At least 49 people have died over the past two months in street clashes between protesters and paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir.
The entire world has been witness to scenes of clashes between rock-throwing Kashmiri protesters who have set official buildings and vehicles ablaze, and paramilitary police using guns and tear gas in an effort to contain the large crowds.
It is unfortunate that it has taken two months of violent unrest in Kashmir for the Indian federal government to step in to try cooling temperatures down. Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram asserted that the Centre was ready to resume dialogue with all sections, including the one led by Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, to address the problems in Jammu and Kashmir. Acknowledging the need to “win hearts and minds” of the people of Kashmir, he expressed the government’s willingness to “resume the political process.”
Last year, Mr. Chidambaram had promised a phased withdrawal of troops from Kashmir, and promised to address the issue of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — an issue which is dear to the heart of the Kashmiris. Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah also had promised to work for the removal of AFSPA. However, not much action has been taken on this front.
In two recent speeches, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to Kashmiris “to give peace a chance.” Conceding that sweeping powers given to security forces in Kashmir were widely resented by local residents, Singh promised to “accelerate the process of strengthening and expanding the Kashmir police so that they can function independently and effectively within the shortest possible time.”
Despite Dr. Singh’s conciliatory tone, two leading separatist leaders in Kashmir — Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq — have rejected the initiative. According to Geelani, “A reign of terror has been let loose by Indian security forces against a people who peacefully demand freedom from slavery and Indian imperialism.” Mirwaiz Farooq put forth a four-point demand, after the fulfillment of which the protests would subside. The four demands: “The withdrawal of Indian troops should start immediately; the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Area Act should be repealed; bunkers and camps should be removed from cities and towns; and all political prisoners, including the recently arrested youths, should be released.”
As to be expected, the leading opposition party, BJP, has opposed any troop withdrawal from Kashmir or any phasing out of AFSPA. This is nothing new. Just three years after Partition, in 1950, there was a mass movement in Jammu led by the right-wing Praja Parishad. The movement demanded the complete integration of Kashmir with India and the abolition of Article 370. The then-Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Jana Sangh, led by Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, supported this movement, which took on a violent communal color during 1952-1953. The Praja Parishad movement and its support by a national level party not only worsened communal relations in Kashmir but in other parts of India as well.
In 1947, after centuries of autocratic monarchical rule in Kashmir, the masses were informed that they would get democracy. Very soon powers and rights granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution pertaining to more autonomy to the state were gradually eroded on the ostensible grounds of the need for integration with the rest of India. Ironically, the need to win the argument against Pakistan in the international community and to emphasize Kashmir’s inseparability led to the increasing control of the central government over the state.
Instead of letting the people decide which political party is better for them, the Indian federal government — under fear that an unfriendly (read non-submissive) party might come to power in the state — has frequently exerted the right to dismiss governments and rig elections. Perhaps if democratic institutions had been set up, elections had been held on time, and dismissals of chief ministers and governors had not been so frequent, this centralization would have been seen in a different light.
The massively rigged 1989 elections provided the pretext for the present violent phase of the Kashmiri insurgency. Without the context of these elections the insurgency would not have spread and gained support among the populace, notwithstanding external backing. Once it had begun, the insurgency was met by an iron fist, and led to increased police and paramilitary presence in Kashmir. Foreign intervention by Pakistan only strengthened the case for a harder line against the insurgents. Operations against insurgents stopped being surgical, and instead affected the larger Kashmiri populace.
The recent protests in Kashmir are not new. What is new is the people involved in these protests. In the last two decades a new generation of Kashmiris has come to the forefront, educated youth who are demanding what is promised to them by right of being Indian citizens. Unlike the protests of the 1980s and 1990s, the protests are not engineered by foreign forces, and instead are local in nature and in composition.
We may not agree with the views of Mr. Geelani and Mirwaiz Farooq, but their four-point demand — the central focus of which is to remove the armed forces from Kashmir — is a legitimate request. Maintenance of law and order is the primary responsibility of the local police, and not of either paramilitary or armed forces. The military is trained to find the enemy and wipe it out. Continuous interaction between the armed forces and the civilian population not only politicizes the army, but also leads to human rights violations.
The basis of the Indian state has always been the “moral high ground.” In his “Tryst with Destiny” speech at midnight on August 14, 1947, Prime Minister Nehru talked about the need “to create social, economic, and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.” As Indians and as human beings, it is the right of every Kashmiri to live in a non-garrison-like environment, and it is India’s obligation to provide the same.
As Indians, we pride ourselves on our secularism and our democracy. Right from Prime Minister Nehru onwards, our leaders have always insisted that Kashmir is a part of India — and Kashmiris want to be part of India because of these very attributes. In our 64th year of independence, let us strive to adopt these ideals in our policy towards Kashmir before it is too late.
What has become apparent ever since the violent protests started in Kashmir is that these are leaderless demonstrations; otherwise those leaders could have channeled these protesters into a more democratic and less violent opposition. The Abdullah family seems to have to no real appeal left, and the separatist leaders are unreliable.
This is an opportunity for the Indian government to show real national leadership and statesmanship through its actions, instead of just words.