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Find the terms of engagement with Kashmir

What Narendra Modi needs to do is to make his way to Srinagar and talk directly to the people. So that when he says the rest of India loves Kashmir, the “Swarg bhoomi”— he means not just its mountains, and apples and rivers and strategic value, but the Kashmiri people as well

columns Updated: Aug 13, 2016 08:46 IST
An indian paramilitary soldier stands guard as a Kashmiri man stands at his doorstep during a curfew, Srinagar, August 5.
An indian paramilitary soldier stands guard as a Kashmiri man stands at his doorstep during a curfew, Srinagar, August 5.(AP)

This week Facebook prompted a ‘memory’ from six years ago — a digital version of ‘This Day, That Year’ — that reposts your past online musings. Mine — dated the 10th of August, 2010 — went like this: “Wish the Prime Minister had spoken two months earlier on Kashmir.” The PM I was writing about then was Manmohan Singh; the backdrop was the summer of discontent in the Valley that saw more than a 100 boys dead after raging clashes with security forces. Then too, like now, some of us implored Delhi to wake up from its slumber, petitioned the Prime Minister for intervention and pulled our hair out at how slow the reaction was in coming. Re-reading what I said six years ago only proved one thing — so formulaic and cussed are the responses to any crisis in Kashmir that the initial apathy is almost hardwired into pre-programmed reflexes.

In some ways the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar and the déjà vu patterns that define it is what Sigmund Freud called “repetition compulsion,” or the “desire to return to an earlier state of things.” It could explain why we lurch from meltdown to meltdown in Kashmir and delude ourselves when it falls off the news-cycle that ‘normalcy’ has returned. The posh resorts in Gulmarg, the saffron and tulips, the over-priced and always full hotels and the god-awful paneer manchurian and chow mein that has replaced gushtaba and tabak maaz at cafes across Srinagar — we cling to the irrelevance of these cosmetic cover-ups to convince ourselves that all is well. And so, when the streets erupts in rage, as they did in 2008, 2010 and now 2016, we first deny its existence, then underestimate it, then decry it, then react belatedly, then get Parliament to intervene, then hastily summon an all-party meeting and finally look towards our prime ministers to do something innovative and empathetic. A handful of half-hearted attempts are then made at a dialogue process, only to be shelved with the arrival of next season’s tourists — till its crisis time again — and then again. As a reporter on the Kashmir beat for over two decades I constantly feel transported to a past-life; we have all been in this moment several times before.

Read | It’s yesterday again: Kashmir’s old wounds need political healing

Yet, there are some crucial differences this time that will make defusing tensions much more difficult. The 2010 protests were in the backdrop of a fake encounter in the Machil sector in which the army has now court-martialed six of its own men and handed them life sentences. They were compounded by a tear gas shell hitting a 17 year old Tufail Mattoo as he walked home from tuition and was inadvertently caught in clashes between the forces and protesters. No matter what turn they eventually took, you could locate the origin of these protests in the specific context of rights violations, justice and the breakdown of law.

This time, the Valley erupted in support of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant — Burhan Wani. The subsequent erosion of moral authority from the large scale blindings by pellet guns — partial and permanent — of many young Kashmiris, some of them even younger than 16, has been a force multiplier for that anger. The idiom and tools of rebellion have changed as well. If it was primarily stones in 2010, now the crowds are much more violent. In some cases police stations have been set ablaze; even the Valley’s first high-density apple orchard project set up by a young US-returned Kashmiri was destroyed by a rampaging mob. In some cases the protesters have outflanked policemen and CRPF at security posts, charging towards them and snatching their weapons.

Read | Acknowledge Kashmir as political problem, dialogue can follow later: Mirwaiz

In 2010, the state government had reached out to separatists, including pro-Pakistan Hurriyat Representative Syed Ali Shah Geelani to help bring calm to the streets. This time, too, the government made a similar appeal. But the harsh truth (beyond the irony that governments reach out to separatists for crisis management but initiate no institutional dialogue with them) is that the separatists who were once the masters of their individual fiefdoms and pockets of influence don’t really have any control over the millennial generation of Kashmiris. One separatist leader who did not want to be named told me, half scared, that while he never used to speak of ‘Muslim identity’ earlier in his public utterances, he now has to, “to remain relevant among the young”. Those who want a hard-fisted approach to Kashmir speak repeatedly of growing ‘Islamism’ as a reason to pursue the ‘danda’ over dialogue. How does that make any sense? Even if the Internet generation of Kashmiris — having grown up knowing only conflict, violence and a single faith culture — are radicalised — and certainly some are, isn’t it even more imperative to find a language to engage with them in? No one will say it officially, but there’s a genuine anxiety both within mainstream Valley parties and within the Hurriyat Conference at having been outpaced by a nameless, faceless agitation, with the mythology of Wani calling the shots from the grave. So even if Delhi gives shape to the contours of a new peace process who will it talk to? And what will be on the table? The now aborted autonomy report of the National Conference; the self-rule document of the PDP or the UPA interlocutors’ report that never even made it to Parliament?

Read | Kashmir crippled by lazy politics, needs greater outreach

Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed his talks with Naga insurgents as historic even though their demands clearly include separate passports and flag. Just last month T Muivah of NSCN-IM said, “We have not given up on our demands for sovereignty.” Irom Sharmila’s non-violent struggle has been celebrated even though it was pitched in direct opposition to the Army’s special powers. What if Sharmila were Kashmiri; would we have still seen her the same way? Why are we unable to show the same imagination and compassion in Kashmir that we have in Nagaland and Manipur? Because let’s face it — the military has more than done the job assigned to it within the Valley and at the line of control. Infiltration has been contained and militancy crushed with government figures listing no more than 150 militants. What we are seeing in Kashmir, including the resurgence of educated local militants, is the failure of politics. Yes, Pakistan is fuelling the fire, but let’s deal with Islamabad later. Or let the military deal with them. What Narendra Modi needs to do is to make his way to Srinagar and talk directly to the people. So that when he says the rest of India loves Kashmir, the “Swarg bhoomi”— he means not just its mountains, and apples and rivers and strategic value, but the Kashmiri people as well.

Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal.