The disturbing developments in the Kashmir Valley are certainly a grim reminder of the not so distant past when an overwhelming anti-India sentiment, fuelled by certain elements in Pakistan, manifested in the form of militancy. Several years since the people of the state reposed their faith in electoral democracy, the magnitude of the unrest as well as its tone and imagery present yet another challenge to the political leadership. The challenge is that of steering through an era of contending realities. Three such contending realities are significant and require deliberation in the current context.
First, there is equal space for the political agendas of the ruling party and the opposition in Kashmir. Although the average voter turnout in the Assembly Elections of 2008 was the highest ever at 61.49 per cent, the verdict itself was fractured. In the 87-member State Assembly, the ruling National Conference (NC, 28 seats) was ahead of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP, 21 seats) by only 7 seats. Pertinently, in the Kashmir Division, the National Conference won 20 seats, only one more than the PDP. It is a moot point that in 9 of the 20 seats won by the NC, eight in Srinagar and that of Sopore, the voter turnout ranged from 11.58 per cent to 36.61 per cent much lower than the average.
These results clearly convey that in the Kashmir Valley the PDP’s election manifesto of self rule, decentralization and revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from civilian areas has at least as much support as the NC’s manifesto of autonomy, sarak, bijli aur pani and zero tolerance of human rights violations. Given the parity of popular support, neither party’s agenda can be ignored. In fact, the protests in the Valley indicate that inefficiencies in delivering on the NC’s promises have fuelled demands for the PDP’s agenda, and is manifesting itself in people’s support for the ‘logical conclusion’ as highlighted by the various hues of separatists.
Second, while there are radical elements fuelling the protests, not all protestors are radicals; a large number of people are not participating in the protests and there are secular elements supporting the demands of the protestors. It is hard to say if the slogan of Azadi, which has a secular lineage, has been usurped by the radical elements, or if the sentiment of Azadi has tamed the radicals to espouse the cause of independence. The torch-bearer of the slogan of Azadi, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) appears marginalized; the Jamiat Ahle-Hadith which was mainly engaged in social and educational work, and the Jamaat which for several years had stayed away from political issues, have openly expressed their solidarity with the protestors. Mosques have been used to give calls for Azadi. There is also no doubt that a tech-savvy generation of Kashmiris has effectively used the revolution in means of communication to spread hate messages against the State and the Central governments.
This reality must however be tempered by other facts such as the fact that some articulations of the notion of Azadicomprise of democratic rights; that inadvertently, the Centre was seen as supporting the corrupt leaders and officials; that nearly 70 per cent of the people who live in the villages were only concerned with the dates of the hartals, so that they could plan their day-to-day chores accordingly; that several of those affected by the hartals in cities were severely critical of the separatists’ summer agenda which disrupted school education for such a long duration; and finally that members of the civil society from outside the Valley, in Jammu, New Delhi and the rest of the country saw some merit in making representations to the Government and the National Human Rights Commission, exhorting them to uphold UN principles on the code of conduct for law enforcement officials and a phased/complete revocation of the AFSPA.
Third, the current situation in the Valley raises serious security concerns. Section 3(b) of the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act (AFSPA) states that “activities directed towards disclaiming, questioning, or disrupting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India or bringing about cession of a part of the territory of India or secession of a part of the territory of India from the Union or causing insult to the Indian National Flag, the Indian National Anthem and the Constitution of India” are reason for an area being declared as ‘disturbed’ by the Governor of the State or by the Centre. The slogans of Azadi and Go, India Go Back undoubtedly present such a scenario. That said, it is also important to note the decline of militancy and the palpable improvement in the security environment since the fencing of the Line of Control provided the space for an increased role of the State Police, supported by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), in maintaining law and order in urban areas. These areas have been the locus of unrest since 2008. Protests against the alleged fake encounter in North Kashmir turned ugly when the police and the CRPF attempted to control the crowds that raised slogans of Azadi. The inability of the state police in handling the current unrest, the reaction of the CRPF explained to some extent, though not fully justified, by the lack of appropriate crowd-control measures, and the cases of deaths resulting from being hit by stray bullets are all compelling reasons for raising issues of the safety of the common man. Protestors, political leaders and separatists used this unrest to make a case for the revocation of the AFSPA, whereas the real debate should have been on the manner of operation of police forces which are not covered by the AFSPA and on police reforms.
Three policy suggestions follow from the above analysis.
Firstly, given the electoral mandate, it is important that steps for the immediate normalisation of the situation are adopted through a consensus especially between the NC and the PDP, and preferably with all other parties represented in the state legislature. The Centre must strive towards ensuring that such a consensus does emerge, is widely publicized, and sincerely followed through. In fact, ‘consensus’ must be the way forward on all matters relating to the State of Jammu and Kashmir for the foreseeable future.
Secondly, given the co-existence of radical elements and secular elements in the Valley, the democratic interests of the secular elements must not be harmed in the process of countering the radical elements.
And finally, the change of the method of resistance in urban areas perhaps merits the declaration of these areas as ‘disturbed’, but there is no doubt that countering this resistance requires means other than those that were used to counter militant violence. The intelligence set-up, for one, must be geared to prevent and expose the channelling of funds to radical elements. It may be worthwhile to consider whether certain areas could be excluded from the cover of the AFSPA. Clearly, the maintenance of law and order by police forces, which are subject to state laws, does not require the cover of the AFSPA. If the security situation so warrants, the armed forces may be requisitioned to aid civil authorities, as was done for a brief period during the current unrest. Areas where the armed forces are patrolling the borders and/or conducting counter-insurgency operations still need to be covered by the AFSPA. Needless to say, it is imperative that the state and central forces are extremely cautious while performing their duties and that the use of force is calibrated.
The coexistence of contending realities is a natural corollary of the transition from conflict to peace. This transition needs to be managed by nuanced policy making and sincere implementation of policies thus conceived. A successful transition to peace is not only a test of Indian secularism, but also of Indian democracy.