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Posted on 12 July 2011
OPINION  
KASHMIR
Prem Shankar Jha

Economy wins over politics this season

Against recent trends, Kashmir has been peaceful so far this summer. Here are impressions from a week’s travel in the south of the state

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

JUNE HAS ended. The snows that block the high passes between Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the valley every winter are long gone. But the expected influx of militants from across the Line of Control has not happened. Kashmir is as peaceful this year as it was strife-torn last year. The hotels and houseboats are full; flights to and from Srinagar are sold out. Shops are doing roaring business. Even in areas like Maisuma, the stronghold of the JKLF, shops that I had seldom seen open are doing roaring business, their goods overflowing onto the pavement. Best of all, although 21 civilians have died in militancy-related violence this year, none of them have done so at the hands of the police. Had anyone predicted this at the end of March, I would have dismissed them as an incurable optimist.

Whenever something good, but unexpected, takes place, everyone tries to take credit for it. When the original Kashmiri insurgency died out in 1995, the security forces claimed that it was they who had opened the way to a political solution by winning the military battle. Kashmiri nationalist leaders from Azam Inquilabi to Yasin Malik claimed it was they who had voluntarily eschewed the gun. There is a similar struggle for credit taking shape today. Even the interlocutors appointed by union home minister P Chidambaram have been heard to say it is their unceasing effort to hold a dialogue with all sections of the population that has brought peace to the valley.

The real causes are vastly more complex. The peace that reigns in the valley may be fragile, but it is real, and may last because it is one that the Kashmiri people are crafting for themselves. Behind this lies an epoch-making change in temperament. After two hundred years of Afghan, two hundred of Mughal and a hundred and fifty years of Dogra and Delhi rule, Kashmiris have shed ingrained habits of subservience – what many have derisively called their victim mentality – and have begun to take their fate into their own hands.

Several developments have contributed to this change. One is their loss of faith in New Delhi and Islamabad after the last minute failure of the Manmohan– Musharraf talks. Another is Pakistan’s descent into sectarian civil war. A third is Manmohan Singh’s failure to enact meaningful political reform after three meetings with the Hurriyat and two round table conferences. But by far the most important is the Kashmiris’ realisation that no one will help them to get what they want: they have to learn to help themselves.

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Except for the very young, who have known nothing but violence, few Kashmiris have forgotten their harrowing experiences in the 1990s. Tourism had come to an abrupt end, bankrupting tens of thousands of hoteliers and owners of houseboats, shikaras, buses and taxis, artisans and shopkeepers. Tens of thousands of artisans and shopkeepers were forced to migrate to other parts of India and start workshops and retail outlets there, braving suspicion, hostility and extortion, to eke out a living. Farooq Abdullah’s 1996 government mended their fortunes to a limited extent by rescheduling or cancelling a large part of the debt but could not bring back the lost years. So when the deaths of stone-pelters at the hands of the police last year restarted the calendar of enforced hartals, protests and curfews, destroyed economic life once again, the business community’s pot of woes boiled over. Earlier this year, Kashmiri businessmen formed a Kashmir Economic Alliance and went to each of the separatist leaders to plead for an end to the calendar. The Mirwaiz agreed with alacrity. Gilani was forced to agree. An attempt by him to call a hartal on June 11, the first anniversary of the death of Tufail Mattoo, the start of last year’s troubles, met with almost no response outside the old city of Srinagar. He announced no more calendars this year.

The Kashmiris’ decision to use their votes to regain control of their lives can be traced to the election of 2002. The then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had promised a free and fair election, but such promises had been made before, so no one believed him. Between ingrained scepticism and a Hurriyat boycott, the turnout in the valley was only 30 per cent, but even this was sufficient to bring about a change that no one had dreamed was possible. It forced the National Conference out of power and brought a PDP government to power.

Changes of governments after elections are commonplace in the rest of India, so it is difficult for us to grasp the shock and the heady sense of power it gave to the Kashmiris. With just a 30 per cent vote, they had done what the Muslim United Front had failed to do in 1987 – get themselves a new set of leaders. Belatedly, they realised that Vajpayee had been true to his word and that the chief election commissioner of India had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure fairness in voting and tabulation. Although few were willing to say it openly, Indian democracy could empower them after all. It might have been a pale reflection of azadi but it was azadi nonetheless.

Former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed fostered the sense of empowerment in a dozen ways, large and small. But his most important gift was to hold municipal elections in 2005. It was an act of faith because he had no idea how urban residents, the same ones who had boycotted the assembly election, would respond. He need not have worried, because the turnout easily equalled the 70 per cent plus turnouts in the assembly elections of 1977 and 1983 – the only free elections that Kashmir had known till then. Once again, National Conference satraps lost their seats in large numbers. The sense of ownership of their lives began to grow.

This dawning sense of empowerment managed to survive the return of violence during the Amarnath land grab crisis and the subsequent ill-advised crackdown in Kashmir. In the December 2008 assembly election, 52 per cent of the valley turned out to vote. This was still 20 per cent less than in 1977 and 1983, in the 2005 municipal council election, and in three assembly bypolls in 2006. But it was 20 per cent higher than the turnout in 2002.

In New Delhi, the hawks triumphantly cited the last figure and ignored the first two. They noted but did not understand the incessant refrain in the valley, reported by journalists covering the elections, that we are not voting on the big issues, but are doing so to gain control of our everyday lives. It is only now, when between 70 and 80 per cent of the rural electorate too has chosen to vote in the panchayat election, that comprehension has begun to dawn in New Delhi.

BUT IT is the third change that holds out the greatest promise for the future. In 2003, Mufti Sayeed’s government enacted a Kashmiri version of the Right to Information Act. Shortly thereafter, a newly graduated doctor in dentistry, Muzaffar Bhat, filed what might have been the first demand under the new act asking for information concerning governance in his home district of Budgam. The treatment he received from local officials so angered him that he decided to abandon his practice and devote his time to turning the RTI into a weapon for imposing accountability upon the government. Since then Bhat’s J&K RTI movement had spread to every district of Kashmir and most parts of Jammu. It has turned thousands of young people into activists who have filed over a thousand petitions for information on governance and corruption issues. Several of these have required the officials or departments concerned to disclose how they are selecting candidates for posts in the government, and seats in the universities and the medical college, and awarding scholarships and degrees. Others have investigated charges of fraud and corruption in local government and demanded full disclosure of accounts.

Earlier this year, Kashmiri businessmen formed a Kashmir Economic Alliance and went to each of the separatist leaders to plead for an end to the protest calendar. The Mirwaiz agreed with alacrity, and Gilani has not announced hartals

For the first time since Kashmir was ‘liberated’ from the Maharaja, government officials are feeling uncomfortable, even scared. Bhat’s crusade is transforming the youth of the valley, for it has opened a new route to empowerment – an alternative to picking up the gun, or fighting an election. Not surprisingly, his activists today include a number of former militants, and, more important, young people who had been contemplating joining the militancy before they met him and heard his message.

One indication of the success of a movement is the lengths to which its opponents are prepared to go to defeat it. None of Bhat’s people have been killed as yet, as several RTI activists have been in other parts of India. But the Kashmiri political and bureaucratic establishment has responded to the threat they pose by filing cases against Bhat and his colleagues, and offering bribes or issuing threats to other RTI activists and their families.

Kashmir’s political awakening may pose a threat to the establishment in the state, but it offers New Delhi another unexpected opportunity to end the two-decade struggle for azadi at a time when it has reached the end of its tether in Kashmir. Its five-decade-old highly successful strategy to quell insurgencies elsewhere, of coopting their leaders by offering them power though the ballot box if they accept autonomy within an ethnically defined federal democracy, has not worked in Kashmir. It has not worked because between them Pakistan’s ISI and India’s IB have assassinated or discredited everyone with sufficient stature to forge and implement a settlement with New Delhi.

The self-assertion of the Kashmiri masses is a direct consequence of this destruction of the nationalist leadership in the valley. But it offers a far more stable base for integrating Kashmir with the rest of India, than any agreement with separatist leaders could have done. All that New Delhi has to do is help them help themselves.

The Kashmir Economic Alliance has secured peace for a year, but its conveners know that it may not last and are racking their brains to find ways of institutionalising it. To do the former, they are trying to broker a tacit understanding between the government and the separatists, to allow the latter to resume political activity, including protests and demonstrations, provided they do not cross commonly agreed red lines. Such an understanding had existed before, and during, the Amarnath land agitation in 2008, between SM Sahay, the IG of Kashmir Police, and both Hurriyat groups. When Sahay returned to Kashmir in August 2010, the conditions had deteriorated too far for him to reach a similar understanding with the Gilani faction and the stone-pelters. The Alliance believes the current lull provides an opportune moment for redrawing those red lines and getting them accepted again.

Unfortunately, in the past four months, the state government has spared no effort to make the panchayat election a non-event. It first banned the use of party labels, then spread the voting over three months and 18 phases, and withstood every pressure that New Delhi could mount to make it devolve effective decision-making power to the elected representatives. New Delhi has only to frustrate these designs, press the state to insert all the clauses of the 73rd (Panchayati Raj) amendment of the Indian constitution into Kashmir’s constitution, and protect the growth of the RTI movement in Kashmir to regenerate some of the faith in Indian democracy that had surfaced briefly in 2002, only to be broken by the events between 2008 and 2010. The altered circumstances have created an opportunity for the moderate separatist leaders also. With the Manmohan- Musharraf agenda in cold they need to find a new agenda – a new set of goals to espouse – if they wish to avoid being marginalised.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist.
premjha@airtelmail.in

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Posted on 12 July 2011
 

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