He seems to act independently of us and is extremely critical of, if not hostile, to us.’ That is a secret letter from the home minister of India to the prime minister, warning him that the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and his party fears “losing their hold on the people of the valley”.
For his part, the chief minister is apprehensive that the national party’s pledge of equality for all communities might give way to religious intolerance. “No one can deny that the communal spirit still exists in India,” said the J&K chief minister, in a speech that disturbed the Hindus of Jammu. “If there is a resurgence of communalism in India, how are we to convince the Muslims of Kashmir that India does not intend to swallow up Kashmir?”
This is not a speech Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has yet made, and the letter I referred to is not one Rajnath Singh has yet written to Narendra Modi, but well they might.
Not a whole lot has changed in J&K in the 65 years since that letter, speech and events I referred to were described by writer Victoria Schofield in her book Kashmir in Conflict: India, Pakistan and the Unending War. Replace the names, mildly alter the circumstances, and, every once in an era, you will find a peace deal crumbling in this eternally troubled state.
It was June 27, 1950, when Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru that Sheikh Abdullah — at the time very much the “Lion of Kashmir” to the overwhelmingly Muslim Valley — was, despite pledging allegiance to India’s secular democracy, flirting with ideas that kept him popular and the Valley on the boil, interspersed with periods of calm that the rest of India mistakes for normalcy.
The current period of calm is over, and a frisson runs again through the Valley. Sayeed today enjoys none of the popularity that Abdullah, reviled today on the Srinagar street as a sellout, boasted then. But like Abdullah then, Sayeed is keen to win over his rebellious constituents. In the recent elections his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) persuaded Muslim Kashmiris that it alone could stop India from swallowing up Kashmir. So, he pushes, pushes the partnership with the BJP to breaking point almost immediately after taking charge of a state more cynical than it was in Abdullah’s time. Sayeed knows the people who elected him are resentful for having to “see this day”, the first political foothold of the BJP in their land.
There are two words commonly used to describe the unlikely and painfully stitched-together alliance in the thorny crown atop India: unique or opportunistic. The alliance is unique because despite all that is said about the opportunism of the parties involved, there is no question it offered a sliver of hope for the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir to provide meaningful representation for their opposing electoral verdicts and positions. The alliance is opportunistic because despite all that is said about its uniqueness, there is little doubt both parties were desperate for power.
The BJP could tide over Sayeed’s grateful thanks to the separatists and Pakistan. But any party that takes a Hindu nationalist stance cannot possibly justify the release of the sharp-eyed, quick-witted separatist Masarat Alam, who emerged from jail last week, triumphant and smiling after a four-year incarceration. Alam will possibly be followed by other political prisoners, detained under J&K’s oppressive Public Safety Act. Alam is mainly charged with planning and instigating protests in the tumultuous summer of 2010, when 112 mostly young Kashmiris died in police firing on rioters. If the alliance somehow endures and Alam keeps his freedom, at some point he will put his organisational skills to use again and attempt to shred the uneasy calm.
When I wandered the backstreets of Srinagar during that turbulent summer of 2010, Alam was a ghostly presence and inspiration. His name was whispered by the angry young men who raged and relentlessly attacked the security forces, as alienated from the idea of India as they could possibly be. In the separatist warren of Maisuma, I listened to rioter icon Owais Ahmed “Mandela”— then 20, grimacing with pain from bullet wounds to his shoulder — dismiss any accommodation with India. A few streets away, when I sat with another young man, partially paralysed after a tear-gas shell struck his head, his speech reduced to garbled sounds. What were his thoughts of India, I asked. He silently pulled a finger across his throat.
This anger has not reduced. What I observed then about the modern Kashmiri Muslim narrative holds good today: Singers lend voice to their alienation. Students and angry young people, locals and expat Kashmiris, spread these voices over Facebook, Twitter and other corners of the Internet. Even government officials believe India does wrong through them: Last month, a police constable lauded the martyrdom of his son, a militant who had been shot dead by the army.
The PDP cannot now afford to return Alam to jail, and the BJP — in its embarrassed anger, mocked by parties it once lectured on national interest — cannot countenance his freedom. So, what now? Is the alliance doomed to fall apart, as so many predicted it would?
It might, but that would be a mistake. Now that they are in this difficult marriage, both parties have to try and make it work. The easy choice would be to dissolve the partnership, but this will benefit neither the BJP nor the PDP, neither Jammu nor Kashmir, which are so ideologically split now that short of a formal division, no long-term pacification can work. It certainly will not benefit India. The difficult option is to, somehow, ignore the noise, stay the course, focus on Modi’s promise of governance and aspiration-fulfilment, make people’s life easier and freer — and, for now, keep at bay J&K’s depressing inevitabilities.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit,
The views expressed by the author are personal