Street protesters running away from teargas during last summer's widespread agitation across the Kashmir valley. The protests took off after a young student, Tufail Mattoo, died after being hit by a teargas canister
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Apr 11
This summer will witness a clash of wills in Kashmir, the outcome of which could reshape New Delhi’s engagement of Pakistan and its dialogue with the Kashmiri secessionist leadership. In the blue corner, so to speak, is Kashmir’s new generation of hard line separatists, a tiger of unknown stripe, on whose back Tehrik-e-Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani precariously perches, pretending to ride it. In the red corner is Srinagar’s security establishment, a myopic leopard that never changes its spots, which firmly believes that old-style preventive arrests can staunch any flow of passion.
It may just be possible that the security czars win by walkover. In a meticulously implemented plan, the coordinators and leaders of last year’s street protests are being picked up and jailed in Jammu, while the J&K Police’s new cyber cell is monitoring websites like Facebook that were used to coordinate last year’s protests. The police calculate that taking away protest coordinators like Masarat Alam would prevent the focusing of popular anger into the violent public demonstrations that grabbed news headlines over the last three years.
But more likely, the government has gotten its calculations badly wrong. The clumsiness with which the government has suppressed demonstrations since 2008, and the potent symbolism of young children killed in police firing, has midwifed the emergence of a younger, more radical, more dissipated separatist leadership. A new Kashmiri generation, deeply disillusioned with their leaders and with the going-nowhere armed militancy that fruitlessly claimed thousands of Kashmiri lives, has taken ownership of the public protest. Masarat Alam himself was only a symbol; taking him away will give rise to another.
The government of India can claim credit for having allowed the baton of separatist activism to pass smoothly from one generation to the next, ensuring thereby at least one more generation of unrest in the valley. Every Kashmiri leader that might have settled with New Delhi on acceptable terms --- from the Hurriyat moderates, to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s Yasin Malik, to the current crop of young firebrands before they were radicalized --- has been systematically discredited. Every one of New Delhi’s Kashmiri interlocutors earned the label of quisling without the consolation of a single concession to take back to their people. They seem likely to spend this summer watching the drama from the sidelines.
The government, meanwhile, is congratulating itself on the (so-far) successful Panchayat elections in Kashmir. Even though the robustly contested 2008 elections were both preceded and followed by angry violence, New Delhi inexplicably continues to mine consolation from the Kashmiri proclivity to vote, believing quite erroneously that an embrace of democracy is an embrace of India. But the populace has adequately demonstrated that it can go straight from the polling booth into an anti-India demonstration.
In the by lanes of Srinagar, the discussion is not about whether there will be mass protests this summer, but about when and over what. Mr Geelani, in an attempt to salvage relevance --- of Kashmir’s older-generation leaders, he alone has some left by virtue of having never engaged New Delhi --- has been talking up the issue of the Dogra Certificate, which the government generously provided, just as it had provided the Amarnath land issue in 2008, the controversy over the Shopian killings in 2009, and the police firing on demonstrators last year.
As backup, Geelani is mobilizing opinion on the “occupation” of private land by the Indian Army, which he sharply criticized during the India Today conclave in New Delhi in March, and in a district-level mobilization programme earlier. All this may be a wasted effort on his part. In the emotional tinderbox that is Kashmir, a chicken coming under the wheel of an army truck can set off a local riot. And, as was evident last year, a mishandled public protest can trigger a chain of events that sets the whole valley alight.
Pakistan, meanwhile, does what it can to keep the pot bubbling and believing as always that victory in Kashmir is just around the corner. Talk to any young Kashmiri, however, and it will become quickly clear that the valley hardly relishes joining a country that is itself disintegrating. Kashmiris cheered for Pakistan in the World Cup semi-finals and would probably vote for Pakistan in a two-choice referendum. But that is less Pakistan’s success and more anti-incumbency against India.
New Delhi has not left itself with many choices. It must begin a focused engagement of the Kashmiri leaders that it wants to deal with, starting with the Hurriyat moderates and the JKLF. An all-party mechanism, comprising senior political leaders from across the political spectrum, must represent New Delhi so that every political party has ownership of the process. The current self-destructive confrontation between Jammu’s Hindu grievances --- exploited by the Congress as much as by the BJP --- and Kashmir’s Muslim interests, has to be managed without letting the contradictions spiral, Amarnath style, into fratricidal conflict.
Yet, a bloody summer may be inevitable. At that moment, it would be important to react with the knowledge that India is in Kashmir for the long haul and any bridges that you burn in your relations with the local population while dealing with the protests, will need to be painfully rebuilt.