Date: 04/07/2013

Muzamil Jaleel : Thu Jul 04 2013, 00:03 hrs

It doesn't talk to it, or listen. Political initiatives are launched to tide over moments of crisis, to be abandoned as soon as they pass
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi recently visited Kashmir, there was hardly any hope that they would bring along a fresh political initiative. The official aim of this visit, too, was administrative: to inaugurate a railway tunnel and a power project. A deadly militant attack on an army convoy inside Srinagar that killed eight armymen on the eve of the visit had brought it into focus. Singh condemned the attack, vowed that the country is united in the fight against terrorists, and emphasised the need for peace to ensure development.

The prime minister is right to say that development is not possible unless there is peace. The problem, however, lies in how peace is defined by New Delhi.

New Delhi views the lull in Kashmir, especially after the government crushed the 2010 summer protests, as "peace", and mistakenly hopes that the calm will automatically help erase the demand for "azadi". For Kashmir, it has been a calm triggered by hopelessness and there is a growing sense that it is only a pause destined to lead to another phase of strife. There are indications that restlessness has already set in among the youth. Though the number of active militants has not increased to a level that it could be described as a new phase of militancy, the backgrounds of the local young men who were killed after joining militant ranks shows that there is a real chance that the ground may shift again. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah voiced the apprehension that the implications of the Taliban's return to centrestage and the US withdrawal next year from Afghanistan may have a spill-over effect in Kashmir.

Why does Kashmir return to this familiar brink so often? Why aren't the phases of calm turning into an unhindered era of peace? The answer is not difficult to find.

A look at the history of New Delhi's peace efforts clearly show that each time Kashmir erupted, a political initiative was launched to tide over the immediate crisis. The aim has never been to listen to Kashmir and resolve the conflict, but only to cool tempers and manage an immediate crisis.

When Kashmir erupted in 1990, Rajiv Gandhi led New Delhi's first political initiative. A police officer deputed to assist the delegation told me that they had to present a few safai karamcharis working at official guest houses as a political delegation. Then, Rajesh Pilot tried to break the impasse by presenting a "people friendly" face to begin a political process. Pilot could not even keep his promise of informing the family of an arrested person within 24 hours.

In 1995, the then prime minister Narasimha Rao declared that the "sky is the limit" for Kashmir. It was only to cajole Farooq Abdullah to agree to contest the 1996 assembly polls. The election was taking place after nine years, Farooq was reluctant to return to Srinagar empty-handed and New Delhi needed the National Conference to provide a semblance of credibility to the process. He contested and the NC has stayed empty handed, its autonomy proposal dumped even after the J&K Assembly passed it with a two-third majority. The then home minister S.B. Chavan met a few former militant commanders in 1996, ostensibly to begin a "dialogue". This turned out to be a mere photo op.

With the NC replacing governor's rule, New Delhi managed a Kashmiri political face in the state without upsetting the status quo. By now, it was clear that the aim behind New Delhi's initiatives wasn't to resolve the conflict but to manage it. These periodic overtures were used as delay tactics to help maintain the status quo. Leave aside a bargain with the pro-azadi leadership, New Delhi never intended to entertain even the demands of the pro-India political dispensation.

A ruthless force within the J&K police was encouraged to give a local face to counter insurgency. Once New Delhi consolidated its military gains, it downgraded the status of its Kashmir emissaries, and retired bureaucrats replaced senior politicians.

In April 2001, K.C. Pant was sent to Kashmir but his brief was so ambiguous that the initiative failed even before it was launched. In 2002, a Kashmiri Committee kept the Valley guessing. N.N. Vohra replaced Pant as New Delhi's new point man in February 2003. This cycle continued till PM Manmohan Singh launched a roundtable dialogue on Kashmir in 2006 and formed five working groups. The working group that was set up to broadly look into ways for a political resolution, led by retired Supreme Court Judge Justice Saghir Ahmad, filed a report in 2009 and recommended autonomy, though substantially watered down in its quantum. While the autonomy resolution passed by the J&K Assembly in 2000 was summarily rejected by New Delhi, the Saghir report was dumped even before its acceptance.

Another working group, led by Vice President Hamid Ansari, had recommended repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, saying it impinged upon the fundamental rights of citizens. The group had sought to develop a mechanism to fix responsibility for human rights violations and punish derelict officials, besides strengthening the SHRC. Omar Abdullah amended the repeal demand and instead requested for the withdrawal of the law from a few select areas. New Delhi didn't agree.

Despite this consistent lack of sincerity on addressing Kashmir politically, and the continued acts of obfuscation and denial on the part of New Delhi, there was a unilateral shift in Kashmir in 2008, when people opted for non-violent protests to register their demands. The gun had been replaced by slogans, and militants were forced to halt their activities to allow a peaceful struggle to dominate Kashmir's azadi discourse. New Delhi's reaction did not change and there was no attempt to listen to this groundswell. Instead, curfews and arrests were again used to quell these protests. In 2010, when Kashmir was simmering for a third consecutive year, New Delhi again came up with its tested remedy. A new set of interlocutors was engaged to achieve a "unique solution" for a "unique problem". Their report was not even acknowledged as an outcome of a government sponsored exercise.

New Delhi's use of elections in Kashmir has been selective. While this process is projected as a democratic alternative to plebiscite, the representatives elected through it are snubbed on important issues. The autonomy resolution passed by the assembly was summarily rejected. The PDP's self rule or Sajjad Lone's Achievable Nationhood wasn't even considered for a debate.

For years, New Delhi's position was that violence is the major hurdle in starting a result-oriented dialogue. But once militant presence came down to a negligible number, the protests were termed as "agitational terrorism" and criminalised. In 2010 alone, 127 youngsters were killed when police opened fire to quell protests. While New Delhi insists that the army is in Kashmir to fight the militants, the dwindling militant numbers have never led to any change in the heavy security presence. Official estimates put the number of active militants at less than a hundred in Kashmir during the last two years of calm. Yet as the militants' guns went silent, New Delhi's goal post shifted again and "opposition" to violence, not merely shunning it, became the new pre-requisite for engagement.

Several Hurriyat leaders did reciprocate New Delhi's dialogue offer, risking their own and their families' safety. They failed to secure even small changes on the ground. The overwhelming understanding in Kashmir is that New Delhi wants to avoid any serious movement towards a political solution and wants to substitute it with "development", administrative measures and an overwhelming military presence to ensure the status quo.