In all the anxiety about Andhra Pradesh, the angst over the corruption churn and the concern over the possible unravelling of our violence-ridden neighbour, we have, it seems, forgotten all about Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Or perhaps — and this may be why things end up where they do — we only pay attention to the state in moments of crisis. But, almost on the quiet, something deeply significant happened in the state this past week.
There was, for the first time, an admission by a Kashmiri separatist leader of a truth that previously could not — or would not — be spoken. In a startlingly frank moment, Hurriyat representative, Abdul Ghani Bhat, the maverick politician who once taught Persian, conceded that two key assassinations of separatist leaders were the brainchild of men within their own ranks. For Kashmir watchers, the import of this utterance was not its content per se (known already to many over the decades) but that it was said at all, and said out loud.
Both the senior Mirwaiz and, more recently, Abdul Gani Lone, Bhat said, were killed not by the army or the police or any other security agency, but “by our own people”. Then he added in his characteristically twisty turn of phrase that it was time to free the Kashmiri people from “sentimentalism bordering on insanity” by speaking the truth. We forget that insurgencies are often rooted not just in history, the alienation of ordinary people and omissions of justice — but also in the power of the popular narrative. And here, after two decades of unrest in the Valley, the narrative, as it has been constructed over the years, was being challenged.
I still remember the exact moment in May 2002 when Lone was killed. Ironically, it was at a rally in the Eidgah grounds of Srinagar to commemorate the death anniversary of the senior Mirwaiz who had been murdered in 1991. I was standing along with other journalists at the base of the dais, expecting the proceedings of the day to be routine and unremarkable. Suddenly, towards the end of the ceremony, in the blink of an eye, two gunmen emerged from within the crowd, charged towards the stage and shot Lone with brutal precision.
As people dispersed in panic, the gunmen disappeared into the maze-like bylanes of downtown Srinagar, never to be found or identified. This was Srinagar in the era before mobile phone connectivity, and I ran down the deserted streets, desperate to find a phone booth to relay the news back home. This was a watershed in the state’s troubled history. It was clear, even then, that the 70-year-old Lone had been assassinated because he had been publically supporting a dialogue process and condemning violence as a means of protest.
Later that night, I remember meeting his emotionally overwrought son Sajad who, unmindful of the consequences, shrugged off the restraint being urged by the flood of mourners at his house and blamed Pakistan’s Inter-State Intelligence (ISI) and rival leaders of the Hurriyat conference for the fact that his father was dead. The next morning, possibly reeling from the violent backlash his bluntness generated, he retracted his comments and, in an interview to me, said the remarks were an “emotional outburst.” But in the same interview he said his father had been murdered by an “ugly convergence of interests” and it could be the work of “any agency, either from India or Pakistan.” Today, after Bhat’s admission, he is urging an end to what he has called “half-truths” saying that the people have a “right to know who killed whom”.
Indeed. Now, how should we react to the new willingness to call a spade a spade?
It would be utterly short-sighted for New Delhi to respond with a gloating, we-told-you-so smugness. The hardline narrative on J&K questions the liberal media’s nomenclature of ‘moderate separatists’. But the truth is that at every stage those separatists who have spoken in favour of reconciliation have paid with their lives. Think of Fazl Haq Qureshi who went from being an architect of the azadi platform to an architect of a state’s search for peace. He brokered the first and only dialogue between the government and the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2000. More recently, as he revived his attempts at a dialogue process, an assassin’s bullet tore open his skull.
As unpalatable as the sentiment of secessionism may be to strategists in New Delhi, there has to be recognition of the risks being taken by those within the separatist ranks who are engaging with the truth. In fact, if you chronicle the state’s history, every time governments have failed to engage with the more moderate voices in the Valley, the radicals have become emboldened to hijack the agenda.
We must also pause to reflect on the relative quiet in the state since the summer of unrest last year. The media’s commentary on J&K cannot be restricted to happily hauling chief minister Omar Abdullah over the coals when the chips are down, but looking the other way in disinterested silence when things are comparatively better. Doesn’t the changed environment need acknowledgment, comment and, yes, debate as well? And no, not because a political problem can be solved by tourists or trade — it absolutely cannot — but because the truth comes in many, ever-evolving shades, and it is our job to reflect all the colours, not just the ones that fit in with our prejudices.
Finally, remember Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece- Rashomon on the nature of truth? The film depicted how one crime was recounted in widely contradictory ways by different witnesses. “We all want to forget something, so we tell stories,” says one character. That may be true, for all sides, across the divide, in Kashmir.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV n
The views expressed by the author are personal