In the autumn of 2015 I visited the Valley of Kashmir. Militancy was down, and there were few soldiers on the streets of Srinagar. One could drive around the city and its environs quite freely without being stopped.
On that trip, I found students fired with the idea of azadi, freedom. However, older Kashmiris sought a modus vivendi with the Republic of India, albeit on terms honourable to themselves. They hoped that the Government of the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, would provide them with the kind of dignity and autonomy they had long aspired for. They took seriously Modi’s promise of non-sectarian development, and recalled that it was a former BJP Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had insisted that within the broad contours of humanity, any solution to Kashmir was possible. On a more practical level, they expected that Modi’s government would expedite relief to those who had lost their homes in the horrific floods of 2014.
It turned out that this dawn too was a false one. Within a year Kashmir was plunged anew into turmoil, following the killing of the Hizbul leader Burhan Wani. Wani died in July 2016; for weeks afterwards, protesters and police battled it out across the Valley.
In November 2016, by which the time the violence had subsided, a Kashmiri civil society organisation, Lehar, held consultations in different cities of India. I attended the meeting in Bengaluru, where I heard the former RAW chief A. S. Dulat remark that the situation was even worse than it had been in 1989-90. Many young Kashmiris, he said, had a do or die attitude. But many others knew that this would in the end lead nowhere, for the Indian State was simply not going to let go of Kashmir. Eventually, said Dulat, this anger would taper off, and then it had to be seriously addressed by the political class in New Delhi.
But it was not. I have spoken of the hopes that many Kashmiris had in Narendra Modi after he became Prime Minister. These hopes have been tragically belied. On Kashmir at least the Prime Minister has shown no leadership whatsoever. He has committed a series of errors that have worked to India’s detriment in Kashmir. The first was to not ensure prompt relief for the victims of the 2014 flood. The second was not to grant an immediate audience to the elected Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, when she came to New Delhi seeking help following the protests of autumn 2016. The final error was not to grant an audience to the senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha after he had taken a group of citizens to the Valley in December 2016.
If lack of adequate flood relief showed incompetence and indifference, the refusal to meet Yashwant Sinha and his colleagues displayed arrogance. If the Prime Minister would not even meet a senior leader of his own party seeking to build bridges in Kashmir, how could one expect him or his government to have concern for the aam admi in the Valley?
The Prime Minister did not meet the group of eminent citizens who visited Kashmir twice in late 2016. I wonder if his office read the reports the group prepared. They revealed a deep sense of hurt and alienation among Kashmiris of all ages and factions. Kashmiris asked why the pellet guns which blinded their youth were not used in the case of the Jat and Patidar agitations, which were far more violent and led to the destruction of far more property. They asked why the President and Prime Minister of India attended the last rites of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, but not the last rites of the J&K Chief Minister.
‘There is a near complete lack of faith’, observed Sinha and his colleagues, ‘in anything that the government of India says or promises because of a history of broken commitments. Even among those who say that they see a future with India, there is anger that India has not done enough to keep the Kashmiris with it’.
The government of India’s attitude towards Kashmir and Kashmiris has alternated between apathy and arrogance. Meanwhile, among a vocal and influential section of Indian civil society, there is a vindictive attitude towards Kashmir and Kashmiris. In the early 1990s, Islamic militants forced the Kashmiri Pandits to flee their homeland. That purging remains a shameful episode in modern Kashmiri history, for which the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq have scarcely expressed any remorse. That said, must young Kashmiris who were not even born when the Pandits were expelled, be made to pay for that expulsion? The cyber-warriors of Hindutva insist that they must. And it appears that the government in New Delhi is listening to them.
The hostile attitude of an influential section of the Indian mainstream was manifest most recently in the debate over the use by an army unit of a Kashmiri young man as a human shield. A decorated war hero, a Lieutenant-General who had himself been in charge of the Northern Command, was viciously trolled for suggesting that this act was not in the best traditions of the Army he had so honourably served. The Attorney-General of India went so far as to suggest that only people living in air-conditioned rooms could ever criticise the Army (I am presuming that the A-G’s own office in Lutyens Delhi makes do with a fan).
I have much sympathy with the Army, which in Kashmir especially is made to carry the can for the failures of the political class. But in this particular case a particular officer seems to have acted egregiously. And those in the frontlines (where there are no air-conditioners at all) will pay the price. As a CRPF officer quoted in The Hindu put it: ‘The Army is confined to their camps when not participating in operations, but we have to interact with the public on a daily basis. The video has undone whatever outreach we managed in the past. We criticise the Naxals for using villagers as human shields during encounters with security forces — how are we different then?’
The Indian case in and for Kashmir was made fragile in the past by the rigging of elections. And it is made fragile in the present by the rising tide of jingoism, which insists that the government of India and the Indian Army have never made a mistake in Kashmir, indeed can never make a mistake in Kashmir.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal