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Vacuum in Kashmir

July 06, 2013

IT is tempting to say that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Srinagar on June 25 along with Congress president Sonia Gandhi reflected the same inadequacy of his current policies on Kashmir as does the limited rail link he inaugurated the next day between Banihal in Jammu and Qazigund, the gateway to the Valley.

They flagged off the first train on a mere 18-kilometre section of what is planned as a rail link to connect India’s vast railway network. It would connect Jammu, via Srinagar to Baramula, near the Line of Control. However, the most critical sector between Katra and Banihal (117km) “has progressed only up to 12 to 14pc”, the comptroller and auditor-general reported.

Nonetheless, there is some tangible achievement, though in the shape of a rail link “within Kashmir rather than to Kashmir”. But the gains of the prime minister’s policies on Kashmir are far more slender. This is a pity because it is accepted at all hands that he is sincere and is eager to break the deadlock. All the more worrying, then, was the total absence of any policy announcement during his two-day trip to Srinagar.

His silence can only mean that he will take no initiative before the polls due in 2014. As has been the norm for 25 years, there was a complete shutdown in the Valley during the prime minister’s visit. On the day before, eight soldiers were killed and a dozen others were injured in a Hizbul Mujahideen attack in Srinagar to signify that militancy is not dead.

Praise for the army and denunciation of terrorism are par for the course. All he could exhibit was a frayed age-old hat. “Those who shun violence, we are ready to talk to them.” This was coupled with a plea to the people “to regularly participate” in elections. They are due next year.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s National Conference is in coalition with the Congress that rules at the centre and has a miniscule presence in the Valley. What gains of the coalition has he to show to the people?

He is in office but he is not in power. He has been overruled on every single issue — revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act; restoration of Kashmir’s autonomy; return of lands grabbed by the army; rehabilitation of surrendered militants, etc. He has repeatedly asserted that economic advance alone will not satisfy the people.

In October 2009 he had said at Anantnag in the presence of Dr Manmohan Singh, “the youth of Kashmir didn’t pick up the gun 21 years ago for money, but for political reasons”. In July 2010 he was more explicit: “The cure of the Kashmir issue lies in politics; it’s not about jobs, roads, bridges and governance. The centre has to find a solution through meaningful talks.”

The question he refuses to answer is what steps has he himself taken politically to improve the situation. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, frail and in poor health, has been under house arrest for a long period. Omar Abdullah’s is the most repressive government since the days of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed.

The former army chief Gen V.K. Singh said in June 2010 what his predecessors in office and corps commanders in Kashmir have been saying all these years. “I feel there is a great requirement for political initiatives which take all the people forward together. Militarily we have brought the overall internal situation in Jammu & Kashmir firmly under control. Now, the need is to handle things politically.”

In the three years that elapsed since he spoke as he did, militancy declined further still; but there is not the slightest sign of any political effort at conciliation. Frustrated by repression, angered by mistreatment at the hands of the police, within as well as outside Kashmir, humiliated by the centre’s apathy, Kashmir’s youth seems once again to be ready to take up the gun. This time the lead is taken by the well-educated. If this trend continues the leaders’ movement will no longer be able to restrain and control the young.

Riyaz Wani’s recent report in the weekly Tehelka is alarming and bears quotation in extenso: “A clutch of youth between 18 and 25 years of age, relatively well-educated and from middle-class families, are consciously joining jihad and redrawing the militant landscape of the Valley. …‘They don’t cross the Line of Control to get training. They get a gun or snatch it from security personnel or policemen and learn to operate it,’ says a police officer. ‘Some of them join militancy seeking thrills and a sense of importance and belonging in their lives.’ In contrast to the past few years, when they preferred to lie low, militants in Kashmir are now going on the offensive. …They are technologically savvy and use Internet-based communication software that defy easy interception and surveillance like Viber, Kakao Talk, Skype and other Voice over Internet Protocol … technologies.”

The police estimate the strength of the militants to be 133; the army pegs it at 325. Avenues of protests are shut. ‘Interlocutors’ sent by New Delhi since 2001 failed miserably because none had anything to offer on behalf of the government.

In such a situation one would expect Kashmir’s political parties and politicians to provide leadership and fill the political vacuum. They stage, instead, a contest in extremism, each trying to establish himself as more ‘patriotic’ than the rest.

The Hurriyat not only split in 2010 but splintered thereafter; some of its constituent parties also split — the Muslim League, the People’s League, the Muslim Conference, and the People’s Conference.

The only way out of this morass is improvement in relations between India and Pakistan and their accord initially on some limited measures which relieve the tensions and raise the people’s morale. Of this there is, sadly, little sign — and militancy will not die unless and until India and Pakistan settle the Kashmir dispute.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.