The placid waters of Srinagar’s iconic Dal Lake are deceptive. The serene beauty of the houseboats lining the boulevard and the shikaras full of happy tourists have for years tricked successive governments into believing that normalcy has returned to the Valley. But the Kashmiris know it for what it is: Surface normalcy. So when the Valley slipped into a vortex of violence, in a fraction of a second, after the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani on July 8, New Delhi was left staring at cold statistics: 1.1 million tourists had visited Kashmir till the first week of July as against 550,000 the previous year.
The governments in New Delhi and Srinagar were looking at the wrong set of statistics. They should have been focusing on the changing ground reality: The fact that local militants like Wani were outnumbering the foreign terrorists. They should have analysed the reasons for why militant funerals were drawing large crowds. In fact, they should have worried that women gathering to prevent security forces from launching operations in rural areas was a clear throwback to the early nineties, when the gun first surfaced in Kashmir.
I saw the writing on the wall a year ago on a trip to south Kashmir, where deep discontent was being articulated in village after village. The lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri over mere suspicion of him having consumed beef had become a talking point in the Valley. His death had prised open a debate on why the PDP had formed the government in alliance with the BJP. In speech after speech, Mehbooba Mufti had implored the voters to vote for her so that “the BJP can be kept out”.
BJP general secretary and Kashmir-in-charge Ram Madhav admitted that the current phase of violence caught the government by surprise. I need to point out that Kashmir is angry, not only because militant commander Burhan Wani was eliminated in an encounter, but because the trust deficit between the Valley and New Delhi has been eroded over the years and has now reached breaking point. For too long, Kashmiris believed that the Centre would address their grievances politically. They believed that in 2008, when civilians were killed, and again in 2010, when 116 young persons were killed. For too long, Kashmiris have lived in the hope that New Delhi would pay attention to the reasons for their alienation; for why they continue to suffer in one of the most militarised zones in the world. There was a glimmer of hope in 2010, when the Centre had tried to address the anger then by sending a team of interlocutors, who painstakingly spoke to several stakeholders and turned in a report that referred to Kashmir as a “dispute”. No one, however, paid attention to the recommendations in the interlocutors’ report and this time, New Delhi responded by raising the issue of Balochistan.
I can tell you in no uncertain terms that 2016 is a consequence of 2010. Not paying heed to the interlocutors’ report has come at a cost. The state government, led by Mehbooba Mufti, too has been unable to assuage the raw emotions of the stone-throwing youth, who are refusing to tire. The sentiment prevalent on the Kashmir street echoes a ‘do or die’ attitude and is different from the previous cycles of violence. Ms Mufti’s signalling is all wrong. Keeping phone networks and broadband connections on the blink — in the hope that fewer people will be able to mobilise themselves — has not worked. Instead, it has given rise to deep resentment that is only feeding the rage. Let me be clear. If 2010 was a long period of unrest, 2016 is an uprising. A disturbing new reality is being scripted and both the state government and the Centre need to wake up to it.
There is another critical difference. In 2010, the stone-wielding youth were protesting against a fake encounter in which three innocents were killed. The demand for justice lay at the heart of the unrest. This time, the anger is widespread and the enraged youth have no demands. They appear fed up with New Delhi’s unwillingness to accept the very political nature of the Kashmir problem.
Only when the protests raged well past 50 days was there an acceptance that they were deeply symptomatic. Finally, an all-party delegation will be landing in Srinagar once again but engaging with various stakeholders and then acting on recommendations would amount to a deep betrayal the country cannot afford. New Delhi has for long been shying away from a dialogue with the separatists — and even though the current protests are not entirely in their control. The delegation must reach out to them.
The Kashmiri wound is deep and it has festered for too long. One major step forward would be to reduce the repressive security measures. Sending in additional companies of paramilitary forces is not the answer. Kashmiris have been living oppressed lives for more than two decades and it is time we reached out to them and addressed their grievances. Shooting and blinding them with pellets will only exacerbate the problem. In close to two months, not a single government representative has visited the injured who are still being treated in hospitals across the Valley. It is imperative that the government expresses remorse for civilian deaths and starts a dialogue. The agenda of alliance which binds both the PDP and the BJP also advocates talks with separatists.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh held out hopes of an alternative to the pellet gun, which has become the symbol of oppression. A committee has now recommended that it be used only in rare circumstances but Kashmir needs a political dialogue that can make the gun redundant. The security forces are being stretched to perform a difficult task only because the political class has failed to engage with its own people. Madhav also said that the Kashmiris could ask for the moon, under the Indian Constitution. He only echoed what former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao had promised 20 long years ago, when he had said “the sky is the limit”.
With some imagination, ways can be found to grant greater autonomy with no threat to India’s sovereignty. That was the case up until 1953, after which the state’s autonomy was continuously diluted. The time has come to go to the next level on Kashmir, which is bleeding India, tarnishing its image both internally and externally, providing ammunition to Pakistan and alienating a whole generation in the state. A government that cares for its people will have to walk the talk.