Over the quarter-of-a-century that I have been coming to Kashmir, much has changed in Srinagar
‘In the early 1990s, young Kashmiris were angry but scared’, an elderly Kashmir woman told me the other week. ‘Now they are angry and fearless!’
At Chadoora earlier that day, three young men had been shot dead as they threw stones to try to break a military cordon and allow a separatist militant a chance to escape. Since then, the Kashmir valley has slid towards a cycle of furious protests and brute policing which became so familiar last summer and autumn.
The pitiful turn-out in the Srinagar by-election – the worst in that seat since 1989 – is a reminder of just how disaffected Kashmiris feel.
Over the quarter-of-a-century that I have been coming to Kashmir, much has changed in Srinagar. The security presence is nothing like as all-pervasive; many fewer young men have turned to armed militancy; there’s a measure more prosperity; new colleges and universities have opened; the Kashmiri news media has been reborn. But the core problem – that most Kashmiris do not regard themselves as Indian and do not feel they have agency over their own destiny – remains unaltered.
There have been attempts to break the deadlock, external and internal. Under Atal Behari Vaypayee’s premiership, Pakistan’s General Musharraf was invited to a summit meeting in Agra in 2001 where – against expectations – the outlines of an agreement emerged, only to fall victim to hardliners in both counties. Seven years later, Manmohan Singh’s government made huge strides towards an understanding with President Musharraf, but couldn’t close the deal.
India’s showering of money and patronage in the Kashmir Valley – dispensed on occasions to separatists as well as to what are sometimes described as ‘pro-India’ parties and politicians -has suborned movements and institutions and eroded confidence in the political process. But there have been moments of tantalising progress – the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen ceasefire in 2000 was shortlived, but it offered a glimpse of a way forward and suggested that dialogue between the Indian government and armed separatists was not as unthinkable as both sides might wish us to believe.
For the current Indian government, however, Kashmir is still seen as a security problem rather than a political issue. So there’s been little sign of a political response. It’s all about containment.
Once India felt that to make its way in the world, the nation had to uncouple itself from the feud with Pakistan which in turn meant addressing the Kashmir issue. Now India sees its advance to the global top table unimpeded by the simmering conflict in Kashmir.
India’s security forces largely succeeded in defeating the militancy. Delhi saw that as an end itself, rather than a means of opening up a window for discussion and a political deal. The army and police have been less successful in tackling the street protests and stone throwing which, over the last few years, has become the defining aspect of Kashmiri separatism.
The use of pellet guns has done India’s global image as much harm as a Papa-2 and similar torture centres did at an earlier stage of the insurgency. The recent humiliation of Farooq Ahmed Dar, tied to an army jeep as a human shield, was described by the New York Times as a ‘defining image’ of the insurgency – and one of which India should be ashamed.
The anger and despair of young Kashmiris is reflected in their increasing recklessness in confronting the military and their disenchantment not simply with mainstream political parties but with the established separatist movements too. This inchoate rebelliousness could easily mutate into more widespread violence and possibly into new forms of militancy. The best way of forestalling that is for the state and central authorities to find ways of engaging the people of the Kashmir Valley in a discussion about their grievances and how they are best redressed.
That would mean a willingness to compromise on both sides: the Indian government would need to accept that neither the status quo nor indeed greater integration is an option; Kashmiris might have to confront the reality that however much they wish to be independent, they may have to look at what concessions can be achieved as a continuing constituent of India.
It doesn’t feel like any of this is in immediate prospect. But there are straws in the wind which suggest that some in Delhi may be willing to look again at a political approach to Kashmir. P. Chidambaram, one of the more thoughtful Indian politicians, declared a few days ago that ‘the alienation of the people of the Kashmir Valley is nearly complete. We are on the brink of losing Kashmir.’
He advocated talks with ‘all the stakeholders’ including, eventually, separatist leaders, and a reduction in the presence of the army and paramilitary forces. It is, of course, easier to be bold in opposition – but Chidambaram’s appeal for dialogue echoes that made by the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha and his fellow ‘concerned citizens’ earlier in the year. Something is stirring in India’s corridors of power.
Looking at what’s happened in recent years in my part of the world – a power-sharing deal in Northern Ireland to end a separatist insurgency even more protracted than Kashmir’s, a referendum on Scottish independence – and sometimes, when there’s a will to break a political deadlock, the scope of change can take your breath away.
It is difficult to be optimistic when the crisis of governance in Kashmir has been so long-lasting, when the anger is so intense and the antagonism is so deeply engrained. But the best antidote to despair is hope. However flickering the flame, let’s hope that Kashmir can turn a corner – and soon.
Andrew Whitehead is a journalist who has extensively covered Kashmir for BBC, and had authored the book, A Mission in Kashmir.