By Dileep Padgaonkar
Sep 24, 2011
Srinagar wore the look of a ghost town when the three government-appointed interlocutors for Jammu & Kashmir paid their maiden visit to the state 11 months ago. Armed policemen and paramilitary soldiers lined the deserted streets every few metres. Security barricades and bunkers dotted the cityscape. Frisking of passers-by who braved the curfew was routine. The people, compelled to suffer these daily humiliations, appeared to be morose and listless.
But that was a facade. Beneath it lurked feelings of rage. The previous summer had witnessed violence on an appalling scale. Over a hundred youngsters, who took to pelting stones at the security forces to protest the killing of a boy, had been gunned down. Thousands were rounded up under the Public Safety Act. They joined the ranks of 'political prisoners', many of whom had languished in jail for years without a proper court trial. To add insult to injury, those responsible for certain high-profile cases of alleged abuse of human rights, including charges of torture, had not even been booked, ostensibly on account of the much dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
At the root of these feelings of rage, however, was an over-powering sense of victimhood. It surfaced with the dismissal and imprisonment of Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir's tallest leader, in 1953 and gained salience in later years after several bitterly contested developments: the installation of pliant chief ministers, rigging of elections, poor governance, corruption on a humongous scale, the choking of voices of dissent, lack of development and, not least, the 'erosion' of the special status of the state guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. By 1989, matters had reached such a state of despair that several hundred youth crossed over to Pakistan where they received training and arms to engage in terrorist actions in the state and beyond.
Small wonder, then, that the blame for just about everything that goes wrong in Kashmir is placed at New Delhi's door even today. And the remedy to set things right, articulated by the separatist outfits and their sympathisers in the media and the intelligentsia, is 'azadi.' To ask them to define the word is to invite a contemptuous snigger.
By the time the interlocutors reached Srinagar in the third week of September, the situation had turned markedly for the better. They did not notice soldiers on the streets. The markets bustled with activity. Traffic snarls were evident all around. Conversations were more relaxed, some even laced with humour.
What explains the change? The summer had passed peacefully. So did the Amarnath yatra. Most of the bunkers were dismantled. Tourists and pilgrims in unprecedented numbers had flocked to the state. Voter turnout in the panchayat elections was most impressive. The security forces had learnt to use non-lethal methods to control unruly crowds and initiated programmes to reach out to the people. Moreover, the authorities had acted with alacrity when confronted with alleged violations of human rights; taken steps, though in fits and starts, to create jobs; improved social and physical infrastructure; given teeth to autonomous bodies to check graft and release stone-pelters and other 'political' prisoners. A ray of hope has appeared on the horizon.
All the same, peace in the Valley remains fragile. A single incident can spin everything out of control. The positive developments Kashmir has witnessed over the past 11 months cannot therefore be hailed as a trendsetter. That requires a political settlement in the state — one that upholds its special status in full measure and empowers the people of its three regions — Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh — to address their diverse, even divergent, aspirations.
Kashmiris, who have borne the brunt of the violence of the past two decades, seek a political settlement rooted in 'insaniyat' (humanity), 'insaf' (justice) and 'izzat' (honour). This is a perfectly legitimate demand. They must be persuaded that the national and state Constitutions are flexible enough to accommodate it. This alone will nip attempts to define the 'majority' and the 'minority' in the state along religious lines — an obsession of 'hard' and 'soft' secessionists — in the bud. The phantom of the two-nation theory must not be allowed to bare its fangs.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi