Revoking of Article 370 forces long evaded questions on freedom, democracy back into focus; puts an end to unicorn hunting in Kashmir
The Narendra Modi govt's hopes of building a naya Kashmir rest on developing a relationship with Valley's youth, a profoundly alienated generation which had mainly encountered India at the wrong end of a soldier’s gun
From 2008, Kashmir’s youth cohort slowly drifted away from the promise of politics, and towards the utopian millenarianism of the jihadists — a process that is still far from spent
Kashmir’s political leaders have long evaded hard questions on precisely what rights they seek when invoking autonomy or azaadi — and why they can’t get them through India’s constitutional democracy
India’s leadership, too, has long sought to integrate Kashmir into 'the national mainstream' — without explaining what this thing might actually be
Modi govt's decision to revoke Article 370 has gutted Kashmir’s political system in the Valley, but it also means, the conversation can't be avoided anymore
Playing Inspector Clouseau to Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s Pink Panther, an Intelligence Bureau officer carefully guided the Kashmiri secessionist leader away from the exceedingly agreeable environs of Khan Market, bathed that afternoon in Delhi’s warm November sun. To shake off lurking assassins—and prying journalists—the Mirwaiz and his colleagues were made to ride the dank elevators in nearby Lok Nayak Bhawan, before driving to an Intelligence Bureau safehouse off Lodhi Road
Inside, former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram was waiting, hoping to persuade Kashmir’s secessionists to break ranks with Pakistan, and sign a peace deal involving greater federal autonomy and a share of political power.
To no-one’s surprise, except perhaps his own, Chidambaram’s persuasive talents failed. Four years of secret negotiations ended that day. Kashmir remained firmly mired in that place with which it has become so intimately familiar: impasse.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech, on Thursday, laid out New Delhi’s new terms of engagement with Kashmir’s people: private-sector investment, jobs, governance. For the first time, an Indian prime minister made no reference to Kashmir’s ethnic-religious or historical exceptionality. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised autonomy more than once; his predecessor, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, cast insaniat, jamhuriat and Kashmiriat as the foundations for peace.
Kashmir’s political leadership has long evaded hard questions on precisely what rights they seeks by invoking autonomy or azaadi — and why they can’t get them through India’s constitutional democracy. New Delhi, too, has long sought to assimilate Kashmir into what is called ‘the national mainstream’, without explaining what this thing might actually be.
Ignoring the issue, though, won’t make it go away. Prime Minister Modi needs to begin that difficult conversation — learning three key lessons from the pitfalls of the process which died near Khan Market, unlamented, on 19 November, 2009.
New Delhi’s effort to reconstruct Kashmir’s political life began in the shadows of the Kargil war, when former Jamaat-e-Islami chief Ghulam Mohammad Bhat broke ranks with the jihadists the Islamist group had long nurtured, and called for “a political dialogue”. Facilitated by Indian intelligence, he met with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar in Saudi Arabia. That meeting led on to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s 2000 ceasefire in Kashmir—and many quiet conversations about new political possibilities.
In the summer of 2002, Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone met with then-Inter Services Intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq, in Sharjah, to make the case for Hurriyat engagement with New Delhi. He was, soon after, assassinated by the Lashkar-e-Taiba hit squad.
Though contact between the Hurriyat and New Delhi continued, fear stalked the process. Former deputy prime minister LK Advani, met with the Hurriyat leadership for the first time in January 2004. In May and September, 2005, former prime minister Singh met with them again. The Hurriyat, though, never delivered an agenda for actual negotiations — and even backtracked on promises to join a multi-party dialogue in 2006.
Lesson 1: Terror imposes limits of manoeuvre on politics. Prime Minister Modi hopes new leaders will emerge from the panchayat system — but 1,407 of 2,135 halqas, or village clusters, saw no voting at all in last year’s elections, after the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen warned candidates to keep a funeral shroud handy.
Frustrated, New Delhi turned instead to Pakistan. In secret meetings which began in 2005, then prime minister Singh’s envoy, SK Lambah, hammered out a draft deal which, in essence, would have recognised the Line of Control as an international border, in return for freedom of movement across it. “I think the agenda is pretty much set”, the Mirwaiz told an interviewer the next summer. "It is September, 2007", he went on, "that India and Pakistan are looking at, in terms of announcing something on Kashmir"
The Pakistan Army, though, began fearing that a deal on Kashmir would turn its jihadist proxies against the state — and eased General Musharraf out of power. The peace deal fell apart, finally collapsing in the wake of 26/11.
Kashmir's Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, now seized centre-stage. In the summer of 2008, he warned his audience that India was seeking to change "the Muslim majority into a minority by settling down troops along with their families." Then, "they will either massacre Muslims as they did in Jammu in 1947, or carry out a genocide as was done in Gujarat."
Hindu nationalism, Geelani argued to a youth cohort which had only encountered the country at the wrong end of a soldier’s gun, was an existential enemy to Kashmir and Islam: "cultural hegemony is a logical culmination of political supremacy," he had argued in his prison notebooks, Rudad-e-Qafas.
Helped on by the communal storms unleashed by the grant of land-use rights to the trust which manages the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir, Geelani was able to marginalise the Hurriyat, as well as Kashmir’s pro-India political parties.
Lesson 2: Politics needs big ideas, and sustained momentum. Focused on the question of apportioning power, and ignoring all issues of ends, New Delhi’s peace process collapsed in the face of a powerful idea. Geelani had a vision of what Kashmir ought to become; New Delhi and its partners in Kashmir had none.
Even as the peace process unfolded, the Kashmir that gave birth to its leadership disappeared. Living in decaying old-city areas, gutted of their trading and artisanal core, or in urban agglomerations emerging from overcrowded agricultural lands, a new generation of prospect-less young people emerged. Lacking skills and capital, this youth cohort had no skills to compete in a new economy; large scale corruption denied them a share in contracts or jobs created by New Delhi.
Like Prime Minister Modi, successive leaders promised economic hope: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced an Rs 10,000 crore plan in 1987; Prime Minister Singh’s Rs 24,000 crore in 2006; economist C Rangarajan a five-year, Rs 2517 crore plan to revive agriculture and train over 100,000 young people in 2010.
The reason for this failure wasn’t just incompetent bureaucrats or corrupt politicians: the political system itself had no incentive to deliver.
New Delhi benched both the National Conference and People’s Democratic Party through the peace process — just as it has done now by sending their leaders to prison. Thus, creating incentives for them to act as spoilers. In an effort to preempt the Hurriyat’s looming entry into politics, the pro-India parties tried to appropriate its ethnic-religious, anti-India platform.
Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah demanded greater federal autonomy, through a resolution passed by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. Examined closely, there’s nothing in Kashmir’s autonomy proposals that could credibly be argued to enhance public freedoms or rights. The autonomy proposals sought to roll back the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Election Commission. Kashmir’s people would even have been denied the protections of constitutional fundamental rights.
PDP leaders, for their part, sought to make peace with the religious right, allying itself with xenophobic campaigns charging India with bringing vice to Kashmir. The PDP even flirted with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, in an effort to cast itself as a guardian of Kashmir’s ethnic-religious identity.
Fixated on the chimera of a grand peace deal in Kashmir, though, New Delhi chose to ignore the religious-nationalist turn in Kashmir’s politics, hoping it would eventually go away. But the failure to engage — and call out — chauvinist demands let the PDP and National Conference represent India as an enemy of Kashmiri agency and self-determination.
From 2008, as it became clear pro-India parties couldn’t deliver, Kashmir’s youth cohort slowly drifted away from politics to jihadist nihilism. In 2016, their rage exploded across Kashmir — this time, sweeping away the political system itself.
Lesson 3: Kashmir’s search for autonomy or azaadi, as well as New Delhi’s pursuit of assimilation, are a unicorn hunt; diversions from the real issues of rights and freedoms that democracy involves. Ending this unicorn hunt, though, involves engaging the politicians Kashmir has—not the ones New Delhi wishes it did. Failing to do so will push them to act as spoilers.
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