Shrinking middle ground in Kashmir Dialogue is the way forward
Proverbially speaking to predict a situation in the turmoil-hit Kashmir Valley is like daring to forecast weather in the hills. Similar is the case behind citing reasons for eruption of a particular situation in Valley. The one and only predictable factor remains to be the direct involvement of Pakistan in fomenting trouble on this side of the Line of Control.
Prediction might be difficult but general preventive measures and a possible follow-up to contain such a situation before it flares up is always a strong possibility. This has happened in the past and is partly true about the currently prevailing situation in the Valley.
But there is something unique about the problem erupting afresh circa 2017. There was a simmer resulting out of the formation and later inaptitude of the BJP-People’s Democratic Party ruling coalition. There was a strong content of prediction also with none other than a former GoC and some others time and again pleading that those factors other than the security forces should also actively come into play to pre-empt a dangerous situation building around.
Many brows were raised when Northern Command chief Lt Gen D S Hooda while hanging his boots made a strong case for opening dialogue particularly with agitated youth. This suggestion assumes more significance against the backdrop of another comment made by him on his last in office that he did not see an easy solution to end Kashmir conflict and called it a “long war” that would require “long term approach” and that militarily the situation has largely come under control.
Similar views have been expressed by former Army chief Gen V P Malik particularly in regard to opening dialogue and seeking a political solution to the problem. That in no way suggests that the security apparatus has to lower their guards.
A new doctrine is at play in Jammu and Kashmir. It is but natural that every government has the right to evolve new policies and strategies despite the fact that the system functions in continuity. The new doctrine is based more on asserting authority of state which is fair but it overlooks the need for a middle ground to open a dialogue.
The underlying feeling behind observations of these Generals has been to prevent any situation where protesting mobs have an eyeball-to eyeball face-off with a fully trained professional army. This is direly needed to avoid a catastrophic situation and protect the Army’s sanctity.
The developments in Kashmir over the past few weeks reflect that their worst fears have started coming true. It has been the outcome of a total mismatch between what the security apparatus has done and what the political arm (read the Centre and the state governments) would not do. The security forces have a limited but an important role to contain a situation and then provide a safe platform for governmental and political activities to hearts and minds of the people.
The process of containment necessarily needs to be accompanied simultaneous by exploration of avenues to open dialogue with all the stakeholders.
Of course, it is prerogative of the government of the day to decide how, when and where to start the dialogue or its mechanism through direct or indirect means. But it is a necessity to break the logjam.
There existed a serious mismatch between the two in the current scheme of things. The situation was building up and the public sentiment allowed to be swayed in a particular direction in the absence of any mechanism to engage the society. That is certainly not to suggest that there is only one shade of public opinion in the Valley and that everyone concurred with those pelting stones on the streets and totting guns. Strong abhorrence to phenomena of dialogue till the last gun was silenced has led to more protests and resultant causalities. Somehow, it has resulted in a situation where the entire population seems to have been united by a common sentiment.
This is an alarm of a different kind and a more dangerous one. The stone-pelters and gun-wielding youth considered to be stray and indoctrinated groups but the number of their sympathisers in the society has grown sizably. The college and school students are increasingly hitting the roads in protest while the state government haplessly looking the other way are the dangerous dimensions. So, what is the trigger behind the current situation?
A Lok Sabha bi-election, the other postponed, and poll for 11 seats to state Legislative Council dutifully completed to maintain the charade of strengthening democracy. Not with standing the serious situation prevailing on the ground, the purpose was to somehow complete the electoral drill without caring for people’s sentiment. After all, they are the spirit and mass of any democratic process. Not that this has happened for the first time in this troubled state, with a hope that it never happens again.
This phase of elections might look a miniscule but it has hit the credibility of poll process much harder than at any stage in the past. National Conference chief patron Dr Farooq Abdullah won the Srinagar Lok Sabha bi-election which recorded the lowest ever 7 per cent polling with his share being less than 50 per cent. The Legislative Council polls witnessed the ruling alliance partners BJP and People’s Democratic Party clashing and not collaborating with each other.
These are certainly disturbing developments particularly from the people’s perspective and tossed certain serious questions even as the previous concerns arising after such situations have remained unanswered for all times to come.
The decision to hold by-elections in Kashmir is in itself mired in controversies. Majority of the key players involved in the conduct of elections were wary of the situation being conducive for elections. Intriguing that one finds Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Home Ministry on the opposite sides of the fence on this issue. This is another matter that their difference came to public light only in the post-Srinagar poll scenario as the blame game over lower low polling began. The Ministry claims it had advised the ECI against this while the latter boasted that it does not require the Ministry’s clearance to hold elections that too in a place as sensitive as Kashmir.
After all, the security related arrangements are in the Ministry’s domain. So, the ECI’s claim seemed too farfetched.
It is only reflective of a bigger malady that has set in. Although it has nothing to do with the functioning of either the Home Ministry or the ECI, the malady has its basis in the differing political perception of BJP and PDP over handling of Jammu and Kashmir.
The security forces were too stressed to be pushed into the poll process without any thinking and a proper plan in place. As a result, the worst fears of the two General have come true and security forces have been left bruised, cornered and forced to offer explanations for acts which they were asked to perform as their duty. Those who should have been actually blamed for creating a mess due to misgovernance or total lack of good governance are sitting pretty and celebrating victories.
The holding of bi-elections proved to be a big trigger this time for vested interests to seize the opportunity with both hands. A total non-existant state government with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti caving-in when she was expected to stand up, and seen to be at total mercy of the Centre has led to a hopeless situation.
It was justifiable in the early 1990s to start political process at all costs when the Valley was under the tight grip of Pakistan-sponsored terrorist outfits. The political class also showed courage and fought elections at great personal risks. Dr Farooq Abdullah was one among them. So in some ways the low polling percentage was also seen as an achievement.
Travelling to 2017, after a lot of hard work and sacrifices made particularly by the security forces in retrieving the situation out of that hopelessness, the abysmally low 7 per cent polling is simply unacceptable. More seriously the repoll in 38 polling booths recorded a pathetic one per cent voting and still the system had the audacity to accept this outcome.
It is certainly not to blame the people of Kashmir who have on many occasions in the past shown their faith in the power of ballot. Those who either misread the situation or allowed elections to happen for personal reasons are certainly to be blamed.
The situation was on an even keel both in Srinagar and Anantnag Lok Sabha constituencies. How come elections happened in Srinagar and postponed by a month in the latter case simply because South Kashmir, of which Anantnag is a significant part, is the mainstay of the ruling PDP or that Dr Abdullah was “assured” of his victory in Srinagar. The political machinations seemed to be at full play in these by-elections. Some willingly and others unknowingly became part of this. Decidedly the people of the state have been the losers once again.
The Election Commission of India was ill advised to first hold election in Srinagar and then order a repoll. The situation worsened as the figures suggest. It would have been justifiable to annul the election to give some sense of belonging to the vast majority that stayed away from the process. Who knows, it could have salutary effect on public mind which in turn was severely affected by one per cent repoll figures.
These by-elections were ordered against the backdrop of a boycott call issued by separatist groups and an already incensed public mind due to total inaction of the state government on all fronts and the Centre remaining silent. An added factor of simmering public outrage was the developments in rest of the country, which has created a sense of insecurity in the Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The security apparatus particularly Army and Central Para Military Forces, has all through borne the brunt and created situation conducive for political process to take shape. The current explosive situation has left no one in doubt that the focus is on managing through security drills.
The governance in J&K is at an all-time low. Seemingly, there is no attempt to set the house in order by either of the two ruling alliance partners. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti seems helpless at least to convince the Centre in initiating a dialogue process.
There could not have been a worse visual of erosion of state’s authority than a small group of security force personnel surrounded by irate anti-India slogan shouting mob. There were laudably cool and did not use their weapons to open fire in even self-defence.
Yes, the security forces particularly the Army have their role cut out in any given situation more so in an internal conflict. Trained to kill the enemy the Army has its limitations when dealing with own people in such situations. There arises need for a dialogue and engage with the people.
The Army has willy-nilly acquired the centrestage in public discourse in this conflict finding them caught in the crossfire. This situation was aptly described by Lt General Hooda: The Army is “either being strongly supported or strongly hated”. A rather unlikable situation has arisen for Indian Army where fingers are sought to be raised on its rich secular and impartial image. These are alarming signals coming from an operations commander. The underlying concern behind these alarms is to prevent through other means mass protests so as not to land the Army in a direct clash with the public.
Lt General Hooda and people of his ilk should be heard carefully when they talk of need to have a “calm, practical and realistic” look at the situation which is very complex and having cross-connections at every intersection.
The most worrying aspect of the current situation, which can ultimately become a serious fall-out if not tackled properly, is the widening conflict zone and shrinking middle-ground. These aspects need to be carefully viewed.
The conflict zone had considerably shrunk after peak militancy days of the 1990s. This was mainly due to coordinated efforts of the government and the security apparatus that free and fair elections could be held. This in turn led to improved governance and willingness to talk within Kashmir and on a separate stage with Pakistan.
The situation leading up to killing of home-grown militant outfit Hijbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani and developments thereafter has not only given rise to a new generation of militants but has also pushed the educational institutions down to school levels, into the conflict zone.
Even during the peak militancy days it was difficult for the Pak-backed militant groups to garner local support particularly in terms of recruiting Kashmiri youth to their cadres. In the post-Wani scenario, local recruitments have become easier and in many cases voluntary. This has emboldened dreaded terrorists outfits such as Lashkar-e-Toiba with easy availability of local recruits.
One area that needed a greater focus was the alarming increase in the radicalisation of the youth. There are no visible attempts over the years, leave alone formulating a policy to arrest this trend. It required efforts at the societal levels by tapping the saner elements.
When the conflict zone widens and options of dialogue are at a bare minimum, a natural corollary would be the middle ground shrinking fast. That precisely is what is happening in Kashmir right now.
There are only stray efforts by certain private quarters or piece-nicks to save and strengthen this middle ground. One such effort was made by former Foreign Affairs Minister and veteran BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and some other stray groups without eliciting any response from the Centre.
What could be the ultimate strategy to tackle Kashmir crisis? There is a school of thought that backs a Punjab like operation in the Valley using power of the gun. This is the most unfeasibly option, particularly in Kashmir, which is demographically homogeneous and will be fraught with repercussions.
Reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir or its trifurcation is being forwarded as another solution. This is easier said than done. Giving statehood to Jammu region and Union Territory status to Ladakh have been in the agenda of the BJP since its earlier avtar Bharatiya Jan Sangh days apart from abrogation of Article 370.
Not only the three regions are presently dangerously placed against each other, but situation is far from normal even within each of the regions. There are divisions and sub-divisions in the respective regions and reorganisation would require building consensus at all levels. A hasty decision on this front could propel a fresh wave of discontent in all the three regions. At the same time it could create a fertile ground for Pakistan-sponsored agents to create more problems.
The priority of the day should be to first control the situation and keep the dialogue option open at all levels. It is utmost important in the national interest to protect the Army’s sanctity and leave them alone. Trifurcation of the state could be an option to be explored during times of normalcy. Or else fishing in troubled waters could prove too costly.
By Anil Anand