Date: 08 Aug 2008


- In the long run, the unrest in Jammu can't be bad for India

Swapan Dasgupta

A fortnight ago, the very personable Omar Abdullah was being fêted in
the drawing rooms of metropolitan India for his brief but passionate
speech on the trust vote in the Lok Sabha debate. It is understood
that the prime minister had personally requested the Speaker to not
guillotine the debate until Omar and Asaduddin Owaisi, the MP for the
All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin, had been given an opportunity
to speak. The idea was to convey the message that Muslims were with
the United Progressive Alliance in endorsing the nuclear agreement and
rejecting the `communal' politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Omar's speech, particularly his robust assurance to Hindus to
safeguard the Amarnath yatra at all costs but to simultaneously
protect his own land from alienation, worked wonders. The liberal,
middle-class Hindu, always uneasy with the god thing, saw in the
National Conference leader the culmination of the long search for the
Nationalist Muslim who was `just like us'. The impressionable
editorial classes elevated Omar to dizzying heights and his speech was
telecast ad nauseam and painted as the best thing since Barak Obama
bared his angst.

One man's nectar, or so it is said, is another man's poison. Given the
initial media indifference to what is now being billed as the "Hindu
Intifada", we shall never know the extent to which Omar's oratory
played a role in inflaming passions in Jammu. However, if those who
have travelled frequently to Jammu over the past month are to be
believed, Omar's defence of the UPA was a significant factor in
spurring Hindu opposition to the iniquity of the Jammu and Kashmir
government. Along with the mass protests in the Kashmir Valley that
led to the marginalization of the Amarnath Yatra Board and the
cancellation of the 40-hectare grant to the shrine board, it confirmed
the belief that Hindu-dominated Jammu could not hope to get a fair
deal from Srinagar until it resorted to Direct Action. The neglect of
Jammu, it was clear, was inextricably linked to the dread of
separatist blackmail in the Valley.

The perception may, arguably, be flawed and could well be the outcome
of political manipulation - the facile explanation for anything that
reeks of a sectarian divide. However, it is undeniable that the
newly-appointed governor, N.N. Vohra - a veteran player in the
never-ending `Kashmir dialogue' - seemed inclined to believe it was
politically prudent to yield to the preposterous suggestion that the
transfer of 40 acres would usher in a "demographic transformation" of
the Valley. In the minds of the play-safe bureaucracy, it was better
to give the separatists and the near-separatist People's Democratic
Party of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed a short-term victory than risk another
round of unrest in the Valley. The corresponding belief was that Hindu
disquiet over being trampled upon yet again would be ephemeral, and
not lead to a law-and-order problem. After all, or so it was felt, a
community that had meekly stomached the ethnic cleansing of the
Pandits from the Valley, would easily reconcile itself to an
unfavourable administrative order.

For the past four decades, and particularly since the resumption of
separatist violence in 1989, successive governments have taken Ladakh
and Jammu for granted. The prolonged agitation in Ladakh in the
Nineties against discriminatory treatment and shifting demography was
never the subject of agonized seminars and international conferences.
Nor for that matter did the expulsion of Pandits from the Valley lead
to any soul-searching. On the contrary, this disgraceful violation of
the human rights of a religious community was sought to be explained
in bizarre conspiracy theories and steadfast denial.

No one, apart from the BJP, made the plight of Kashmiri Hindus an
issue. When the BJP did do so, it was, predictably, greeted with the
sneering condescension reserved for outlanders. The custodians of
India's conscience equated Jammu and Kashmir with the majority
community of the Kashmir Valley. Jammu, Ladakh, Hindus and Buddhists
were the disconcerting loose ends that had either to be snipped off or
put under dust covers. It didn't pay to be unwaveringly nationalist in
Jammu and Kashmir - a lesson that was not lost on discerning
politicians in the Valley.

The temptation to see the month-long agitation in Jammu as some sort
of a cynical BJP and sangh parivar show is overwhelming. Apart from
justifying the crackdown, restrictions on the media, and the
peremptory ban on text messages, and stoking the subliminal
Hindu-phobia of the cosmopolitan classes, it is calculated to put
pressure on the BJP leadership to somehow lower the temperature of the

Last week when the prime minister met L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley, he
had one compelling request: allow highway traffic to and from the
Valley. A prolonged blockade, it was argued, would give separatists
the pretext to demand that the Kashmir Valley better consider using
the Muzaffarabad route to transport perishable items. As it is, the
quasi-separatists in the PDP have been demanding something called
"dual sovereignty" which includes open borders and dual currency. Yet,
until the BJP representative suggested it at the all-party conference
last Wednesday, the government had no plans to engage the leaders of
the Sangharsh Samity in any discussion.

A government that believes murderous Naxalites are "misguided" boys
has no time for those registering their protest with the national
tricolour. Yet, the BJP's role in taking the movement in Jammu to such
a pitch has been overstated. Before the movement began, the BJP was
not the pre-eminent political party in Jammu; the Congress had a
majority of seats in the dissolved assembly. The BJP was no doubt the
only national party to highlight the Amarnath yatra issue, but over
the weeks, the movement has acquired a momentum of its own. How else
is it possible to explain the mass violations of curfew by women and
children chanting "Bom Bom Bhole"? To have the resilience to face up
to the disruptions of this magnitude calls for phenomenal community
solidarity which no political party can ensure.

The unrest in Jammu has ceased to be a movement centred on the
organization of the Amarnath yatra and the land lease. It has assumed
the character of a nationalist uprising - symbolized by the lavish use
of the Indian tricolour in all demonstrations. The movement began as a
reaction to the government's capitulation to the separatists, gathered
momentum as a larger protest against the perceived discrimination of
Jammu by Srinagar and has now evolved into an upsurge for political 

The agitators may be momentarily pacified if the governor is changed,
the Amarnath Yatra Board revived and some extra facilities (short of
outright acquisition of the 40 acres by the board) given to pilgrims.
However, its long-term impact will be felt during the assembly
elections scheduled for October. Having been kept out of the power
equations in Srinagar, Jammu will be seeking its place under the sun.
This implies that the National Conference will perforce have to come
to terms with a party that speaks for Jammu, if it wants to rule from
Srinagar again.

In declaring that he would never again commit the "mistake" of allying
with the BJP, Omar secured many secular brownie points. But in his
grandstanding, he may have triggered a chain of events that could make
such an alliance unavoidable in the future.

To some, the upsurge in Jammu looks like dangerous communal
brinkmanship. It could, however, also be viewed as the re-assertion of
nationalism in a state where it is both fashionable and lucrative to
preach secession. In the long run, this can't be bad for India.