Challenges ahead in Kashmir
Bashir Assad

After many decades New Delhi has made a paradigm shift in its Kashmir policy. The new policy serves the dual objectives of dealing with Pakistan by mending the chronic nature of the Kashmir problem by scrapping the controversial Article 370 of the Constitution, and resetting the internal parameters of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to keep the political elite of Kashmir Valley at bay. The purpose is to free the people of J&K from clutches of the political elites of Kashmir. If the statements made by the Prime Minister and Home Minister both inside and outside Parliament on the revocation of special status of J&K are any indicators, the idea is to kill two birds with one stone. It could be best described as addressing Kashmir’s ‘Greed and Grievance’ theory. What does that mean?

In the conflict theatre of Kashmir, the realities seen at ground level must be understood contextually. People have grievances against the state. These grievances, depending on the perspective, may be seen as legitimate or illegitimate. The popular discourse in Kashmir so far is that New Delhi has failed in winning the hearts and minds of the people of the only Muslim majority state. The argument is that New-Delhi should ponder over as to what went wrong that a population that was historically with the idea of India, chose secular democratic India over Islamist Pakistan, has gone rebellious.

This narrative is a construct of the protagonists who believe in the ‘Idea of India’. Antagonists - the separatists - however, have a different narrative -communal, religious but violent. They don’t want to be in peace with the country. This narrative has always challenged the contending narratives of both autonomy within or complete integration with the Union of India. I have been maintaining all along that this constituency cannot be reached out because they have an imported agenda, they can’t go beyond what they are told from across the border. They are only an extension of Pakistan. They fret on the grievances, they are greedy.

Grievances of the political class, religious groups, businesses and media are a part of the ‘greedy category’. This is a common phenomenon in all conflict regions across the world, in all nations or societies – irrespective of whether these conflicts are political, economic or communal. They have developed huge vested interest in the combat economy. Revocation of the special status of J&K has literally left them wandering.

It is a matter of a separate debate whether the decision to revoke Article 370 and break up of the state into two Union Territories was the only option left with New Delhi to end the impasse on Kashmir. But this is definitely a very smart move which caught both Pakistan and the political elites in Kashmir unaware. While on one hand the decision has hurt the mainstream political elites the most, and it may lead to escalation from across the border, but back home the separatists have lost the space they were enjoying on the political landscape. My feeling is that they will be on the public scanner for the first time in the history of turmoil in Kashmir since 1990. They were enjoying power with any responsibility and accountability. Now they have to answer. The question they will be facing about selling the dream of independence and Pakistan. So far fingers would be raised towards New-Delhi, now it is the turn of the separatists to face public scrutiny. Sooner than later, we will be witnessing a phenomenal change in the political discourse in Kashmir. Let us ‘Why’.

Admitted, that abrogation of the special status of J&K had ideological moorings originating from the agenda of 'Ek nishaan, ek pradhaan, ek samvidhaan’. In a smart move, the Government shifted the narrative from ‘communal’ to ‘harmony-driven’. The determination with which the decision was taken is unprecedented as the move itself. This has provided enough scope to scholars and researchers to derive new and unexplored theories of conflict management, transformation and resolution. The Kashmir policy of Modi 2.0 must be a major referential point for conflict management studies.

That said, the real challenge for the government is unfolding in Kashmir. The Government needs to tread with caution and precaution. The challenge is also diplomatic. The real test comes from the hinterland of Kashmir.

At present, the situation seems to be under control for two reasons. One, the fatigue factor in Kashmir is as huge as the alienation and anger among people. Kashmiris are tired of confrontationist politics which takes a heavy toll on the region’s economic and human resources. So for the people have behaved very wisely and decently. Eid passed off peacefully. Situation is slowly but gradually limping back to normalcy.

But the greed of the conflict economy will not let go so soon. This is a huge industry involving many important sections of Kashmir society in addition to the political elite. Their interest in the conflict is their conviction. The truth is that they pursue and propagate separatism. About Kashmir society, the policy makers and scholars should know that though emotionally vulnerable, the Kashmir society is also aspirational. It is not Afghanistan, but certainly it is not Punjab too. There is a strong element of religious indoctrination in Kashmir society, which is fully exploited by the vested interests in and outside Kashmir. That is why emphasis should be on the narrative constructed by the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. The packaging of the narrative is as important as the decision. If the element of ideology comes into play, it would be difficult for the state to sell the deal in Kashmir. It should be the Government and not the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which must drive the narrative. It should be the Government machinery translating the words into action for the transformation of Kashmiri people for the good. BJP as a party, I would suggest, should not be seen as driving the Kashmir narrative.

Another big challenge the Government will face in the coming days is in the absence of the so-called mainstream which shall represent the Indian narrative locally. Here too, New Delhi has to tread cautiously. Since 1990, whenever the mainstream has been discredited or its space has been shrunk, the groundswell is automatically towards the separatist camp. This does not mean that the political elite of Kashmir can be the relied upon. The alternate political platform should not be seen as an alternative to the mainstream camp alone. It should be equidistant to both the mainstream and separatist camps.

The soft separatist agenda has proved more damaging, even though it was initially seen as a construct to dilute the hawkish narrative. The soft separatist narrative had a deep psychological impact on the overall construct of Kashmir society. It has widened the gap between New-Delhi and Srinagar. New Delhi cannot afford it any more. While focus should be on providing immediate options in mainstream politics in Kashmir, the separatist camp and also the separatist sentiment must be the target. The need of the hour is to have a political platform in Kashmir that can fiercely and fairly question the legitimacy of separatism. So far, it seems that the job of providing the political alternative has been left to the BJP. This may not work. Credible and acceptable youth leaders still look at BJP as an untouchable. Let the Government handle this issue with sagacity. In the past, the Centre encouraged many new faces in Kashmir. The problem was that they were handed over the agenda of soft separatism. Now New Delhi must invest on those who have the courage and conviction to take on the strong separatist lobby. See how the new entrant in politics, Shah Faesal is responding. Faesal says there are no gray areas now in Kashmir politics; “You can either be a stooge or a separatist now”, says Faesal. I have argued at the time of his joining politics that Faesal fluctuates. It is very important for the Centre to strengthen the nationalist who could be the catalysts of change in Kashmir.

The third challenge which New Delhi could eventually face is at the diplomatic level. The statement of the Secretary General of the UN General Assembly asking both India and Pakistan not to change the status quo in the Kashmir regions under their control is likely to resonate in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and some other national or international forums, immaterial of how insignificant these might be. This has more impact on the psyche in Kashmir than it has internationally.

Restricting the debate to the internal dimensions, I emphasize that Kashmir needs outreach, the sooner the better. New Delhi should not be seen responding to the adventures or rather misadventures of the separatist lobby or Pakistan. The engagement should come from New Delhi, leaving the other side wandering and lost for direction. The first step is to translate words into action. Development should take precedence over dialogue. Invest, employment, empowerment should start immediately.

Administration of the new Union Territory must be seen in action, working tirelessly to provide respite to the common masses. It is correctly said that India lives in its villages; Kashmir lives in its hills. The rural masses should be the target of welfare programs. The urban elites can wait. Participation is pragmatism and the right way forward. Dialogue may be elitist or casteist. Dialogue usually happens with the people driving a particular narrative. The target group of the developmental activities must be the larger group of underprivileged masses who are being misled and misguided by the elites.

Study and understanding of the Kashmir imbroglio has revealed that the conflict is elitist. New Delhi has taken path-breaking decisions, but that is not enough. It is also essential for New Delhi to go against conventional wisdom. As for dialogue, I suggest this with deep understanding of the Kashmir psyche: New Delhi should do something nice even when it is not doing anything. The tone and tenure must be marked by grace and politeness. Respect and dignity is a basic need of every society. This applies equally to Kashmir. New Delhi and its administration in the new Union Territory must always be conscious of this.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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