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INDIA: Dialogue Missing as Kashmir Erupts

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Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Sep 1 2008 (IPS) - Even as the Jammu region of the strife-torn Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is settling down to normality and peace, a two month-old turmoil in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley shows no signs of abating.

Street clashes erupt between civilians and para-military troops in Srinagar.  Credit: Athar Parvaiz Bhat/IPS

Street clashes erupt between civilians and para-military troops in Srinagar. Credit: Athar Parvaiz Bhat/IPS

The Kashmir unrest, which unseated the elected government of the state in July, now threatens to become a serious problem for India yet again, with international ramifications, in particular implications for India’s already fraught relations with Pakistan.

Following independence in 1947 and the partition of India, on the basis of religion, Jammu and Kashmir became disputed between Pakistan and India and three wars have been fought between the two countries for the territory’s complete possession. India’s Jammu and Kashmir state is referred to by Pakistan as “Indian-occupied Kashmir” while India refers to Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas collectively as “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”.

India’s Jammu and Kashmir state consists of two distinct regions; Hindu-dominated Jammu and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. A third region, Ladakh, is largely Buddhist. Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley serves as the summer capital and Jammu town the winter capital.

Trouble began with rival Hindu and Muslim militants protesting for and against the transfer of 100 acres of land for camping arrangements to host a Hindu pilgrimage to a shrine in a cave in the Kashmir Valley, called the Amarnath Shrine, where an ice stalactite that forms for up to two months in a year, is worshipped by devout Hindus.

Political organisations in the Kashmir Valley saw the transfer as a means of placating the Hindus and as an intrusion into their autonomous cultural space.

Their protests led the state government to cancel the transfer. The Hindu-majority Jammu region reacted to this with an emotionally charged violent agitation and a blockade of goods entering the Valley along the Jammu-Srinagar highway, the only functional road connecting mainland India to the Kashmir Valley.

This blockade added to the ferocity of the protests in the Valley, and put Kashmiri separatists in their forefront. Some groups that favour merger of the Kashmir Valley with Pakistan waved the green flag of the neighbouring country.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir finally reached a settlement on Sunday with the Sri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS), a coalition of different groups spearheading the agitation in Jammu, many of which are close to the pro-Hindu, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Sunday’s settlement allows for temporary arrangements to be made for makeshift tents and other facilities during the pilgrimage, without a change in the ownership and status of or title to the land.

Following the agreement, the agitation in Jammu was formally withdrawn. But that has had very little impact on the Kashmir Valley, where the government re-imposed a curfew after thousands of people took to the streets in its Northern towns.

While many Kashmiri parties have not yet reacted to the agreement, the People’s Democratic Party, which ran a coalition government with the Congress party in Jammu and Kashmir for nearly six years, condemned it as a “unilateralist” and “authoritarian” move, made without consulting the Valley’s politicians.

Some other political leaders from the Valley termed the settlement “irrelevant” to resolving the larger Kashmir question of autonomy and freedom in keeping with the sentiments of the people.

“The ease with which the settlement was reached, without substantially changing the status quo, and with only minor concessions being offered to the SAYSS, shows that the agitation was politically motivated in the first place,” says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University here, who has been involved with reconciliation and peace efforts in Jammu and Kashmir for many years.

“The BJP was fishing in the troubled waters in Kashmir with an eye on the legislative assembly elections, which are due by the end of the year, but are likely to be postponed,’’ said Chenoy. ‘’The organisations it controls in Jammu used deplorably rough methods to enforce a traffic blockade of the Valley, including attacking truck drivers with rocks and acid bulbs. Its methods drew an adverse reaction from the rest of India, which is one reason why it withdrew the agitation. But it has succeeded in polarising Jammu and Kashmir along regional and communal lines.”

One indication of this is the growing alienation of the Valley’s people from India and the pro-separatist mood now prevalent there. The Kashmir situation was repeatedly mishandled by New Delhi through its appointee, Jammu and Kashmir Governor N.N. Vohra and his administration.

The administration first failed to anticipate the protests, and then cracked down heavily on them. Many Kashmiris complain that the government handled the Jammu agitation with kid gloves, but used excessive force in the Valley to suppress even peaceful protests: “rubber bullets in Jammu, and live bullets in the Valley”.

The government relented in the Valley during much of August, as it proceeded to break the blockade in Jammu. However, since Aug. 24, it has resorted to a crackdown, arrests of prominent leaders, and repeated curfew.

“This has resulted in heightening the alienation of ordinary Kashmiris from the Indian state,” says Yusuf Tarigami, a Jammu and Kashmir lawmaker from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and a widely respected political leader. “Mercifully, that alienation is not as severe as in the early 1990s, and may yet prove transient.”

Tarigami cites a number of differences between the post-1989 climate and the present situation. Then, a number of militant groups, including the largely indigenous Hizbul Mujaheedin, were hyperactive in demanding “freedom” and Kashmir’s separation from India.

These militant groups managed and subdued the relatively moderate political leadership of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. Pakistan armed and financed the militant groups and lent them logistical support. Savage repression unleashed by Indian security forces only helped them build a support base in the Valley.

Today, militant groups are no longer able to recruit cadres. Until the anti-land transfer protests broke out, the Kashmir Valley was relatively peaceful and the extremists were isolated. Issues of governance and day-to-day survival became dominant. Tourism experienced a boom.

The Hurriyat was even on the verge of deciding not to issue a call to boycott the assembly elections, as it usually does.

“Above all, Kashmir has not been a live political issue in Pakistan since the peace process with India made progress,” says Karachi-based social activist and political analyst Karamat Ali. “It hasn’t figured in the domestic political debate at all since the February elections and later developments, including Pervez Musharraf’s resignation as president.”

This offers a chance for India to begin a serious dialogue with the different separatist political currents in Kashmir and put the issue of autonomy up-front on the table.

But the Indian establishment appears divided on the issue. Hardliners such as National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan play down the serious nature of Kashmiri alienation and popular discontent with the domineering presence of Indian security forces in the Valley. Narayanan told a television channel, two days ago that he expected the Kashmir situation to become normal in 10 days’ time.

However, another section of the government has advised Governor Vohra to explore the possibility of a dialogue with separatist leaders and Vohra has been contacting them since Sunday.

“Eventually,” says Chenoy, “a viable solution to the Kashmir problem will have to be found in the kind of suggestions for regional and interregional autonomy made 10 years ago by an official committee chaired by Balraj Puri, and through a strengthening of the special status for Kashmir guaranteed by a particular section (Article 370) of the Indian Constitution. This must be accompanied by a thinning out of the presence of Indian security forces in the Valley, and devolution of power to local and regional bodies.”

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state in India which enjoys special autonomy under Article 370, according to which, laws enacted by Indian parliament, except those concerning defence, communication and foreign policy, is inapplicable unless ratified by the state legislature.

But Chenoy emphasises that “in the short run, there is no substitute for a dialogue. That alone can build the necessary confidence and goodwill, which India so badly needs’’.

 
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