My association with Jammu and Kashmir revolved around two distinct but nevertheless closely related dimensions. One was in the foreign policy context, involving our relations with Pakistan and China. The other was in the security context, involving our border infrastructure. Between 2007 and 2014, I made several visits to the Kashmir valley as well as to Ladakh, including the remote border areas, to survey the infrastructure, mainly roads, border posts, power supply and communication facilities. These visits invariably brought me into contact with senior civilian, paramilitary and military officials, and political leaders, and, in the last couple of visits, a broad spectrum of local activists, journalists and civil society activists. My last visit was as chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). This experience has added a third dimension to my understanding of the challenges we confront in this sensitive state and that is the people’s dimension.
There is a deep and growing divide between those who administer the state and the people. This is encapsulated in the “We versus They” syndrome that is manifest in the state bureaucracy, the security forces and intelligence agencies. During one visit I was narrating to senior civilian and military officials that in interactions with civil society one had come across an acute sense of humiliation, helplessness and resentment, which the ordinary citizens felt in daily encounters with the state apparatus. It was the loss of personal dignity and self-respect, which seemed to be building up into a collective rage. The answer to this was to peremptorily reject these expressions as “habitual complaints”. Our team was advised that thanks to the government of India largesse, people in the Valley enjoy some of the highest living standards in the country. The intrusive nature of security operations was acknowledged but justified on grounds of Pakistan-related military and terrorist threats. There were dark hints of local involvement in the building up of such threats.
As long as this disconnect exists, there is little chance of breaking the cycle of violence. There can be no healing touch if those who feel the hurt and suffer the pain can no longer get a patient hearing. Even the brief interaction the NSAB team had with civil society, where much of the anger and resentment came to the surface, there was, at the end, a certain sense of catharsis among our interlocutors as if merely being heard out was in itself a much-needed relief.
The local political processes and leadership have not been able to provide a buffer between the military and security forces, seen as representing the power of the Centre, and the ordinary citizens residing in the Valley. In fact, local political parties and leaders fail to take responsibility and instead find it convenient to blame their failures on the Centre. Each time there is a crisis, as we are witnessing now, it becomes a Centre versus the people of the Valley issue, with the state government reduced to the role of a powerless bystander.
It is encouraging that despite the pervasive sense of alienation, the people of the state, including in the Valley, have turned up in successive recent elections to vote in fairly significant numbers. Why not give the popular government they have elected the responsibility of handling the political issues confronting the state, including reaching out to the separatists, addressing the causes of alienation and engaging in a process of reconciliation including the rehabilitation and resettlement of the Kashmiri Pandits? Why should the security agencies have a veto over decisions of the elected representatives?
The ugly reality is that powerful elements in the current governance structures in the state have, over the years, developed a vested interest in keeping the conflict simmering because this enables access to vast amounts of funds and privileged positions in the state hierarchy. This may not remain limited to just Jammu and Kashmir. There is a danger of this infection spreading to other parts of the country where conditions are said to be “disturbed”.
There has to be an honest acknowledgement that an inability to ensure normalcy in the state is what creates opportunities for Pakistan to harm India’s interests. When relative peace and near normalcy prevailed in the state, although only in limited phases, Pakistan’s ability to exploit the issue diminished. Treating the situation in the Valley as a law and order issue or as a fallout of Pakistan indulging in cross-border terrorism detracts from the pressing need to engage in a long-overdue process of political reconciliation.
In the past, central governments have taken hesitant steps in this direction, like the round table experiment early on during UPA 1. There was no follow-up on this. Later, there were Centre-appointed interlocutors who undertook extensive consultations with mainstream politicians, separatists, civil society activists, academics and business representatives in the Valley. They managed to overcome some scepticism and cynicism. Their recommendations, too, did not see the light of day.
Any new “healing touch” exercise is likely to be that much harder to sell against this background but is probably more necessary than has been in the recent past. This is a part of India that is in the cross-hairs of both Pakistan and China. Its vulnerabilities need to be addressed through better defence preparedness. Improved border infrastructure is indispensable in this respect. We also need to engage in active diplomacy so that the Kashmir issue does not again become an international pressure point on India. But the key lies in initiating and persevering with political processes that promote peace and tranquillity in this strategically critical frontier state.
Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR. The views expressed are personal.
(The opening line of the penultimate paragraph of this article has been updated to read: ‘In the past, central governments have taken hesitant steps...’)