One of the most damaging aspects of India’s public sphere is the persistent framing of Kashmir as a purely national security issue long after levels of violence have declined significantly. This has a real bearing on the policy choices that politicians get to make.
Serious questions concerning Kashmir, about the role of history and experience in the formation of identity, the sanctity of political freedoms in a democracy, how political preferences are continually shaped by the experience of living in a heavily militarised zone — these issues are rarely discussed in the media.
Instead, Kashmir receives attention essentially as a variable in geopolitics, not for the specifics of its human experience. Narratives turn its landscape into a litmus test for India’s security; everyday life of the Kashmiris and their textured political outlooks are beside the point as territorial dominance is paramount.
Kashmir’s destiny is to apparently fit into India’s nationalist self-image. It used to be important to India as a symbol of its secularism, as an example of embracing a Muslim-majority region. Such pretences are gone; nowadays it is a site for displaying Indian muscularity to show Pakistan that it cannot wrest it away. Cynical news anchors and politicians use Kashmir to purvey a homogenising nationalism that middle classes are hooked on to. Kashmir may be the unfinished business of partition for Pakistan; it also seems to be the oxygen for India’s self-belief.
This securitised representation suits some constituencies. The army needs it to argue against lifting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Portraying calls for restoring autonomy as acts of perfidy suit some constituents in Jammu and their allies in the RSS as they seek to challenge Kashmir’s aspirations and contain its presumed hold of the state government apparatus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has participated in this representation as a political figure in the past. As a figure in power, he may now understand the need to separate state policy from party preferences but so far there is little indication that he wants to pursue policies in Kashmir that break free of the confines that Hindutva allies and mainstream narratives impose — notwithstanding the formation of a PDP-BJP alliance in J&K.
This is borne out in the Centre’s outlook towards the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led government. The former, for instance, has just granted Rs 1,667 crore to rebuild Kashmir after the devastating floods last year, far short of the Rs 44,000 crore the state government had asked for. There is a sense in Srinagar that the money given by New Delhi is not enough to even scrub the houses clean of the effects of the flood waters, let alone restore them.
By refusing to grant adequate funds, the Centre is not only letting down the Valley again, it is also suggesting that New Delhi is failing to fully grasp Mufti’s role in pacifying the Valley. The whole point of Mufti being in power was to use the J&K government to blunt the sharp edge of Kashmiri anxieties, expand the ‘collaborationist’ mainstream party space and reduce the emotional distance between Kashmir and New Delhi. And because he operates from a disaffected valley, he necessarily has to indulge in ‘soft separatism’, release hardliners like Masarat Alam and restore a modicum of political freedoms.
But thanks to the atmospherics created by the media and the Centre’s policies towards Pakistan, the strategy is not panning out as planned. Instead, Mufti is being portrayed as a betrayer for tolerating separatist rallies, prompting him to now clamp down on dissent. After 100 days in office, Mufti finds himself robbed of a voice, is short of money and confronts an entirely different dispensation in the Capital. He used to be able to work the networks in New Delhi, bond with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra years ago — he perhaps doesn’t quite know how to handle the younger BJP set currently in charge.
All this threatens Mufti’s base, which is in any case angry with him for allying with the BJP. Instead of governing and grandstanding as a senior statesman, he now has to focus on securing his daughter Mehbooba Mufti’s prospects, and may seriously have to reflect on the case for pulling out of the coalition. While the PDP plots its future, the Kashmiris watch as civilian shootings continue, stare at the high watermark still etched on their homes and watch the space for democratic protests shrink. They are also alienated afresh by the BJP’s rhetoric on exclusive townships for the Kashmiri Pandits, its periodic threats to roll back Article 370, and speculations about a year-long Amarnath yatra.
All this is a recipe for unrest. Policymakers in the Capital will need to reflect on the following: They need to recall that for all their ingenuity, security agencies did not anticipate the protests during 2008-10. Taking on two fronts — simultaneously aggravating Pakistan and Kashmir — is not a wholesome prospect for the Valley or for India at large. The Centre has to find a way to insulate Kashmir from the effects of its hardline Pakistan policy and the only way to do that is to convincingly convey empathy and support economic recovery. New Delhi must also realise that the Kashmiris will not forget ‘final status’ issues: Either the leadership has a plan for addressing political questions or one that tackles democratic and governance deficits in J&K. Avoiding both and ignoring Mufti is to yield policy space to the bureaucratic establishment, which has unfailingly made things worse in the past. The more the Centre puts Mufti on a leash, the more tenuous the coalition and distance there is between New Delhi and Srinagar.
The media must also understand the merits of having a more thoughtful coverage of Kashmir even if it wants to back the BJP’s policy. If anchors go apoplectic about the presence of a few Pakistan flags at a rally each time, an ISIS flag is bound to show up, undermining the Centre’s narrative of control. And that will prompt even more desperate counter-measures.