There is an ominous stillness in Srinagar that has nothing to do with the curfew. On the empty, lifeless streets, the sound of silence might actually be the sound of stasis — the motionless that erupts when political initiatives collapse in conflict zones. Yes, under the watchful gaze of the army, the unrest may appear to have settled down for now. But it’s like trying to cover a boiling cauldron of water —sooner or later, it will spill over. And then it will be right back to the drawing board.
How did the narrative of the Kashmir story change so suddenly and so dramatically? If an extraordinarily vigilant Election Commission delivered a largely free and fair election in 2002, the polls in 2008 promised real hope for change. It was no one’s case — not even that of India’s youngest chief minister — that these were elections that were going to resolve the Kashmir dispute. There were enough signs that mainstream politics now had the capacity to accommodate at least a few separatist agendas. Extraordinarily, this was despite the fact that the elections had taken place in the shadow of 26/11.
But here is the irony. While relations between New Delhi and Islamabad had nose-dived after the Mumbai attacks, Kashmir was no longer the ‘core’ thorn in the Indian side. It was terrorism, not disagreements over Kashmir that had demolished the composite dialogue. And while the present Pakistani establishment may debunk the theory that India and Pakistan were a heartbeat away from a formal resolution on Kashmir, there is a general, if unspoken, agreement that Musharraf’s formula may continue to map the journey ahead. Pragmatists on both side of the border are aware that the broad framework for any such resolution would be the old staples — greater autonomy; soft borders and eventual demilitarisation.
In other words, if terrorists hadn’t declared war against India with the Mumbai attacks, ‘resolving’ Kashmir suddenly seemed possible in our lifetime. Nor were there any necessary direct links between the acts of terror across India and the Kashmir issue. Between the jihadi terrorism that was threatening to destroy Pakistan and the changing situation within the Kashmir valley in India, the old, classic, understanding of the Kashmir dispute was beginning to look anachronistic. Ironically, just last month, I made the same argument at a Pugwash track-II conference in Islamabad. The script, I said, had changed in India; and Pakistan also needed to understand some of these dramatic shifts in the Valley.
How, then, did we get to the stage where the army was called out on the streets of Srinagar after a gap of 15 years? A decade ago it was grenades and explosive devices that would set the city on fire. Now militant violence is clearly on the decline. In fact last year, attacks by militants were the lowest they have been in years. But today, a new generation of angry, restless young men have picked up stones as their weapons of choice and created an intractable and, frankly, much tougher challenge for the security forces.
Deriving their self-image from the intifada in Palestine, these young men claim an effective victimhood by pitching the battles as one between stones and bullets. The killing of 16 civilians as a result of these clashes between protestors and security forces has only underscored their campaign. Take the case of 17-year-old Tufail Ahmed Mattoo who was killed while walking back home from a tuition class. Initial medical reports indicate that the death was the result of a tear gas shell. Hugging a picture of his son, Tufail’s father asked me in a stoic, understated voice, “Won’t such killings just bring out more stone-pelters on the streets?” Of course, the much vilified paramilitary forces suffer as well, stacking up more than 200 stone pelting injuries in the past month, while continuing to operate under enormous hostility. It is this hostility that is slowly filling the vacuum created by the failure of a political dialogue and it is this hostility that will eventually have to be engaged with.
The home minister has gone on record to argue that in some separatist pockets it is the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba that has stoked the flames. And while, as recently released phone intercepts show, at least some of the violence may be deliberate and fuelled by external groups, it is equally true that popular anger on the ground cannot be wished away.
What has gone unnoticed is that Kashmir is throwing up a new generation of increasingly radicalised young men who are beginning to see the dispute through a religious prism, instead of a political one. Moderate voices in the city — both civilian and political — are often too scared of countering them, and New Delhi hasn’t helped by giving them precious little to play with. The recent assault on Fazal Haq Qureshi, who brokered the first dialogue between the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Centre 10 years ago, was a reminder of how high the cost of peace can be.
But that makes it even more imperative for Delhi to see the writing on the wall. Stop measuring Kashmir only by indices of tourist influx or financial plans. Every time, the government has failed to arm the moderates with political weapons, the extremists have prevailed in Kashmir. The PM’s working committees and task force reports are buried under dusty cobwebs. The Cabinet Committee on Security hasn’t even begun debating a three-month-old proposal to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. And the National Conference’s autonomy plans, which have been ready for a decade, have been ignored altogether.
It’s time for the prime minister to step in. His last visit to the Valley ended up being a missed opportunity. If he can bravely gamble for peace with Pakistan, shouldn’t he start the process at home first?
*Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
( The views expressed by the author are personal )