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Current Affairs ( 18 Aug 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Let’s Define Azadi

By Inder Malhotra

Aug 18th, 2010

IN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort there was one significant offer to the people of Jammu and Kashmir which those Kashmiri leaders that are not secessionists and separatists would do well to respond to. The Indian Constitution, he said, was broad enough to accommodate their aspirations while his government would hold talks with “whoever abjures violence”. But there seem to be no takers for the present at least.

The uneasy calm following Dr Singh’s rather belated first speech on Kashmir from the high table of the conference of all the political parties from the state — minus the principal Opposition, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that declined to attend — was cruelly broken on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramzan with the familiar cycle of vicious violence. There has hardly been any let-up in the situation since.

On the contrary, the hurling of a shoe at chief minister Omar Abdullah by a suspended head constable on Independence Day has made things a lot worse. The young Mr Abdullah did make light of the episode — “to throw shoes is better than throwing stones” was a nice phrase — but it would be wrong to overlook the damaging repercussions of the sordid event. Ignore the crass propaganda that the state government has forfeited the support of even its police force. However, several thousand people, defying strict curfew, marched to the culprit’s house as a gesture of “solidarity” with him, and indeed lauded him. The protesters are making it an issue that he was “roughed up” while being taken into custody. It is also shocking that some politician, still unidentified, gave the craven cop his own invitation card thus enabling him to sit in the VIP gallery from where he could target the chief minister.

As it has been doing in the past, so now the Hurriyat has issued a “protest calendar” ordering a “shutdown of the Valley for seven days and work for only three”, and since protesters have so far obeyed these “calendars”, the turmoil that has gone on for more than two months looks like persisting. This underscores that not all stone-pelting is spontaneous, a lot of it is organised, and in it infiltrators from across the Line of Control (LoC) who have been lying low might well be taking part. No wonder some have begun to feel that neither New Delhi nor Srinagar is fully cognisant of the gravity of the challenge.

In this context, some agonising questions, to which no easy answers may be available, arise. In the first place why are so many parents allowing, if not encouraging, their sons and daughters, some very young, to go and take part in violent demonstrations at which lives are bound to be at risk? Secondly, is the constant shutting down of shops for days on end not a source of acute suffering to the people?

Thirdly, at a time when everyone from the Prime Minister downwards, including Mr Omar Abdullah, has been talking in terms of “reaching out” to the young people who are angry because their near ones and dear ones have been killed in police firings or for any other reason, persuading them to return to peaceful ways and resuming their studies, why is there not the slightest sign of this desirable activity on the ground? The excellent idea of an all-party parliamentary delegation to the Valley hasn’t materialised? But what on earth has happened to the leaders of the National Conference and the Congress, the two partners in the ruling coalition in the state? They won 60 per cent vote not long ago. Why are they afraid of going to their voters now? Or, are they too busy with their factional or plainly personal pursuits?

Many Kashmiris and quite a few Kashmir experts elsewhere have raised a very pertinent question: Why offer sops like jobs or expert committees to devise a new “economic package” for Jammu and Kashmir when earlier such packages and promises have not been fulfilled? The grievances of the rampaging youth, the questioners say, are political and these should be resolved politically. The chief minister himself has said more than once that his state needs a “political package”, not an economic one. And yet he could not resist the temptation of offering 50,000 jobs to the Kashmiri youth “in the next few months”, without bothering to explain why some of these jobs were not offered during the last 18 months.

In any case, the wide world knows that the political demand of the agitators is azadi (freedom) though no two Kashmiris might agree on what it means. Mehbooba Mufti, the strident leader of the PDP, has said that to her azadi means that Kashmir should have the use of both Indian and Pakistani currencies and there should be joint councils for the two parts of Kashmir divided by the LoC. She insists that this would be “within the Indian Constitution”. This contention is surely debatable, to say the least, but then her proposal can be the starting point of a dialogue.

It might help if all concerned start the dialogue by accepting two unalterable parameters. One, that all Kashmiri groups should put forward an agreed demand for autonomy rather than ask New Delhi to do so. And two, when Dr Singh says that the Indian Constitution is broad enough to accommodate Kashmiri aspirations he means exactly what P.V. Narasimha Rao had stated in 1994: “Minus azadi sky is the limit to Kashmir’s autonomy”. It goes without saying that regional autonomy within the state of Jammu and Kashmir is also a must. Jammu and Ladakh have their legitimate aspirations, too.

My final point is perhaps the most important in the present context. The biggest single cause that touches off a tidal wave of anger almost every day is a civilian death in police firing. So why not use non-lethal devices for crowd control that are available in the world market though we do not yet manufacture them. The cost of imports would be much less than what we are paying in Kashmir today.

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi