhorred AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) recently sanctified by army personnel in Kashmir. Externally, the recent meeting of the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the Saarc Council of Ministers Conference in Thimphu was encouraging, as was the statement in its wake by Indian foreign minister S M Krishna that “a solid foundation” has been laid for a “sustained engagement.” The track-two diplomacy between the two countries too seems to have been put back on an accelerated track. Congruent to this is the feeler by Home Minister P Chidambaram on a recent visit to Jammu and Kashmir that the government would expedite the process to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio once it receives the interlocutors’ final recommendation for a “political settlement.”
Within Kashmir too there needs to be a rethink and plausible introspection especially by the leadership. The present ad hoc vision limited to strikes and strikes needs to be replaced by a more realistic and fruitful strategy, both long-term and short-term, with a clearly defined equilibrium between ideology and the mundane yet intrinsic issues of survival. A weak and fatigued nation, especially economically, will in the long-term be unable to keep up the momentum created during these past few summers.
Rhetoric and polemics aside the leadership will have to undertake comprehensive spadework, bracing itself for the emerging responsibilities. Donning the role of skilled negotiators they will have to exhibit selfless character and profound imagination. The movement’s leaders also need to display self-discipline and accountability. Incidents like the recent murder of two teenage sisters by unidentified gunmen in the town of Sopore must be checked and condemned. The continuation of this situation will only lead to oppression and alienation and make the possibility of a solution to the Kashmir problem still more remote.
All three parties to the issue need to display enormous magnanimity, perseverance and dexterity, not only to work for the fulfilment of the Kashmiri dream but also unlock the vast probabilities of this region.
The writer is based in Srinagar.
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