Friday, January 23, 2009

OVER THE HILL IN KASHMIR

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    The elections to the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly have surprised and shocked (depending on which side of the divide they belong) everybody who has anything to do with the state. Mainstream and Integrationist politicians, separatists, militants, security forces, analysts and journalists, and most of all the Pakistanis, have all been trying to make sense of the tectonic political shift that seems to have taken place in Jammu and Kashmir. While at one level the elections appear to be a resounding rejection of the separatists, at another level the sentiment in favour of separatism has not entirely died. In other words, while on the one hand the people of the state have chosen to place their faith in the institutions of Indian democracy, on the other hand a sense of alienation continues to exist.

Not surprisingly then, all the players in the Kashmir drama, including those who seem to have been marginalised by the electorate, have found something to hold on to. The integrationists are elated by the huge turnout in the elections. The separatists are stunned into a sullen silence by the clear rejection of their election boycott call by the people. The security forces are cautiously optimistic that the worst phase of the insurgency in the state is over. The militants are unable to decide whether they might have made a mistake by not coercing people not to vote. They had probably assumed that people would boycott anyhow so it was more politic not to issue any threats. The pompous analysts and self-proclaimed Kashmir watchers (most of who sit in Delhi) are nursing yet another injury at the hands of the people and their uncanny ability to prove all pre-election predictions horribly wrong. And finally there are the Pakistanis, who now are placing all their hopes of grabbing Kashmir on the handful of newspaper articles in the Indian press advocating 'Azadi', most of which have in any case been consigned to the dustbin of history by the election verdict in Jammu and Kashmir.

The main reason why everybody is finding it difficult to make sense of the momentous success of the elections is that nobody had expected anything of these elections. The elections took place against the backdrop of the Amarnath agitation which had polarised the political environment in the entire state. Not only was there a split along regional lines between Jammu and Kashmir valley, but to an extent also along communal lines. Not surprisingly then, most people were convinced that the elections will be a washout with a very low voter turnout. But exactly the opposite happened. Bread and butter issues proved stronger than communal and separatist agendas.

This is not to say that communal polarisation and separatist politics didn't play a role in the elections. Both these agendas did find resonance, but nowhere near what was being expected. The BJPs performance in the Jammu region was a direct outcome of the Amarnath agitation. And the PDP's soft-separatism and Muslim majoritarianism did work to an extent in the Valley and helped the party improve its performance. But even the gains made by the BJP and the PDP are indicative of a remarkable change that has come in Jammu and Kashmir.

To see the Amarnath agitation in Jammu purely as a Hindu movement would be a travesty. No doubt, there was a religious sentiment attached to the entire movement. But the real force behind the movement was a sense of deprivation and grievance in Jammu as far as development was concerned. Jammu was really asserting its right for equitable resources of the state and protesting against what it perceived as a Valley-centric development program of both the central and state government. In this sense, the voting pattern in Jammu was not negative or communal but positive and participatory.

In the Valley too, the fact that people shunned the hard-line separatism and negativism of the Hurriyet Conference – widely referred to by its sobriquet, Hartal (Strikes) Conference – in favour of a mainstream political party like PDP that was seen as flirting with separatism to make itself appear more attractive, is in itself a very positive development. In a sense, the discontent in the Valley, which occasionally finds expression in the demand for 'Azadi', no longer has the stridency that it had in the past. The slogan of 'Azadi' is today not a demand in favour of separatism but a protest against any and every problem and issue – from granting land to Amarnath shrine board to agitating against a sex scandal, and from demanding jobs to protesting against power cuts.

At the same time, it would be a denial of reality to imagine that the separatist sentiment does not exist in the Valley. Even though open expressions and support for separatism might recede into the background, latent separatism will remain around for quite some time. It would be entirely pointless trying to snuff this out completely. If anything, any such an attempt might result in exactly the opposite of what it is trying to achieve. In multi-cultural and multi-ethnic states it is quite normal for separatist sentiments to linger, for decades and sometimes longer. With passage of time, and with economic development and political accommodation, separatism gets tempered down and assimilates itself in the national mainstream. Remnants of separatist sentiment might still find expression, but in a very esoteric sort of way, which can comfortably co-exist with hundreds of other such esoteric ideas.

    Of course, India is nowhere near to reaching such a stage as far as Kashmiri separatism is concerned. But perhaps the first step in this direction has been taken with the last state assembly elections. A lot will now depend on how the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir performs, and how much it is able to connect with the people and address their existential problems. Good and responsive governance will be half the battle won because it will sound the death knell of the jihadist and Islamist separatist groups who have nothing to offer to the people except death, destruction, and dungeons.

    But governance alone will not be enough. At the end of the day, separatism is a political issue on which religion, development, economy start to dovetail. Therefore, the politics of separatism cannot be ignored. This is not to argue in favour of going out of the way to start negotiations with the separatist conglomerate. If anything, it is imperative that no special status be accorded to the separatist leadership. At the same time, India must take care to not shut the door completely on separatist leaders, many of whom may now be inclined to join the Indian mainstream, more so with Pakistan's inexorable slide towards talibanisation and state failure.

    In many ways, India seems to have successfully crossed over the hill in Kashmir. The insurgency is all but over. Top insurgent leaders are busy surrendering or striking deals to surrender. The people too no longer support an armed struggle. Faith in the political system's ability to address basic issues of existence is on an upswing. In other words, the situation is excellent, the best in the last 20 years when terrorism bared its fangs in Jammu and Kashmir. India now needs to ensure that the separatists don't manage to get through the front door (elections) that which they couldn't get from the back door (armed insurgency fuelled from across the border).

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    <1235 Words>                        23rd January, 2009

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1 Comments:

Blogger BENGAL UNDER ATTACK said...

Sushant,

The successful election in J&K should give rise to 2 disparate reactions:

1. INDIA - The free democratic elections should give India a never before heads up to deal with "foreign" powers who want to have a say on Kashmir. India should be on an offense.

2. PAKISTAN- will realize that bringing down the terror tap has not been utilized by Hurriyat well. They will fall back on Punjabis - be it LeT and even women cadres. It is being stated that these women are being infiltrated into the valley to take charge and marry into local communities to explode as and when they are activated.

India should take this once in a lifetime opportunity to right some wrongs.

One forgets that in 1900 there were a million Hindu Kashmiri pandits living in Kashmir valley. Where are they now?

9:06 AM  

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