Jun 28, 2008

A stitch in Time - Barkha Dutt

For a couple of years now, New Delhi has been clinging to a delusion about Kashmir. The delusion isn’t all without reason. The spiralling number of mobile phones, the multiple airlines that zip in and out of an airport that will soon have international flights, the ski tournaments at Gulmarg and the return of the Bombay film crews — all of this has lulled policymakers and mediators into a false sense of well-being. The hustle and bustle of life is seen at the very least, as a sign of radical improvement.
But tourists and tulips apart, all is not well in Kashmir.
For those of us who have, in the past, watched Srinagar shut down in eerie silence as soon as daylight dimmed or have walked through its empty, lifeless streets in times of violence, the changes were indeed dramatic and inspiring of hope. But it didn’t take long to understand that they were, in the end, only band-aids to wounds that may have needed immediate surgery. Strip away the sheen of economic energy and you will find that the Valley is still emotionally paralysed by anger. And the low simmer that this anger has cooked on for years erupted into a full boil this week.
On the face of it, this week’s controversy is about the transfer of 40 hectares (even less) of forest land to the state’s Governor, who also controls the Amarnath Shrine Board. But at its heart, the protests are saying something that New Delhi should listen to in a hurry and with worry. In an election year, the political discourse is headed towards a dangerous and irrevocable communal polarisation. Among the allegations made by protestors is the suggestion that the transfer of land and construction of facilities on it for Hindu pilgrims is an attempt by ‘outsiders’ to alter the religious demographics of the Valley. The fact that a charge like this is still able to draw a flood of people onto the streets is a statement on how battered and damaged the relationship between Delhi and Srinagar continues to be.
And while intelligence sleuths conspiratorially blame ‘separatists’ for instigating the violence, here’s the bare truth. Like with many other issues in recent months, there is no significant difference between the position taken by the mainstream political parties in the Valley and parties that have demanded freedom or self-rule for the state. In fact, the agendas of the two have blurred into near sameness. This time, all of them, are united in demanding that the land transfer to the Governor’s office be scrapped. The only two parties that are supporting status quo are the national parties: the BJP and the Congress, the latter seen in the state, as essentially a party of the Jammu region. That is the other thing that should worry New Delhi deeply: it is almost as if Jammu were entirely a different state, with its Hindu-dominated demographics determining a politics entirely opposite to that of the Muslim-dominated valley. The street slogans in Jammu have underlined a different sort of conspiracy theory — the charge that Kashmiri politicians are trying to keep Hindu pilgrims out and away from the yatra.
It’s a horrendous falsehood for a state in which local Kashmiri Muslims have for centuries looked after every need of the thousands and thousands of Hindu pilgrims that stream in for darshan at the Amarnath cave. The cave itself is said to have been discovered by a Muslim shepherd in 1860. And since then, from providing ponies to food, to walking sticks, to even lugging up children on their strong mountain-weathered backs, the lives of the local Muslims have been inextricably linked to those of the visiting pilgrims. And when snowstorms or terrorists strike, it’s the locals who have stepped in to save the lives of their guests.
So, how did it all get to be so ugly? The law itself seems innately dangerous and divisive. It provides for the Governor, ‘if Hindu’, to manage both the Amarnath and the Mata Vaishnodevi Shrines. The Chief Minister, ‘if Muslim’, will in turn control the Muslim Wakf board. The legislation was formalised during the tenure of the National Conference, but the new government led by the PDP made no attempt to change it either. In fact, the Forest Minister who cleared the recent transfer of land is a legislator from the PDP. It also doesn’t help that the former Governor (he retired a few days ago) enjoyed displaying his authority and made sure his offices sent a press release on his new plans for the yatra — hardly the sort of sledgehammer publicity-seeking manner you would want in a sensitive, conflict-ridden state.
Omar Abdullah has been candid enough to say that it is time to change the laws his own party made in ‘good faith’. His words should be heeded. To allow religious bodies to come within the domain of the political establishment is a recipe for brewing hatred and mistrust. The new Governor, NN Vohra, has been a peace mediator on Kashmir. He will understand — better than most — that peace in the valley is being held up by safety pins; the cloth itself is still woefully torn. It is time for him to start the process of change by relinquishing control of the shrines. The CM must then follow the example by letting go of the Wakf board. A multi-religious, independent body of eminent citizens and scholars that includes the marginalised community of Kashmiri Pandits should be handed over the charge of all religious bodies, both Muslim and Hindu. Threats by terrorists mean that the army cannot recede into the background. But at least a beginning would have been made in liberating religion from politics.
And in the meantime, if New Delhi had hoped that the historic elections of 2002 would have paved the way for a landmark change in 2009, it has to think again. This election may well be strident, volatile and bloody. Kashmir needs more — much more-than astringents and band-aids. The peace doctors have been missing for too long.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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