A ray of hope

20 Aug 2008


Something historic happened in Kashmir between 16 August and 18 August. Huge numbers of Kashmiris came out on the streets of  Pampore (city of Lotuses) a small town near Srinagar, and then in the very heart of  official Srinagar, to chant slogans, burn effigies, wave banners, plant green and black flags, demand azadi, and urge India to get out of Kashmir.

Throughout both days the Kashmir police, backed by the CRPF, manned sensitive points of the demonstrators' routes, but stayed out of sight. But  nothing happened. Not a single head was broken or a vehicle burned. Not a single person was beaten, shot, injured or killed.

Hawks in the home ministry and security forces are shaking their heads, declaring it a defeat for the Indian State and warning all who will listen that such pusillanimity  will only encourage the Kashmiri 'separatists' to push the envelop harder  and make the restoration of peace more difficult in the future.

According to them the government should have closed the roads into Srinagar, declared a curfew, put up road blocks at the exit points from  sensitive parts of the city, and put the leaders of the  Kashmiri separatist parties under house arrest, if not preventive detention.

But  governor N N Vohra chose to do none of these things. Instead, through intermediaries, he urged  Geelani, the Mirwaiz, Yasin Malik, and other members of the co-ordination committee, to ensure that the processions remained peaceful. All of them readily agreed, and, on both days  made elaborate arrangements with their own pary members to keep the crowds under control.

The state, on its part deployed its forces but kept them well out of sight.

As a result  something happened in Kashmir that was utterly without precedent. Upto 100,000 people took an active part in the demonstrations on both days,  but tempers never flared. What is more, with a solitary exception in Pampore, the lawlessness that occurs after such large demonstations, when charged up demonstrators burn property and ransack shops and homes on their way home, never occurred.

Within half an hour of the end of the 18 August rally, Srinagar had returned to normal. Apart from an excess of  litter on the streets there was no sign that a demonstration of such size had taken place.

But this is the smallest of the milestones that Kashmir passed on that day. For  the first time since the insurgency began in 1989-90, instead of treating Kashmiri nationalists as troublemakers and clamping down on them, the state entered into negotiations with their leaders. These  led to reciprocal commitments, and the commitments were honoured by both sides.

Negotiations imply equality. The state's willingness to enter into them and to abide by its commitments also implies trust. And this  presupposes respect. This was the first time during their 19 years of struggle, that the Indian state had shown Kashmiri nationalists trust. Small wonder that Kashmiri nationalists now feel  empowered as they have not done for most of the past 61 years.

The lead editorial in Greater Kashmir on August 20 summed up this development with a complete lack of ambiguity:

''.. Slogans for freedom or .. in support of right to self-determination and (the) holding of a referendum or a plebiscite .. have echoed in the past also but what made the 'Monday march' to the United Nations different was its orderliness and discipline. …The conducting of such a mammoth public meeting suggests that the people of Kashmir after having passed through various phases of struggle have matured enough to take their struggle to its logical conclusions through peaceful means….''

The editorial went on compliment the state government:

''It also goes to the credit of the state authorities  (that they departed) from (their) traditional policy of stopping people from holding peaceful protests … for the first time  the state government  successfully conveyed its message to police and paramilitary forces  (not to) provoke people by creating impediments in the smooth conduct of the processions''.

Trust begets trust. There is already a palpable reduction of anxiety  in the government and the city over the outcome of future demonstrations. Every  time one passes off peacefully  it will add to the mutual respect and trust between the state and its Kashmiri citizens. If both the Hurriyat coordination committee and the government continue down this road it will lead them, inevitably first  to negotiations  with each other, and then to the induction of the latter into talks with Pakistan to shape and implement the Musharraf - Manmohan Singh agreement of April 2005. 

But we have begun this journey at the darkest hour in our relations with the Kashmiris. For Jammu has declared an economic blockade on the valley and the Indian state has been unable to break it and protect the Kashmiris. Kashmir's pear crop has largely rotted and time will soon run out for its  much larger apple crop. Traffic on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway remains a trickle. The government's attempts to keep the national highway open by making the superintendents of police of the areas through which it passes responsible for public security have been only partially successful,  as the police frequently run away when faced by a mob, and leave the truck drivers to their fate.

The state administration's assurance to New Delhi  that there is no blockade, is  blatantly false. Even if it had not been, Kashmiris believe there is one, and that is what matters. For a blockade is an act of war. If the Centre does not demonstrably break the blockade very, very soon, indeed even before this appears  in print, then India will forever forfeit its claim to the allegiance of the Kashmiris.

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