Satya Pal Malik may be right man for the job: New governor can begin parleys to walk Jammu and Kashmir away from edge

New Delhi:  The  Curfew Flower, Gul–e–Curfew, he was called, the strange excrescence that blossomed in the summer of 1984, nurtured by prime minister Indira Gandhi’s hubris and hatred. For 72 days of his first three months as chief minister, Ghulam Mohammad Shah was compelled to keep Kashmir’s enraged residents locked in their homes. The palace coup that put Shah in office discredited the idea of democracy for an entire generation—and laid the foundation for the Islamist insurgency that still rages.

The story of the Curfew Flower hangs over the appointment, on Tuesday night, of Satya Pal Malik as Jammu and Kashmir’s new governor. Prime minister Indira Gandhi’s campaign to dethrone chief minister Farooq Abdullah, which began soon after his election in 1983, was doggedly resisted by governor BK Nehru. In the face of sane counsel, she appointed a new governor to deliver the coup de grace.

For many in and outside Kashmir, the appointment of a politician with no Kashmir experience or credentials is a signal that New Delhi is poised to repeat that historic blunder. New Delhi, the argument goes, wants a pliant instrument to enforce a Hindu nationalist agenda aimed at undermining Kashmir’s federal autonomy—thus setting the stage for another epic crisis.

File image of Satya Pal Malik. Image courtesy: ANI/Twitter

File image of Satya Pal Malik. Image courtesy: ANI/Twitter

Perhaps that’s true.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this is true: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is facing up to the fact that the real problem in Kashmir today isn’t terrorism, but the politics which feeds it. Local and legislature elections looming, New Delhi needs a governor with hands-on political experience who can help weave together the sundered threads of Kashmir’s political fabric.

From the windows of Ranbir Mahal, now the Governor’s palace in Jammu, Maharaja Hari Singh would have looked out on columns of birds circling above the corpses rotting in his woods. From March, 1947, Hindu and Sikh refugees from Sialkot and Rawalpindi had begun arriving in the city, bringing with them their stories of horror. That summer, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers began planning reprisals. The Dogra state, fearful of its Muslim subjects, provided them with weapons and leadership.

Journalist GK Reddy published an interview in The Civil & Military Gazette on 28 October, 1947 “a mad orgy of Dogra violence against unarmed Muslims [that] should put any self-respecting human being to shame”.

Later, Kashmir’s first elected ruler, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, would explain the impact of the Partition carnage on Kashmir. “There isn't a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur” Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah said. “Kashmiris,” he went on, “fear the same fate lies ahead for them, too.”

The forces unleashed at Partition relentlessly tested Governor Vohra through his ten years in office. From 2006, a new Islamist movement in Kashmir began catalysing around the ruins of the decade-old insurgency. The movement finally exploded in 2008 after the lease of land to the Amarnath temple by chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s government.

Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani charged India with working to “alter the demographic character of our State.” “I caution my nation that if we do not wake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our land forever.”

Even though the Amarnath crisis was defused, the story didn’t end there. The decade since then has seen a new generation of young people in Kashmir radicalised in the course of street battles with police. That has manifested itself in an increase of recruitment to jihadist groups, which has risen steadily since 2014.

Parallel to this, the Hindu religious right wing has grown across Jammu. In 2015, ethnic-Kashmiri truck driver Zakir Bhat was burned alive by a Hindu nationalist mob, amidst claims he was smuggling cattle. In 2017, a Gujjar family was attacked in Reasi; several members suffered serious injuries. There have been dozens of smaller incidents.

Muslims who fear annihilation by a Hindu state have sharpened their support for anti-India jihadists. Hindus frightened by the prospect that they would be destroyed by a Pakistan-backed Islamist insurgency have also mobilised for conflict.

For the most part, political parties have had an opportunistic relationship with chauvinist mobilisations, seeing them as a tool to discredit their opponents. The reason for these tactics is self-evident. Long having abandoned the progressive, secular-nationalist politics that saw them develop into mass movements, the Congress and the National Conference degenerated into organisations concerned principally with the dispensation of patronage derived from control of development funds. In search of a continuous mass base, they had to turn to other issues to corral their constituencies.

Fighting off competition from the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1977, Sheikh Abdullah attacked its alliance with the Janata Party “whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims”. The strategy paid off: the National Conference was decimated in the Hindu-majority constituencies of Jammu but won all 42 seats in Kashmir.

Then, in 1983, prime minister Indira Gandhi conducted an incendiary campaign in Jammu, built around the claim that there was discrimination against the region because it was part of ‘Hindu India’.

In March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates—striving to beat-off the Congress-National Front alliance—declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state. One MUF leader even wrote it was time to “arouse the sense of jihad and martyrdom among the youth”.

Prime Minister Gandhi’s 1983 coup was followed, in 1987, the formation of an electoral cartel between both the National Conference and Congress—and flagrant rigging. These events persuaded many Kashmiris that their votes simply didn’t matter.

India’s counter-insurgency successes restored order—and provided a foundation for the foundations of the restoration of democracy in 1995. Élites could have changed the course of events after 1995—but failed to build a new democratic compact. The new political order made up almost entirely of figures from the old, failed one, proved it had learned nothing from history.

The consequences have been predictable: yet another generation alienated from democratic politics and seduced by the chimaera of building a religious utopia.

Peace will need the crafting of a new élite consensus, built around regional reconciliation, and an opening up of politics itself to new forces and figures. Politicians—not police officers—need to shepherd the process. Perhaps—just perhaps—Governor Malik can begin the conversations needed to walk Kashmir away from the edge.


Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 18:50 PM

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