Can India Rethink Kashmir Policy?

1 September 2008

Srinagar: Despite the lessons from more than 60 years of troubled history, it feels like the past is repeating itself in Indian-administered Kashmir. A row over transfer of land for a Hindu pilgrimage snowballed into a nationalist upsurge in the mainly Muslim Kashmir valley. It has brought back memories of the tumultuous 1990s when Kashmiris raised the banner of freedom from India and militants backed by Pakistan fought a full-blown insurgency. The cries of azadi (freedom) have again reverberated in the smoke-filled air of the summer capital, Srinagar. In carpeted homes, youngsters join issue with elders to vent their spleen at India. And in grim deja vu, Kashmir's men and women have again been killed by the bullets of the Indian security forces. When emotions subside, locals pose a simple question: Why does the Indian government bungle every time when faced with a crisis in the region? 'Occupying force' Kashmir is India's most dangerous flashpoint. The conflict in this disputed region has triggered two wars with neighbouring Pakistan as well as an insurgency, the loss of more than 60,000 lives and seething resentment among its people. Bill Clinton called it 'the most dangerous place' in the world. It is also a conflict that bleeds India as no other: the state is home to anything between 500,000 and 700,000 members of the security forces, which people in the Kashmir valley derisively refer to as the 'occupying force'. Kashmir is also an extremely complex problem - a region caught between the competing aspirations and national pride of India and Pakistan, both of whom claim it. It also raises uncomfortable questions about the legitimacy of the two countries holding on to parts of the region without taking the consideration the aspirations of its people, many of whom want independence from both countries. But when a crisis erupts in the region, the Indian government is mostly seen to approach it as a simple problem of law and order. And the much-criticised actions of the security forces, end up stoking the fires more. People here also wonder what happened with the once much vaunted peace process with Pakistan which appears to be in limbo. 'The problem is,' says 38-year-old Omar Abdullah, who heads the National Conference, one of the valley's mainstream political parties, 'that India refuses to learn from its mistakes in Kashmir.' 'When opportunities came knocking to [solve the problem], the government slept on them or moved too slowly,' says Mr Abdullah. One of them, for example, came just two years ago when former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf proposed a 'four-step' formula for moving towards a solution on Kashmir. 'No response' One of the things that he had suggested was the simultaneous withdrawal of Indian and Pakistani troops from the region, a beginning of sorts to demilitarise Kashmir, a long-standing demand of its people. Mr Abdullah, who met Mr Musharraf in Islamabad two years ago, says that former president was willing to 'set aside the UN resolutions [on a settlement to the problem through a plebiscite] and so much more'. 'India just didn't respond and act on his proposals,' he says. People in the valley wonder aloud why India doesn't move fast on opportunities and does not seem to keep working towards resolving the crisis. Instead, they say, it adopted a 'let sleeping dogs lie' approach in the past five years when the peace process between India and Pakistan contributed to a relative calm and economic upturn in the Kashmir valley. Is India's inaction a result of sheer inertia, a defining feature of its slumbering bureaucracy? Or is retaining the status quo in Kashmir a part of a deliberate strategy to wear out political aspirations here? People like Dr Noor Ahmad Baba, head of the political science department at Kashmir University, say the problem lies in the mindset of the Indian state which is 'more assimilative than pluralist'. 'It refuses to understand that a big and heterogeneous country like India will have many kinds of diversities and you have to deal with them individually,' says Mr Baba. Kashmiris also consider the recent clamour of Delhi's chatterati to hand over the valley to its people because the costs of keeping it within India are 'too high' to be extremely condescending. They say that with the partition of India in 1947 and Kashmir's accession to India, the valley was anyway 'pushed from the centre to the periphery'. Its historical trading and geo-political links with China, Pakistan and Central Asia - Kashmir was on the silk route - were dismembered. Kashmir had always been closer to what is now Pakistan in terms of trade, waterways and cultural links. That's not surprising given that Islamabad is only 300 km away, compared to Delhi which is some 1000 km away. 'Kashmiris sacrificed a great deal to come together with India. The least we can expect is a new, different model of autonomy. The Indian state refuses to acknowledge that,' says Mr Baba. Dr Hameeda Nayeem, a feisty university teacher and women's rights activist, echoes a similar sentiment. 'The Indian government has been very complacent. It has pushed a peaceful people to the path of violence,' she says. Shadow of guns The palpable alienation of the people in the Kashmir has a number of roots. There is the overwhelming presence of the security forces. Entire generations have grown up under the shadow of guns and draconian laws which include the banning of human rights investigations in a region notorious for such abuses. Then there is the unresolved issue of anything between 3,900 and 10,000 people - depending on who you talk to, officials or local people - who have disappeared since the outbreak of the armed insurgency in the late 1980s. The discovery of of 1,000 unmarked graves near the town of Uri has never been explained despite demands by rights group.So when the Indian army chief in charge of the valley told a seminar a few months ago that 93% of the allegations relating to human rights abuses in the valley were wrong, few people here believed him. 'On what basis are these things said? Where is the proof? Where is the transparency? Why are independent human rights groups not allowed into the valley,' asks Omar Abdullah. 'Are you surprised after all this that there is a big trust deficit between the people here and the Indian government? Are you surprised that people here believe that the Indian state sweeps things under the carpet?' At the very minimum, India needs to begin with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Kashmir to clear this poisonous mistrust, some analysts argue. And then, as local Communist leader Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami says, the government should resume dialogue on Kashmir with local leaders, including separatists, and Pakistan. 'This crisis is a warning shot to the government of India,' says the soft-spoken Mr Tarigami. 'Not talking on Kashmir is dangerous. Very dangerous.' Otherwise, the stunningly beautiful valley which one of its legendary political leaders, Sheikh Abdullah, had envisioned as a 'Eastern Switzerland' will continue to remain a 'beautiful prison', as many locals prefer to call their home.