The security bunkers that used to dot Srinagar’s streets for two decades have gone. The oppressive presence of armed security personnel has become less overwhelming. But the shadow of security forces still hangs heavy over the social, economic and political life of India’s Kashmir Valley.
During a brief visit to Srinagar, I discovered widespread popular alienation from the Indian state. Sullen anger, discontent, hopelessness and despair lie beneath the superficial calm. The anger is intense among educated young people. I wish I were wrong, but my discussions with separatist leaders from both factions of the Hurriyat Conference, mainstream politicians, intellectuals, and above all, young men and women, leave me with no other conclusion.
It’s hard to predict whether the anger will again explode into secessionist violence, as in 1989. But Indian policymakers and the larger public would be dangerously mistaken in ignoring the simmering discontent in the Valley, or in imagining that it can be neutralised by incremental or token gestures like another economic ‘package’.
The popular alienation is the cumulative result of many factors culminating in the execution of Afzal Guru, and the disgust this provoked. Most Kashmiris believe, like many Indians, that Guru’s flawed trial didn’t establish his guilt. His conviction was upheld not for legal reasons, but to assuage society’s ‘collective conscience’, shocked by the Parliament House attack.
Guru was killed because the United Progressive Alliance wanted to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s charge that it’s ‘soft’ on terrorists. He wasn’t granted the right to appeal given to members of Veerappan’s gang and to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins.
Other factors behind the alienation are innumerable human rights abuses, including the continuing detention of more than 1,000 young people for holding peaceful protests, despite the government’s promise to pardon them; and use of the draconian Public Safety Act – which allows detention without charges for two years – against 12- and 15-year-old boys for pelting stones. No less important is the disappearance of scores of people detained by the security forces, and many unpunished killings by the army, like that of three boys in Kupwara in 2010.
All this has strengthened resentment at what many Kashmiris consider India’s military ‘occupation’ of the Valley, which violates their freedom and dignity. Compounding this is the National Conference-Congress government’s failure to address rising unemployment, its dilution of the Right to Information Act, and the police’s killing of over 100 peaceful protesters in both 2008 and 2010.
Instead of redressing the situation, the state government has drafted the J&K Police Bill, which allows it to set up ‘special security zones’, where the police acquire magisterial and administrative powers – and impunity. It also allows the creation of private militias in the form of ‘village defence committees’.
No less important is the exposure of the joint civilian-military Unified Command as a handmaiden of the army. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, backed by former Union home minister P Chidambaram, repeatedly called for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from certain peaceful areas, but the army contemptuously vetoed that demand – just as it sabotaged a settlement of the Siachen dispute with Pakistan, favoured by New Delhi.
Army commanders have spoken on such policy issues in gross violation of the democratic principle that only the civilian leadership can do so. They even threatened to suspend counter-insurgency operations if the AFSPA is repealed. They loath any dilution of their power under the AFSPA to kill anyone merely suspected to be about to commit violence or breach a prohibitory order.
This only proves, say Kashmiri politicians, that the Indian state has no respect for Jammu and Kashmir’s elected government. Right or wrong, this perception is widely shared and reflects the past rigging of J&K Assembly elections and imposition of Delhi’s puppets on the state. A watershed was the 1987 election, whose rigging spontaneously provoked fierce anger. A separatist militancy erupted in 1989, which Pakistan cynically exploited, to disastrous effect.
The militancy and its repression claimed 80,000 lives before they declined post-2002 thanks to popular exhaustion with violence. Things further changed with the generally fair 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2008 assembly elections, which saw relatively high polling such as 40 percent-plus. In 2011, local body elections, the first in a decade, witnessed an impressive 79 percent turnout despite the separatists’ boycott call.
Kashmir’s economy has since expanded, tourism has boomed, and new enterprises have sprouted, including some in Information Technology and floriculture. Kashmiris got interested in joining India’s civil services. The number of Kashmiri students in Indian colleges has quadrupled over a decade, according to one estimate.
However, this doesn’t mean normalcy has returned or Kashmir’s wounds have healed. Kashmiris have learnt to use the available democratic space without changing their fundamental stance vis-a-vis India. There has been a transition from violent to peaceful protest, which became visible in the 2008 Amarnath Yatra, and again in 2010. But popular alienation hasn’t abated.
The Indian state’s response was twofold: first shoot or arrest agitators; when the protests ebb, make conciliatory moves through committees such as the interlocutors headed by journalist Dileep Padgaonkar.
This group is only the latest in a series of New Delhi’s ‘olive branch’ offers, including ministers’ missions in the 1990s, the K C Pant committee (2001), the NN Vohra committee (2003), several rounds of talks with separatists, numerous ‘packages’, and the prime minister’s five J&K working groups established in 2006. One of these, headed by the present Vice-President Hamid Ansari, recommended AFSPA’s revocation.
These initiatives may have temporarily calmed tempers in the Valley. But none of them produced results. Their recommendations either fell short of a solution, or were rejected outright. That was the fate of the interlocutors’ report too. Its story not only provokes derision, but worse, convinces people that the Indian government has no intention of reforming its J&K policy.
That was the message from the India-Pakistan backchannel talks too, based on General Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula. These very nearly succeeded in 2006-7 and could have clinched a solution which involves demilitarisation, regional autonomy and self-rule without redrawing borders. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t seize the moment. Musharraf’s position soon became untenable thanks to his confrontation with the judiciary. The moment passed.
Kashmir is now at a crossroads. The transition from insurgency to peaceful protests faces a serious threat amidst the perception that New Delhi remains unresponsive. The Valley has seen a dozen attacks on security forces by gunmen and suicide-bombers, and armed encounters, in recent weeks.
These were not led or organised by groups like Hizbul Mujaheedin, but conducted by educated professionals – engineers and MBAs – motivated by azadi (freedom, autonomy, independence, nobody knows exactly which), and convinced that normal, peaceful, dignified life is impossible under Indian ‘occupation’.
A majority of the young people I interviewed expressed sympathy for the attackers, while admitting that a heavy price would have to be paid for the militancy and the state’s retaliatory response. Some even said that peaceful protest has exhausted its potential, and armed resistance may be necessary to highlight the cardinal truth that the Kashmir problem remains unresolved after 66 years.
These are dangerous signs. New Delhi must heed them and radically correct course – even as it responds positively to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s welcome offer of talks.
By: Praful Bidwai
Former newspaper editor, researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi (India).