What next for Kashmir?

National Interest?: Ditching PDP may be good for BJP’s poll rhetoric, is it good for India?

nion Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti interact with media during a press conference in Srinagar. BJP on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, has pulled out of the alliance government with Mehbooba Mufti-led People's Democratic Party in Jammu & Kashmir. PTI file photo.

When, on May 12, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti inaugurated an under-construction flyover in Srinagar, it raised eyebrows. Why was she in such a hurry to inaugurate an unfinished infrastructure project?

Mehbooba, according to grapevine in the corridors of power in Srinagar, had an inkling that the BJP was about to pull the plug on the alliance government and she did not want to miss an opportunity to take credit for some good work in progress.

Indeed, for a few months now, Kashmir was agog with rumours that both the BJP and Mehbooba’s party PDP were making plans to outsmart each other by pulling out of the alliance, as both parties were losing salience with their support bases -- the PDP in Kashmir Valley and the BJP in Jammu.

Yet, just a week after the inauguration of the incomplete flyover, it seemed as if Mehbooba had finally prevailed over the BJP when the Centre announced a unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir during the holy month of Ramzan. After more than three years of the Centre’s hardline security policy, Mehbooba had convinced it to apply a ‘healing touch’.

During the ceasefire period, though, militants upped the ante by targeting security forces and civilians, causing a huge embarrassment to the BJP at the national level. The killing of veteran journalist Shujaat Bukhari in Srinagar and the abduction and murder of army soldier Aurangzeb in Pulwama a day before the ceasefire was to end proved to be the final nails in the coffin for the PDP-BJP alliance. The Centre refused to extend the ceasefire, and before Mehbooba could think her next move, the BJP, on June 19, announced it was pulling out of the alliance.

Growing civilian protests and increasing militant activity had left the BJP with no option but to end the bonhomie with the PDP and impose Governor’s Rule in the border state. The BJP is seen to have gained from walking out of the alliance while the PDP may have lost its support base. The BJP is portraying its decision as being in the “national interest”. In reality, it was designed to shore up its support in the Jammu region as well as please its hardline adherents nationwide. This will form an important part of the revival of the party’s hyper-nationalistic plank in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. BJP president Amit Shah’s speech in Jammu on Saturday was indication enough that the saffron party is on the path to polarise voters in the state and across the nation for electoral gains. 

In just four days after Governor’s Rule was imposed in Kashmir, the BJP has tried to convey that it is going to hit militancy in the Valley with an iron fist. It has made highly-visible appointments of new officers to advise the Governor as well as a public spectacle of deploying National Security Guard commandos, dropping hints that they were being deployed to prevent terrorist attacks, especially a hostage crisis, during the two-month Amarnath Yatra period from June 28 to August 26. On Friday, security forces said they had killed four terrorists in a gun battle on the Amarnath Yatra route. More of this is expected in the coming days and months.  

Mehbooba, on her part, missed several opportunities to snap ties with the BJP and claim the moral high ground. One reason is that she was perhaps in a dilemma. On the one hand, she had to pull out before the BJP did. On the other, she knew that her party wouldn’t do quite as well as in 2014 in the next assembly election -- for the last three years, the PDP’s decision to ally with the BJP had been largely seen as a ‘betrayal’ by Kashmiris. There would therefore be no real gain in forgoing the remaining two-and-a-half years of her term.

The PDP and BJP had nothing in common and the alliance was full of contradictions from the beginning. The two parties expended much time and energy locking horns with each other over  issues like the horrific Kathua gangrape-and-murder of an eight-year-old girl, talks with Pakistan and separatists, revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and withdrawal of cases against stone-pelters, revival by court ruling of an archaic beef ban, and even a proposed tax on helicopter rides to the Amarnath shrine.

Mehbooba’s recent move to allot government land to Jamiat Ahle Hadees, a local Muslim outfit allegedly loyal to Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahabi ideology, for development of a separate Eidgah – a prayer enclosure -- in Srinagar was another bone of contention between the PDP and BJP. Despite strong objections from the latter, Mehbooba was moving ahead with the decision to allot the land, sources said.

Many of these disagreements had religious overtones, and some spilled over into violence on the streets. The ideologically dissonant alliance between the BJP and the PDP was expected to fall apart any time as it was proving counterproductive for both parties, ethically as well as politically. That it did on June 19 indeed came as a relief to many, including the two allies themselves. But it may not prove to be any relief for the ordinary Kashmiri, caught as he is between homegrown militants and terrorists from across the border on one hand and the security forces on the other.

An elected state government is an important buffer between the people and the Centre in strife-torn Kashmir. Now, that role, and the responsibility of steering Jammu and Kashmir, has once again fallen on the 82-year-old Governor N N Vohra. His challenge is not only to provide good governance but also to ensure that the killings of civilians stops. The signs of a renewed interest in militancy among the local youth, though, is terrible news for the majority peace-loving people of Kashmir. Vohra, it is said, has a window within which he has to show that things can get better in Kashmir without the Centre having to follow an iron fist policy. When that window closes, all bets are off.But, it is imperative that the BJP-led Centre looks at Kashmir from beyond narrow political considerations. Does New Delhi have any real option than to continue to reach out to the people of Kashmir if it wants to settle the issue once for all?

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