A Critical Choice In Jammu And Kashmir
2 August 2005
New Delhi: An excessive preoccupation with dramatic developments such as Dawood Ibrahim's daughter's wedding, the Gurgaon violence, the Mumbai rain and dislocation thereafter, has crowded out Kashmir from the spotlight of national attention. That does not mean the nation has reason to be sanguine. Indifference is one luxury no longer available to those who rule in Delhi. Mehbooba Mufti wanted to know why a mere lathicharge in Gurgaon could send the two Houses of Parliament into turmoil while no one seemed bothered about the killing of three teenagers by the Rashtriya Rifles in the Bangargund-Trehgam area. Nor does national indifference mean that things are at a standstill in the troubled State. And the danger is that indifference - designed or accidental - at the highest level of decision-making at the Centre is only aggravating the desperation of various precariously placed players. If this indifference continues, it can only tilt the balance in favour of the unhelpful actors in Jammu and Kashmir. First, if anything killings continue apace with the militants now being able to practise with considerable immunity their deadly craft in downtown Srinagar. They no longer seem concerned with logging up civilian casualties, even school children among their victims. They are no more interested in winning the heart and mind of the average Kashmiri. And whatever may be the official spin of 'infiltration is on the decline,' the militants have dramatically registered their formidable presence in the State. And if the last few weeks are any indication, the security forces are barely able to contain the militants. The much-hyped promise of 'militants on the run' is yet to materialise. That suggests the 'peace process' is in serious need of fixing. Secondly, it is now officially stated that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will once again be meeting Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in New York next month. It could well be expected that the Pakistani leader would use the occasion to rework his 'core issue' strategy of making India concede ground without Islamabad fulfilling its part of the January 6, 2004, bargain. The Pakistani design is clear: to promote the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and other separatist leaders at the expense of the democratically elected 'mainstream' leadership in Jammu and Kashmir. Nothing has happened - at least that is overtly known - in the last six months or so to suggest that the Centre has a strategy to deal creatively with a situation that cannot remain static. No one knows if the decision to allow the Hurriyat leadership to travel to Islamabad was part of a well-thought-out design or one of the many not-thought-through moves that did not work out. Having been outwitted by Islamabad and the Hurriyat, the Centre is yet to make up its mind when, if at all, to take a meaningful initiative to engage the Hurriyat. The perceptions in Srinagar are clear: the Manmohan Singh regime is floundering in its Kashmir policy, whatever that may be. The cumulative policy incoherence emanates from the decision-making structure in place. There is no gainsaying that Kashmir requires authoritative decisions at the highest level. That means the final say and direction must rest with the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's Office; but, for entirely unrelated reasons, the Department of Jammu and Kashmir has reverted to the Union Home Ministry. Nothing wrong with that arrangement, ipso facto. If a person with political clout and authority heads the Home Ministry, then one can expect coherence and imagination in handling the Kashmir situation. Unfortunately, ideal conditions do not prevail. The result is that Kashmir has fallen between two stools. What is compounding the situation is that there is a near total absence of a sense of urgency in the Congress party about Kashmir. When the National Democratic Alliance Government presided over New Delhi, the All India Congress Committee had constituted a 'Jammu and Kashmir Committee.' Besides Dr. Manmohan Singh, it had as its members some of the seniormost Congress leaders. The 'Kashmir committee' fell into complete disuse once the United Progressive Alliance Government assumed office. The party, it seems, is happy to cede the initiative and thinking to the Government. Similarly, the State-level coordination committee, headed by senior Congress leader Gulam Nabi Azad, has not taken off. The result is a gradual drift in the relationship between the two senior partners in the ruling alliance in the State, the People's Democratic Party and the Congress. The Congress leadership may lament the nagging from the alliance partners at the Centre but it sees no need to restrain its Jammu-based Ministers and legislators who openly snipe at Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. In this context of indecision and indifference, the most crucial decision has to be made. Under the October 2002 understanding between the PDP and the Congress, the Mufti was to be Chief Minister for the first three years and thereafter a Congress nominee would head the coalition government. It was one of the wisest decisions Sonia Gandhi made and it reassured the country that she was capable of rising above petty power concerns. The calculations and considerations that were weighed in the Congress president's 2002 decision to concede the chief ministership to the Mufti remain valid even today, though the Chief Minister himself has on more than one occasion stated that he would be quite happy to pack up and leave at the end of his three-year shift. On the other hand, there does not appear to be any great anxiety in the Congress ranks to insist on grabbing the Chief Minister's post for its man. The central leadership is quite mindful of the fact that except Mr. Azad it does not have a leader of any stature who can take over the reins in Srinagar. Though technically Mr. Azad hails from Jammu and Kashmir, he has no popular standing, leave alone a base, in the Kashmir Valley. At the same time, the Congress Ministers in the Mufti Government have not made a name for themselves either for administrative competence or ethical integrity. Unhelpful uncertainty The continued uncertainty about the Mufti's future as Chief Minister has not helped either in advancing the cause of India or of peace. Perhaps calculating that the Chief Minister would not last long, the Governor, General (retired) S.K. Sinha, has opened a front against the Mufti. In a perfect world, when it came to power the UPA Government should have had replaced Gen. Sinha with its own nominee, someone who was in tune with the political and administrative priorities of the new regime at the Centre. But Gen. Sinha was allowed to stay in the Srinagar Raj Bhavan and this last one year he has done his best to complicate things for the elected Government. The Amarnath Yatra controversy is only one glaring example of Gen. Sinha's gubernatorial activism. And the Union Home Ministry has yet to appreciate the need to step in to tell the Governor to back off. The Governor is not the only one to smell an opportunity in this twilight zone. The militants, the security forces, the separatist leadership, and others have no reason to respect the democratically established Government. Every officer in the police and civilian bureaucracy down the line also makes this calculation. The result is that the Chief Minister is virtually a lame-duck ruler. In any other part of the country, a short spell of uncertainty would not spell disaster; but in this troubled State doubts about authority and power always yield a bitter and bloody harvest. Beyond the personalities and the parties involved, the issue today is to what extent Kashmiri sub-nationalism can be accommodated within the constitutional and philosophical framework of the larger Indian nation-state. Much of the sense of alienation and separation in Kashmir can be traced to a longstanding feeling that 'New Delhi' - and its instruments, be it the Governor or the presumably omnipresent 'IB' - does not allow Kashmiri voices and sentiments enough space. The Mufti, once the Home Minister of India, has not only transformed himself into the voice of Kashmiri sub-nationalism but has also effectively appropriated the separatist leadership's rhetoric. The political and official leadership at the Centre cannot possibly countenance a situation where New Delhi's nominee replaces a 'Kashmiri' face. In 1974, Indira Gandhi had the courage and the wisdom to ask a Congress Chief Minister to step down and make way for Sheikh Abdullah; in 2005, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh cannot reverse the trend. Anyone well versed in geo-strategic realities would understand that if the peace process is 'irreversible,' in the months to come Kashmir will witness a political struggle over who speaks for the Kashmiris. In this critical period, a handpicked Chief Minister will not do.