Three recent events have brought the Kashmir Valley back into national focus. The first was the abysmal voter turnout in the Srinagar parliamentary by-poll. The second was a video of protesters abusing and assaulting jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Budgam district. The third was a video showing a Kashmiri tied to an Army jeep in order to prevent an attack from stone pelters in the same district. These three separate events have been used to build a larger narrative about the legitimacy of the Indian state in Kashmir.
This narrative is not entirely wrong, given that the biggest story among the three is undoubtedly the one on low voter turnout. The Indian state has long flaunted electoral participation as a validation of its claim of Indian democracy being in firm demand in the Valley. It is another matter that the claim was tenuous to begin with—the voter turnout in the 2014 Lok Sabha election in the same constituency was just 26%. Even by that standard, the fall to 7% last week was huge. The political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in The Indian Express: “…Kashmir has been lost on [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s watch.”
What changed between 2014 and 2017 that has made Mehta and several others arrive at this conclusion? One, the government in Jammu and Kashmir changed. And two, Burhan Wani, commander of the terrorist organization Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter last summer. It is important to examine the moral legitimacy of these two changes and their potential to cause the massive alienation one is witnessing in Kashmir today.
In 2014, the verdict was split: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the largest vote share (23.2%) and the second highest number of seats (25) largely on the back of its performance in the Jammu region. The Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) performed well in the Valley to emerge with the single largest number of seats (28) in the state. Such a fractured mandate, and the necessity of equitable representation of all regions of the state, compelled an alliance of opposites—the BJP, which is known for its nationalist plank, and the PDP, which pursues what is often called a “soft separatist” agenda.
The PDP was indeed a refuge for the alienated youth of the Valley who had continued to engage with electoral processes. The alliance with the BJP may have induced a sense of betrayal among its supporters. But the alienation in the Valley is remarkably self-centred: Its disavowal of the democratic mandate from the other part of the state is a case in point. Former Union minister P. Chidambaram once suggested that the mandate was grossly misinterpreted. He argued that either the BJP or the PDP should have formed the government and that the other should have occupied the opposition benches. In fact, Chidambaram’s interpretation is highly insensitive to the Jammu region, because he knows well enough that the Valley would never have accepted a BJP chief minister. But his interpretation is in line with the long trend of appeasement of the Valley at the cost of other regions in the state—not just Jammu but also Ladakh.
The second change since 2014—the killing of Wani—resulted in a prolonged season of stone pelting by Kashmiri youth. The response by the security forces, restrained as it was, ended up killing some and blinding (or partially blinding) some others, the latter because of the use of pellet guns as a riot-control weapon. This was exploited by many, including some human rights activists, to portray the Indian state as a brutal occupier. The growing Islamization of the anti-India protests and the fact that they occurred in reaction to the killing of a terrorist were conveniently sidestepped. The inability of the security forces to uphold the highest norms of morality in a conflict zone was overplayed, and it continues till today as the outrage over the Kashmiri man tied to the army jeep shows.
It is unfortunate that a few army veterans who should know the trade-offs of a conflict zone better have decided to give lessons in ethics to the current crop of officers, taking full advantage of the fact that their own tenures were completed in the era before the proliferation of camera-equipped mobile phones. It cannot be emphasized enough that barring a few isolated and condemnable incidents, the Indian forces have behaved admirably in Kashmir.
Those who advocate the need for a political healing touch for Kashmir often invoke former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s slogan of “Kashmiriyat, insaaniyat, jamhooriyat” (Kashmir-ness, humanity, democracy). The Vajpayee government had pursued dialogue with the separatists under the ambit of insaaniyat, which was supposed to be more accommodating than the Indian Constitution. The process went nowhere because no matter how lofty the principle of insaaniyat sounds, relative to the Indian Constitution, it is rather nebulous. As far as jamhooriyat goes, it has lost at the hands of Islamic radicalization in the Valley. And Kashmiriyat still awaits the return of the Kashmiri Pandits who were driven away from the Valley in the 1990s.
The Indian Constitution still remains the best bet for an inclusive, prosperous Kashmir. The problem today is not the lack of autonomy for Kashmir; it is much more sinister.
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