From close quarters

From close quarters

Lead review

From close quarters

kashmir Crying for a healing touch

Defying a solution for over six decades, Kashmir remains a festering wound crying for a healing touch. Wars and insurgency, claiming the lives of thousands, have alienated the people and created an atmosphere of hatred and suspicion, ruining the centuries-old communal harmony in the state. A new generation poisoned by extremist religious ideology has become a willing pawn in the hands of global terrorists. A moribund state administration is ill-equipped to cope with the deep sense of alienation caused by devastation and psychological scars left by years of turmoil.

My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light is a forthright account of the situation, tracing the root of the crisis, and explores intricate issues like religion, ethnicity, competing loyalties and botched policies that lie at the root of the troubled history of Kashmir. Wajahat Habibullah, a senior IAS official with a long stint in the state, draws heavily on his experience to analyse the Union government bunglings, destructive impact of the mistrust between the Union and state governments, the venality of the ruling elite, political intrigues that thwarted fair elections and social polarisation. As one who has dealt directly with the separatist leaders as well as with politicians at different levels and a key negotiator in ending the Hazratbal siege, Habibullah’s account is insightful and authentic. 

The author doesn’t think that the Kashmir conflict is about territory. According to him, it is about Kashmiri respect. What primarily caused public disaffection are entrenched corruption in the administration and the regularly rigged panchayat and Assembly elections denying Kashmiris the right to choose their own leaders. Habibullah notes if coercion and browbeating do not work, “ballot boxes are stuffed with fake ballots stamped usually in a strong room of the government treasury at district headquarters.

As a last resort, the winning and losing numbers were simply changed to favour a preferred candidate.” He says the fairest of elections in the state was held in 1977 following Indira-Sheikh accord that could have clinched a settlement of the vexed issue. But Mrs Gandhi always remained suspicious of Kashmiri leaders’ intentions. Rajiv Gandhi was no better. 

Among the factors that aggravated the insurgency, Habibullah cites the damaging role played by Governor Jagmohan who had a dictatorial style of functioning. His insistence on keeping every decision in his hands antagonised everyone. Though Hizbul Mujahideen had murdered Mirwaiz Farooq, Kashmiris hold Jagmohan responsible for it. He says a deliberate attempt to turn an ethnic conflict into a religious crusade abetted by Pakistan’s ISI is discernible.

One factor that facilitates this trend is the spreading of the Wahabi school of Islam with a radical agenda at the expense of inclusive Sufism. Madrasas run by Jama’at played a crucial role in inflaming the religious passions of the youth, leading to the eruption of insurgency. High-handedness of the security forces in dealing with demonstrations and human rights violations have alienated Kashmiris further. The leadership vacuum following the death of Sheikh Abdullah too made matters worse.

Habibullah asserts that the only hope for lasting peace in Kashmir is by giving its people a clean and efficient administration. The ruined economy has to be put back on rails by facilitating more investment from outside the state. While giving due attention to Pakistani perspective, he puts the people of the state at the centre-stage in any settlement. He finds the tantalisingly close Indo-Pak accord, discarded during the fag end of Musharraf era, contains the ingredients for a resolution.

Opening up of the borders and easing of travel restrictions and improving cross-border trade to make LoC irrelevant are steps in the right direction. However, Habibullah is ambivalent about the course the cry for azadi will take even after all these demands are met. How about Kashmiris under Pak occupation? He also makes a questionable proposal to involve the US in resolving the dispute as Kashmiris consider that country as an honest broker. It is not surprising that the suggestion comes from a former Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace. 

As one who was in the thick of action in the state for long, Habibullah succeeds in giving the reader an informative account of the recent history of Kashmir, an insider’s view of what has gone wrong. It is a frank, optimistic view of the idyllic state ravaged by strife, yearning for peace, and an impassioned plea to win back the trust of its people.

He is hopeful that the demand for azadi can be blunted by giving more autonomy to the state and by offering better economic opportunities to the people. While focusing on the self-seeking elite running the state as a fiefdom where nepotism reigns, Habibullah seems to play down the Pakistani designs on Kashmir, exemplified through cross-border terrorism. 

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