Cut the red tape
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Cut the red tape

Prescriptions for the future often lie in lessons of the past. Those grappling with the volatile anger of the Kashmir valley today may serve their own understanding well with a willingness to travel back in time. Barkha Dutt writes.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2011 13:34 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

Prescriptions for the future often lie in lessons of the past. Those grappling with the volatile anger of the Kashmir valley today may serve their own understanding well with a willingness to travel back in time. They won’t even have to travel too far back or too long a distance. Rewinding this nightmarish reel to one of its earlier images may help us understand the script better.

It was on June 11 that 17-year-old Tufail Mattoo — now an international buzzword for all the wrong reasons — was killed when walking home from a tuition class. A teargas shell — apparently meant for protestors on the street — burst open Tufail’s head instead and his sudden, tragic death marked the beginning of Kashmir’s summer of discontent. Later — as we sat in a room where placards demanding justice for his death were stacked up against the tiny windowsills, blocking all the sunshine that once streamed into this home — Tufail’s father spoke to me about ‘stone-pelters’. A soft-spoken, stoic man whose tears had been been consumed by a quiet anger, Tufail’s father had a question. His son, he said, had never hurled a stone at anyone, but “won’t incidents like this one bring more boys out on the streets?” he asked.

His words were both prescient and unheeded. Much has been said about all the mistakes made in the aftermath of Tufail’s death. If anything, these three months have been a blueprint for how not to handle a crisis. But if, going forward we are ready to learn and re-invent at all, it is at Tufail Mattoo’s house that the all-party delegation must begin its outreach to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Politicians have been arguing over how many protests in the valley are “spontaneous” and how many are “orchestrated”, finally leading the Prime Minister himself to concede to a complex mix of both. In this tragically polarised “bullets-for-stones” debate, even the most strident nationalist cannot justify why a teenage boy who was looking forward to his 18th birthday should die for no fault of his, other than the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, let a visit to his house be the beginning of a humane intervention in the valley. The fact that the finance minister and the home minister are both going to be part of this political delegation is a signal by the UPA that this is not a mere cosmetic intervention. Now, let them show imagination and empathy by breaking free from a bureaucratic schedule of meetings that may only allow them to engage with yes-men. The worst thing that could happen is for this delegation of politicians to be locked away in a sanitised, sarkari bungalow, where carefully chosen shikaarawallahs and carpet-sellers get five-minute audiences with the bada sahebs. Quite, simply, if you want to preach only to the converted, don’t expect an evangelical impact.

No, indeed. Let our politicians walk through the stillness of curfew-torn Srinagar; let them meet the boys and girls at the university and wrestle with their intractable anger; let them spend a day with a hapless local policeman and see how he is crushed between the volatile rage on the streets and the duty of his uniform and let them look the alarming and growing radicalisation of the valley’s youth straight in the eye and ask themselves what Congress president Sonia Gandhi seemed to ready to talk about: “why are they so angry with us?”

In an extraordinary election in 2008, all eight assembly seats in Srinagar voted for the National Conference, despite a failed call by the separatists to raise the stakes of the election to that of a ‘referendum’. So, why is it in 2010 that neither the elected representatives nor the separatists seem to have any control of the street? Whatever else he may be faulted for, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was quintessentially candid when he said the protests were “largely leaderless”. It is into this political vacuum that some of India’s most prominent politicians are stepping in. They cannot afford to be frightened of the backlash of anger and yes, maybe even a hurled shoe or two. In the circumstances, it would be a small price to pay. So let our all-party delegation not stay away from hospitals in Srinagar because the security establishment declares it to be too ‘risky’.

There is, at this moment, an ethical obligation on the separatist leadership as well to meet New Delhi’s initiative at least a quarter of the way. Protest calendars that now urge people to target army posts have triggered the inevitable intervention of the Army jointly policing the streets of Srinagar — something it was sharply averse to when the crisis first erupted. Separatists have argued that talking in the present environment is ‘useless’. Well, so is doing nothing and watching the street slip into near anarchy. In 2008, Kashmir had managed to mainstream separatist sentiments into the wider embrace of electoral politics. Regional parties introduced the competitive slogans of self-rule and greater autonomy into the political lexicon. In 2010, the moderates within the Hurriyat Conference are faced with near-irrelevance if they just keep watching from the margins. And yes, the onus is on New Delhi to strengthen the moderates instead of seeking to divide them . History will always pose a tough question to Delhi’s intelligence establishment. Wasn’t it better off dealing with the pro-azaadi Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front than with the fundamentalism that was later imported from across the border?

And for those who believe that a humane approach disrespects the Indian soldier, try asking the soldier what he wants.
Does he really want to live his days locked into an endless, repetitive cycle of hostile confrontation? Perhaps when our politicians are actually there, the distant gaze of Delhi may transform into a tighter close-up of the grim reality that is Jammu and Kashmir today.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV n The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Sep 17, 2010 22:10 IST