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Not consensus, but confusion on how to handle Kashmir

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2016 00:53 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times
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A lack a of consistency and clear-thinking — and the many differences that have pulled Mehbooba Mufti and the BJP in opposite directions — are simply unaffordable at this juncture. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

The situation in Kashmir is now at an inflection point. Two months after the elimination of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani threw the valley into protests, violence and turmoil, the sense is that attempts at political outreach have failed — I would argue these efforts came far too late- and we are now entering a phase of a fiercer security crackdown, especially in the rural hinterland. The government — rightly so — is alarmed at large swathes of South Kashmir slipping out of the control of the local administration. Concern over the continuing protests and the simmering violence has been amplified by the surfacing of Pakistani flags and armed militants at some of the processions and rallies. The priority now is to re-establish the authority of the State. An increased army footprint — despite the reluctance of the military to be drawn into crowd control — is the clear next step.

What is worrying though is the level of confusion and contradictions evident, both in public debate and in the framing of the Kashmir policy. True, the situation is defined by myriad truths — genuine anger and alienation, historic sins of omission and commission by successive governments in Delhi; the ideological incompatibilities of the ruling alliance, the rising levels of religious radicalism, with demands for ‘Azaadi’ increasingly getting framed within larger expressions of ‘Muslim identity’ and finally, the Pakistani perpetration of militancy. For any government, the sheer complexity of what’s unfolding in Kashmir does make a linear response difficult.

Read | Kashmir’s disturbing new reality

Yet a lack a of consistency and clear-thinking — and the many differences that have pulled Mehbooba Mufti and the BJP in opposite directions — are simply unaffordable at this juncture.

Let’s start with how the outreach with separatists unfolded during the visit of the all-party delegation to the state. It was only a few hours before their arrival that Mehbooba Mufti sent a letter inviting the Hurriyat Conference to meet the delegation at a “place and time of your convenience.” But the letter went from her, not as chief minister of the state, but as PDP president. Later her colleagues claimed that since all others had been sent letters from the city’s divisional commissioner, this personal communiqué was her going the extra mile with the separatists. It’s reliably learnt that the BJP leadership was less than happy with some of the language in the letter that made the government seem over-eager to meet separatists. The next morning — especially after the discourteous snub from Pro-Pakistan representative Syed Ali Shah Geelani to the individual parliamentarians who attempted to meet him- the Home Minister put clear distance between his government and the chief minister. Asked specifically whether the BJP was on board with the invitation, he cryptically said — “I was informed of her letter,” his discomfort evident with how things had emerged.

Read | Find the terms of engagement with Kashmir

This ideological dissonance is more striking as both parties have committed themselves to a written ‘agenda of alliance’ agreement which seeks talks with all stakeholders including the Hurriyat Conference. Has the BJP changed its mind about that? On Twitter, Ram Madhav, the co-author of the alliance document, questioned the unsolicited efforts by MPs to meet the Hurriyat Conference and the over-importance given to them over elected legislators. The BJP is absolutely within its rights to consolidate that as its ideological position — but is it in sync with its coalition partner? The Mufti government too has since lashed out at the separatists; its Finance Minister said Geelani had sullied Kashmiriyat by “showing no social graces” to parliamentarians and turning them away from the door; another minister Sajad Lone challenged Geelani saying if he was the “leader of the boys on the street”, how he could he allow more young men to die and not seek dialogue with Delhi. The PDP has a point; the Hurriyat has also been plagued by inconsistency — and some like party MP Muzaffar Beig have implied that the separatists will not move forward without a green signal from Islamabad. “The public debate is all about Kashmiriyat’, he told me, “but there is another dimension — Pakistaniyat.” But then don’t the changed circumstances make the political vision for dialogue in the PDP-BJP alliance document completely redundant for now?

Read | PM Modi’s hardline Kashmir strategy suits BJP, but not India or the Valley

Security forces argue that there is evident hypocrisy in the anti-India tirade of the separatist camp, given their family links to government jobs and other institutions of the state. In continuing ironies of Kashmir, Hizbul Chief Syed Salahuddin’s son, a state government employee, was among those saved recently in a terror strike on a government facility. Burhan Wani’s father is a headmaster of a government school, and Abdul Rashid Bhat, father of Wani’s so-called successor in the Hizbul is also an engineer in the government’s PWD department. BJP legislators like Ajatshatru Singh have argued in the state assembly that the government has spent hundreds of crores over five years on providing security, travel and health benefits to Kashmiri separatists; a Supreme Court petition now puts this number at ₹356 crore. Trace this revelation back to Ex-R&AW chief AS Dulat who first revealed that intelligence agencies funded not just separatists, but also some militants, as an established Spook technique to ‘engage’ them and also to compete for influence with Pakistan’s ISI. “Corrupting someone with money is more ethical and smarter than killing him,” Dulat told me wryly.

Read | Centre hardens stance, will not hold talks with Kashmir separatists

But the government is unable to decide — should it crack down on separatists or continue to try and engage them. Some sleuths argue that a weakened and irrelevant Hurriyat may be worse news for Delhi at a time when the faceless, leaderless agitation on the streets of Kashmir may leave no one else but them to talk to. Others are pushing for a harder clampdown.

Similarly, if the government assessment is (as a senior minister informed the all-party meeting) that “autonomists and humanists are now irrelevant in the Valley; Islamists are directing the agitation” — then Delhi must wonder at the efficacy of its outreach attempts. If greater autonomy for the state is not on the dialogue table (despite such a resolution passed by the state assembly 16 years ago), the government must ask itself — what will it talk about and with whom? At the moment the Kashmir conundrum is trapped in a dangerous web of paradoxes and confusion.

Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective

The views expressed are personal