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Why remorse must be the first step in Narendra Modi’s Kashmir policy

opinion Updated: Aug 11, 2016 15:02 IST
Sushil Aaron

Kashmiri doctors and paramedics, their eyes covered by patches, take part in a protest at a hospital in Srinagar on August 10, 2016. The protesters covered one of their eyes to emulate the plight of the victims of pellet guns, who have been left partially or completely blind after being shot during ongoing protests.(AFP)

Delhi has no credible interlocutor left in Kashmir to negotiate with. The only way the Modi government can address the crisis is to commit itself to a process that begins with confidence building measures and culminates in a political solution. But it cannot start on the former as it is not interested in the latter. Contrition is necessary to move ahead.

An indispensable starting point of a reconciliation between a government and an embittered population has to be a shared understanding of the situation at hand. Right now the Narendra Modi government and the people of Kashmir are experiencing the current crisis so differently that it is difficult to see where the common ground is--and what endeavours like all-party meetings will achieve.

The Valley’s view to begin with: Those in Kashmir can think of nothing else except the brutal crackdown by security forces over the last month. At least 58 civilians have been shot dead by security forces and, by the government’s admission, around 3,356 civilians injured in clashes (although the number is likely to be much higher). There has been curfew for 34 days and so the full measure of the suffering is yet to come to light. This will be remembered as the summer when Kashmiris were blinded by the Indian state. How many have lost their sight to pellets is yet unclear but each story of a child like Insha, a 14 year old who wanted to be doctor, and now lies in hospital blinded, helplessly reaching out for her father’s reassurance is lacerating hearts in Kashmir. On August 3, the body of Riyaz Ahmad was found in Srinagar with his abdomen “perforated with hundreds of pellets”. August 5 is being called Bloody Friday as three people were killed and over 150 injured that day alone.

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Meanwhile in Delhi, the Modi government has constructed its own alternative moral tale that pins the blame entirely on Pakistan. Home minister Rajnath Singh has told Parliament that “whatever is happening in Kashmir is because of Pakistan”. There is talk of vested interests and reiteration that no power can take Kashmir away from India. There has been no remorse about excessive force--the Rajya Sabha resolution conveys anguish over the loss of lives “caused by the deteriorating situation”, completely disavowing any human responsibility. Instead, there are solemn assurances that maximum restraint will be used and that a committee will look into the use of non-lethal weapons.

Protestors throw stones at security forces during a clash in downtown Srinagar on August 10. (AFP)

PM Modi stuck to a similar script in his speech in Madhya Pradesh. He spoke of Kashmir as the heaven on earth Indians want to visit, he promised new heights of development and reaffirmed Vajpayee’s principles but regretted that the youth of Kashmir--whose hands ought to be holding a volleyball, cricket bats, books and laptops were instead being handed stones by certain interests. He rhetorically asked if Kashmir gained anything from violence and asked the youth to give up the gun and take on the plough in order to make Kashmir a ‘swarg’ again. He argued that Kashmir wanted peace, that the common man needed tourism to make a living and that traders sought market access to India--and to that end both the central and state governments were willing to offer any help needed.

The centre’s thinking judging from these pronouncements can be summarised as follows: This is all Pakistan’s fault, there may have been some excessive force but the government cannot acknowledge it but now that it has become a policy headache we would rather the Kashmiris just forget about it, take our help and move on--and not raise uncomfortable political questions.

The Kashmir manifesto: Delhi’s policy playbook in the Valley

Kashmiris, however, cannot move on so quickly. They are currently overwhelmed about those they have lost and their children who bear gruesome injuries. Women doctors are weeping about kids who have lost their sight, one even saying “it was better for them to die rather than be blinded. They cannot realise what has befallen them”. Amid this the PM’s talk of volleyball, apples and swarg will seem just cruelly insensitive and entirely inappropriate to the situation and aggravate the Valley as a whole.

The Centre has convened an all-party meeting on August 12. It is difficult to see how that will help so long as the Modi government fails to communicate effectively that it truly understands Kashmir’s anguish and distress (and not dismiss it entirely as Islamabad-driven). In a situation like this governments are expected to acknowledge mistakes, assign responsibility, deliver justice and outline political pathways to the future. But the Centre is loath to admit that excessive force was used let alone hold those who deployed such methods accountable. Many have already called for a political process to be initiated. But with whom? The PDP’s reputation stands tarnished, the National Conference is critical of the government’s approach, the Modi government is unlikely to initiate dialogue with moderate separatists who will refuse an offer anyway. And the youth on the street who have grown up only in conflict conditions with an overwhelming military presence want no truck with the Indian State.

The only way the Modi government can address the crisis in Kashmir is to commit itself to a process that begins with confidence building measures and culminates in a political solution. But it cannot start on the former as it is not interested in the latter, as the BJP has already foreclosed the prospect of restoring autonomy to J&K. Why bother admitting mistakes and censuring security forces when there’s no political objective to aim for? Status quo is what Delhi is aiming for. But status quo is not what it used to be in Kashmir.

To get back to where this began. If the Modi government is serious about Kashmir it first needs to start with being consistently contrite about what happened in July-August 2016 and prosecute those responsible for excesses. All party meetings and parliamentary resolutions mean nothing to Kashmir right now.

(The views expressed are personal.)