The piece below was first published on September 7. It is being republished in light of the militant attack on an army base in Kashmir’s Uri that killed 17 soldiers and injured 30.
The NDA government’s approach over the last two months in Kashmir has amounted to ignoring the scale of casualties and depth of suffering. A real worry is that the Modi government’s analysis of the problem leaves it very little scope to reach out to Kashmiris, let alone explore a political solution
The two-day all-party delegation visit to Kashmir during September 4-5 was a farce and a fiasco. Consider the drama we saw in recent days. After years of talking about the need for dialogue with all stakeholders, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti chooses to invite separatists for talks with the delegation while they are in jail or under house arrest. Leaders such as Sitaram Yechury and Asaduddin Owaisi try to do the Centre, which now has no access to aggrieved Kashmiris, a favour by knocking on the doors of separatists. When they are turned away, home minister Rajnath Singh, instead of using the visit to make sensible statements about understanding local anger or announcing concessions, points out that separatists lack the principles of “insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and jamhooriyat (humanity, Kashmiri ethos and democracy)”.
Evidently, for our home minister, expressing no remorse about 75 civilians being shot dead by security forces and hundreds blinded for pelting stones is a sign of upholding such principles, while incarcerated leaders not opening up for a chat amid a tense backdrop is a sign of the lack thereof. Singh distanced himself from Mufti’s letter and Yechury’s reach-out to separatists and will likely convene another all-party meeting in Delhi. All that the delegation visit has yielded is a confirmation for Kashmiris that well-meaning Indian MPs are powerless to intervene on their behalf (and, to that extent, one more link to Delhi’s political class stands attenuated).
The Modi government’s strategy over the last two months in Kashmir has amounted to ignoring the scale of casualties and depth of suffering, maintaining silence for extended periods, making the odd, weak statement about the pain of Kashmiris with barely a reference to blinded children, and ritually reiterating that J-K is an integral part of India.
What should be a source of worry is that the Modi government’s analysis of the problem leaves it very little scope to reach out to Kashmiris. The Centre has convinced itself that the protests are all Pakistan’s doing. Singh reckons that whatever is happening is because of Islamabad; PM Modi has also argued that the youth are being misled. This is reflected in the government’s narrative. The Centre shared its assessment of the situation with the Opposition and, according to NDTV, it listed “top ten hurdles” in the Valley that include the use of social media for false rumours to instigate youth to lead violent mobs; stone pelting on security forces by radicalised and incited youth; armed militants mixing with stone-pelting mobs and addressing rallies; militants using cover of “agitating mobs” firing at security forces and lobbing grenades, provoking security forces to retaliate and attacks/threats on government officers, political representatives and policemen, no identifiable leadership of protests and the challenge of radicalization.
Some of these claims will remain debatable in the absence of hard evidence. Security forces regularly collect footage of public gatherings in Kashmir but so far we have very little video evidence of the thousands of confrontations between the forces and protesters in recent weeks to establish how the balance of force works out in the streets of the Valley, especially since one side has the guns and the other has stones.
It is also not clear if the government has spelled out to the Opposition the context within which such blowback has taken place. Kashmir has been seething over the 120 youth killed in 2010, the relief package for the 2014 was unconscionably late and inadequate. The BJP added to its insecurities by suggesting a rollback of Article 370, which gives special status to the militancy-hit state, and hinting at allotting land for retired soldiers. It will have likely obscured the fact that Hizbul Mujahideen commnder Burhan Wani, whose death in a July encounter triggered the ongoing protests, emerged as a symbol of resistance, as someone who could take on the State while ordinary Kashmiris led routinized, subjugated lives – and that all this would not have come to pass if Kashmiris were allowed to mourn him and had not 21 people been shot dead within three days of Wani’s killing on July 8.
The Modi government has evidently scrubbed out nuances in its reading of the situation and is wholly blaming Pakistan for the crisis. Whether or not it is by design, such an approach suits BJP’s political and ideological purposes perfectly. The BJP politically cannot do any of the things that Kashmir needs right now: it cannot express remorse for the killings and order an inquiry into excessive force as that will alienate security forces; it also cannot announce a roadmap for a political solution and restore autonomy as that would offend its base, which is committed to abrogating Article 370. On the contrary, maintaining a steady diet of anti-Pakistan rhetoric helps with its polarising strategy for the UP elections; a focus on stone-pelting youth and representing them as Islamabad-sponsored terrorists inevitably keeps one kind of “anti-national” always in the public eye and shores up middle-class support. Kashmir helpfully becomes JNU Act II.
What now for the way forward? Home minister Singh has spoken of devising an action plan for Kashmir. Well, the 2011 report of Kashmir interlocutors is yet to be tabled in Parliament. Based on recent events, we shouldn’t be surprised if these four elements play out: PM Modi will make India’s case aggressively abroad to deflect attention from human rights violations and ratchet up anti-Pakistan rhetoric as the UN General Assembly season approaches (prompting reactions from Islamabad). The PM’s G20 summit speech that “one single nation” is spreading agents of terror in the region is of a piece in this strategy. Singh will continue political consultations in Delhi and generate whiffs of process that will be talked up in the media. Militant groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen will threaten India, vindicating BJP spokespersons and their allies in the talk circuit while security forces continue to inflict civilian losses as they try to recover control of the street in Kashmir.
We are now in a situation where what is good for the BJP politically does not align with what India and Kashmir need. India does not need to be weighed down by internal crisis, get its reputation tarnished internationally, and expend political and diplomatic energies towards a neighbour one-fifth its size while compelling domestic and geo-strategic challenges loom. Kashmir needs comfort, healing, justice and closure. PM Modi and BJP are in a position to help both. For that they need to eschew the political incentives built into the current situation which they have helped conjure. But for that they first they need to be willing to get their analysis right.
Else, a long cynical winter beckons.
The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @SushilAaron