The gloves were off barely 72 hours after the all-party meeting in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. The understanding that political parties would resist the temptation to politicise the terror attack which killed over 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men on the Jammu-Srinagar highway is now in tatters, with no less than a constitutional functionary appointed by the Centre publicly calling for a boycott of Kashmir, Kashmiris and the goods they sell.
The prime minister as usual maintains a stony silence over sundry Sangh parivar outfits like Bajrang Dal intimidating young Kashmiri students living and studying in central and north India. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi himself is making speeches in Patna, Varanasi, etc., speaking in very coded language about revenge. “The fire raging in your hearts is raging in my heart too,” he told an angry crowd in Patna. Unfortunately, a lot of that fire is getting directed against our own countrymen in an already polarised polity, where toxic majoritarian sentiments were being stoked regularly for the past 4.5 years.
The fact is that the post-Pulwama situation is too tempting for the Bharatiya Janata Party not to exploit it for political ends. It would clearly make sense for Modi to completely divert attention from the lack of jobs and agrarian crises to the question of who is best suited to preserve national security. The BJP will be further tempted to mix with national security the right quantity of majoritarian angst over Kashmir. This could be a potent cocktail and the opposition parties must be ready to counter this in their election campaign two months from now.
Therefore, the point is that Pulwama will get politicised whether we like it or not. The opposition parties must be fully prepared for this. A perceptive political analyst pointed out that the Pulwama suicide bomber’s video message, most likely formulated by Jaish-e-Muhammed ideologues, talks mostly about Hindutva majoritarian oppression with references to BJP’s cow politics. This is interesting, because for decades the Kashmiri Muslim majority was only obsessed with the question of maximum autonomy or azadi, and they did not really connect or empathise with the questions which constantly agitated the Muslim minority in the rest of the country, whether UP, Bihar or Gujarat.
Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir who was killed by a terrorist in Srinagar, once told me that in the past, Kashmiri Muslims did not even exhibit much anger over the Gujarat riots of 2002. Shujaat, however, cautioned that this was changing under the National Democratic Alliance regime and young Kashmiris had started talking a lot more about issues such as the cow-related lynching of the Muslim minority in the rest of India. One was reminded of Shujaat’s warning when one saw the messaging in the suicide bomber’s video. And it almost seems as though even Pakistan is happy about young Kashmiris showing growing empathy with the Muslim minorities in the rest of India.
So why is Muslim-majority Kashmir, which was largely preoccupied with the notion of full autonomy or azadi for all these decades, now entering the debate linked to Hindutva and the overtly majoritarian politics of the rest of India, especially the Hindi heartland?
This is a very important question which needs to be gone into. The BJP’s temptation to use Kashmir to stoke its politics of Hindutva nationalism is not necessarily a post-Pulwama development. The post-Pulwama situation merely makes things more overt. It may be recalled how an all-party delegation met Modi about eight months before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, when Kashmir was reeling from a fresh crisis after Burhan Wani’s killing in an encounter.
Even as hospitals in Kashmir were overflowing with the pellet gun victims, the all-party delegation met the prime minister to plead with him that Kashmir should not be politicised for electoral gains in the rest of India, especially UP. Modi assured the delegation that it would not happen. However, if one listens to Yogi Adityanath’s speeches in western UP in the run-up to the UP elections, it would become clear that the prime minister did not keep his promise.
If he did not keep his promise then, there is little reason to believe he will keep it now. Modi does not even pretend to be a statesman who believes in taking the risk of going against majoritarian mob sentiment. Modi has so far only shown a clinical efficiency in reading the crowd sentiment and then either staying neutral or sometimes even stoking it in coded language. And, make no mistake, he will do this over the next two months in the run-up to the general elections.
Kashmir has been an intractable issue for nearly 70 years, but it has never played a big role in determining the outcome of general elections. However, this general elections will see Kashmir getting mainstreamed through BJP’s messaging on national security and majority mobilisation. One can expect someone like Adityanath to lead this campaign in UP which is probably the most crucial state for the BJP, following the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. Unfortunately, the geo-political strategists in the Pakistan army and those advising Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan might welcome such a development in India.