The government’s Kashmir policy needs a reboot, writes Barkha Dutt
The assassination of Shujaat Bukhari -- a friend and colleague -- throws me back to a chilling personal memory of Kashmir. The year was 2000. Then, like now, there was a ceasefire in the valley -- this one called by the Hizbul Mujahideen as a faction of its militants began historic talks with the Vajpayee government. Obviously a gigantic amount of back-channel work had been conducted by intelligence agencies to enable the first-ever dialogue of its kind. Those days, the Vajpayee vision of peace allowed interlocutors to explore breakthroughs without fear of being labelled traitors. But, alas, those who have advocated dialogue in Kashmir have always paid with their lives. Within days of the talks the Hizbul called off its ceasefire because of India’s principled refusal to make space for Pakistan at the same table.
I was in Srinagar reporting the story. Two days later, on August 10, I ran out of my hotel at the sound of a blast. Many other journalists from the press colony nearby (the same area where Shujaat was killed) were also running in the direction of the explosion. Within minutes, we would discover that this was a booby trap. A second more powerful bomb had been planted in a car; the first blast was a ploy to lure us to the spot. Pradeep Bhatia, photographer with the Hindustan Times, was the fastest on his feet. He was killed instantly. I remember cradling the blood-soaked body of Fayaz, another photographer, dragging him out of the melee, while simultaneously trying to remain cogent in my television report. Needless to say the talks with the Hizb collapsed after the terror strike on the media. Worse, the militants of the Majid Dar faction who had been willing to talk to the government were subsequently killed by Pakistan-backed groups.
While we await the results of the investigation, the assault on Shujaat could be similarly motivated. As does the murder of Aurangzeb, a soldier of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, who was abducted and killed by terrorists while he was on his way home for Eid. The government was to take a decision on extending its unilateral ceasefire beyond Ramzan; now that seems impossible.
But in the 18 years that tragically bookend the murders of Pradeep Bhatia and Shujaat Bukhari, Kashmir has changed perilously. Terrorist violence and Pakistan’s role in the valley is a constant. But the security forces had been vastly successful in containing militant activity. They had deftly brought the state to a situation where the onus was on political imagination to make the next move. That never came. And the vacuum grew alarmingly large. As the use of the ‘anti-national’ label became inanely commonplace, the irony is that it is in fact politicians who have let down soldiers with an inconsistent, unthinking Kashmir policy.
While all governments have made some mistakes, in the last four years especially, New Delhi’s Kashmir policy has been dangerously unsteady. It has lurched wildly between hardline jingoism and sheer denialism. Even the announcement of a ceasefire -- a gesture I otherwise welcomed -- seems to have been done without any ground work. It abruptly followed a phase of tough-fisted ground operations. Contradictions in the Kashmir policy mirror the ideological chaos of the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance. The untenable coalition has fed the extremists on either side instead of being able to tame or moderate them.
Supporters of the BJP -- and you will see this on social media -- are unwilling to confront the resurgence in local militancy that some of us have been warning about for three years. When I factually reported that Burhan Wani’s father is a government school headmaster and Zakir Musa had studied engineering, I did so to make the point that generalised rhetoric about education and laptops vs stones won’t change much. For stating mere facts rightwing supporters vilify and smear us as if we are militants. News channels have done immeasurable damage to prospects of peace by tarring all Kashmiris with the same brush. Our refusal to create and engage with moderate Kashmiri voices is fast leading us to a point where there will be no one sane to represent the other side. Meanwhile police officers in the valley say women and children have begun to snatch weapons from men on duty. The funerals of those killed by the forces have become recruiting grounds for new militants. And when Kashmiri policemen travel back to their village, they sometimes cloak their faces to avoid being recognised.
India is absolutely right in rejecting the airy-fairy United Nations Human Rights Council report on violations in Kashmir. The report pretends terrorism does not exist. And of course we must damn Pakistan for its role in using terrorism as a weapon of asymmetric warfare.
But some mistakes are our own. The government’s Kashmir policy needs a reboot. And a start would be to restore the writ of the state and eliminate the inchoate paradoxes of the BJP and PDP partnership with governor’s rule.
Else, as Shujaat’s assassination shows us, things could become entirely irretrievable.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal