The Siege Of Kashmir

There is no alternate to substantial and meaningful talks

Srinagar: closed for business. SAMI SIVA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2010

ONE RECENT MORNING, I stepped out of my house in southern Srinagar and stood by the desolate road for a while. The emptiness seemed to make the road expansive until my eyes met a thick coil of barbed wire blocking the road. CRPF and Kashmir police personnel patrolled the area, guns slung over their shoulders, bamboo canes in hand. Military infrastructure is a common sight in Kashmir, yet what was most striking—and has been for the past three months—was the silence. The silence that curfew imposes is the loudest sound you hear in Kashmir today, louder than the burst of teargas guns and bullets. Behind the silence, behind the half open doors, a population seethes and then breaks the curfew every now and then until the uniforms fire again and the number of the dead, 99 by now, increases.

In the besieged valley, a shortage of groceries and life saving drugs is growing. Parents are struggling to find milk for infants. As the shadows of the day lengthen, a distressed population peeps out of windows looking for an elusive relaxation in the iron-fisted curfew. Instead, their ears meet the harsh warnings from the police patrol loudspeakers asking them to stay indoors.

Several friends called to say they were running out of all food supplies. An acquaintance in Bemina, a part of old Srinagar, who suffers from a cardiac element has run out of medicine and is experiencing severe palpitations and shivers. Worried about the trend, I called an uncle, a senior doctor. “People suffering from cardiac problems and hypertension are dying in their homes for the lack of access to hospitals and life saving drugs like anti-coagulents, anti-hypertensive drugs,” he said. One of his neighbours in an Anantnag village died last week of hypoglycemia; she couldn’t be taken to the district hospital a few miles away.

Yet it seems that it is not only Kashmir that is under curfew. The New Delhi minds who make decisions that affect lives in Kashmir seems to be under curfew too. For the Indian government’s response can at best be described as callous and disjointed. Eid packages sent from Delhi haven’t reached the General Post Office in Srinagar. The much talked about ‘All-Party-Meeting’ about the repeal of the AFPSA came to naught. All they could agree on was to send an ‘All-Party-Delegation’ to Srinagar to assess the situation on the ground. Kashmir expected a few confidence-building measures, like the release of political prisoners, lifting of military curfews and a phased withdrawal of military and paramilitary from rather peaceful areas. Instead, the build-up to the visit of the so-called All-Party-Delegation has been the intensification of the military clampdown: create desolation and call it peace.

The history of New Delhi’s policy responses to Kashmir is replete with errors that have led to various forms of Kashmiri protests over the past six decades. The arbitrary dismissal of Kashmir’s first Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 was followed by the formation of the separatist Plebisicte Front, which demanded self-determination for Kashmir from the 1950s to the mid-70s. It was led by the young Kashmiris, who too had come out on the streets and battled the police and paramilitary forces with stones. The dissent of the Plebiscite Front and other separatist groups like the Kashmir Political Conference and the Muslim Conference was crushed by imprisonment, torture, and banishment of political activists across the LOC. In 1975, after Sheikh Abdullah’s release from prison, he signed the Indira-Sheikh accord and a rather peaceful period followed till 1987. Yet that was marred by the Kashmir government’s liberal use of preventive detention to deal with separatist leaders and activists from groups like Mahaz-e-Azadi (Freedom Front), People’s League, People’s Conference and the Islamic Students’ League.

It was these groups who came together under the banner of the Muslim United Front in 1987 with a manifesto, that appealed to the dormant separatist sentiment in the valley. The notorious rigging of those elections and the subsequent choice of political activists like Yasin Malik (JKLF) and Syed Sallahudin (Hizbul Mujhahideen) leading the insurgency against India post-1988 is well known. So are the terrible costs of the insurgency and the counter-insurgency in the past two decades.

The militants of the 1990-generation have largely been killed, laid down arms or returned to civilian life and non-violent activism after years in prisons. But a new generation of Kashmiris has come of age, a generation that has only seen a militarised Kashmir, whose memories are filled with tales of humiliation and fear. It is this generation that has been leading the current uprising in Kashmir.

The Government’s response has wavered between brute military force and economic sops. Both approaches fail to address the political demands and realities that keep Kashmir in a state of rebellion. Opinion polls conducted by media and think-tanks like Outlook, IPCS, CNN-IBN, and CSDS have invariably shown that an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris living in the Valley want complete independence and yet most of the Indian political and media elite keep asking: ”What do the Kashmiris want?”

Any serious, successful conflict resolution can only be made possible if there is an honest analysis or diagnosis. Short term measures—whether political or military—to quell a popular uprising can only delay the emergence of a much more militant upsurge in a Kashmir driven by a now crystallised ideology of nationalism and fuelled by the ongoing massive military repression.

The sooner the Indian government acknowledges the salience of the sentiment of separatism in Kashmir, the better it would be both for Kashmir and India. The Indian government needs to present a human face on the ground in Kashmir. It also has to overcome the barriers that competitive politics in a multiparty system has erected, where the party in power endorses the need for a substantive political dialogue on Kashmir, but in opposition takes a strident and chauvinistic line against any serious negotiations with Kashmiris.

The onus lies on the Indian government, media and civil society to create the conditions for sustained and meaningful negotiations between India, Kashmir and Pakistan that could culminate in a lasting and just solution to the Kashmir conundrum. The results of inaction and indifference won’t be beautiful.