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Current Affairs ( 18 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Beyond highway of peace: First time India has to deal with separatist sentiment in both Jammu and Kashmir

By Muzamil Jaleel

August 18, 2008


The Amarnath land transfer controversy and the subsequent “economic blockade” seem to the apparent reason for the unrest. But the actual reasons are deeper and psychological and lie in the failure to resolve the Kashmir problem


Srinagar, August 17: Muteeb Raja is eight. His voice cracked as he shouted. “Hum kya chahte hain?” (What do we want?). A crowd of adults around him responded: Azadi (independence). Ishtiyaq Rasool is six. His mother told him that he was far too young to go and protest. “I insisted. The protestors will be thirsty, we can offer them water,” he said. His mother joined the slogan-shouting women, hiding her face with her blue scarf.


The march on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road flowed like a river of people covering the highway from Chanakhan in Sopore to Khanpora ahead of Baramulla. A generation of young men, who were toddlers in the 1990s when Kashmir exploded with massive public demonstrations, was leading the procession.


The security forces had withdrawn after failing to halt this march at 10 different places. They had tried everything. They had fired hundreds of smoke shells. They had baton charged to disperse the mob. They had opened fire, killing one and injuring two dozen at Sangrama Chowk, a few miles away from Sopore.


Furious, the people had pelted stones at the police and security force contingent. The security personnel retreated, abandoning their two vehicles, which were immediately set afire by angry protestors.


This was the scene on August 11. All of Kashmir has erupted since then; 24 people have died in police firing. This phenomenon is extremely unusual for a place where two months ago, the only buzz was election rallies, a pleasant spring and thousands of tourists.


Kashmir had returned to its glory as a favourite destination of the holidaymaker. The militant attacks were rare and whenever there were reports of encounters, the security forces launched a pre-emptive offensive to kill them. Pakistan’s President Musharraf had withdrawn from his traditional Kashmir agenda, condemned militant attacks and even dropped demand for plebiscite in Kashmir. His democratic successors had publicly altered Pakistan’s Kashmir-centric foreign policy; emphasised on friendly relations with New Delhi to boost bilateral trade.


At ground zero in Kashmir, the chairman of Hurriyat’s moderate faction, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was planning to leave for the US on a fellowship, hoping to study conflict management in Belfin Centre at Harvard. Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani was ill and disillusioned by Pakistan’s “divorce” from Kashmir. Several separatist leaders were complaining that Kashmiris are fatigued and New Delhi had declared the “end game” in Kashmir.


After successfully fighting militancy for 18 years, the Centre was looking at the “free and fair” 2008 Assembly polls as the last dose of its policy prescription to fully recover Kashmir.


The people’s march on Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road changed all that. Hundreds of trucks with young men sitting on their bonnets were slowly moving ahead. At the first Army camp ahead of Baramulla, the troops had abandoned their roadside pickets to avoid confrontation. “We will not stop. We have to cross the LoC. We have to re-unite Kashmir,” said Abdul Rasheed War (26), a teacher in a private school. “Kashmir has woken up. The movement is alive again,” he added.


Why is anger spilling on Kashmir’s streets? The Amarnath land transfer controversy and the subsequent “economic blockade” is the apparent reason. But the real answer lies in the people’s march on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road.


Ironically, this road was re-christened as the “highway of peace” between India and Pakistan on April 7, 2005, when for the first time a bus service connected the divided Kashmir. The slogans and flags in the march told another story. There was hardly any mention of the Amarnath land row or the blockade. The protests had transcended the issue of the Amarnath land transfer; it’s only about separatism now.


Professor Noor Ahmad Baba, who teaches political science at Kashmir University, articulated the reason behind this anger in Kashmir. He said the peace process had been slow and had failed to address any of the concerns of the Kashmiris. “There have been only superficial changes in the situation here. Kashmir was a problem yesterday and is a problem today,” he said. Reacting to the question on why the Amarnath land row and the subsequent “economic blockade” became a tipping point, he added, “historically Kashmir had been at the centre of cultural and economic interaction. It was a meeting point for South Asia, China, Tibet and Central Asia. But since 1947 it has been pushed to the periphery.”


The way the Centre has been consistently avoiding facing the real problem in Kashmir and even refusing to react to any serious proposals from the mainstream and separatist political parties in Kashmir explains this added mistrust here. Prof Sheikh Showkat of Law Department in Kashmir University said New Delhi has contributed to the prevailing situation in more than one way. “They had a chance to resolve the problem during Musharraf’s tenure. Once you lose the opportunity, you have to face the reality in a crude manner. They didn’t even respond when Farooq Abdullah proposed autonomy that was passed by the Assembly. Peace in Kashmir was an illusion,” he said.


Concealed from vigilant eyes, Kashmir had been silently simmering and was just a trigger away from another explosion. And when the land transfer issue cropped up, it fit very well with the mistrust towards New Delhi. The subsequent blockade of the road connecting Kashmir with New Delhi — the only available road link for people and goods — created a mass feeling of choking. The issue was never limited to Kashmir’s fruit growers losing their crop or the Valley facing shortage of food and fuel because of snipped supply lines, it was primarily psychological. The blockade reinforced a perception in Kashmir that New Delhi was not a reliable partner.


National Conference president Omar Abdullah said the situation has gone out of control because the Centre did not pay heed to clear warning signs. “I had warned both PM Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi that this movement to Muzafarabad will take a new dimension and go out of control if not handled urgently,” he said, adding that the blockade highlighted “our weakness in the shape of dependence on a system to guarantee the safety of our economic and lifeline linkages with the rest of the country. It made people realise that the peace process has not delivered anything. Now what we see is the resurfacing of the old anger. Till now, we have blamed Pakistan for everything in Kashmir, this is the first time we have only ourselves to blame.”


Separatist Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, however, said the mass protests have not surprised him. “We always saw it coming,” he said. “Amarnath land row might be the immediate cause, but the level of anger is the result of the long pent up disillusionment with New Delhi’s status quo policies,” he said.


Mirwaiz alleged that the Centre talks of a dialogue only to exit a crisis situation. “New Delhi talks to us when the situation is really bad here. And when there is apparent peace, they ignore us,” he said. “The Hurriyat joined the dialogue risking its own credibility. We lost people. But what was the result? As soon as New Delhi felt there was some peace in Valley, it abandoned the talks and left us in the lurch,” he said, adding that the present crisis is the result of disillusionment. “A disillusionment born of the realisation that all talks on Kashmir were held for the sake of them, to buy time and to buy interlocutors, rather than work out a solution,” he said.


It is a fact that the Centre and its various agencies on ground in Kashmir had been extremely complacent after the recent drop in militant violence and a surge in mainstream political activity. The Government’s understanding was simple: the problem in Kashmir is militancy and an iron fist response from the security agencies would bring the situation to normal. There was this skewed understanding that militancy and not the denial of political aspirations was the main problem. Then the establishment was emboldened by the drastic changes across the world after 9/11 when Pakistan was forced to change its tact and abandon Kashmir’s militant movement. The line dividing terrorism and armed political movements had blurred to an extent where military solutions became increasingly acceptable to every violent movement. Thus in a way, the Government emphasised the symptom and not the disease and was happy to declare the lack of violence as permanent peace in Kashmir.


Peoples Democratic Party’s Mehbooba Mufti said the anger and alienation have increased manifold. “The situation is worse than 2002 when we took over. There is a lack of understanding of the real issue and we have been trying to make the Centre realise this,” she said.


Separatist leader Sajjad Lone went a step further. “While I would say that New Delhi underestimated the potency of the sentiment in Kashmir, it also exhibited an arrogant triumph over the relative peace in recent past. But now the reality has blown up on everybody’s face. And it has torn through the lies piled up over the years that whatever was happening in Kashmir was Pakistan-sponsored,” he said. He added that there is only one lesson to be learned: “this place has a real problem and it needs a real solution”.


It is, however, for the first time that the Government does not have to deal with the resurgence of the separatist sentiment in Kashmir alone. The Hindu majority districts in Jammu are up in arms too, seeking the cancellation of the revocation of the Amarnath land transfer order. This has complicated the situation because this time any confidence-building measure aimed at calming Kashmir will have an adverse impact on the situation in Jammu.


Source: Indian Express, New Delhi