With Time Running Out, Delhi Can No Longer Afford to be Complacent in Kashmir

Rajnath Singh’s task now is to make Kashmiris believe that the prime minister meant what he said about being willing to consider any solution within the Indian constitution. He has five days to do it in.

Kashmiri protesters shout freedom slogans during a protest after Eid prayers in Srinagar on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

Kashmiri protesters shout freedom slogans during a protest after Eid prayers in Srinagar on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

On Monday evening, hours before India’s 190 million Muslims began to celebrate Bakr-Id, home minister Rajnath Singh gave the security forces and the Jammu and Kashmir government one week to restore normality in the valley. He did not explain why he was announcing this ultimatum now, or precisely how he expected them to accomplish in a week something they had failed to do for 65 days.

He could have made their task easier by announcing a withdrawal of the curfew for Id – a hiatus to the aggressive peacekeeping tactics that the security forces have been employing since July 9 – and sent the leaders of Hurriyat, whom Delhi has imprisoned in various jails around the city, back to their homes to spend the festival with their families.

Indeed, he could have gone a step further and announced that curfew would not be re-imposed in the city, and pulled the security forces back to guarding key locations and installations. Had all this happened it could have provided a springboard for starting a peace process in the valley.

Why did Rajnath Singh not do so? And why was there no protest from the government of Jammu and Kashmir? The knee-jerk explanation is that this is part of the BJP government’s strategy for grinding the Kashmiri uprising into submission, and that power has so corrupted the PDP that it is now indistinguishable from the National Conference when the latter was in power from 2008 till 2014.

Both explanations would be wrong. On Sunday, September 11, when curfew was lifted at 6.00 PM, shops opened all over Srinagar and the streets rapidly filled with people buying meat, food and presents for Bakr-Id, as well as stocking up for the lean days that would follow. There was no reason then not to expect the curfew to remain relaxed the next day and on Id.

Geelani’s gameplan

But in the mid-morning of Monday, the day before Id, the joint resistance committee (JRC) of the two Hurriyats and the JKLF asked all mosques to hold their Id prayers simultaneously at 8.30 in the morning, instead of at different times of the day, as is the normal custom. They also asked people to march directly from their mosques to the UN office, which is located between Gupkar road where ministers and many senior officials live, the Badami Bagh cantonment of the army, and the studios of Doordarshan and All India Radio. It is, therefore, the single most sensitive spot in the entire valley.

The JRC’s call forced Delhi and Srinagar’s hand. Both feared that if they did not impose the strictest possible curfew the next day, hundreds of thousands of emotionally charged young men would pour out of the mosques and begin to converge on the UN office at the same time. The security forces would have had to choose between being overwhelmed and opening fire, possibly even with bullets instead of pellets, to avoid being overwhelmed. This was a risk Delhi and Srinagar were not prepared to take.

The strict curfew imposed in Srinagar and other cities, and the heavy reinforcement of paramilitary forces in the valley, averted this calamity. Bakr-Id has passed. It was celebrated, but only in homes; namaz was read and attended by limited numbers of people in smaller mosques and those far from the routes leading into the heart of Srinagar. Tragically, inspite of all this bandobast two young people were killed. So while Geelani did not succeed in unleashing a bloodbath, the JRC has managed to keep tempers in the valley at boiling point.

But now that Bakr-Id has passed, two questions remain to be answered: Could Delhi have done anything else? And what should it do next? The Machiavellian answer to the first question is that it should have called the JRC’s bluff, lifted the curfew, sent the ‘separatist’ leaders home for Id, and let the Kashmiris decide whether they wanted to court death for the sake of a symbolic gesture. This would have been the right thing to do because handing over the responsibility for their actions to the Kashmiris is the essence of azadi.

But for this strategy to work to India’s (and Kashmir’s) benefit, Delhi needed not only to have anticipated the JRC’s move but to understand that, with the possible exception of Geelani, none of its leaders would have wanted to shoulder the blame for the many deaths and scores of serious injuries that would have followed.

One can say this with near-certainty, because it was precisely the strategy that Governor N.N. Vohra had adopted on August 17, 2008, when Kashmir was under governor’s rule, to foil a march to the UN office announced by Geelani. On that occasion, it was the moderate Hurriyat leaders that had foiled his bid. This time the government has given him a free hand to act in their name by locking them up in jails and subjails where they have no access to either phone or internet, while leaving India’s arch-enemy Geelani comfortably at home under “ house arrest” to send out his “calendars” in all their names.

The opportunity to call Geelani’s bluff is now lost. In five more days, on Monday next week, Rajnath Singh’s ultimatum will expire. There is no political initiative on the cards. Nor can there be one, because the only people with any capacity to reign in the youth remain locked up in jail. So Singh, who has demonstrated the sincerity of his desire to restore peace to Kashmir by visiting the valley three times in the past six weeks, has been left with no option but to ask the security forces to crack down hard on “the Separatists”. Should that happen, Geelani’s stratagems will be crowned with success and firecrackers will be burst in Pakistan.

Politics is a cold-blooded art, perhaps the coldest in the world. It requires the complete suppression of emotion and a mathematical calculation of the costs and benefits of one’s statements and actions. Pakistan has always had an advantage in Kashmir because the brains and the heart of the ISI work in the same direction. India has been at a disadvantage because they pull in opposite ways.

Beginning with the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, successive Indian governments have striven to safeguard Kashmir’s guaranteed freedoms against a slowly rising tide of fear and distrust. All of this has centred on the simplistic notion that Kashmiris, being Muslims, must want to accede to Pakistan. The result has been a gradual erosion of Article 370 of the constitution, and constant manipulation of the elections, culminating in 26 years of what has, with a single brief interlude, been military rule beneath the tattered fig leaf of democracy.

Pakistan, by contrast, has felt no such qualms. So it has killed or terrorised every important leader who has dared to discuss a solution short of secession with Delhi, and sent just as many terrorists across the border every year to prevent India from bringing the army and police raj to an end.

Despite this, they have made very little progress. As late as September 2009 – after Kashmir had been torn apart by the Amarnath land scam a year earlier and was even then roiled by attempts to pin the alleged double rape and murder of two girls in Shopian onto the BSF – a carefully constructed poll by the Britain-based Chatham House financed by the Saif al Islam Qathafi trust showed that even in the most disaffected parts of the valley (Srinagar, Budgam, Baramulla, Anantnag and Sopore) the proportion of people who wished to join Pakistan ranged from 2-7%. In the same five districts, the proportion who wanted to be independent ranged from 75-95%.

Pakistan’s only hope of seizing the Kashmir valley therefore lies in persuading this 75% to forsake independence in its favour. There is no conceivable way in which it can do this on its own. That was the realisation which motivated General Musharraf to tell Pakistanis during a Ramzan iftar at Lahore in October 2004 that they needed to give up the idea that Kashmir was the ‘K’ in the name of the country.

It is only India that can do the job for them. To do this, it has not only to make life in Kashmir a living hell, but also persuade the Kashmiris that life cannot possibly do anything but improve if they join Pakistan. In stone throwing, Pakistan has found the perfect weapon with which to make India do this.

The transformative fuel it has found is moral outrage. Faced with stones, hurled admittedly at very high speeds, its answer so far has been bullets, then pellets. It is worse than useless to excuse the use of bullets and pellets to fend off attacks with stones.

No regret from any government

Bullets kill and pellets maim, but stones can at most injure. But although six years have passed since stone throwing became a menace, no government has expressed an ounce of regret at having taken the lives of 200 unarmed youths. Instead, finding that pellets are generating even more rage than bullets, all that Delhi has been able to think of is chilly grenades and stun bombs. What joy there must be in Islamabad! What Delhi is even now not considering is equipping its police with the protective equipment that makes the use of these horrific weapons unnecessary: leg guards, elbow guards, body armour, helmets with hardened plastic visors, and full length hard plastic shields that protect he police without impeding their view of the attackers. These are standard equipment in places as far apart as South Korea and Chad, but obviously too good to be offered to the Indian jawan.

Pakistan still has a long way to go, for Kashmiri Muslims know that acceding to Pakistan will destroy their unique, Sufi-Rishi variant of Islam. They know that Pakistani Sunnis, be they Deobandi, Barelvi or Wahhaby, consider Kashmiri Muslims to be corrupted and, as Jinnah’s secretary, Khursheed Husain, wrote to him from Srinagar in 1946, in urgent need of “re-education”. They know, therefore, that the cost of joining Pakistan will be the loss of their distinct ethno-national identity.

But Delhi cannot take any chances, because rage is making more and more of the youth from Sufi families turn to Jamaati and Wahhabi Islam – partly as a gesture of protest when all other modes of political dissent have been sealed, and partly because these are the cradles of a wider global revolt against the oppression of Islam that they wish to join.

Delhi cannot afford complacency. It needs to draw from the pages of history and remember that revolutions have always been brought about by a minority which has seized the right moment to enlist a more inchoate, discontented majority.

Delhi may be tempted to crack down on the current Kashmiri uprising because its foot soldiers are often no more than 12 years in age. Pick them up, throw them in jails, and let them cool down seems to be the strategy it has in mind. But it will do well to remember that uprisings have invariably been spearheaded by the youth. In Russia in 1917, the cadres of the Bolshevik party were very young: 22% were under 20, 37% were between 20 and 24 and 16% were between 25 and 29.

Instead of cracking down yet again upon the hapless Kashmiris next week all that Rajnath Singh needs to do is send the jailed Hurriyat leaders back to their homes, and publicly commit the central government to thoroughly discussing every aspect of Kashmir’s relationship with the central government using the Instrument of Accession and the Delhi agreement of 1952 as the starting points.

In December 2014, Prime Minister Modi stated that it was his duty to fulfill Vajpayee’s dream of dealing with Kashmir through Insaniyat, Jumhuriyat and Kashmiriyat. Last month he repeated this promise to the Kashmiri opposition, adding that he was willing to consider any solution within the Indian constitution. Rajnath Singh’s task now is to make Kashmiris believe that the PM meant what he said. He has five days to do it in.