The Way to Break the Deadlock in Kashmir is Open but Delhi Doesn't Even Know it

Very few Kashmiris define Azadi as a complete break up of ties with India and a vast majority of them do not want to join Pakistan

File photo of curfew in Srinagar in August. Credit: PTI

File photo of curfew in Srinagar in August. Credit: PTI

Curfew was lifted throughout Kashmir valley after 107 days on October 15. Since then a semblance of normality had returned to it. There was traffic on the roads, and the business of government had resumed. Tension had eased: according to some estimates by as much as 75 percent. Stone pelting was down to a fraction of what it was, even in the traditionally hostile Old Town. The Modi and Mehbooba governments had therefore gained the respite that they needed to take stock of the uprising and decide what to do next.

But they have squandered it. For last Thursday, the Kashmir government again arrested Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farouq only days after releasing them from more than three months in solitary confinement, sent Malik back to jail, and confined the Mirwaiz to his home once more. It followed this up on Friday by reimposing curfew in large parts of Srinagar.

The purpose of this mini-crackdown was to prevent an “independence day” march to the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar to attend Friday prayers, and pro-Azadi speeches and exhortations at a nearby location after they were over.

But freedom of worship is the most fundamental of the rights guaranteed in the constitution not only of India, but in all democratic nations. So its curtailment is an extreme measure that should be used sparingly, if at all. In Kashmir the government seems to have forgotten this, for the 11th of November was the 18th consecutive Friday on which the Mosque had remained closed! A similar closure of the Golden Temple or the Jama Masjid in Delhi is, literally, unthinkable. Yasin Malik’s bitter comment, as he was led back to jail, is therefore hard not to sympathise with: “The so-called biggest democracy in the world and its stooges here have choked every little space for peaceful political struggle and unleashed a reign of terror.”

When dissent is the very life-blood of democracy why is the government so determined to snuff it out in Kashmir ? Its excuse, seldom spelt out but always present, is that if it gives an inch now the separatists will take an ell. Bringing the valley back under control will require a bloodbath, so the peoples’ freedoms need to be curtailed for their own good.

This is the essence of the justification for authoritarian rule. It is sometimes valid, but needs to be doubted in Kashmir because it has already been proved wrong once. In August 2008, prime minister Manmohan Singh’s first reaction to the killing of more than fifty persons in the fruit growers’ march towards Muzaffarabad that was triggered by the BJP’s blockade of the Jammu-Srinagar highway, was to insist that order had to be restored but there simply had to be no more casualties. This had forced a change of tactics upon the security forces in the valley: instead of setting up barricades and forcing people to stay behind them by force when necessary, they took up defensive positions around key installations, and allowed the Kashmir police to handled the huge demonstrations that followed, with the help of   volunteers provided by the Hurriyat.

As a result four huge processions and demonstrations took place within the span of two weeks with not a single death or injury. The largest of these occurred after Friday’s prayers at the Jamia Masjid, the ancestral seat of the Mirwaiz, precisely the place deemed too dangerous to leave open now.

The message Hurriyat sent through its cooperation then was that it was a responsible political movement, fully capable of controlling its lunatic fringe when empowered to do so. The sequel to this should have been a resumption of talks between them and Delhi, to find a way to peace with empowerment for the Kashmiris. Instead a sudden and unheralded change of policy initiatied by the then National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, took Kashmir back to the dark says of absolute repression once more.

Today the Hurriyat is trying sending the same message, but in vastly altered circumstances. For in the past four months there has not only been a subtle shift of power from the elected government to the Hurriyat, but a more visible shift from the older generation of militants to the youth. In a nutshell, the lunatic fringe of 2008 is in the driver’s seat of the movement for Azadi today.

The Hurriyat is therefore fighting a battle on two fronts. It is using the stone pelters to wrest control of Kashmir from what Malik called Delhi’s stooges while simultaneously using its “calendars” to retain control of the stone pelters.

The power that Hurriyat seeks to wield is not, indeed cannot be, military power, for stones are no match for guns. It is hegemonic power, that other less tangible kind of power that draws its strength from the consent of the governed. Burhan Wani’s death was a catalyst for the development of that power.

Large numbers of people who had previously believed that Indian democracy was capable of safeguarding Kashmir’s political autonomy and cultural distinctness in spite of the erosion of article 370 of the constitution, lost that faith In July and are now convinced that their interests will be sacrificed, and their identity submerged by the rising Hindu chauvinism in Jammu and the rest of India.

It explains why, despite private misgivings, all organised groups, be they university teachers, trade associations, or fruit growers, have stoutly backed the stone pelters in spite of the huge losses they are incurring every day..

But It is in small things that the shift of hegemonic power is most apparent. Even during the worst days of the ‘nineties’, most shops would open within hours of the curfew being lifted. This time, when the curfew was lifted the shops remained stubbornly shut. The rare exceptions were a few pharmacies, the odd butcher, and roadside trolleys laden with fruit and vegetables, that the Hurriyat had obviously exempted. Judging from Pampore, a nearby town I visited, the shut down was even more complete in the smaller towns.

Even more telling was the scrupulous adherence to relaxations of the hartal. On humanitarian grounds CM Mehbooba Mufti had made a deal with Syed Ali Shah Gilani to lift the Hurriyat’s hartal for a short while every day. Gilani had agreed and allowed shops to open from 5.00 to 7.00 PM except on Fridays and Sundays. These timings too were being scrupulously observed.The word “Deal” has now passed into Kashmir’s lexicon,

Needless to say , this compliance is not entirely voluntary. As traders, houseboat owners, hoteliers, shikara and ghoda wallahs, workers and coolies, come face to face with the bleak Kashmiri winter without the padding of their summer earnings their resolve has begun to falter. This is when the uprising has become coercive.

Militants have burned down 32 schools in the valley to prevent examinations, presently scheduled to take place in November, from being held. Some taxis plying during the day have been burnt; hoteliers therefore try to find private cars for the very few guests they have. Hotel employees who go out on the street in uniforms often get excoriated as traitors. There are no shikaras on Dal lake.

Till November 10, Jammu-bound bus and truck drivers were leaving Srinagar in the dead hours of the night to escape detection. Recognising the limits of its power, instead of branding them too as traitors’, the Hurriyat has lifted all bans on their movement.

As they have done in the past, the security agencies will again claim that these are signs that their crackdowns have succeeded in breaking popular resistance and the ’separatists’ are losing ground. But this claim makes a farce out of history. For if the capacity to persuade is the first essential ingredient of State power, then the capacity to coerce is its second.

In a mature State the first is enshrined in the Constitution and the laws passed under it; the second is embodied in the police and the armed forces. But in revolutionary movements hegemonistic power becomes manifest when a small group of people is able to take punitive action against others in the same group with its approval. The militants of the nineties never acquired this power because, by taking up the gun, they alienated most Kashmiris, created a schism between those who were willing to toe Pakistan’s line – a precondition for receiving arms – and those who were not, and finally began fighting and killing each other.

The stone pelters and their mentors have learned from the mistakes of the past. The most striking feature of the current uprising is its non-violence. Stone pelting has therefore allowed the uprising to hold the moral high ground that the militants of the ‘nineties lost. For stones, even when thrown at speeds that would make a baseball pitcher envious, only injure. But bullets kill, and pellets blind.

For Indians of a certain vintage and for all those with moral sensitivity, there is a poignant similarity between the Kashmiri intifada and Mahatma Gandhi’s ahimsa, to which India owes its freedom. There is a lesson to be learned from this: just as the British had no morally sustainable answer to ahimsa and Satyagraha, we have none for the Kashmiris’ demand for Azadi.

Fortunately none is really needed because very few Kashmiris define Azadi as a complete breaking of ties with India. The 1990’s generation of militants used Azadi interchangeably with Khud Mukhtari , i.e self –government. Thanks to the far-sightedness of India’s first government, space for that is already provided within the Article 370 the Constitution. Indeed, far from being an aberration imposed on the country by a Kashmiri Prime minister, article 370 has become the model for assimilating other strongly nationalistic ethnic groups, like the Nagas, into the Indian Union.

It is only Pakistan’s repeated challenges to the Accession in the UN, it’s attempts to capture Kashmir by force, and the lasting trauma of Partition, that has made a defensive Delhi look for the extra degree of control over Kashmir that has stifled political dissent for five decades and ended by disempowering them. Periodic cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches by resentful Kashmiri youth and the occasional hoisting of the Pakistani flag has kept this suspicion alive.

But even today, few things enrage Kashmiris more than the wall of mistrust that India has built. The last thing the majority of Kashmiris want is to secede to Pakistan. Two opinion polls by the widely respected international polling agencies, MORI and IPSOS, showed that in undivided Kashmir, when given a choice between Pakistan and India, only 6 percent in 2004 and 13 percent in 2009 opted for Pakistan. The 2009 poll which included the option of independence also revealed that in the valley while 75 to 95 percent gave independence as their first choice, only 2 to 7 percent gave Pakistan.

Beneath the rejection of Pakistan lies an awareness of the heightened vulnerability that Independence would bring. Kashmir valley is tiny and landlocked. It is only an eight hundredth of the land area of India but has three giant neighbours, one of which lays claim to it solely on the basis of a religion that is only broadly similar to theirs. They know that buried in any claim to loyalty on these grounds lies an assertion of the right to homogenise its practice. That is what, despite the strides made recently by the Ahle-Hadees, the majority of Kashmiris fear it even more than the bumbling onslaughts of the Hindu Rashtrawadis.

One has only to read what Jinnah’s private Secretary, Khurshid Hussain, wrote to him after visiting the valley in 1946 to assess the Kashmir Muslim Conference’s request to join the Muslim League, to see that this fear is not groundless. Advising rejection of the Kashmir Muslim Conference’s request, Hussain wrote:

“The Muslims of Kashmir do not appear to have had the advantage of a true Muslim education.No important religious leader has ever made Kashmir …his home or even an ordinary centre of Islamic activities. Kashmir has therefore remained throughout at the mercy of counterfeit religious leaders who seem to have legalised for them everything that drives a coach and four through Islam and the way of life that it has laid down… It will require considerable effort, spread over a long period of time, to reform them and convert them into true Muslims”. (emphasis added).

Finally, there is the immense pull of the vast Indian market for their products, and its liberal educational institutions. Kashmir is inextricably bound to the rest of India by its unlimited, cost–free access to both. If their determination to preserve their political and cultural identity makes Kashmiris long for independence, their desire to carve out a better and more secure future makes them want to retain all of their present links with India.

It is against this background that Delhi should assess the demands that Syed Ali Shah Geelani and, separately, Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, presented to the civil society delegation led by that former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha last month.

Geelani, whom they met first, made two seemingly incompatible demands. The first was a set of measures to restore calm to the valley that only Delhi had the power to initiate. These included reopening the schools; postponing the examinations this year to give students time to catch up with their curricula; releasing the 6,000 to 9,000 stone pelters whom the police has arrested and locked up at various police stations; withdrawing cases filed against them; withdrawing all prohibitions on the freedom to speak and gather, and ending the invasive and coercive tactics being used by the security forces against civilians.

The second is to go to what he calls the root of the problem – Kashmir’s disputed accession to India, and settle it through a UN supervised plebiscite.

The two are incompatible because the while the first set will create conditions for the resolution of the Kashmir problem within the Indian union, the second requires India to concede a demand that invalidates the very basis on which it was created.

But this conflict is more apparent than real. Geelani’s personal preference for Pakistan is well known and springs from his rigid Jamaati religious beliefs. He owes the respect he enjoys in the valley more to his refusal to compromise these, than to the views themselves. If he was willing, inspite of this, to lay out a detailed set of pre-conditions for a dialogue with Delhi, it means at the very least that he was speaking not on his own behalf but that of Hurriyat as a whole.

This is the sense of responsibility that the Hurriyat (Mirwaiz) had demonstrated in 2008. It is being shown by the entire coordination committee of Hurriyat today. After eight years therefore, the window to a negotiated peace that restores the democratic right of dissent to the Kashmiris and brings the so-called separatists in from the cold, is again open. If Narendra Modi ignores it, Hurriyat’s leaders will lose their battle to control the youth. If that happens and police repression continues, Hurriyat will fade away, and the stone pelters will, inexorably, graduate from stones to guns, explosives and, eventually, suicide vests.

That must not be allowed to happen. Kashmir’s long winter has given us breathing space. Please, Prime Minister Modi, do not waste it.


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