The snows are melting. Spring is in the air. But Kashmir’s Winter of Discontent is far from over. As for the unionÂ and state governments, they seem to have rejoiced at the Valley being covered “in forgetful snow”. (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland). The same poem begins with the immortal line: “April is the cruelest month…”
What April holds for the Valley is foretold at the first manifest revival of discontent at Handwara, with ordinary civilians, including young people at the threshold of life, rushing to encounter sites, notwithstanding the imminent danger to that very life. The Chief of Army Staff has threatened those who do so with being “over ground workers of terrorists” who “will be dealt with as anti-nationals” and subjected to “harsh action.” It has been clarified that he was not “threatening” anyone, merely warning them about the risk they were running. The civilians know the risk they are running. They do not need to be cautioned by the General. But they are nevertheless putting their lives on the line because there seems to be no other way to open deaf ears in Delhi and the state secretariat.
The months of “forgetful snow” have not been used to engage the dissidents. The opportunity for dialogue has been casually thrown away. The enforced quietude of winter snows has not been availed of. As Nature’s thaw sets in, there is no thawing in the political atmosphere. The Durbar will return in a few weeks from Jammu to Srinagar. And the Valley (and the nation) will be seamlessly thrown again into turmoil because Modi used the winter for his madcap scheme of demonetization, not for putting in place the mechanisms of dialogue that will alone lead to peace, harmony, brotherhood – and the integrity of our nation.
The terrible summer months of last year seem to have taught no lessons to either Modi or Mehbooba. That they have taught no lessons to Modi is understandable: he has long been past any learning. But it is heart-breaking that Mehbooba, who was looked upon as a kind of mother-figure till she fell into the trap set by Modi, has lost much of her credibility while Modi, of course, has gained none. The secondary problem of Kashmir is terrorism – secondary because it has arisen out of discontent. Recognizing that discontent, acting to reassure the discontents, and working towards resolving outstanding issues is the obvious way out of the impasse. Instead, we see in both the national and state capitals a complete lack of political imagination combined with a complete lack of empathy for the suffering people of Kashmir. This is the sure way to reinforce the impasse.
Allowing the pot to boil is no way of ending terrorism. Terrorism thrives on discontent. It is not a rootless phenomenon, conjured out of thin air. Where there is domestic discontent, outside forces will promote cross-border terrorism to spark and reinforce domestic terrorism. The war against external terrorism cannot be won without dealing with domestic discontent. And dealing with domestic discontent requires engagement with the discontented. It is an unmitigated disaster that where the bad weather could have facilitated a good dialogue, the winter quiet was used to falsely claim the restoration of normalcy.
To combat terrorism, home-grown or externally incited, without the whole-hearted cooperation of the local population is the sure way of rendering terrorism acceptable to the discontents. We would do well to remember that in 1947 October, Jinnah’s tribal raiders were foiled first by the people of Kashmir, and only then militarily by the Indian army. Equally, Bhutto’s Operation Gibraltar in August 1965 was thwarted by ordinary Kashmiris handing over wandering armed strangers to the Indian armed forces. Had Kashmiris as a people joined Operation Gibraltar, as Bhutto banked on, the story of the 1965 war might have read differently. The greatest potential ally of our armed forces is the people of Kashmir. Alienating the people is to gift the outside enemy with opportunity. To not expect the enemy to take advantage of opportunity caused by political ineptness is to conjoin naivetÃ©; to that ineptness.
There is no absence of options before the union and state governments of the basis on which to engage in dialogue with the discontents. First and foremost, we have the unanimous resolution passed by the J&K assembly under Farooq Abdullah’s watchful eye at the start of the century. The resolution was the outcome of years of careful, sensitive exploration about the basis on which a consensual political view of the future of the Valley’s relationship with the rest of the country could be presented by Srinagar to New Delhi. That resolution was in response to Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s generous offer in 1995 to regard “the sky as the limit” for state autonomy. Farooq won the election in J&K next year – but in the meanwhile, PVNR had become history. Yet, the very fact that it took Farooq so many years to respond to Rao’s offer shows how complicated was the road to consensus.
Tragically, the Vajpayee government that received the unanimous J&K assembly resolution on autonomy failed to act beyond spinning some alliterative poetry about “Jamhuriyat, Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat”. But it staggered there. To impart substance to such poesy, an all-party delegation was despatched to the Valley. Allegedly building on the J&K resolution, the all-party delegation drafted specific proposals for negotiation with the discontents. That report was shelved. Those proposals too can be dusted off, revised if required, and presented as the basis for dialogue.
There then followed a host of round-table sectoral meetings. Initially there was some hesitation on the part of hard-core Kashmiri elements to join the round-tables, but eventually the round-tables prepared actionable proposals for restoring normalcy. Alas, the round-tables went the way of the all-party delegation and the J&K assembly resolution.
Then, Dr Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf initiated a back-channel dialogue through their trusted special envoys. Progress on the back-channel encouraged the Indian Prime Minister to open transport and commercial and people-to-people links across the LoC, as also to send the three Interlocutors (Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari) to J&K with an open-ended mandate to talk anything and everything with anyone prepared to talk to them. The upbeat team of interlocutors presented their report brimming with optimism. Perhaps because of that optimism, the report was put under wraps. Tragically, the leader of the team has passed away and Radha Kumar has moved to Kodaikanal – “far from the madding crowd”. Ansariji is around but does not seem to have obtained, even in these trying times, the ear of anyone who matters in the present establishment.
Yet, the J&K assembly resolution, the all-party recommendations, the Round Table suggestions, the interlocutors’ report, the experience of opening various routes for commerce and family interaction of Kashmiris of both hues across the LoC, and the partially-agreed Four Points between the Manmohan and Musharraf governments contain between them plenty of carefully prepared material from which to extract concrete proposals to put on the table to kick-start the dialogue with all but the most extreme of the discontents. But if all the union government has to offer by way of communication to the youth of Kashmir is the chief of army staff’s warning to Kashmiri youngsters to keep off encounter sites, how can there be any meaningful engagement?
Before she became the caged parrot of her partner in the state government, Mehbooba seemed to have an absolutely unclouded perception of this when she frequented the seminar circuit in New Delhi. But that conference wisdom appears to have now deserted her.
There is only one way out of this maze. It is for Mehbooba to withdraw from her untenable coalition with persons at the exact opposite end of the ideological spectrum and open the way to the three principal parties of the Valley to jointly work out a strategy, based on the reams of previous constructive recommendations, to move the game from stone-throwing in the streets to dialogue around a table.
There is, however, no indication of such late wisdom dawning in the Valley. I fear the coming summer will be worse than the last one.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)