The tulips and the tourists of the Kashmir Valley may make for a pretty postcard but as all good photographers know, filming with a diffused filter can only soften an image; not erase the wrinkles it seeks to hide. That our gaze on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) hasn't always been sharp-focused in
the last two years was evident in how quickly the execution of Afzal Guru returned things to a condition of nervous anticipation.
The week-long curfew, the resultant information restrictions and the fact that even mainstream, elected political parties were speaking in an idiom entirely different from the rest of India reminded us, once again, how little we could afford complacency when it comes to Kashmir.
Yes, the substantive decline in militancy and the serious attempt at growing roots of local democracy (often in the long shadow of the gun, as the spate of attacks on village sarpanchs proves) is certainly a measure of progress.
For those of us whose memories of the Valley are shaped by images of long marches and short evenings in a city that used to shut down and empty out before the sun could set, the last few years have been transformative at one level.
But however heartening the bustle on the Boulevard may seem today and however picturesque the return of golfers to the greens and skiers to the slopes of Gulmarg looks, the history of J&K will not be written by the ministry of tourism.
The debate on the death penalty and the competitive politics that plagues it across the country from Tamil Nadu to Punjab is a separate philosophical question.
What prompted sudden stealthy action by the same government that once stood accused of dragging its feet on the decision? Can any decision to order an execution or for that matter 'pardon' an individual be strictly separate from politics? After all, even the president eventually acts on the counsel of the government of the day.
Several suggestions have been made to impose a time-bound calendar within which a petition for mercy must be dispensed with, one way or the other. But until this happens a political calculation - or the very least assessment - remains an inextricable part of the equation.
If so, isn't it sometimes reasonable to weigh the consequences of a troubled history on a precariously built future? Or, as a politician from J&K asked, would it have been smarter statecraft to keep Guru in prison for as long as he lived instead of taking the risk of a rupture of old wounds?
In a sense of course all this is now academic. Till the next execution, that is.
What is more imperative for us as a country is to debate our understanding of J&K. That only an eruption of violence can draw our attention to the issues that have shadowed it for decades speaks either of wilful, misguided complacency or a lazy level of ignorance. We make much of the fact - and rightly so - that 2002 was a watershed year in the electoral history of the state.
It's when democracy cleaned up her act and confronted her contentious past by promising a more transparent future. Since then, whether it is subsequent assembly or panchayat elections, participation has been enthusiastic - despite boycott calls by separatists and even graver threats from militants.
Even if you argue that the engagement with elections is driven essentially by an administrative relationship with daily issues of water, roads and electricity and does not even begin to grapple with issues of alienation - the strengthening of participatory democracy has been one of the most significant improvements in the state.
More interestingly, the political agendas of the two major regional parties - the National Conference (NC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP) - have mainstreamed many of the issues that once belonged to the separatist platform.
In effect, by stopping well short of 'azaadi' but simultaneously pursuing a much greater autonomy for J&K within the constitutional framework of India, they offer a unique opportunity for those with the foresight to see it. Yet, in peacetime, without the shadow of obvious trouble looming over the state, scant attention is paid to the elected representatives of the state.
Both parties have drafted detailed plans for greater federalism, from the NC's autonomy report to the PDP's 'self-rule' slogan. Naturally not all their findings will eventually prove acceptable, but where has been the serious national debate on them? The recommendations submitted last year by the government-appointed interlocutors panel are yet to find the attention of Parliament.
And over the years, multiple committees appointed by the prime minister (one previously headed by the present vice-president) have stacked up reports that are being treated more as paper-weights of the past than action plans for the future.
So, irrespective of where you stand on the Afzal Guru execution and the manner in which it was handled, the more pressing point is not to underestimate the complex realities that shape J&K. Arguably, Kashmir is no longer at the heart of the matter between India and Pakistan.
The so-called 'four point' formula (no change in boundaries; more autonomy on either side) mooted by Pervez Musharraf in talks with both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh is clearly the blue print for the future, if other outstanding issues, primarily the one of terrorism, were addressed.
Right now, our focus should be on reducing the widening gap in political rhetoric between Delhi and Srinagar. Remember the eruption of street protests in 2010? It was a crisis that finally brought an all-party delegation to the Valley. But if a crisis is the only time we pay attention to J&K, the crisis could return just as suddenly, without any preamble and despite the tourists and the tulips in bloom.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative. The views expressed by the author are personal.
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