The bold decision of the Congress government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad in Srinagar must be commended. By revoking the land order to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) that was illegal at the first place, Azad has not only shown great courage and decision making skills to deal with a crisis that was spiralling out of control, a la 1990, but also taken both the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the fledgling separatist movement of the Hurriyat Conference off the guard, who were using the land issue to manipulate public mind. Though the order came late; it has, however, not only diffused the crisis, but also shown for the first time in recent decades, that a crisis in Kashmir could be solved through bold and timely political action. It also demonstrates to the Kashmiris that by resorting to non-violent action, there is a room for manoeuvre and things can be changed through peaceful means. Baring few incidents of stone pelting and burning of tyres, the massive demonstrations were totally peaceful, without any involvement of the militant groups, and without any communal flavour despite propaganda by various quarters including mainstream Indian media. Sadly, the state response was not that peaceful; five innocent lives were lost during the ten day demonstrations. However, by Kashmiri standards, it could be classified as measured and therefore a change from previous years, when the paramilitary forces would kill dozens on small or no provocations. Incidentally, this is first such massive crisis in the last two decades that has been solved peacefully and decisively, in public favour, taking everyone by surprise.
Another very positive aspect that emerged from this stand-off is that the Pakistani government maintained a studied silence on the issue, thus not only keeping the spirit of reconciliation between the two countries alive, but also showing maturity by not succumbing to the pressure from the traditional hawkish elements within the establishment when the temptation was real. This also prevented any wild claims within the Indian government or Hindu militants to blame Pakistan for a role in the crisis. Though, the Pakistani silence irritated the United Jihad Council chief Syed Salahudin, who called it as ‘surprising’, it was in the right spirit of peace that the two countries have embarked upon. Successful dealing of the crisis demonstrated that if the right and positive decisions are taken, keeping in view the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, it is possible to deal with crises without involving Pakistan. It also bought another stark point to the fore –” that Pakistan is not always involved in all the crisis in Kashmir; a paranoia that has swept across the Indian establishment and offers an alibi to the politicians and security establishment for their systemic or judgemental failures or biases.
The peaceful outcome also shows that if the promises and commitments are followed in the right spirit, there is a room for massive improvement in the situation without employing more than half a million troops and two dozen secret agencies. If the promises like ‘zero tolerance for human rights violations’ made by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh more than two years ago would have been observed, the Kashmiri population would not have felt so distanced or disconnected from the peace process that is now running in the fifth year. In addition, the economic development of the Kashmir valley suffers massively either due to the massive presence of the Army and paramilitary forces or the unspent millions that lye wasted in the government coffers mainly due to the political rivalry between the coalition partners –” People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Congress; the tussle added vitriol to fire caused by the current crisis, as the PDP tried to capitalise on it despite being an equal partner in ‘crime’.
In a classic act of political opportunism, the PDP that was part of the cabinet decision that allowed the illegal transfer of land to the SASB, decided to withdraw the support and blame its coalition partner Congress for the whole issue. Only days ago, Kashmir’s Forest Minister, Qazi Mohammad Afzal, who belongs to the PDP openly boasted about his role in effecting the land transfer. But when the public reaction grew, the PDP not only withdrew support, but also issued public statements that sounded like racial epithets designed to inflame the public opinion and hence provoke and enlarge the constituency of protests and violence.
The use of religion for political ends is not new in south Asia. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the patron of PDP, has previously also been accused of creating communal tensions for his electoral gains. In 1986, during his time as Congress chief of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Sayeed allegedly engineered communal riots against the Kashmiri Pandits in Anantnag district in which half a dozen temples and homes of Hindus were damaged. This afforded Congress a plausible reason to withdraw support from fledgling Ghulam Mohammad Shah government, which was manufactured through defections from the National Conference at the first place courtesy of Mufti Sayeed. Later, in 1990, when the massive public demonstrations engulfed the Kashmir Valley, Mufti, as the Home Minister in the VP Singh government deliberately sent Jagmohan as governor making it difficult for Farooq Abdullah government to function. Farooq resigned and Jagmohan got a free ride employing state terror that gave rise to massive militancy –” a phenomenon that still costs lives in Kashmir. Perhaps Mufti Sayeed was wishing to witness the repeat of 1990 to feed his insatiable desire for power, but the timely action by the Azad government diffused the situation successfully, leaving him lost and vulnerable.
Buoyed by the success and free from the fetters of PDP conditionality, the Azad government has a huge task ahead. The winter capital of the state, Jammu, has been virtually taken over by the Hindu militant groups who have been attacking the government buildings, offices of the political parties and threatening economic blockade of the Kashmiri Valley. The government should not only deal with situation wisely, but also make sure that no anti-Kashmiri rhetoric or action is allowed that will feed into the agenda of extremist vision of a civilisational clash. It is hoped that all the political parties will discard electoral opportunism and mount joint efforts to initiate serious peace efforts. The successful handling of Kashmir’s current crisis offers a hope and a chance for the Congress government at the Centre to build on this bold decision and work towards a final and durable solution of the problem.