As the all-party delegation heads to Srinagar today to try and find a meeting ground for dialogue, they will be mindful of an old aphorism of the Chief Minister’s grandfather Sheikh Abdullah, who in his speeches in the mid-1960s often described Kashmir as a bride cherished by two husbands, India and Pakistan.
Then, as now, there was little political wriggling room for an open dialogue. But just before he died in 1964, Nehru rolled the dice, released the Sheikh from a decade of captivity, and sent him to Pakistan with a secret proposal for rapprochement. Nehru was gambling for a peace settlement against the wishes of virtually his entire senior party leadership but he died while Abdullah was still in Pakistan. On hearing the news, the Sheikh immediately flew back to Delhi and famously leapt on to the Prime Minister’s funeral platform, crying like a child and throwing flowers into the flames. It was a spontaneous gesture that was symbolic as much of their chequered past as it was of the pathos of Kashmir.
We are once again at another turning point in Kashmir with the stone-pelting intifada-like pictures from the state having jolted India’s collective consciousness like never before. It was always easy to blame the foreign hand and the terrorists in the past but dealing with angry crowds, most of them young students, is another thing.
Compounded with that is the fact that much of the violence has been conducted by a loose inchoate mass of alienated urban youth, many of whom don’t answer to any one group, but all of whom share their anger and alienation. You can fight the jehadis but the discontent on the streets can only be met with a political solution.
Then again, as always in Kashmir, pictures can also be deceptive. The facts show that much of the mob violence has been concentrated in the urban areas of Srinagar, Baramullah and Anantnag while much of rural areas of the Valley, which saw large turnouts in the last assembly election, have been relatively calm.
In that sense, the debate over removing or amending the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a bit of a red herring because the violence has also not been targeted directly at the Army, but at the police and the CRPF, which is deployed in the towns. In the face of the crowd anger, the Act is now a bargaining pawn and the demand to amend or remove it has emerged as a symbolic flashpoint.
One thing through is clear. Under Omar Abdullah, the gains of the record turnout in the last assembly election have been frittered away. It was a great milestone, especially in the face of the failed Hurriyat boycott, but it was not the destination itself. Decency and good intentions are not necessarily a guarantee of good governance, as others have discovered before.
Politics abhors a vacuum and the political drift in Kashmir over the past year has been filled up by the angry protesters. For now, the Congress is sticking by Omar Abdullah but the nuancing of its message about a governance deficit and the PDP’s recent posturing mean that the pot is stirring.
The political moves to calm tempers in the coming weeks will be crucial but in the end, there is always the elephant in the room: Pakistan. The current anger comes in the backdrop of a larger strategic stalemate. Manmohan Singh has consistently pursued the idea of a historic deal with Pakistan for much of his first term but the turmoil in Pakistan after Musharraf’s exit put all that in cold storage. The stasis in Islamabad also put paid to New Delhi’s parallel political overtures to the Hurriyat.
Once this immediate crisis calms down, the big question is that eventually if India makes a deal, who does it make it with: the civilian establishment in Pakistan or the Army, which really calls the shots? Enmeshed by the floods and the war on its western front, the generals in Pakistan arguably see the current discontent in the Valley as a cheap way of keeping the Kashmir cauldron boiling. India is the status quo power here and Kashmir has always been at the heart of the Pakistan Army’s DNA.
There are more questions here than answers but there is another voice from the past which makes eminent sense. This is General A G L McNaughton, who worked as a UN mediator on Kashmir in the 1950s and argued that “so long as the dispute over Kashmir continues it is a serious drain on the military, economic and, and above all, on the spiritual strength” of both India and Pakistan. It’s another reason why a genuine debate and political consensus on Kashmir is so essential.