Could the Corona Pandemic Hasten Political Reconciliation in Kashmir?

The present crisis has also woken the realisation that humankind is one large interconnected family. Could the rise of this feeling help political reconciliation in the Kashmir Valley, which has for decades isolated itself from the rest of the Subcontinent and increasingly celebrated its uniqueness and deprecated its commonalities with the rest of the country?

2 April 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world has highlighted just how vulnerable man is to the sudden onslaught of natural forces. It has also forced people to pause their busy lives and ponder on the larger uncertainties of life which we mostly take for granted. In some, the present crisis has also woken the realisation that humankind is one large interconnected family. Could the rise of this feeling help political reconciliation in the Kashmir Valley, which has for decades isolated itself from the rest of the Subcontinent and increasingly celebrated its uniqueness and deprecated its commonalities with the rest of the country?

Perhaps it can. The Valley's traditional leadership had and continue to base their politics on the separate identity of Kashmiris and their differences with other Indians. They have sold the ideology of separateness or at least an autonomy that would keep them insulated from the rest of the country. They have also harped on the false narrative that India is depriving them of their resources, their rights and liberties. Indians, on the whole, as well as mainstream Indian parties have generally resisted this ideology and tried to forcibly dominate Kashmir and its troublesome politics. This has led to periodic crises and eventually to an armed struggle.

Seventy years down the line much has changed in the Valley although most will not acknowledge it. For one, the Valley and its people are far more connected with the rest of the country and indeed are critically dependent on it. Technological change, including the introduction of the Internet, has shrunk the world and exposed the shared characteristics of all the country's citizens. The Internet has of course also led to the formation of subcultures - some benign, others malignant. The individual is free to choose which path to take. The tendency to choose the more negative options are higher in the Valley where people have been fed a constant diet of disaffection and told that their lives are miserable when often it is not. For this group, the present pandemic is an opportunity t break out of the negative cycles of discontent, violence and alienation. The world is one and so is the country. This is a thought worthy of embrace.

The other reality that is often ignored in the Kashmir Valley is that all attempts to achieve political independence right from the time of Sheikh Abdullah have failed. Today, the reaction from the powerful right-wing forces in control of the Indian Government have violently wrenched the direction of Kashmir politics and turned it around. There is an attempt to completely dismantle the framework that supposedly insulates the Valley from the rest of the country. The process is continuing and will continue to its logical conclusion at which point the Valley will be legally integrated with the rest of the country. It is pointless to stall this process; it won't happen. Even the rest of the world is not interested.

The only sane alternative is to accept the changes and allow the laws purporting to protect Kashmiris in the Valley to be discarded. It should also be admitted that most of these laws far from protecting anyone actually helped discrimination and disenfranchisement, especially of non-Kashmiris.

Today, the Kashmir Valley population stands much to gain by economic and political integration with the rest of the country which despite the present Corona virus crisis will emerge as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. With economic growth will come opportunities to grow and nurture creativity. Kashmiris are one of the country's most creative and artistically inclined people. Integration will provide this class of talented people huge opportunity. Negative could be replaced by a surge of creative energy.

But everything depends on the choices the Valley's people, especially its leadership makes. Will they go back to the politics of otherness and separateness? Or will they lead the process of integration and reap the huge benefits that are bound to flow from it? Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, despite the dilution of domicile rules and other such steps that will surely follow, it should be clear that neither the Indian people nor its leadership have any intent to wipe out the Valley, its culture or people. The genius of India is that integration has not meant the destruction of individual cultures, languages and races but their development. Even microscopic communities such as the Meities, Mizos, Karbis, Santhals, Gonds, Bengalis, Tamilians and a hundred other cultures not only survive but prosper in a united India.

The Government of India is a mood for reconciliation following the pandemic. Its release of two Kashmir stalwarts - Dr Farooq Abdullah and his son Dr Omar Abdullah - is a portent. The union territory administration has released 31 other people lodged in various jails under the Public Safety Act (PSA) detention orders. This should be a beginning and the Administration should be urged to release the other 360 or so people who remain in detention under PSA in different jails in J&K and outside the UT. These include former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, former ministers Ali Mohamamd Sagar, Naeem Akhtar, Sartaj Madni, IAS-turned-politician Shah Faesal and other mainstream politicians. They could be released very soon if the political mood in the Valley remains favourable. Also, the Supreme Court has urged the administration to consider release of detainees to reduce overcrowding in jails and the administration has formed a committee to look into it.

The clarification on domicile rules, particularly the modification in the government order protecting government jobs for locals, is another indicator of New Delhi's accomodative mood. Following furious political reaction to domicile rule amendments, Government of India, an amended gazette notification, titled the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of State Laws) Order-2020, was issued reserving jobs for locals or only those domiciled in the state. The amended Jammu and Kashmir Civil Services (Decentralisation and Recruitment) Act, which is part of the notification stated: " person shall be eligible for appointment to any post unless he is a domicile of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir."

Even prior to the Corona virus crisis, the Government of India had made moves to suggest it would accelerate the political normalisation process. This followed the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party and its leadership's meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah last month (15 March). At that meeting Shah had made several assurances, including the following:

* Restoration of statehood at an “early opportunity”
* No intention of demographic change
* No discrimination in implementation of Central Laws
* Industrial Policy for economic development and unemployment
* A Commission on Reservation issues to be set up soon
* Restoration of internet, relaxation in curfew
* Appointment of a Nodal officer for hearing grievance

At the end of the day, it is up to the leadership of the Valley to decide the direction they will give to street politics. The reality is that the Valley is already far more integrated with rest of the country than is acknowledged. There is only one way forward: integration. The other road is to violence and ruin. This is a time to ponder and if something good comes out of the terrible Coronavirus crisis it could be the realisation of the words of the English poet John Dunne: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Md. Sadiq

2 April 2020