History revisited

14 Aug 2008


Prem Shankar JhaSixty one years ago, the newly formed government of Pakistan signed a standstill agreement with Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, but then imposed an  economic  blockade on  his state  in order to force him to accede to Pakistan.

The move backfired and Kashmir became a part of India.

Today another economic blockade, this time imposed  by Hindu fanatics in Jammu, is threatening to set off a chain reaction that  could end by taking Kashmir out of the Indian union. Were history to repeat itself,  the Bharatiya Janata Party would be squarely to blame.

In the hysteria triggered  last Monday when  60,000  Kashmiris began to march towards the Line of Control with the intention of crossing it, most commentators have traced the origins of the current agitation to the dispute that was ignited by the transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. 

This has allowed everyone in New Delhi to put the blame for the present conflagration upon  'Kashmiri separatists' who have seized upon the issue to revive their political fortunes. 

According to this interpretation of events N N Vohra, the new (and by implication inexperienced) governor of Kashmir made a mistake when he hastily annulled the land transfer. Had he not done so Hindu bigots in Jammu would not have gained an opportunity to go on the warpath, and the BJP would not have been tempted to fish in troubled waters. Mr. Vohra should therefore be replaced.

But this version of events is factually incorrect. And  far from being a culprit, Vohra could be India's best hope for preventing the resumption of another endless bloodbath in Kashmir. The Amarnath Shrine board affair was an agitation waiting to happen. 

Eighteen years of militancy, followed by incessant attacks upon the yatris by a new breed of jihadis after the Kargil war, made it necessary to provide heavy security to them. This forced the state to play a major role in its organisation.  Instead of coming in small groups spread over the entire summer, Yatris were asked to come within a 15-day period, later extended to a month. That changed the nature of the Yatra.

 As the  prosperity of the middle class  in India  swelled their numbers, to Kashmiris this annual descent began to resemble  a mini-invasion.  The formation of the SASB with a New Delhi appointed governor as its head, provided he was a Hindu, and a recent proposal to extend the yatra to two months, strengthened  the impression. 

To most Kashmiris, however, the issue was not religious or cultural, but political, for it was one more reminder of their virtual exclusion from  decisions that affected their future.

The transfer of forest land to the SASB and the remarks made by its secretary  provided the spark that lit the fire. The resulting upsurge is threatening to swallow the remaining middle ground in Kashmiri nationalist politics.

Far from having engineered the agitation the 'separatists' were caught by surprise  and found themselves in danger of being swept away. But they were not the only ones in this position. The PDP and the National Conference  faced the same fate. The decision to join the agitation was therefore forced equally upon all of them by the spontaneous protest that arose among the people.

Vohra, who is anything but inexperienced on Kashmiri matters, understood all this within hours of  arriving in Srinagar and immediately repealed the land transfer. This touched a raw nerve in Jammu.  But the initial  opposition to the repeal of the land transfer  reflected the deeply-rooted  belief that Jammu  has been given second-class treatment within the state ever since independence. It was not, therefore, communal in origin. 

 After calming Kashmir Vohra visited Jammu, met dozens of groups of citizens, and assured them that the yatra would not be affected in any way. By mid-July both parts of the state seemed headed for normality.

But Jammu too has its quota of Hindu bigots. And these found strong support from a BJP that was smarting from its defeat in Parliament over the Indo-US nuclear agreement and intent upon using the shrine issue to whip up support for Hindutwa.

On 28 July the Jammu Sangharsha Samiti declared an economic blockade of the valley. For six days nothing moved on the road to Srinagar.  Muslim traders and shopkeepers,  and truck drivers with a Kashmir registration, were threatened, beaten up and had their goods burnt.

By the time the army was called out on 2 August  to reopen the road, the distribution pipeline in the valley had been disrupted. That, and the much reduced flow of goods into Kashmir since then, has ensured that it remains broken. Many parts of the Kashmir are now short of  petrol, medicines and a variety of other essentials whose availability  people used to take for granted.

The Kashmiri response, an attempt to force open the road to Muzaffarabad, did not come from Hurriyat but from the Kashmir Fruit Growers' Association, which found itself facing the ruin of its entire crop of apples and pears. 

It was a response born out of desperation  that acquired a political  colouring when it was strongly supported not only by the Hurriyat but also the PDP.

But the demand is not a fig leaf for secession as some commentators in Delhi have suggested. Mehbooba Mufti has made it clear, time and again, that it is a demand to fulfill the promises that Delhi and Islamabad have already made, time and again, to the Kashmiris. There has, in fact, not been a single call for secession in the valley since the agitation began. But  this may not remain true  if the violence continues to grow.

The J&K  government has been accused  in Kashmir of not being firm enough with the agitators in Jammu and in Delhi (and elsewhere) of not being firm enough with the protesters in Kashmir. But neither accusation is justified. Curfew was declared in Jammu, the army was called out and given shoot at sight orders in Jammu at the beginning of August.

The police did open fire on more than one occasion and this did result in a number of deaths. The toll has been higher in Kashmir because the crowds of demonstrators were much much larger. If the government is guilty of anything, it is a marked reluctance to use more than a minimum of force. But the  judgment of how much force to use is far easier to make in hindsight than at the time when the decision has to be made.

What is less easy to understand is the delay of six days between the start of the economic blockade and the calling out of the army to force open the road. Those six days instilled a fear of the road and of the reception that awaited them in Jammu, which has kept large numbers of Kashmiri truck owners and drivers off the road.

Those six days also allowed the fear of economic strangulation to take root in the Kashmiris and opened the way for the politicization of the agitation in the valley.

Today the danger of Kashmir spinning out of control has become very real. People have died. Their funerals will become occasions for outpourings of grief and anger. These will give rise to more demonstrations and may lead to more deaths. The central government has to break this spiral of grief and violence without further delay. To do that it needs demonstrate that the economic blockade has been broken, and reassure Kashmir that it will do whatever is necessary to keep the road to Jammu open and safe.

It  also needs to reassure  Kashmiris that its is determined  to honour its commitment  to progressively soften the border between the two parts of Kashmir, and will  work with all  political parties and movements in Kashmir to make this happen the moment peace is restored.

If there is any silver lining to the developments of the last fortnight, it is that they have brought virtually all Kashmiri nationalist elements together on a single platform. This has created an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue with New Delhi that did  not exist before.

Lastly, New Delhi needs to back governor Vohra's attempts to take the Indian state out of the management of the Amarnath Yatra.

One way, that he was exploring when the blockade began, is to induct educated and experienced members of the Gujjar community, which used to manage the yatra till the militancy began, into the shrine board. Another would be to also induct Kashmiri Pandits into the board. But above all governor Vohra needs to review  the 2000 act which set up the shrine board  and  purge it of both the element of central control and of communalism that was allowed to creep into it.

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