As New Delhi hots up with the news of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party possibly joining the Congress-led coalition government at the Centre, up north in Kashmir, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s friend and adviser, governor N.N. Vohra, has managed to defuse a communal crisis just in time.
A former Indian administrative service officer, Vohra’s pretty much seen it all. He was born in Lahore, South Asia’s most cosmopolitan city, and till the age of 5, was schooled in a madrasa. All this only to show that Vohra, who went on to become defence secretary (he brokered a deal between India and Pakistan on the Siachen issue in 1992, which never saw the light of day), home secretary, and after retirement was in charge of Delhi’s Kashmir policy, has a better understanding of the mess in this part of the world than many other people.
Under Vohra’s instructions, the order to revoke the transfer of about 40ha (100 acres or 800 kanals) of land to the Amarnath shrine board on Tuesday has saved the state from plunging into a communal crisis of massive proportions. While the land itself was hardly large, the fact that its potential transfer sparked off such a spontaneous uprising across the Kashmir valley shows what a tinderbox the state remains.
All those reports about this heaven on earth returning to normalcy—tourists and tulips, and Bollywood film shoots— are, in retrospect, akin to thin skin being grafted on to a large wound so as to protect and heal it, when at the slightest tug, the wound breaks open.
Vohra replaced Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha, who is believed to have sought an extension to remain in Kashmir until the government put its foot down. Keeping the general in Kashmir, one official said, would have meant abandoning all those out-of-the-box ideas about opening new routes across the Line of Control between India and Pakistan so that people between the two Kashmirs could work on peace and brotherhood.
Significantly, the press in Pakistan has, unusually, refrained from raising the volume about this latest Kashmir crisis, confirming the view that Islamabad, even as it is rocked with several crises of its own, does not want to stir the pot in Kashmir.
Muslim separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who has returned to the mainstream press after having been marginalized for the last few years, argues that the Pakistani disinterest proves his long-held belief that Kashmiris do not take dictation from Islamabad, but want to pursue their own policies. Geelani has now issued a call to march on Friday to Hazratbal, a shrine considered most sacred by Kashmiri Muslims.
Some will still say that while the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley is now taking a breather, Hindu-majority Jammu is “burning”. Television channels are full of stories of Hindus in the Jammu region being distraught with governor Vohra’s decision to revoke the land transfer, dubbing it a sell-out.
But, dig a little deeper into the Jammu protests and you will find that they are significantly backed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP leaders L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh have also said that the land should have been given to the Amarnath shrine.
Which brings us to ex-governor S.K. Sinha. Besides his role in the Amarnath land transfer, Sinha wanted to hand over large tracts of land to the Sharada Peeth, a new university with a “Hindu” orientation; then, perhaps to counter the accusation that he was soft on the Hindus, Sinha was contemplating the creation of another university that owed allegiance to the Ahl-e-Hadees, an Islamic sect which considers itself more pure than others, according to political analysts.
Considering Kashmir is going to the polls in a couple of months, what could the former governor be thinking of? Media reports that the turnout in the state this time was going to exceed all expectations are now likely to be way off the mark. The fortunes of the People’s Democratic Party of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, are particularly said to be in the red zone, with one analyst in Srinagar saying that the party could be “decimated”. Mufti’s party was seen to be playing both sides—by going along with the Amarnath land transfer, then quickly abandoning the Congress coalition when the fire got too hot.
So, what does this mean for Kashmir? Firstly, that separatist politics will get a huge boost. For the first time, it seems, Geelani was able to make a speech in Srinagar’s beautiful Jama Masjid, considered to be the stronghold of Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. And now, with Geelani having issued a call to march to Hazratbal, the tragedy is that Kashmir’s moderate voices are going to get increasingly stifled.
Secondly, by sending Vohra to Srinagar, the government seems to have shown unusual foresight in making the right move.
Back in New Delhi, looks like a much-maligned Manmohan Singh could, over the next couple of days, rejig the coalition at the Centre, with the Samajwadi Party riding to the rescue of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance over the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.
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