Full Circle

Government cannot wish away the Kashmir issue, it has to be resolved

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

After continuous stone pelting, killings and curfew last summer,people venting their anger at a policeman

In true democratic traditions of India, caught between the political craft of chief minister, Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah and the obstinacy of the Indian Army, the government of India, loathe to be seen on anyone’s side, announced the formation of yet more committees. These twin committees, one at the Centre and one in the state will look afresh at the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Several stories are now being circulated to divert the attention from the main issue: phased revocation of AFSPA and resolution of Kashmir. The story that tops everything else is the one about legally determining who exactly has the power to revoke the AFSPA in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Given that this Act was passed in 1958, and has been in force in the entire states of Nagaland, Manipur (barring Imphal municipal area), Assam, J&K and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Tripura, it is remarkable that neither the state governments nor the Centre still understand the legalities of the Act.

Till a year ago, J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah believed that being the government of India Act, only the Centre had the power to revoke AFSPA. Then last year he was put wise by the central government that actually he is the one who has to take this decision. In all seriousness, speaking to FORCE in April 2011, he said, “The ball has been tossed back into the state’s court. We have been told to examine the removal of Disturbed Areas Act (DAA) leading to the removal of AFSPA. I have constituted two groups with the two Corps Commanders, director general of police and the state home secretary to examine Jammu and Kashmir regions separately. After they finalise their recommendations the state will take a decision.”

As it happened, the committees could not reach a unanimous recommendation and the chief minister relied on the advice of the state police. With the summer tourist season on the wane, the chief minister upped the ante by announcing his decision (no longer a desire) to revoke the Act. Talking tough, he told everyone who was listening that the decision would be his government’s alone. Confident that he had law on his side, he even told the army that, “No, is not an option.”

Supporting the chief minister for political reasons is one thing, but letting him run away with the script is another. Suddenly, the Union government woke up and sought legal opinion as to who has the power to revoke the Act. Now it transpires that the power rests with the state Governor. The state government can only recommend it to the Governor, but the decision will be his. And all these years, the ignoramuses ridiculed the office of the Governor calling it a resting place for geriatric bureaucrats and out of work politicians. But clearly, governors have real power, as the government of India recently found out.

Even as this record has been set straight and the government has told Abdullah that expressing a desire to revoke AFSPA is good politics but actually trying to do that, too tedious (so he should continue making statements but not insist on a time frame), it created two new committees to see how the Act can be made less painful for the people. If people of Kashmir and those following the tiresome AFSPA discussions for the last eight years feel a sense of déjà vu, they cannot be blamed. In 2004, after the outrage that followed the death of Manorama Devi in Manipur, the government had appointed a five-member committee under retired Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy to review whether there was a need to bring about certain amendments to the Act or could it be dispensed with completely and replaced by something more humane.

A former director general military operations, Lt Gen. V.R. Raghavan, was part of the committee, which apparently submitted a unanimous report to the government. Given that the committee included a journalist and a bureaucrat from the ministry of home affairs, it is safe to conclude that the report would have been balanced. But the government neither accepted it nor rejected it. It did not place the report in Parliament either. Subsequently, the furore against AFSPA subsided and the matter was forgotten. In Kashmir those days, AFSPA was not a big issue. Withdrawal of troops, cross-LC movement of people and trade, peace process with Pakistan as well as talks with the Separatists (under the rubric of All Party Hurriyat Conference) were the issues that marked the politics.

However, four years ago, when AFSPA entered public discourse in Kashmir, government initiated a process of examining along with the state government how best the Act could be humanised. Starting a new process, the government didn’t find it fit to refer to the ground already covered by way of Justice Jeevan Reddy report.
Even that process was quietly buried as Kashmir witnessed three turbulent summers, starting with the mass protest against allotment of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board in 2008.

In 2009, killing of two women in Sopore brought the people on the streets for months together and last year it was the case of fake killings by a few army personnel in the Machhil sector of north Kashmir which degenerated into worst ever cycle of stone pelting, killings and more stone pelting. AFSPA, and by extension, the Indian Army, played hardly any role in either preventing it or controlling it. Whatever it may be, bouquets or brickbats, the recipients were the police and the CRPF, which played the main role in controlling (or mishandling, if you insist) the situation.

Because the Union government couldn’t think of doing anything else last year given the seething rage in the people, it appointed three interlocutors, Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar and M.M. Ansari to talk to a cross section of people in the state and come up with a report to meet the genuine aspirations of the people. The interlocutors submitted their report to P. Chidambaram in October 2011.

People crossing over the Aman Setu bridge in Uri to go over to Pakistan occupied Kashmir

Even this report has not been made public. But unlike the Jeevan Reddy committee members, the current team had no qualms in frequently talking to the media sharing their views, which obviously found their way into the report. In fact, M.M. Ansari has not only given interviews since the submission of the report, he even wrote an article in one of the daily newspapers underlying what the way forward ought to be. Revocation of AFSPA, reduction in the presence of the armed forces and winding down of Indian Army’s Sadbhavana programme are a few of his suggestions. No surprises for guessing what the fate of the report will be.

Once again, committees have been formed. Addressing a public meeting after inaugurating a power grid in south Kashmir, chief minister Abdullah asserted that he was on the right track. “My efforts for gradual revocation of Armed Forces Special Powers Act will continue,” he said, adding that, “A decision has been taken to send a team comprising DGP, additional DGP and (state) home secretary to Delhi for talks with the Union home department, army headquarters and defence ministry for preparing a road-map.”

He insists that he remains optimistic about revoking AFSPA. In the Valley of missed opportunities, slumberous politics, and rank opportunism, optimism is rare and Abdullah clearly is one of the endangered species.

Yesterday Once More
Like the seasons, which have both unpredictability and permanency about them, the ebb and tide of the state politics also fall in the unpredictably permanent pattern. The summer brings anxiety and winter, languor. The summer energises the people, politicians and trouble-makers alike, the winter enervates them. So it has been year after year for nearly a decade, when the government of India realised that the cycle of violence in the state ought to be broken by an initiative towards peace and talks. Since then, each year starts with a fresh initiative by the government and ends with a new promise.

There was hope till about three years back. But today, neither is taken seriously in Kashmir any longer.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Ghandi waving off the first Uri-Muzzaffarabad bus

Among the many casualties of the over two-decade long Kashmir conflict, demise of hope has been the most poignant. People in Kashmir now live from season to season, from bad days to good days, from death to birth. To an outsider, the spectacle of people pouring on the streets armed with stones fighting pitched battles with the police and the CRPF one day, and queuing up for recruitment in the same force a few days later may appear dichotomous, but for the locals, that is just the way life is; making the most of sparse opportunities because you never know when they will dry up. And opportunities do dry up very fast in the Valley. One season of peace brings the promise of investments, jobs and return to normalcy. Next season, the cries of azadi rent the air. Perhaps, it is because of this absence of stability that people are in a hurry to get through life, do things which they otherwise wouldn’t.

“What else can explain a serving bureaucrat marrying a former militant of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and now an active Separatist and calling it the proudest moment of her life,” says a retired Kashmiri civil servant. “Or a senior member of the J&K Bar Association storming into the high court denouncing the Constitution of India and not getting arrested for it. The judge meekly instructed that his remarks be expunged. Since there is so much uncertainty about everything is Kashmir, everything goes. Nobody knows when the tide will turn.”

This uncertainty was one of the reasons for last year’s massive upsurge even in traditionally docile, ostensibly pro-Indian pockets of Tangmarg and Gulmarg. Summing up, what was the summer of brutality in Kashmir, one retired senior police officer told FORCE in October 2010 that, “Azadi as a sentiment has always been there in Kashmir. But what distinguishes the current unrest from the earlier ones is that (Masrat) Alam and company managed to convey to the people that azadi was round the corner. If they continue defying government orders and curfew and if there were a few more deaths, nobody would be able to stop azadi.” Even the habitual fence-sitters jumped in the fray with their flags.

Fence-sitting in Kashmir is not opportunism. It is a survival tactic. Kashmiris have over a period of time learnt to speak in several languages. Those who work outside Kashmir, speak something else in the city of their employment and an entirely different language when they are at home.

Last autumn, FORCE had met a school teacher who taught in one of the most prestigious English medium school in Srinagar. Herself a poised, anglicised lady, she detested conservatism of the Pakistani society. “Yet,” she said, “If there is a plebiscite and I am given the option of freedom, I will choose that. I don’t dislike India, and whenever I am outside the country I always think of myself as both Kashmiri and Indian. But India has spilled too much Kashmiri blood, and there is no remorse. If indeed India thinks Kashmir is part of India, shouldn’t it show it in ways other than paying off politicians. Look back and you will see a history of bloodbath and betrayal.”

“A Kashmiri is like a snake,” says Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, scholar of Persian, a connoisseur of poetry and a past-master at black humour. “Once he is out of his house, he does not walk straight. He walks in a zig-zag manner because he never knows which way he might have to turn. To an onlooker, he looks like a crafty man, but in reality he is a helpless person who just wants to get on with his life.”

Kashmir does not have the distinction of being the oldest or the most protracted disputes in the world. But it does take the crown for the number of ‘almost there’ opportunities, with each being frittered away so cheaply that it really hurts. When the insurgency broke out in 1989, the government of India was taken bycomplete surprise.

Lulled into complacency by years of misrule and mismanagement, which the Kashmiris lumped for want of an option, neither the state government nor the central intelligence agencies had any inkling about hundreds of Kashmiri youth crossing the Line of Control. The reason for this was simple: Because of their inherent mistrust of Kashmiri Muslims, the intelligence agencies had developed sources only among the Kashmiri Pandits. As a result, they could never fully appreciate the mood among the Kashmiri Muslims nor foresee the gradual radicalisation.

Even teenagers exposed to violence are getting radicalised

With almost a revolt on its hands, abetted, armed and supported by Pakistan, the government took over a decade to finally get things under control. And on 18 April 2003, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan during his visit to Srinagar, thereby signalling his government’s willingness to start the process of Kashmir resolution. Setting aside the previous rigidity, he told his audience in Kashmir that he was ready to talk to anybody within the framework of humanity. Pakistan responded in kind by announcing a ceasefire on the Line of Control on 26 November 2003, which holds till today.

Despite continuing terrorist violence, though much reduced, the process towards resolution was set in motion. When Vajpayee’s party, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lost the General Election the following year, there was much breast-beating in Kashmir as people had come to believe that with Vajpayee at helm in Delhi and President Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi, resolution was imminent. Manmohan Singh’s government did not belie those hopes. At least then. Within months of assuming office, Singh visited Kashmir and announced withdrawal of troops in November 2004. On the ground, some troops did withdraw; though in reality, troops which were inducted in haste during the Kargil conflict were sent back to their original locations. But as a feel-good factor it worked. This was quickly followed up with the commencement of a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, opening of a few meeting points along the LC for the divided families on either side and the beginning of Round Table Conferences (RTC) between Delhi and Kashmiri people, though the Separatists under APHC stayed away. To lend adequate gravitas to these communications, the first two RTCs were chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself. After the second RTC, five working groups were announced to look into various aspects of Kashmir resolution, addressing the grievances of the people and creation of economic activities.

These domestic overtures aside, Manmohan Singh and Musharraf were engaged in serious dialogue on Kashmir resolution. The basis of the dialogue was Musharraf’s now famous four-point formula which aimed at resolution taking Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri sensitivities into account. While Pakistan did not want status quo to continue, India did not want the lines to be redrawn. The middle path that the two pursued envisaged, in Singh’s words was to make borders irrelevant. Unfortunately, the talks did not reach fruition, even though subsequently reports came that the two leaders were very close to an agreement.

Those days, only good news came out of Kashmir. Despite the tokenism of the cross-LC trade and the harassment of the Uri-Muzaffarabad bus service, there was hope that things will get better. Until November 26 attack in Mumbai. The ISI-mounted attack laid the tombstone on the process which had started to gasp for breath after Musharraf’s ouster from Pakistani politics.

Despite the collapse of India-Pakistan talks, there was a feeling that the domestic confidence-building measures would continue on the logical path. There was a substantial constituency in Kashmir and Delhi which believed that Pakistan may not be required for a resolution after all. With the LC fence, successful counter-insurgency grid, growing confidence and the capabilities of the J&K police along with the numbers of the CRPF, it was felt that Pakistan’s propensity for mischief could be brought within manageable levels.

Even today, there is merit in this line of thinking. Facing trouble on multiple fronts, Pakistan has ceased to be the country of dreams for nearly all Kashmiris, even those who hate India with a passion. The biggest evidence of this is the Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has exchanged his ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan (Kashmir will become Pakistan)’ for ‘Azadi’. The need clearly is for a big idea to resuscitate the process which is fast losing steam. Given that the government of India will not countenance any semblance of autonomy in Kashmir at the moment, gradual revocation of AFSPA could be that big idea.

Unfortunately, the votaries of procrastination in Delhi seem convinced that the situation in the Valley will never regress to the early Nineties level. While this may be true to some extent, it helps neither India’s national security nor long term peace in the state. Bhat says, “Over the years, Kashmiris have learnt to adjust. Those who mistake this adjustment for normalcy live in fool’s paradise.” According to him, China is already a player in Kashmir. “You can no longer call it the ghost of China,” he says with childlike glee. “It is physically present in Kashmir. Earlier, all India needed to do was talk to us and Pakistan. As more time elapses, it will have to talk with China also.”

Bhat’s maybe a dramatic statement, but the truth is relentless exposure to death and destruction has brutalised the Kashmiri people so much that they now often appear fearless. This fearlessness stems not from courage but from not caring. Last summer, after each spell of stone-pelting and deaths on the streets, more people poured out the following day, completely baffling the police and the CRPF. “They don’t really think of death the way we do,” one senior CRPF officer had remarked then. “Here, one, children do not listen to their parents when it comes to street protests, and two, even mothers don’t often stop their children from stepping out, knowing well that the child may not return home unharmed. Which mother would do this?” asked the completely bewildered officer.

It seems a Kashmiri mother would. As one told FORCE last year, “I can protect my child today by hiding him in the house. But what about the mother whose innocent son was killed on the street by the police for no reason? Was she less a mother because she sent her son to school like everyone else?” Health of a nation is determined in equal measure by the emotional well-being of the people. With so many emotionally traumatised people, we can neither be truly healthy nor secure. When people fear nothing, governments fear them.

One retired police officer in Srinagar told FORCE that his director general (several years ago) used to tell his officers that Kashmir cannot be governed; it has to be managed on a daily basis. Perhaps, it time for governance now.


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