The Kashmir cauldron is on the boil once again but more viciously this time. Every time the Valley beautiful erupts, more than the causes and reasons there is a trigger which is squarely the outcome of misreading and mishandling of the situation. Not that it takes unawares the powers that be. The situation simmers and smolders but the system waits for inferno before it reacts. Circa 2017 the basics of the situation remain the same. There was a simmer resulting out of the formation and later ineptitude of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Peoples Democratic Party ruling coalition. The only change in situation this time has been the Centre’s view of the ground realities which barring the security-related actions is one of a passive viewer– deliberately or otherwise.
So what is the trigger behind the current situation?
A Lok Sabha by-election, the other postponed, and poll for 11 seats to state Legislative Council dutifully completed to maintain the charade of strengthening democracy. Ostensibly, given the serious situation prevailing on the ground, the purpose was to somehow complete the electoral drill with outcaring for people’s sentiment. After all they are the spirit and mass of any democratic process. Not that this has happened for the first time in this troubled state, with a hope that it never happens again.
This phase of elections might look a minuscule but it has hit the credibility of poll process much harder than at any stage in the past. National Conference chief patron Farooq Abdullah is a happy man having won the Srinagar Lok Sabha by-election which recorded the lowest ever 7 per cent polling with his share being less than 50 per cent. The Legislative Council polls witnessed the ruling alliance partners BJP and PDP clashing and not collaborating with each other.
These are certainly disturbing developments particularly from the people’s perspective and tossed certain serious questions even as the previous concerns arising after such situations have remained unanswered for all times to come.
The first and foremost dichotomy is embedded in the decision to hold byelections in Kashmir. Majority of the key players in the conduct of poll process were convinced that the situation was not conducive to polls but still it happened. It is rather intriguing that one finds the Election Commission and the home ministry on the opposite sides of the fence on this issue which though came to public light only in the post- Srinagar poll scenario. The home ministry claims it had advised the EC against this while the latter boastfully claims that it does not require the ministry’s concurrence or clearance to hold elections that too in a place as sensitive as Kashmir.
One does not know what is the truth but as the one who has witnessed conduct of many a poll processes while covering both home ministry and EC beats simultaneously, it is something never seen earlier. It is unimaginable for EC to conduct elections overlooking home ministry’s inputs. After all the security-related arrangements are in the ministry’s domain.
It is only reflective of a bigger malady that has set in. Although it has nothing to do with the functioning of either the home ministry or the Election Commission, the malady has its basis in the differing political perception of BJP and PDP over handling of Jammu & Kashmir.
There were already issues at hand and security forces were too stressed to be pushed into the poll process without any thinking and a proper gameplan in place. As a result the worst fears have come true and security forces have been left bruised, cornered and forced to offer explanations for acts which they were forced to perform as their duty. Those who should have been blamed for creating a mess on the ground due to misgovernance or total lack of good governance are sitting pretty and celebrating victories.
Jammu & Kashmir, and Kashmir in particular is notoriously known for elections decided and fought as per whims and fancies of the powerful political leaders particularly of the ruling elite variety. The circumstances and ground realities always become a secondary issue. The very basics of deciding the timing is that how easily it could be won and coronation of a particular leader assured. That is the past history of course with some exceptions.
The holding of by-elections proved to be a big trigger this time for vested interests to seize the opportunity with both hands. A total non-existent state government with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti caving in when she was expected to stand up, and seen to be at total mercy of the Centre (read alliance partner BJP) has led to a hopeless situation.
It was justifiable in the early 1990s to start political process at all costs when the Valley was under the tight grip of Pakistan-sponsored terrorist outfits. The political class also showed courage and fought elections at great personal risks. Farooq Abdullah was one among them. So in some ways the low polling percentage was also seen as an achievement.
Travelling to 2017; after a lot of hard work and sacrifices made particularly by the security forces in retrieving the situation out of that hopelessness, the abysmally low 7 per cent polling is simply unacceptable. More seriously the repoll in 38 polling booths recorded a pathetic one per cent voting and still the system had the audacity to accept this outcome.
It is certainly not to blame the people of Kashmir who have, as and when required, shown their faith in the power of ballot, but those who either misread the situation or allowed elections to happen for personal reasons. The 2002 assembly and subsequent elections up till the current by-polls, saw polling percentages crossing 60 per cent mark and even more at many places.
The Election Commission surprisingly overlooked the developments in Srinagar and accorded sanctity to election with 7 per cent electorate casting votes. There was a strong case to annul the election. After all it is not about merely winning or losing or completing the poll process but more importantly about ensuring that the people’s faith in democratic process remained intact.
The situation was on an even keel both in Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha constituencies. How come elections happened in Srinagar and postponed by a month in the latter case simply because South Kashmir of which Anantnag is a significant part is the mainstay of the ruling PDP or that Farooq Abdullah was “assured” of his victory in Srinagar. Hard-pressed as the ruling PDP-BJP combine is due to their politics of conflict, a loss for PDP would have put a sure question mark on the future of Mehbooba Mufti and her brother Tasaduq who is making his electoral debut in this by-election.
The political machinations seemed to be at full play in these by-elections. Some willingly and others unknowingly became part of this.
Decidedly the people of the state have been the losers once again.
The Election Commission was ill advised to first hold election in Srinagar and then order a repoll. The situation grew from bad to worse as the figures suggest. It would have been in order to annul the election altogether in order to give some sense of belonging to the vast majority that stayed away from the process. Who knows, it could have salutary effect on public mind which in turn was severely affected by one per cent repoll figures.
These by-elections were ordered in the backdrop of a boycott call issued by separatist groups and an already incensed public mind due to total inaction of the state government on all fronts and the Centre intriguingly silent. An added factor of simmering public outrage was the developments in the rest of the country targeting the Muslim society. Chief Minister Mehbooba through her studied silence was seen by Kashmiris as a colluder in all this.
Coming back to Legislative Council elections it has again exposed the chinks and superficiality on which the PDP-BJP alliance has been based. Using the Supreme Court’s analogy of a caged parrot in regard to CBI, Mehbooba seems to have acquired this status in this coalition and the ease with which one of her own MLAs crossed over and voted for ally BJP nominee explains her dilemma.
The fledgling coalition will still move on as none in the PDP despite this hit has the courage to counter the BJP leadership and at least demand dignity and reciprocity. And inversely the saffron party is in no mood to lose a government.
But this incident of cross-voting has seriously dented late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s and also that of senior BJP leaders’ oft-repeated theory that the two ideologically different parties have come together to bridge the ever increasing gap between Jammu & Kashmir regions. Or else, BJP could have resisted the lure of winning an extra seat through cross-voting by an ally MLA and permitted PDP to have its space.
These disturbing developments also hint at a diabolical plan at work. In the normal course any government in Delhi would follow fourpronged policy to deal with the situation. Firstly, the security drill, secondly the accompanying political exercise, thirdly ensuring good governance and fourthly opening multi-dimensional channels of dialogue at various levels.
The security apparatus particularly the Army and Central Paramilitary Forces have all through borne the brunt and created situation conducive for political process to take shape. The current explosive situation has left no one in doubt that the present policies are squarely based on flexing muscles without any other accompaniment.
The governance in J&K is at an all-time abysmally low level with no attempt to set the house in order by either of the two ruling alliance partners. Countries and states are run by authority or else the dispensations start crumbling as is the case with state government. There could not have been a worst visual of erosion of this authority than a security force personnel surrounded by irate anti-India slogan shouting mob. This CRPF person was laudably cool and did not use his AK-47 assault rifle to open fire in even self-defence.
Yes the security forces particularly the Army have their role cut out in any given situation more so in an internal conflict. Trained to kill the enemy the Army has its limitations when dealing with own people in such situations. So the need for a dialogue and engage with the people including those fomenting anti-India sentiment.
Intriguingly, the fourth and most important dimension of any government’s four-pronged approach to tackle the situation, that is dialogue, is nearly missing at this juncture. There were many in Delhi’s ruling circles that had raised eyebrows to an advice by former GoC Lt Gen D S Hooda, who served in Kashmir in different capacities, that the government should open a dialogue even with the protesting youth.
Having first-hand experience of dealing with the ground situation the Lt Gen was only stating the obvious that the security apparatus had a limited role to play. His worry also stemmed from a new dimension of mob protestations and targeting sensitive establishments. What option does the Army have in view of such a scenario? This is a worrying question but with no visible answers from the quarters concerned.
On a more disturbing note the Army has willy-nilly acquired the centre stage in public discourse vis-a-vis Kashmir conflict in the true spirit of crossfire. It caught in a bind as Lt Gen Hooda rightly described “either being strongly supported or strongly hated”. A rather unlikable situation has arisen for Indian Army where fingers are sought to be raised on its rich secular and impartial image.
“Centre should act like Vajpayee did!”
The situation is deteriorating fast. What steps do you think need to be taken to normalize the situation?
I have full confidence in the steps taken by the Government. Having said that, I need to say that the Centre must talk with all the parties involved in Kashmir, like Vajpayee did during his overture. You can remember how good the situation then was. Trade was flourishing and there was peace all around. The talks were going on in a very cordial environment then.
The way students, especially female students, are raising the cry of Azadi; it appears that they have lost hope about their future.
There is some anger among the students. Some are angry, some are livid. Some of them are being provoked. I have kept repeating that youngsters should not get provoked. We had a talk with the Unified Command over how will they be handled by the Armed Forces. I want youngsters to shed the path of violence and choose the process of constructive dialogue in order to have their problems and grievances addressed.
When you say that Modi Government must behave like Vajpayee’s did; it indicates that you have a problem with their current approach…
I have no complaint. I am not saying that Modi Government is not on the right track. Had that been the case there would have been no BJP-PDP alliance. We are on the right track to solve the problem. As far as our advice is concerned, they should be respected. That is how a constructive alliance works. Our alliance will continue in the future as well.
But there is disappointment…
Central Government insists that they are on the right track to find the solution. However, there are some issues regarding the implementation. Otherwise how will you explain the people’s anger? That is why I insist on dialogue with them. Otherwise the violence will continue and ruin the development of the Valley.
Has your government delivered on your promises?
All the promises made during the polls will be kept. We are already delivering some of it in coordination with the Centre. This will be further sped up. The PM has recently handed over the biggest tunnel to the people. This will speed up progress in the state.
These are alarming signals coming from an operations commander. The underlying concern behind these alarms is to protect the bastion called the Army and prevent its degradation through lesser deployment and direct conflicts with the public in situations of internal strife.
Lt Gen Hooda and people of his ilk should be heard carefully when they talk of the need to have a “calm, practical and realistic” look at the situation which is very complex and having cross-connections at every intersection.
The most worrying aspect of the current situation, which can ultimately become a serious fallout if not tackled properly, is the widening conflict zone and shrinking middleground. Both these areas need a carefully calibrated approach.
After the heady days of 1990s when entire Kashmir Valley looked like a war zone, the conflict zone had considerably shrunk. This was mostly due to an effective blend of security management, free and fair elections leading to improved governance and willingness to talk within Kashmir and on a separate stage with Pakistan.
There is no denying the fact that a proactive security drill is needed when the situation arises. But the security forces particularly the Army should not be expected to be fighting the pitched battles in the streets of Kashmir all the time. The situation leading up to the killing of home-grown militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and developments thereafter has not only given rise to a new generation of militants but has also engulfed the educational institutions down to school levels, into the conflict zone.
Even during the peak militancy days it was difficult for the Pak-backed militant groups to garner local support particularly in terms of recruiting Kashmiri youth to their cadres. In the post-Burhan Wani scenario local recruitments have become easier and in many cases voluntary. This has emboldened dreaded terrorist outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba with easy availability of local recruits.
Young boys and girls (school and college students) hitting the road all across the Valley to protest against Army’s entry into a college in South Kashmir is even more alarming.
“We should look at Kashmir with a holistic approach”
What do you think is the best way forward for peace and development in Kashmir?
The situation is deteriorating every passing day. This is precisely why people like us who are worried about Kashmir, and are genuinely looking for solution, decided to visit Kashmir and take a stock of what people want. We submitted our report to the Prime Minister. I believe that the situation demands a holistic approach towards the Kashmir problem. My suggestion is, in sync with this holistic approach, the Prime Minister must start a multi-dimensional talk with representatives of all political and social organisations, irrespective of their hue and colour.
It looks as if local leaders don’t understand the issue very well. But when you talk to them, they maintain that the issue is very emotional and that it is New Delhi that does not understand the issue properly. This can only be assessed when the government talks with Hurriyat and similar groups. The biggest requirement at this time is to take people in confidence and then go for comprehensive talks. This would be similar to the approach taken during Vajpayee government. In short, we need that human-touch.
Don’t you think that the current dispensation has not taken yours and your group’s recommendations seriously? I cannot say this. However, I am positive that Prime Minister Modi must be taking serious steps to solve this rather complex issue. I am positive that the government will restart the dialogue with every group that has a stake here.
It is being said that the movement has taken a shape and direction of its own under the leadership of youths who cannot be controlled by Hurriyat at this time? Situation is anything but normal. It is not normal for the students–both male and female–to be part of stone-pelting exercise. As I mentioned earlier too, the situation is deteriorating every passing moment. Youths need jobs, work to do. There is no serious effort to provide them with it. This is one of the reasons why youths are directionless, and have taken a path of violence. The government needs to find a way out to engage them in dialogue. The PDP-BJP alliance had talked about interlocutor group. This needs to be formed soon.
Whenever Hurriyat is called for talks, they insist on making it a tripartite one involving Pakistan. Does the government believe that Hurriyat is rife with secessionist sentiments? We would only know when the government makes an attempt. We also engaged with Hurriyat and other groups there and we didn’t feel they will resort back to past tactics and want to involve Pakistan. The question is, when the government will appoint interlocutors and start inviting people for talks.
Do you think there is lack of programmes and projects for the youths in the state? The central government is running all those projects in J&K that it has been running in other states. We believe that if the situation normalises, the pace of development will be speeded up. It will be easier to make people benefit from the programmes.
There are conflicting versions about the real purpose of this entry but failure of the government to immediately clarify on the issue has added to the mess. Radicalisation of youth is on the increase.
There are no visible attempts over the years leave alone formulating a policy to arrest this trend. More importantly, it needed efforts at the societal levels through saner elements to build a movement against radicalisation. The total lack of approach on this front and mishandling of the situation has resulted in the entire society being pushed to one side and the saner elements facing the ignominy of losing their relevance.
When the conflict zone widens and options of dialogue are at a bare minimum, a natural corollary would be the middle ground shrinking fast. That precisely is what is happening in Kashmir right now.
There are only stray efforts by certain private quarters or peaceniks to save and strengthen this middle ground. One such effort was made by former foreign affairs minister and veteran BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and some other stray groups. But in the face of a non-enthusiastic Centre these attempts have not made any headway so far.
This gives rise to theories of a diabolical plan at work in some quarters of power dispensation of Delhi relating to future of Jammu & Kashmir as a state in its present form. It remains a fact that even being a senior partner in the coalition PDP chief Mehbooba has given lot of space to BJP but the latter rather than reciprocating in the same spirit has been upping the ante as and when occasion arises. The Legislative Council polls were one such latest example where BJP connived to ensure cross-voting by one of the PDP MLAs, in the former’s favour.
While PDP has almost given up on its core issues, the BJP is steadfastly talking about its own and dropping hints on implementing the same sooner or later. So what does statement of senior BJP state minister that bullet should be the answer to stones (patthar ka jawab goli hi sahi rasta hai) entail?
Obviously it is not indicative of attempts to reduce the conflict zone or broaden the middle ground. By doing so this particular minister was addressing to his constituency in Jammu region. BJP as well as its earlier avatar Bharatiya Jan Sangh and other outfits of the Sangh Parivar have always exploited sentiments of the region in the name of separate statehood to Jammu and in the similar vein Union Territory status to Ladakh which is wrongly presumed to be a Buddhist majority area.
These developments are indicative of a mindset working towards reorganisation or trifurcation of the state. Could that be one reason that the quotient of dialogue is the lowest priority of the Centre and its agencies?
A disturbed situation in Kashmir and correspondingly heightened nationalistic sentiment and public emotions, particularly in Jammu and Ladakh, can provide a fertile ground for germination of this idea into reality.
This is easier said than done. The priority of the day should be to first control the situation and keep the dialogue option open at all levels. It is utmost important in the national interest to protect the Army’s sanctity and leave them alone. Trifurcation of the state could be an option to be explored during times of normalcy. Or else fishing in troubled waters could prove too costly.
With inputs from Pramod K Singh,