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Kashmir: Time to Ring the Bell

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • October 13, 2010


    Kashmir has been on the boil for several months now. The situation looked grim till the All Party Delegation (APD) intervened to review the situation, and since then some calm seems to have been restored. The APD treaded cautiously during its visit to gauge the public mood and angst and, above all, to ascertain the reasons for the unprecedented street rage. The central government ultimately followed up on the visit with an eight point resolution. The initiative chiefly entails nomination of interlocutors to engage all stakeholders in the Valley. It attempts to address several contentious issues such as the review of the disturbed areas, the deployment of the security forces, and the desirability of security posts in urban areas. A special task force for Jammu and Ladakh divisions has also been suggested to give a balanced look to the new proposal.

    On the face of it the Centre’s approach of reaching out to the people looks encouraging, but whether it can address the fundamental issues underlying the unrest remains uncertain.

    Probable Motive(s)

    Evidently the doubts stem from the pattern of street violence witnessed during the last four months. As the protests broke out in early July 2010, the needle of suspicion was immediately pointed towards the possible involvement of foreign militant organisations and their sponsors. But soon thereafter the focus shifted to the inefficacy of the incumbent government, criticism of the excessive use of force, and a call for revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and raging unemployment in the Valley. In between, one also heard about the devious role played by the Masrat Alam - Asiya Andrabi - Mohammad Qasim Faktoo trio, and about the intransigence of the separatist leadership divided into three prominent camps headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, and Yasin Malik. Some even allege that the leading opposition party in the state, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), also had a role in the recent unrest in an attempt to discredit the government of the day.

    Some argue that the autonomy issue is not the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It is rather mis-governance by an `absentee` state leadership that led to the people’s dissatisfaction being exploited by various political entities. To put it simply, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is rooting for the removal of the Chief Minister to make itself relevant; Syed Shah Geelani is busy resurrecting himself from being a non-entity; Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is saving his political constituency by giving an `azadi` tilt to his earlier standpoint; and Yasin Malik is reiterating his old demand for independence. It may be worth noting that the demand for `azadi` parroted by the separatists is distinctively different from the demand being articulated for administrative autonomy by the mainstream political parties in Jammu and Kashmir.

    Clearly, a mix of contributory factors explains the recent public rage and stone pelting in the Valley. Whatever might be the underlying reasons for these unprecedented street protests, it is clear that one issue – the scope and extent of autonomy – has re-emerged as a point of intense debate in Kashmir today.

    Fixing the Debate

    The debate has several aspects: the precise meaning of `azadi`, the several stakeholders involved, and the boundaries of the autonomy debate. Each of the three aspects suffers from a lack of clear understanding and interpretation. Fundamentally the debate can be explained at three levels.

    • At the extreme level, the phrase `azadi` stands for secession from India - a position that Syed Ali Shah Geelani has maintained for several years.
    • At another level, there have been several other separatist leaders – albeit more moderate in their outlook - who have shifted their stance every now and then. Mirwaiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik fall into this camp, even though in the recent agitation their position was not less extreme than that of Syed Shah Geelani. The only difference being that while Geelani has been quite upfront in his views, Farooq and Malik have often altered their views to suit the circumstances.
    • The third category is constituted by the mainstream parties in the state - the National Conference (NC) and PDP. They too demand greater autonomy though their views lack clarity. Specifically, the PDP’s idea of `self-rule` is somewhat vague and, given the party’s ambivalence, its views could change and produce surprises when they come to the table. The recent statement from the incumbent Chief Minister that the state of Jammu and Kashmir had not merged with India but only acceded to it under certain conditions adds another twist to the debate.

    The fundamental question therefore is to ascertain if any of those parties are prepared to abide by the terms of the Indian Constitution in their demands for autonomy. Clearly, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and Masrat Alam, Asiya Andrabi and Mohammad Qasim Faktoo have already excluded themselves from this debate – both through their public pronouncements and unabashed support for the street violence. In a televised interview to News X, Geelani, made three assertions. First, there is no third option for the Kashmiris, i.e. it is either merger with India or Pakistan. Second, since the Indian state has failed to meet the demands of the Kashmiri populace, joining Pakistan is the only viable option. These demands have seldom been precisely articulated, and Geelani’s several explanations on his political stance were not convincing during the televised interview. And third, the hardliners would not like to respond to peace overtures from the Indian state. They seem to be confident that jaunty political posturing without responsibility would do no harm to them.

    At yet another level, the views of the new separatist trio are probably even more extreme. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik and a few others who do not have much public following cannot make up their minds and therefore can only proffer ideas which may not have much acceptance. Most importantly, the views offered by the moderate separatist leaders are essentially limited to urban areas and invoke limited following beyond their traditional bastions. In effect, the only practical negotiating partners are the representatives of the mainstream political parties – NC and PDP. Lately, these two parties too seem to be eyeing the `azadi` slogan as a profitable political business, which partly explains the Chief Minister’s recent outburst.

    Dealing with the Situation

    Ideally speaking, the several positions articulated within the Valley on the autonomy debate need to be reconciled by evolving a political consensus among the Kashmiris themselves (including the hardliners). But this may not happen so easily. So, how can the separatists be brought to the table is an issue that will have to be addressed by the yet-to-be appointed interlocutors in the long term. And if this consensus does not come about, then when and how does the Indian state ring the bell for Geelani and his like. There are three distinct ways of dealing with this situation to the advantage of the Indian state.

    • First, spell out the boundaries of the autonomy debate and ascertain who might be willing to negotiate. Those who wish to stay out could be served a straightforward option – exile or extradition. Quite evidently, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the Masrat Alam - Asiya Andrabi - Mohammad Qasim Faktoo trio would fall into this category and the interlocutors need not pay them much attention.
    • Second, marginally expand the boundaries of the debate to only accommodate those who are proverbial fence-sitters – essentially moderates such as the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik, the Lone brothers and others. This is very much within the realm of possibility and could be pursued in the long term.
    • Third, substantially enlarge the contours of the debate to include everyone - the hard liners and the moderates alike - in keeping with India’s long standing tradition of political accommodation. This strategy would limit the influence of the hardliners. Perhaps the Jamiat-ul-ulema-i-Hind, among other schools of Islamic thought in India, can play an important role in toning down the rhetoric of the hardliners in the Valley.

    While exercising the first option may not be desirable (some may even say this is the most desirable), the Indian establishment should also not be overly enthusiastic about pursuing the third option. It would instead be prudent to pursue the second option in order to keep the debate flexible so as to accommodate the fence sitters, and for once call the bluff of the hardliners. This would not only send out a firm signal to the hardliners but also shatter their political pipedreams.

    Looking Ahead

    A few aspects, among other important issues, would assume significance in this context.

    • It might be important to revisit some of the constitutional benchmark(s) and political discussions drawn up in the past – to include the provisions of Article 370, the Delhi Agreement of 1952 and the discussions that led to the Beg-Parthasarathy Accord of 1974. This could perhaps mark the beginning of a new process to address the autonomy debate. The October 10, 2010 affirmation by the Darul Uloom Deoband, the spiritual headquarters of Sunni Islam, that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India adds to the existing debate.
    • At another level, the aspirations of other regions – Jammu and Leh – will have to be included in such a discussion. These regions have sizeable Muslim populations whose views might be in stark contrast to those residing in the Valley. Jammu and Ladakh are important for the future of Kashmir, therefore, the socio-economic and infrastructural development of these regions that are strategically situated with regard to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Chinese intrusions can no longer be neglected.
    • While doing so, several voices emanating from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) - and in particular the Gilgit-Baltistan region - cannot be ignored. It may be recalled that early this year the elected government in PoK recorded its grievance against the Pakistani leadership for not inviting their delegates to the national energy summit at Islamabad. So much so that one government official from the occupied territory remarked that: “They (federal government) call Kashmir as their jugular vein. But the way they have ignored our elected representatives at an event where all the four chief ministers were invited reflects how serious they are in their assertions.1 It is also common knowledge that the local sensitivities of the Northern Areas have been brushed aside by Pakistan, as a large number of Sunni Muslims from Punjab and Sindh have been settled in Gilgit-Baltistan, an area largely dominated by the Shias. Some even argue that much of the business in this region has gone into the hands of outsiders, who could settle there easily because of the absence of the state subject rules which are applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. This has changed the demographic character of not only PoK, but of the Northern Areas as well.2

    Given the growing interest of extra-regional powers in the resolution of the Kashmir problem, it is time that the Indian political leadership, through its new set of interlocutors, clearly rings the bell on the limits of the autonomy debate, and in particular exposes the political designs and machinations of the hardline factions. Empathy and concern for the Kashmiri populace is most essential but it cannot come at cost of the state’s ability to assert itself firmly against the separatist rants and raves.