New Delhi must adopt a humane approach towards Kashmir

The government must direct its efforts towards giving Kashmiris a sense of being 'full citizens' of the Indian state

The beginning of the unshackling of the newly created Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is a welcome step, but it would be myopic to see this as the primary objective, or proof that 'all is well', especially in the Kashmir Valley. 

There are several matters that must be discussed when examining if easing restrictions and lifting controls will hasten a 'return of normalcy'. However, in the beginning, it’s important to note that the reopening of telephone lines – both landlines and mobile – and allowing movement in certain Kashmir districts had to be withdrawn to some extent. The government backtracked despite the absence of large scale violence immediately after the easing of controls. 

The government’s decision indicates that it is stepping gingerly. This shows that it knows it up against 'low-grade' anger and resentment whose potency it is unable to estimate. This will be more difficult to tackle given that 'visible' violence is triggered by people who are easily identifiable. 

A dormant sense of angst, in contrast, is more difficult to confront and successfully overcome because it’s likely to be more widespread and there is no knowing in what form, where and when such emotions will erupt.

Not unsurprisingly, the government has begun reopening educational institutes starting from the lower classes. Over the past three decades, especially in the last 10 years, the number of youth among the ranks of militants, separatists and the alienated populace in the Valley has swelled. Although common sense would dictate that when situations are tense, families send their youngest the last, when it comes to testing the waters, the administration has chosen to reopen primary schools initially. Even this is being done in a phased manner – 196 of the 900 primary schools in Srinagar resumed classes from Monday, but without any students attending them and in many, even the teachers staying away.

The government has justified the virtual internment of citizens in their homes by contending that it has given primacy to saving lives. It has dished out figures to demonstrate there have been no deaths in contrast to large scale fatalities witnessed during the violent spell in 2010 and again in 2016, after the killing of the young, poster boy militant, Burhan Wani. 

Yet, the absence of deaths is no indication that people are supportive of the decision to strip the now erstwhile state of J&K and its people of their statehood and special status. The uneasy calm in the Valley is also no pointer to people being less angry than in previous episodes of harsh state action. There is no knowing if people have already begun preparing themselves for a defeated relationship with the Indian State and more significantly, its people.

New equations 

The government's decision to scrap the J&K Constitution and the region's statehood has led to new political realities and equations with the Centre. Consequently, the terms of engagement with the people and most importantly, Pakistan, will also alter. In the light of politically significant statements by Home Minister, Amit Shah, and Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, it must be recalled that Kashmir was listed as one of the ‘eight issues’, on which there would be dialogue between India and Pakistan in 1997, when IK Gujral was prime minister of India. This is an important landmark in Indo-Pak talks.  

Coupled with national security matters, through which India raised the issue of cross-border terrorism, this was part of the Composite Dialogue Process which was pursued by all subsequent governments, including those led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi. But both Shah and Singh have now said that there is nothing to talk when it comes to Kashmir and held that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is the only issue left to discuss. 

India's position will certainly not be accepted by Islamabad and its response will negatively impact the restarting of the Indo-Pak dialogue. Belligerent assertions from both sides will remove the table across which India raised matters related to Pakistani territory and resources being used to foster terrorism in India. Given that developments proceeding from the likely US withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to realignment and possible redeployment of jihadi groups, the internal security scenario in Kashmir shall remain tense. New Delhi would serve its cause by reminding itself of the old adage – you cannot choose your neighbours!

These developments will have a direct bearing on people's response to the government’s strategy. By scrapping existing fora for political dialogue with the Kashmiris and leaving them with no credible representatives, the government appears reconciled to districts of South Kashmir – most affected by militant sentiment – remaining in a state of siege.

Much of the Modi regime's Kashmir policy has been motivated by what it believes will be the response to its iron hand approach in the rest of India. Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party in other parts of the country, including in Hindu majority districts of Jammu region, are considerably motivated by majoritarian sentiment. They are mostly of the opinion that previous governments favoured Kashmiris even though there were ‘ungrateful’. 

If the Centre plays along with this sentiment and uses tactics resorted to by other counties in their 'occupied' regions, the sense of alienation shall become permanent. In such a situation, there will be no other option but to maintain peace in the Valley by the force of the boot or the gun's bayonet.

It is important for the government to set humane objectives as against only military and strategic targets. The government has flagged the need to step up on developments programmes. But instead of just awaiting private investment, it is time to step up on public spending. This can be done by directing Public Sector Enterprises to establish units. Simply harping on the film industry and tourism has its limitations – they will chiefly be able to provide jobs of porters and hotel waiters.  

Every initiative of the government cannot but be directed towards giving Kashmiris, further estranged by the decision on Article 370, a sense of being 'full citizens' of the Indian state instead of being its 'suspicious subjects'. There is a 450-year-old of sense of subjugation among the people in the Valley, beginning from the Mughal conquest of Kashmir in 1586. 

Unless Delhi makes an effort to ensure that people stop looking at the Indian capital as the seat of imperial power, no measure or step will ease the situation. The Modi government has cast away Vajpayee's troika of principles on Kashmir while accomplishing its "complete integration". If it does not return to his ideas, the Valley will remain perennially 'curfewed', at least in people’s minds.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013)) 
 
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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