Time for a fresh start

08 Oct 2008


Prem Shankar Jha The second imposition of a valley-wide curfew  turned out to be a token affair. By 10:00 at night on Monday, 6 October, no one had been killed and very few had been roughed up by the police. Hours later the government had  lifted it. As a result life in Kashmir is returning to normal even as I write.

The Rasputins in Delhi see it as a vindication of their crackdown on 22 August.  Hadn't they always said that the separatist leaders were men of straw; that all they needed was a touch of the whip? Now all Delhi needs to do to is set a date for  the state elections,  probably  in early November.

They could not be more wrong. The near-complete absence of violence does not reflect  the Azadi movement's weakness but  its strength. Its success in restraining  the violent and  unstable youthful fringe of the movement,  whose constant taunting of the Indian forces had provoked the initial crackdown in August,  and at the same time keeping out the mujahideen of the United Jihad Council in Muzaffarabad, underlines the authority that it now enjoys in the valley. A large part of the credit for avoiding a confrontation also goes to governor Vohra and his advisers who have maintained a ceaseless  dialogue with the Hurriyat co-ordination committee and clearly re-established a degree of mutual trust.
But their efforts would have been in vain had there not been a succession of developments in the intervening weeks that  reassured at least the leaders of  the Azadi movement that  New Delhi had not reneged on the commitments it had made to Pervez Musharraf in April 2005.

The first of these was  the end of the economic blockade, which was the chief cause of anger in  the valley. On the surface it seemed that  governor Vohra had been able to do this only by yielding to the  Jammu-based Sangharsha Samiti and the BJP, and  cancelling the revocation of the transfer of land by the outgoing government on 28 July.

But a closer look at the agreement shows that Kashmiris were the real winners for most of the additional 40 hectares of forest land that the order allows the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to use  was already being used to house the rising tide of pilgrims.

The agreement has also made it absolutely clear that the permission is for only three months in a year and  contains no commitment to make any permanent transfer of the land. It also contains a commitment to restructure the board to make it an entirely Kashmiri affair with no officials and members from any other state.

The second, even more important development  is the agreement announced by Dr Manmohan Singh and  President Zardari in New York that intra-Kashmir trade would begin on 21 October. Coupled  with the state government's announcement that it will hasten the completion of  the old Mughal road to Jammu through Poonch has ispelled much of the  vulnerability and powerlessness  that had enveloped Kashmir when New Delhi failed to take measures to decisively break the economic blockade of Kashmir for fear of pushing Hindu voters into the arms of the BJP.

All of these gains will be lost if New Delhi now rams an election through the state in November. Ever since 1996 the Indian state has been giving the former insurgents a choice between two kinds of political death - participating in the election and being dubbed traitors by the separatist constituency, or boycotting them and risking political obsolescence.

In the last one year, as the mainstream parties, the National Conference and the PDP, began to compete with each other to appropriate the platform of 'self-rule' on which the Hurriyat had hoped to strike a compromise with New Delhi, several observers warned the government that this strategy would fail because it would force the Hurriyat into the arms of the extreme Islamic elements in the valley under Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

 The shrine board dispute provided the opportunity for the two warring factions to come together. But the actual charge, that the transfer of the 40 hectares would usher in an attempt to change the demography of Kashmir was first framed by the National Conference on 5 June, with the express purpose of discrediting the PDP which had failed to oppose, and therefore made itself a  party to the original transfer. It took Geelani and the Mirwaiz another five and seven days to join the chorus.

The events of the last four months have shown that sidelining the Kashmiri nationalists is not an option. Peace will only be restored in Kashmir, and  between Pakistan and India, when they, and the 40 per cent of the valley that has always boycotted the elections since 1987, rejoin the political process. Delhi needs to acknowledge this so long as it  does not agree to negotiate directly  with the Hurriyat and its allies.

The only silver lining to the events of the past four months is that they have created, for the first time in Kashmir, a united movement for self determination that does not owe its existence to Pakistan. Instead of perceiving  this development as a threat New Delhi needs to see it as an opportunity to involve the entire Kashmiri ethno-nationalist movement in its search for lasting peace.

Its right course of action would therefore be   to postpone the state assembly elections till March 2009 and use the time gained to prepare the ground for, and eventually hold, open  talks with the co-ordination committee, to frame a strategy for implementing the 2005 agreement with Pakistan. If such  talks are held and go well, they could  open the way for a truly representative election next year.

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