Obama in Kashmir

It was an exceptionally peaceful Kashmir that greeted president Obama's India visit - civil curfew notwithstanding. There were no protests, no incidents of stone pelting anywhere in Valley. And th...

It was an exceptionally peaceful Kashmir that greeted president Obama's India visit – civil curfew notwithstanding. There were no protests, no incidents of stone pelting anywhere in Valley. And this seems quite extraordinary given the scale of turmoil this place has witnessed for the past five months, with hardly a day passing without some report of trouble. The government didn't even take a recourse to the curfew which otherwise appeared eminently possible given the sensitivity of the occasion. Separatists, on their part, stayed well short of a chalo call which would have warranted a stricter government response. 

On the contrary, Kashmir was in a state of half shutdown, with some urban pockets duly observing civil curfew. On some long routes like Srinagar-Baramulla even buses were plying.  This was beside the three-wheelers and the sumos which have already returned to the roads, beside the pavement vendors.

However, a large section of the population kept glued to their TV sets, following Obama's speeches, his wisecracks, his dances etc. And praying all along to hear the answer to their ultimate prayers: mention of Kashmir. And when he did in answer to a question, there was suddenly a massive sense of achievement. Obama's statement that US was ready  to "play any role" in Kashmir if asked by both India and Pakistan suddenly made the visit matter to people. In fact, Obama went further and called Kashmir "a long-standing dispute," a phrase that has become such a bone of contention in South Asian discourse. The entire array of separatist leadership was prompt to welcome the statement. For Geelani it, in a sense, capped the five month protest campaign and for Mirwaiz it indicated US had embarked on a facilitatory role to resolve Kashmir.  The statement was seen as a boost to Kashmir struggle by JKLF too. But the reference to Kashmir was limited only to the answer to a reporter's question. The subsequent parliament speech, however,  had no Kashmir in it, just a broad articulation of the US agenda for the region and a recognition of India's growing role in the world. And by the time the visit drew to a close and a joint statement was issued, granting India the US support for UNSC seat and a prominent development role in Afghanistan, mention of Kashmir seemed to have been a thing of past.  Obama moved fast to pursue the primary mission of his assignment: to reinforce the US alliance with India. And to prove this, he said his choosing of India as the first stop in his Asian tour was no coincidence. And Obama was extravagant in his praise for the India's democratic and secular credentials and, of course, Gandhian values.

The sum of the visit from the separatist point of view was that Kashmir wasn't an entirely lost cause. Somehow, the mention of Kashmir – albeit in answer to a question – stood out as some kind of a boost after five months of hartals. The mood is a far cry from the former president George Bush's visit in 2006 which had plunged the separatists in a slough of despond, with both militants and the political groups calling for the "re-organization of the movement" and promotion of the "indigenization of the struggle" to rid it of  any terrorist tag or being Pakistan sponsored.

A glimpse of how expectantly Kashmir looked at the Obama was also obvious from the stories  in local media. Over the past week, the Valley's local newspapers, where the reactions from the J-K parties and interests come pouring after any major event, was flush with the statements from an array of separatist groups. While, the militant groups were conspicuously silent, the response from separatist political parties varied through various shades of pessimism and a sense of anticipation of something major happening.

In the three days of Obama's stay, Kashmir also grappled with the demons of the former US presidential visits to the country. Two Sikh hamlets in South and North Kashmir protested the mysterious entry of the uniformed men late on the day of Obama's arrival who they allege wanted to kill the members of the minority community on the pattern of the Chittisinghpora massacre of 35 Sikhs during US president Bill Clinton's visit in 2000.

The people at Hatmulla and Upalna raised an uproar when the uniformed men made their way through the village and even knocked some doors. It suddenly created panic in the villages with people pouring out on the fields and raising a din. This forced the uniformed men to flee. Police soon reached the spot and tried to assure the people of their security. Kashmiri pandits in Valley too had put out an alert, calling upon the community to maintain strict vigil during the course of Obama's stay. 

Overall, the visit made for an interesting time in Valley, full of expectation, fears and in the end leaving some sense of disillusionment if not the outright betrayal. The visit also left questions for the separatists. They face an urgent challenge of guiding the struggle in the absence of a big target event like the visit of US president. Post-Eid, the extended hartals have shown diminishing returns. In fact, the strategy has become so routinized that what was an exceptionally abnormal situation before Eid seems now perfectly normal. Not only has the situation become boringly predictable, thereby depriving it of any news value but there is also no sense of alarm in New Delhi. Hurriyat (G) chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani, perhaps in recognition of this changed reality, has issued a soft calendar with fewer hartals. But this has not stopped some people from talking and questioning the rationale of hartals.

President Obama, therefore, may have left without making any radical difference to the search for Kashmir solution, he has nevertheless given an occasion for reality check of the separatist strategy. And it is high time they heed the call.

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