Does Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have the political courage to tell the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as his party colleagues such as Karan Singh that the state will do its duty by the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and reinforce the special status by which it is governed?
Internationally, India is going where it hasn’t set foot before—such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Suppliers Group and US Congress where the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal will be debated and discussed and, in at least the first two locations, defended by India.
It now needs to find the same resolve to douse the fires in J&K over the issue of land transfer to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB)—and the related question of the state’s special autonomy within the Indian union.
The fire started around 10 weeks ago, on 26 May, when then J&K governor S.K. Sinha transferred 100 acres of land to the board. Politicians in the valley, both religious and secular, cried foul, arguing that the land transfer was contrary to the spirit of Article 370 which gives J&K unique powers of autonomy enjoyed by no other state.
Already, six people in the valley and three in Jammu have been killed in police firing and scores injured on both sides of the Pir Panjal range. Trader associations and local excise commissioners estimate that in July, losses in Jammu amounted to around Rs2,400 crore and around Rs3,400 crore in Kashmir.
As the rest of the country watches BJP supporters stop trucks and remove fishplates in the Jammu region, thereby cutting off the plains from the valley, truckers in Kashmir are threatening to cross the Line of Control to sell their fruit and vegetable produce in Pakistan-controlled Muzaffarabad.
And the bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad begins its weekly run from 24 August, right in the middle of this crisis.
Tension in the valley is mounting and it is said only 10 days of supplies are left. Governor N.N. Vohra has offered to resign from the shrine board and promised to reconstitute it with figures of local eminence so as to assuage some of the grief and hurt.
Tragically, as the state goes to elections in the next couple of months, all of Prime Minister’s peace moves over the last four years seem to have come to a naught. Alongside a huge aid package, his several roundtable exercises with Kashmiri leaders have yielded some results—even if they were boycotted by the Hurriyat Conference—some Kashmiri Pandits agreed to return to the valley they had abandoned after the first Pakistan-sponsored killings in 1989, while children of militants were being compensated.
Meanwhile, as exhaustion with militancy set in and Kashmiris hoped to put the trauma of the last couple of decades behind them, Singh had hoped that the coming elections would reinvigorate the political process. Delhi began to dream of a 70% turnout.
That opportunity seems lost and Delhi is partly to blame. Even as Singh worked his quiet brand of diplomacy, he and his government did nothing to rein in S.K. Sinha.
Apart from transferring land to SASB—a decision that has since been revoked—Sinha increased the duration of the pilgrimage, from 11 days to one month and then to the present time frame—up to two months. When the Amarnath stalagmite, believed by devout Hindus to be an earthly manifestation of god Shiv, melted a couple of years ago, Sinha ordered ice-making machines to restore it to its old size. When the Centre proposed Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir, Sinha wanted to start a college, called the Sharda Peeth, with right-wing (Hindu) leanings.
And so, as Singh tried to restore a sense of Kashmiriyat, that special Hindu-Muslim amalgam that is special to the state, Sinha tried to counter it with a line of his own.
For the BJP, the Amarnath crisis is a bonus. Having been exposed on the Indo-US nuclear deal (Brajesh Mishra, the national security adviser in the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, has said he would have done such a deal if he was in power) and confronted by Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, the party is looking to mount an agitation over the Amarnath pilgrimage and generate as much news, noise and support as it did with the Babri Mosque protests in the early 1990s.
Then, there’s Karan Singh, a Congress leader and son of the former Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, who dithered while India was partitioned. It was only when the Centre sent troops to Kashmir in October 1947, that Hari Singh threw in his lot with India.
Karan Singh, just like the BJP, has now reportedly said SASB must be given the land.
The Prime Minister has a crisis on his hands. If he has to stand up and be counted, this time at home, he must deal with all this in a firm manner.
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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