INDIA: Summers of discontents

For the third consecutive summer, the simmering anger in Jammu & Kashmir has erupted in agitation. Protestors crippled Srinagar with mass demonstrations and stone-pelting, and created a sustained challenge to New Delhi and the state government. For a while it appeared that the very presence of the government had disappeared; the chief minister admitted his helplessness, saying the police needed to learn techniques of crowd control. After New Delhi passed on instructions on how to handle the situation, the resulting security-centric approach led to ever more killings of innocents and peaceful protestors – the reason why people were protesting in the first place. For the first time in 17 years, the government formally called the Indian Army out to help retrieve the situation on the streets of Srinagar.

At one level, the history of Kashmir is an extremely painful one, which has been narrated innumerable times. The events of the past exemplify the travails of a people who have never found freedom, peace and justice, and have often been trapped in games not of their making – a Hindu king, a largely Muslim population, war and disputed accession, Partition, a Line of Control, promises of autonomy and betrayal of those promises, wars, rigged elections, central rule, resistance, militancy, inter-community strife, crossborder militancy, encounters and disappearances, protests, splintered separatist groups, antagonist mainstream Kashmiri parties, warring intelligence agencies, the influence of China, Islamism and, at the end, almost 100,000 people dead in two decades.

At another level, however, the story of the Kashmir Valley and some of its neighbouring areas is simple. Through armed movements, popular uprisings and street protests, Kashmiris have repeatedly clarified that they have no faith in the Indian government and the way that it runs their land and their lives. They have also made clear that the militarisation of the state is unacceptable, that they want self-rule and to live without fear, and that they consider the demarcation of 'Jammu & Kashmir' and 'Azad Jammu & Kashmir' as unnatural and arbitrary.

As with the Amarnath protests of 2008 and the summer rage over the killings in Shopian last year, the demonstrations inspired by extrajudicial killings and shooting of young protestors by security forces in July are only manifestations of this longstanding message. Yet again it seems New Delhi is adopting its old approach based on 'management' – of Kashmir and of the 'disturbances'. In so doing, government officials are refusing to tackle any fundamental issue at the core of Kashmiri anger – of self-rule, democracy deficit, identity assertion. As far as New Delhi policymakers and their proxies in Srinagar are concerned, the only objective is to preserve the status quo.

In the past few years, the Indian authorities have begun to believe that they are succeeding in this war of attrition with the Kashmir mindset. Islamabad's preoccupation with Afghanistan and its present internal militancy, the fencing of the Line of Control, the dip in infiltration and relatively fair elections of November/December 2008 – though in a heavily militarised context – came together to give the Indian state the confidence that the situation was 'under control'. A story was gradually constructed for the benefit of the Indian media about peace returning to the Kashmir Valley, with tourists present in large numbers on Dal Lake being proof of this normalcy. Establishment strategists also dealt with groups such as the All Party Hurriyat Conference, using a mixed approach: engage, coerce, co-opt, divide, give some small concessions and tire them out by maintaining the status quo.

Fourth year running?
These are clever tactics but that is all they are, and their hollowness becomes apparent in moments when mass anger is expressed. Today, the throwing of grenades is replaced by the throwing of stones. One sometimes suspects that the Indian state would prefer more violent protests to justify the application of hard-fisted repression. But tactics aimed at merely extending the current situation, rather than strengthening J & K's autonomy as promised so long ago in Article 371 of the Indian Constitution, has the danger of creating traditions for grave accidents. New Delhi should be concerned firstly about Kashmiris' rights, but also about its own image in such an event. There is no doubt that governmental provocation allows extremist groups to tap into the festering discontent among the people. Reports from the Valley suggest that there has been a strong religious Islamist streak in the current round of protests, as compared to the largely secular/political content of past movements.

To be fair, there have been efforts to negotiate quickly with some of the separatist leaders. In addition, in 2007-08, India and Pakistan were slowly arriving at the broad contours of a deal that would have involved more autonomy for Kashmir, on both sides of the Line of Control, as well as softer borders. But General Pervez Musharraf's troubles within Pakistan, and the agitation against him, ended the back-channel talks. The other major gap in those talks, of course, was the absence of Kashmiri voices.

Himal recognises that the Kashmir conflict has many nuances. The political economy of war has resulted in various vested interests, including within the military, becoming entrenched. It is also clear that, for multiple reasons, India cannot and will not give azadi to Kashmir. But if New Delhi does not want to end up dealing with movements such as the current eruption in Kashmir at regular intervals, there is no alternative but to adopt a new approach. This would involve reaching out to the groups outside the mainstream, kick-starting a process of demilitarisation, encouraging more cross-LoC connections such as the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus, a policy of no tolerance for human-rights violations by security forces, repeal of laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that encourage impunity, an addressing of past crimes committed by state officials, substantively devolving powers to the local administration, taking unilateral measures to initiate dialogue with militant groups and continuing the dialogue with Pakistan. Most importantly, Indian officials need to listen to Kashmiri voices, instead of suppressing them.

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Himal Southasian