By Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd)
Sep 2, 2016
THE blame game on the law and order situation in the Valley is easy, but this is really not a law and order problem; it’s actually public order, something much more dangerous because it has connotations with respect to the integrity of the nation. As everyone gropes for answers over J&K, nothing will be possible without first stabilising the streets which are riddled with young men with no idea what they are fighting for.
While in Kashmir, many a time, I have answered queries on the situation and dissuaded people from thinking that it was akin to 1989-90 when every Kashmiri imagined that Azadi would dawn the next day or that Kashmir was ready to be taken over by Pakistan from a weary and distraught India. Yet, this time in 2016, I was indeed worried at one stage. Pakistan has always been adept at playing the information game to plant such ideas into minds of gullible Kashmiris and people from mainstream India. It almost succeeded in doing it once again, but things now appear to be on the mend, notwithstanding the 22-member team of Pakistani lawmakers who are about to embark on a mission to trigger international concern for J&K.
Suggestions for regaining control and moving beyond can be numerous after such a near-death experience, but how to get outreach and engagement off the ground appears to be the priority.
Everyone is suggesting to the government to undertake outreach without having an iota of idea how to do this, who to engage with, how to initiate, enable and sustain a campaign which will enthuse the people. A little explanation is necessary here. Through the 26 years of proxy war, we have had an absence of true engagement with the people, except during the efforts of the Mufti government in 2002-05. This is acknowledged by everyone without looking at reasons for it. The prime reason was the extremely violent situation across the board in both urban and rural J&K, which prevented the onset of true democracy when democracy was reintroduced in 1996, after a nine-year hiatus. Although the Army and the police forces managed to retract the security situation from the disastrous abyss into which it had fallen, they could never create conditions for the return of grassroots politics to the state. One can discern this if you compare the vibrant political environment at the lowest level in states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra with that of J&K. For the political functionaries it was just a question of survival and not deliverance. As important as this was the absence of the representatives of the civil administration in any kind of outreach; who would want to go to the ground in an environment of extreme threats. Where some politicians did, it made an isolated difference.
Thus in 2011, when the Army tried an experiment for the restoration of the lost dignity and self-esteem to the people with outreach of the town hall variety, it created immediate excitement. The term ‘town hall interaction’ was a creation of the vibrant Kashmir media which was the first to sense the significance even before the Army, and it did have a role in encouraging it. The first few interactions were in places such as Anantnag, Zainakut and Rangreth, and without any representation from the civil administration, political community and even the police. The mistake was soon rectified and the events were called ‘Awami Sunwai’ thereafter. None were conducted without representation from the political community, the local civil officials and the police. The mistake of trying to go alone was quickly realised and the whole of government approach was brought to bear. Soon, thousands started to turn up for these events where the Army provided security, secured routes, did the administration and even spread the word to maximise attendance. Primacy was given to the civil administration (DC and Tehsildars) to address the gatherings, take complaints, answer them or take them away for rectification. Actions that could be taken on the spot were taken. The local clergy was given a short exposure and few prominent government departments such as education and animal husbandry were also brought on board. The event became an ‘Awami’ Mela, with a medical and vet camp thrown in. The local political community could not be happier.
Reflecting on the above, I can only say it was a crude experiment, but because it was virgin and effective, it created ripples of excitement all over Kashmir and attendance increased with each event. This also reverberated among the youth that was still seething at the events of 2010. When an exclusive interaction with students from Pattan, Avantipura and Kashmir University was held at Badami Bagh, it set the tone for many more and the introduction of education counselling by Army veteran stalwarts. With much emphasis on Youth Guidance Nodes (YGNs) set up by the Army, Kashmir Premier League (KPL) cricket tournament and experimental skill development cadres with assistance of NGOs such as Don Bosco and Dr Reddy’s, along with placement interviews and even sincere attempts at finding accommodation for young Kashmiris entry-level job hunters, the one thing that the young and the older Kashmiris realised was the sincerity of effort. This was reinforced by the adjustment of convoy timings to facilitate easier movement of the public.
These were the events at which much anger was expressed in passionate speeches in chaste Urdu, but at the end of it, there were some take away for all. The environment improved and the media stopped being as negative as it had been.
Does this sound like a plausible model for outreach? It sounds too simple, but the real challenge comes with the ice-breaking events which have to overcome the inevitable cynicism. Outreach by no means should be interpreted as just political functionaries attempting to get across to the public and to the other leadership, the diffused one. While the all-party delegation from Delhi tries to meet functionaries, citizens, media, professionals and a few local leaders, it won’t be a bad idea to organise an ‘Awami Sunwai’ with the general public. It could be just the right icebreaker. Thereafter, let the Army’s Rashtriya Rifles units assume responsibility to facilitate the political functionaries’ outreach to their constituencies for deep interaction. More political leaders from the rest of India may also join the bandwagon on these efforts to convey the nation’s concern to the people of Kashmir.
It can be a good beginning, but would need sincerity of effort and continuity, with innovative ideas to make it a sustained campaign. Anything to cool the anger in the streets of Kashmir will be a plus for the moment.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is a Senior Fellow with the Delhi Policy Group