Friday, September 5, 2008

Uneasy Kashmir

All stake holders in Kashmir are uneasy about the sudden outbursts of azadi (freedom) reverberating in the air: the security forces are uneasy because of the mood of the people; the separatists are uneasy as they lack the platform that can keep them together for long; the regional political parties are uneasy as they appear to have been rendered unnecessary; New Delhi is uneasy about the implications of large peaceful congregations chanting azadi; and Pakistan is uneasy as it is woefully unprepared to exploit it. The uneasiness is about how to interpret azadi. Is it a secessionist call for independence from India? Is it a catchy slogan meant to achieve more than autonomy but less than complete independence? Is it meant to boo the authorities who are perceived to be high-handed and unreasonable; or is it an answer to vandalism in Jammu.
While the answer could be any of the above, two issues are indeed striking: just when everyone thought that things were back to normal and that the people were contend going about their lives, reality dawned that the sentiment of azadi was still alive. It simply needed a good reason to come to the fore. And importantly, majority of people chanting and swaying to the azadi tune were youngsters born in late Eighties; really the children who had known azadi as their lullaby.
But things are not as ominous as they appear. For one, the situation is certainly not back to the Nineties. What sparked the present unrest was really the anger of the fruit growers who after hours of wait were unable to meet the visiting Union home minister. Sensing the opportunity, the separatists organised the ‘Muzzaffarabad Chalo’ march under the hastily formed Kashmir Co-ordination Committee, a motley gathering of separatists of all hues and various other associations of fruit growers, merchants, lawyers, students and so on. In essence thus, the crowds were not spontaneous but spurred by the Separatists, who after the success of the Muzzaffarabad march were hard pressed to stay together for the Pampore and Idgah marches, and had announced the sit-in protest at Lal Chowk as well. The rallies did not trouble Governor N.N. Vohra, who believed that the calming of Jammu would automatically take the wind off the sails of the Kashmir unrest. However, this is not how New Delhi read the situation. After the visit of the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan to Kashmir, it was reasoned that more rallies would help the Separatists craft a common minimum programme. Consequently, the azadi calls would assume a hardened connotation, and hence people could not be allowed a field day.
The security forces are certainly not unhappy with New Delhi’s decision. The singular worry of the state police has been the mood of the people; how to control crowds that may unwittingly go out of hand and suddenly run amok. Another concern was the local police force that coming from the same stock may begin to sympathise with the unarmed crowd. Thus the best bet would be no rallies and no crowds. The Central Reserve Police Force, in support of the police, thinks the same way, especially when they have already tasted the people’s anger. Most of their static bunkers in Srinagar have been demolished and Hurriyat flags were flown on the debris of a few by the people who participated in the Separatists’ rallies. All this is in stark contrast to the Nineties, when militancy and not law and order worried the police and paramilitary forces. A senior police officer told FORCE that Syed Salauddin of the United Jehad Council based in Pakistan was making a virtue out of necessity by his call to militants within Kashmir to let the Separatists’ rallies remain peaceful. Not more than 800 hardened militants in the whole of Kashmir are little match to the well-trained, motivated and equipped state police and the CRPF. This is how things have changed: the CRPF and to a little extent the police are today confident of undertaking anti-terrorist operations, but are uncomfortable about hardcore policing duties which they have not done in recent years. The army has contributed immensely towards the present confidence level of the police and the CRPF by ensuring that infiltration across the LC remains a trickle, and the hinterland is sanitised. Even as the United Headquarters does not meet regularly, the real synergy for anti-terrorist operations is provided by the district core groups comprising representatives of the army, police, CRPF, intelligence, and district authorities.
Even as terrorists are enervated, the Separatists are equally at sea. There are just too many ideological differences amongst them: Geelani wants merger with Pakistan, Mirwaiz desires a tripartite solution between Kashmir, Pakistan and India, Yasin Malik prefers independence, and Sajad Lone has written a good document called ‘Achievable Nationhood’ which speaks of many possibilities outside the Indian Constitution. More than anything, Sajad wants continuation of dialogue as the way forward. The tallest separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, if one goes by the crowd pulling power, is uncertain for yet another reason. He had the full support of Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, and with him gone the Mirwaiz stands alone disappointed by the existing political system in Pakistan. It is unclear what Asif Ali Zardari meant when he said that India and Pakistan need to focus equally on large issues like trade for improved bilateral relations. It is certain that he did not have the clearance from his Army Chief to say this. Were it not for the sudden unrest in Kashmir as a fall out of Jammu events, the Mirwaiz was reported to be leaving for a fellowship to the United States. Now, he mulls over how much things have changed since 1994 when the Hurriyat was formed to provide the negotiating face to terrorism at its peak. Today, terrorism into Kashmir stands at its nadir, with not much hope of escalation as the Pakistan Army and the ISI are fighting for their nation’s survival in the western provinces of FATA and NWFP. Let alone the army reserves meant against India which have gone back to their locations in Peshawar and Quetta, there has been a substantive thinning of permanent Pakistani forces of headquarters 10 corps in Rawalpindi on the LC. Indian intelligence assessments suggest that there are glaring operational gaps in Pakistani defences on the LC. Under such circumstances, the Pakistan Army is not likely to disregard the November 2003 ceasefire on the military line. Sporadic firings and infringements are another matter. These are being done at the behest of the ISI that wants to push as many infiltrators into Kashmir as possible before the state goes for assembly elections. But their efforts will not amount to much, as the Indian Army is in total control of its area of responsibility.
Interestingly, the only Kashmiri leader who seems to have played his cards with dexterity is Omar Abdullah. Throughout the period of rallies in Kashmir, he consistently made a moot point: the government should engage the Hurriyat as they could garner more crowds than anyone else in recent times. When asked whether this would render his National Conference irrelevant, Abdullah said that NC would always remain relevant as long as Kashmir remains a part of India. What he was saying is that either way he would remain important: if the government held only the assembly elections which would cater for the basic daily needs of the people. Or, if the government went further and addressed the azadi sentiment, the NC with a large following within Indian Kashmir would count aplenty. Ideally, he suggested that the NC’s proposal of autonomy, a half-way mark between the two options, was most relevant today than ever before.
The big question emerging out of the whole episode is that what next for New Delhi? Unfortunately, its thinking will be mired in the past with few lessons learnt. New Delhi’s game-plan is simple: keep Kashmir incident free with curfews, detentions and whatever else it takes until the Jammu issue gets resolved. Once that happens, the Hurriyat will become toothless and it will be life as usual. This will be a mistake for many reasons. Kashmir has experienced a real or perceived economic blockade which it will not forget in a hurry. It has also sensed the rising communalism in Jammu, where there were umpteen media reports, some true and most fabricated, of Muslim exodus from Jammu to the Valley. And most importantly, the young Kashmiri generation has found resonance in the azadi sentiment. This should not be dismissed lightly as the crowds were non-violent with a steely determination for self-sacrifice. All these are serious matters.
A good action plan must seek to open trade between Kashmir and Muzzafarabad at the earliest. If this does not happen by October 31, the agreed dates between India and Pakistan, the Prime Minister, as suggested by the Mirwaiz, should publicly hold Pakistan responsible for the delay. The next urgent thing is to hold assembly elections at the earliest in the state. It does not require a genius to appreciate that a state government would have calmed the situation faster. It would have made the ‘Muzzaffarabad Chalo’ call unnecessary, and if it did happen, it would have ensured that the numbers did not multiply or reached anywhere close to Baramullah. Now comes the most difficult part. There is a need for a permanent resolution of the Kashmir issue. Musharraf was indeed our best bet and his four-point formula, with modifications, was doable. With confusion prevalent in Pakistan, New Delhi will do well to at least engage our own Separatists in a dialogue, who then can reach out to Kashmiris in Pakistan. Azadi in Kashmir is the wake-up call for a multi-pronged and a concerted action with understanding, rather than say that it is time for New Delhi to think the unthinkable.

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