By Praveen Swami
New Delhi’s well-meaning but ill-conceived dialogue process communalised Jammu and Kashmir and laid the ground for the ongoing crisis.
Pakistan’s flag fluttered over the ruins of a Central Reserve Police Force bunker at Makarpora in Srinagar’s Kawdara neighbourhood. Beneath it, a group of teenage local residents were sweeping away the debris. “We burned down the rats’ nest,” one said “and now we’re cleaning up the filth.”
Much the same was happening across Srinagar this past fortnight. Yards from secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s Rajouri Kadal home, his supporters demolished a bunker set up to protect the All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman and his police-provided guards. Not far away, in Rainawari, a mob burned down the office of National Conference politician Mohammad Syed Akhoon, and then planted a Pakistani flag to mark its victory.
Experts have been telling New Delhi that the solution to this Islamist upsurge lies in negotiations which will give power — if not independence — to secessionists. Both the premise of this received-wisdom and the prescriptions it lends itself to are false. In fact, the crisis now unfolding in Jammu and Kashmir can also be read as the consequence of New Delhi’s peace process. In its effort to make peace with the Islamist-led secessionist movement in Kashmir, this counter-intuitive argument suggests, India ended up fuelling competitive communalism in each of the State’s three regions.
In January 2004, Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq arrived in New Delhi for the secessionist coalition’s first, historic dialogue with the Government of India. “It is indeed a breakthrough,” the Srinagar-based cleric said hours before his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, “unprecedented in the recent history of Kashmir.” Two words and some seven million people were missing from the Mirwaiz’s comments, and the five-member delegation he led to New Delhi. Jammu and Ladakh, home to over half the State’s population, had no place in the APHC team — nor on New Delhi’s list of concerns.
New Delhi’s engagement with the APHC, which began in 1998, sought to secure the support of Kashmiri separatists for an autonomy-based peace deal. From the outset, though, it was clear that the Hurriyat did not represent all the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir. Even the APHC accepted this fact. “If the government is not ready to allow self-determination,” secessionist leader Abdul Gani Lone said in mid-2002, “the alternative is that it should be ready to settle the dispute through a meaningful dialogue involving all parties concerned.”
But Pakistan and India both feared genuine multi-party dialogue. Pakistan worried that the Shia-dominated Northern Areas of Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan would demand autonomy and the expulsion of ethnic Punjabi settlers. It was also concerned that the province of Azad Kashmir would seek to diminish the Pakistan government’s influence. India, in turn, believed that accommodating the claims of Ladakh and Jammu would make it impossible to move forward on an autonomy deal.
Meanwhile, mainstream parties within Kashmir adopted increasingly chauvinist postures to strengthen their flanks anticipating that New Delhi would give power to the APHC after a peace deal. In 1999, the National Conference passed a report calling for the re-organisation of Jammu and Kashmir into new provinces based on its ethnic, religious divisions. Its leaders hoped their proposals — which mirrored long-standing proposals to partition the State on religious lines — would strengthen their claims to be spokespersons for the State’s Muslims. At once, it moved to sabotage a future New Delhi-APHC deal by passing a report calling for the restoration of pre-1953 levels of autonomy. Among other things, the report means the end of the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India and the supervisory role of the Election Commission of India.
New Delhi’s pursuit of peace with the APHC also energised Hindu chauvinists in Jammu, who argued that Jammu and Kashmir’s principal religious minority would be unsafe in a political order dominated by the APHC. Ever since 1996, the tempo of Islamist terror strikes against Hindu villagers in Jammu had escalated. Hundreds were killed in the attacks, which were intended to drive out Hindus from areas north of the Chenab river and thus bring about the de facto communal partition of Jammu and Kashmir.
When the People’s Democratic Party-Congress government took power in 2002, the Hindutva campaign accelerated. Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s calls for demilitarisation and self-rule were seen by Hindus in Jammu and Buddhists in Ladakh as a direct threat. Neither the PDP, the National Conference nor the Congress attempted to address these fears — ensuring that the Hindutva movement had a free ride.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Round Table Conference process was intended to obtain an endorsement of the New Delhi-APHC dialogue from mainstream parties. Among other things, it set up a working group to discuss Centre-State relations, in the hope of evolving an agreed blueprint which the APHC could then be pressured to accept. However, each political group put forward plans with significant communal implications, addressed to its respective constituencies.
At the working group’s March 2007 meeting in New Delhi, National Conference leader Abdul Rahim Rather reiterated his party’s demand for levels of autonomy bordering on independence. PDP leader Muzaffar Husain Beig, for his part, called for the creation of new district and region-level elected bodies — but offered no concrete vision of the State’s constitutional relationship with New Delhi. Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, for his part, made a presentation advocating the setting up of two provincial assemblies in Jammu, one for the Hindu-dominated plains and one for its Muslim-majority mountains. He also advocated the creation of separate assemblies for Leh and Kargil. Jammu politicians saw these proposals — fairly or otherwise — as manifestos for perpetuating ethnic-Kashmiri hegemony since they would have stripped the region of its de facto parity with Kashmir.
An impasse had been reached. Given the fifth working group’s inability to arrive at a formulation that fitted the course of the New Delhi-APHC engagement, it was simply allowed to die. New Delhi deferred the RTC dialogue process until after the Assembly elections scheduled for October. Islamists in Kashmir, though, feared that the elections would lead to their annihilation, and began sharpening their knives. To anyone other than Prime Minister Singh’s house-intellectuals, whose eyes seemed to have been paper-clipped shut, the brewing crisis was evident.
Where might things go from here? Advocates of talking to the APHC point out, correctly, that New Delhi has long succeeded in managing religion-fuelled crisis in Kashmir using similar political instruments. On December 27, 1963, a relic reputed to be a hair of Prophet Mohammad disappeared from Kashmir’s Hazratbal shrine. Mobs took control of Srinagar, while clerics and anti-India politicians ran what one contemporary described as “an unauthorised parallel administration, controlling traffic prices and commerce.”
As it happened, the moe-e-muqaddas was discovered by Indian investigators. However, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru understood that more was needed. He noted that if the “theft of a relic provokes the people to the extent of trying to overthrow the government, it is time to adopt a new approach.” Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir’s most important political leader, was released from the prison where he had spent over a decade on sedition charges.
New Delhi used similar tactics to defuse a crisis that at first glance resembles the ongoing one. In May 1973, massive protests broke out after an Anantnag college student discovered a supposedly blasphemous picture in a colonial-era encyclopaedia. Protesters demanded that the long deceased author of the encyclopaedia be hanged. The police eventually had to use fire to disperse the violent crowds, leading to four fatalities.
Like the protests we have seen this summer, the Book of Knowledge riots were the outcome of a long-running Islamist mobilisation. Jamaat-e-Islami politicians claimed, just as Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani did before the Shrine Board protests, that India had been working to destroy Kashmir’s Islamic identity. Jamaat politicians even alleged, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, “that the government of India had dispatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician] D.P. Dhar, to investigate how Islam was driven out of Spain and to suggest measures as to how the Spanish experiment could be repeated in Kashmir, too.”
Indira Gandhi responded by initiating a dialogue which led to Sheikh Abdullah becoming Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in return for his endorsement of an agreement which affirmed the State’s accession to India. Abdullah then proceeded to wage an effective, if authoritarian, anti-Islamist campaign — a campaign that, it is worth noting parenthetically, eventually led to deepening communal tensions in both Kashmir and Jammu.
However attractive these models might now appear, New Delhi must resist the seduction. More likely than not, political concessions to the APHC would feed a fresh Hindutva mobilisation in Jammu. Political parties within Kashmir like the PDP and the National Conference would also adopt competitive communal postures, to defend their constituency from secessionist predation. Peacemaking, experts have long warned us, has a price. New Delhi must consider just what it — and the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir — can afford to pay.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi