Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

Line Blurs Between Pro-India and Separatist Politics

Athar Parvaiz

SRINAGAR, Oct 11 2011 (IPS) - As the blistering summer heat gives way to the first undertones of winter’s chill, the political landscape in the highly contested north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir also appears to be changing colour.

In a region ruled by the gun for more than 15 years, the path of peace and dialogue is still rocky and the crucial line between unionist (‘pro-India’) and separatist (‘pro-freedom’) politics grows thinner.

“It is very interesting: not only are the unionists in Kashmir appropriating the separatists’ political language, the separatists are doing the same with the unionists’ politics,” Gul Mohammad Wani, a professor and political analyst at the Kashmir University, told IPS.

Highly sensitive issues, which used to fall under the purview of separatist politicians, have now been co- opted into the discourse of pro-India political parties.

For example, a top-ranking leader of the pro-India People’s Democratic Party (PDP) recently moved a private member parliamentary Bill seeking deletion of Section 3 of the Jammu & Kashmir constitution – the clause that deems the state an integral part of Indian territory – claiming, “If we are sincere in our political utterances that Kashmir is a dispute, then the constitution should provide the space to solve it.”

Kashmir’s legislative assembly, stocked with the elected members of different pro-India political parties, recently accepted a private member Bill seeking clemency for Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri who was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court of India for his role in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.

However, the voting fell apart when the legislature of the Indian National Congress (INC) caused a ruckus by accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its national political opponent, of corruption during legislative council elections earlier this year.

The disruption of parliament by INC members was widely perceived as a pre-planned move to scuttle the vote on Guru’s clemency.

Javid Iqbal, a widely published Srinagar-based columnist, highlighted this incident as an example of the shifting political landscape in Kashmir.

“The issue of seeking clemency for a person like Guru would not hitherto have been taken up by pro-India political parties,” he told IPS.

Meanwhile, the separatist political parties have begun to discuss economic development of the state and the failure of government to provide basic amenities to the people of Kashmir, issues that had hitherto been eschewed in favour of the logistics of separation.

Iqbal told IPS it was very unusual for pro-freedom leaders to talk about governance issues, which they had previously “deemed insignificant unless a political solution for Kashmir was achieved first.”

Separatists have long faced public criticism for ignoring the economic, environmental and cultural degradation of Kashmir by focusing exclusively on the ‘freedom struggle’, so the change in their tactics could be an attempt to retain legitimacy in the eyes of the Kashmiri people.

Experts and lay people alike have recognised that the process of separation is a long one and necessitates the involvement and consensus of three stakeholders – India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris – which the separatists have thus far ignored.

Both India and Pakistan have laid claim to the Himalayan state, though neither country has control over the entire territory – one-third of the land is under Pakistani administration while the remaining two-thirds is controlled by India.

Simmering resentment towards Indian rule in Kashmir, together with the long-standing demand by a significant portion of the population for self-determination, exploded into an armed rebellion in 1988.

The subsequent years saw thousands of Kashmiris picking up arms, allegedly supplied by Pakistan, resulting in fighting that has so far claimed almost 50,000 lives, according to official estimates.

The full-blown conflict raged for over a decade, but began to slow down in 2002. By 2003, insurgents and counter-insurgents had relaxed their attacks on politicians and activists, thereby opening up a sliver of political space.

This was also a result of the exhaustion of men and resources, Gul Wani told IPS.

“Fighting capacity waned and many Kashmiris became keen for some alternative,” he said, adding that one of these ‘alternatives’ was more active participation in the electoral process.

A notable example of this came in 2008, when Abdul Rashid Engineer, a separatist-turned-legislator, won a seat in the state assembly elections by promising the people that he would seek a “peaceful” resolution to the conflict on Kashmir’s assembly floor.

Such engagement with Indian establishment politics would have been unheard of several years ago, and is emblematic of the fundamental changes taking place in the region, with the pro-India parties inching closer to the agenda of freedom-loving politics and the separatists struggling to retain relevance in the fluid order by participating in unionist politics.

India’s economic and military rise over the last decade, coupled with Pakistan’s increasingly complex political situation, is yet another cause of Kashmir’s political transformation, according to Gul Wani.

“One of the most important reasons for the decline in violence in Kashmir was Pakistan’s War on Terror, shaped in large part by the United States’ foreign policy post 9/11,” Gul Wani told IPS.

He added that former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s adoption of a ‘counter-terrorist’ approach to the settlement of the ‘Kashmir question’ significantly changed the political dynamics in the region.

“Also, Pakistan’s warm embrace of pro-India politicians like Omar Abdullah of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the PDP sent a clear message to the separatist leaders,” Gul Wani told IPS.

The National Conference, which heads the current coalition government in Kashmir, favours full autonomy for the state under India’s constitution, although it has not ruled out another scheme that might possibly be negotiated between Delhi and Islamabad.

The PDP, on the other hand, favours self-rule for both the Pakistan- and Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir, over which the two countries have fought three wars.

However, while these changes might signify a hopeful turn for the better in Kashmir’s politics, commentators like Iqbal believe that, “(aside from) an intermixing of agendas, the fundamental issue has not changed entirely – pro-freedom parties want a solution outside the Indian constitution while the pro- India parties are ready to settle for the opposite.”

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