How India lost the Kashmiris

30 Aug 2008


Prem Shankar Jha On 25 August the Indian State 'reasserted its authority' over the valley of Kashmir. The 'authorities' gave Praveen Swami of The Hindu a detailed explanation of why it had become necessary to do so. The valley-wide  crackdown that occurred on Sunday and Monday August 24 and 25 , was crafted by one man: M.K Narayanan , the National Security Adviser to the Prime minister.

On Wednesday August 20 he descended upon Srinagar accompanied by  a team of security chiefs including P C Haldar, the director general of the Intelligence Bureau, and (reading between the lines of Swamy's report) roundly criticised the governor, N N Vohra for taking a 'soft line' towards the 'Islamists'.

Detailing the number of bunkers from which  the crowds had evicted the security forces,  the state government's decision to pull down  the national flag prematurely on 15 August at Lal Chowk,  the frequent hoisting of a Pakistani flag, the chanting of pro-Pakistan and pro-Lashkar slogans, and the jeering and taunting of Indian  forces in the bunkers by the crowds.

So on 24 August, nine districts were handed over to the army, 20 battalions of CRPF  moved into Srinagar, and curfew was imposed on the valley. But this was no ordinary curfew. Local newspapers were banned and foreign journalists were rounded up and sent out of Kashmir, cable TV was shut down and internet temporarily disrupted. The SMS facility on mobiles had already been withdrawn.

As an  exercise in crowd control, the crackdown has been  a  success. Far fewer people were killed than had been  feared - only eight  in all - although hundreds were injured.  But  it is difficult  to divine what the government hopes to gain from it. Will it  douse the anger that people are feeling? Will the people go quietly back to normal life when it is lifted? Or will the curfew only bottle up anger, and turn Kashmir into a pressure cooker, bringing ever larger numbers out on the streets when it is lifted?

Both the central and  state governments have persuaded themselves that, with the leaders under arrest, the movement would  fizzle out. Relying mainly  on 'intelligence' reports and intercepts of messages from Pakistan they convinced themselves that the agitation over the shrine board land  was created by 'separatists' who had been  marginalised by the valley's return to normality and the prospect of a high turnout in the October elections. It did not therefore have much support  among the people.

This may well  have been true in the early stages of the agitation. For, there can be no doubt that by mid-July, a fortnight after governor Vohra had revoked the 26  May land transfer decision of the Azad cabinet, Kashmir had returned completely to normal. Kashmiris were bemoaning their loss of earnings from tourism, and the Hurriyat, which had capitulated to Geelani,  had egg all over its face.

But the economic blockade imposed by the  Jammu Sangharsha Samiti and the Sangh Parivar on 28 July changed all this. In an astounding display of ineptitude the central government allowed it to carry on unopposed for 11 days before ordering the army to open the National Highway.

By then an estimated 150 Kashmiri trucks had been attacked,  their drivers  savagely beaten and in one case killed, their goods burned, and their money stolen. Day after day they arrived in Srinagar with their tales of woe and vows never to drive through Jammu again, and the anger in the valley mounted.

The pear crop in the valley ripened and began to rot, coal ceased to arrive and the cement plants had to shut down. Gasoline became scarce because, even after the army began to patrol the highway truck traffic remained at a quarter to half of what it used to be. Other shortages began to appear as milk powder, medicines and newsprint became scarce or began to be hoarded.

The establishment of an air bridge between Srinagar and Chandigarh for perishable fruit, and essential supplies, and an announcement that henceforth the army would protect convoys of trucks plying to and from  the valley would have destroyed the very basis of the anger, and sent the Kashmiris the powerful message that the central government did not only coerce Kashmiris but also protected them from harm. 

But the central government said and did nothing. It said and did nothing even when the Kashmir fruit growers association announced that it would take its fruit to Muzaffarabad. 

But that was the lesser part  of the reason for their anger and sudden unity. The greater part  was the openly communal nature of the agitation in Jammu. From its very first day, the Jammu Sangharsha Samiti demanded not the unrestricted use of land to cater to the needs of the pilgrims but its permanent transfer to the Shrine Board.

The coercive nature of this demand was apparent. But it was its takeover by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Shiv Sena, and its use of  every symbol of a new Fascist version  of Hinduism, from swords and trisuls to saffron flags and the tricolour national flag, that finally convinced Kashmiris that 'Hindu India' had declared economic war on the Muslims of Kashmir.

As Ali Shag Geelani told an all-faith delegation composed of every branch of India, Islam, a Christian and Dr J K Jain, formerly of the BJP, '' I had closed my shop and gone home. It was the people who pulled me out. What I had not been able to achieve in 50 years was done for me in a fortnight by the Sangharsha Samiti.

The 'fruit' march to Muzaffarabad was a result of all of these pressures --- part anger at a betrayal, part a desperate attempt to break an economic stranglehold, and  part political opportunism. But the resulting 40 deaths  completed the delegitimisation of Indian rule in Kashmir. But all was even then not lost. For the governor's determination, shared by the prime minister, that there must not be any more deaths in Kashmir, and the consequent restraint, had begun to mend fences once more.  

Had Narayanan and his cohorts had even a slightly open mind, they would have seen the restraint exercised by the state government on 16 and 18 August had already tilted the balance of power within the co-ordination committee decisively back in favour of the moderates.

At its meeting on Thursday20 August, a day before the eidgah prayers, the Mirwaiz had dropped Naeem Khan and Shabbir Shah, both close to Geelani and, it was suspected,  to the Lashkar e Tayyiba,  from the coordinating committee. What is more, he had replaced them with Gilani's bete noire Sajjad Lone. Sajjad was the person who had, over his father's body in 2002 openly accused the ISI and its protégé in Kashmir (Geelani) of having murdered his father.

Finally in another significant shift, this was the first meeting of the coordinating committee that  was not held at Geelani's house but at Mirwaiz Manzil.

The meeting itself lasted for many hours but could not arrive at a decision --- another indication of the disagreements between the 'separatists'. But the continued restraint by the state during the massive gathering at  the Eidgah  the next day tilted the balance within the coordination committee even further in favour of moderation.

On Saturday, Masrat Aalam, a close  associate of Geelani and spokesperson of the coordinating committee, asked the people in the strongest possible terms to demonstrate peacefully, respect all property, and especially not attack civilian cars and ambulances. He also warned them against being  provoked by rumours that the central government had agreed to transfer the disputed land once more to the Shrine Board.

As Swamy's report makes clear, Narayanan  had never favoured restraint. But knowing, on Wednesday,  that there was no time to crack down before the Friday prayers at the Eidgah, he allowed the Kashmiri newspapers to conclude that Delhi would continue with  the policy of restraint provided there was no violence. But all he was doing was buying  time and waiting  for an excuse to crack down. This was provided by the lumpen elements at the fringes of the Azadi movement.

As the realisation sank into them that the armed police would not open fire when provoked, gangs of lumpen youth, born and brought up during the insurgency and filled with  hate for India,  took to teasing, insulting and, on occasion,  physically molesting the jawans. They yelled derisive  anti-India slogans and began to put up Pakistani flags. My conversations with several senior officials suggest that the flags were the last straw.

The Indian state was finally provoked and the only policy that could have brought Kashmir back on an even keel was abandoned in favour of naked force.

With the prime minister determined to maintain his vow of silence, with the home ministry  determined to negotiate with criminals in Jammu, while it shoots their victims in Kashmir, only the absurdly optimistic can believe that the Kashmir movement will fizzle out when the curfew is lifted. On the contrary, reports from the valley suggest that the demonstrators will take a leaf from the Sangharsha Samiti's book and put women and children in front.

But one firm commitment, given personally to the Kashmiris  by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, could still make the difference between peace and war in Kashmir.  This is that India will  decisively break the economic blockade of Kashmir, using army convoys and an air bridge from Chandigarh;  greatly hasten the opening of all the agreed borders points between Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, if Pakistan cooperates;  and  invite  the members of the coordination committee to participate in determining  the future of Kashmir,  with him and governor Vohra,  as soon as normality returns to the entire state.

None of this would break new ground. In 1990 the weak minority government of V P Singh created an air bridge all the way from Delhi to Amman with just three Airbus 320s, to rescue the Indian workers who had been stranded in Kuwait by the Iraqi invasion.

Srinagar is only an hour away from Chandigarh and the Air Force has huge Ilyushins that can do the job with ease. And in 1994 Prime minister Narasimha Rao diverted the entire Kashmiri insurgency from violence into peaceful protest by quietly announcing preparations for an election. That is the kind of change of direction and focus of energies, that might still save Kashmir and India from a future that neither want.

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