Aug 9, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

A hardwired dispute

Almost a decade ago Kashmir-watchers were startled and disturbed by the newest peace balloon to be pushed afloat — this time by a furniture magnate based in America. Farooq Kathwari, a Kashmiri-American, and the influential and controversial head of the upscale Ethan Allen company, was proposing the carving up of Jammu and Kashmir to create a “sovereign entity” without “an international personality” from the state’s Muslim-majority areas.

Kathwari, whose own son died fighting in Afghanistan, could have been dismissed as a lone maverick, except that his think-tank, the Kashmir Study Group, had several worthy diplomats (both American and Indian) on board, and seemed to have the ear of the US administration as well. His idea was a regurgitation of the so-called Dixon plan. In 1950, Owen Dixon, a UN mediator, had asked for cutting open J&K along the Chenab river, along its religious and ethnic faultlines. Now with groups like the Panun Kashmir also demanding a separate homeland for ousted Pandits, trifurcation suddenly became the ominous new buzzword bandied about in the state. It took the then Deputy Prime Minister, LK Advani, to formally rubbish the idea before the rumours got relegated to the dustbin of history.

But watching the tumultuous agitation within the state over the past month, one must stand face to face with a horrible new reality. An invisible line of hatred threatens to draw itself across the psychological map of Jammu and Kashmir, putting the two areas on different sides of the enemy line. And while the conflict is rooted more in historical divisions of region rather than religion, the coincidence of which side the state’s Hindus and Muslims stack up, is an inescapable truth.

India has always drawn comfort and confidence from the fact that the turmoil within the state of Jammu and Kashmir has never defined other national loyalties or agendas. Even the Kashmiri Muslims of the Valley concede that the separatist sentiment has been largely political or ethnic, finding little or no resonance with Indian Muslims outside the state. And while the forced exile of the Kashmiri Pandits is one of most brutal human rights violations of our time, Indians have never really seen the conflict in the Valley through the Hindu-Muslim prism. But even that threatened to change this past week. With the Amarnath yatra at its centre, the upsurge of anger in Jammu was in definite danger of tapping into a simmering pan-Hindu discontent. Ironically, the anger in either region began feeding off each other, drawing sharp boundary lines across geographies, religions and, sadly, even political parties.

So, how did a few hectares of land come to divide an entire people?

To read the divisions within J&K as a dispute about land is to misread the situation entirely. In both Jammu and in the Kashmir Valley, the land has come to be a symbol of political and psychological alienation. In both cases it is more about identity and neglect and the explosion of a once-subliminal but always abiding anger. And in both cases, not just did the governments (both Centre and state) misdiagnose the disease; they were too late with the medical treatment as well.

In the Valley, giving the former Governor control of the land amid reports that permanent structures would be erected on it, played into a larger suspicion about military presence and control. Remember that the earlier Governor was a General famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for his sledgehammer style. Peace-hawkers also mistook the tulip bloom and the tourist flood for tranquillity. And rabble-rousing statements about “changing demographics” didn’t help either.

In Jammu, the protests have been emblematic of a bitterness that comes with living in the constant shadow of Kashmir. The perception that the Valley’s temperature always sets the season for both domestic intervention and international focus has grown into a fierce resentment over the years. Despite several proposals of regional autonomy for Jammu and Ladakh, equitable attention across the state remains a myth. It is this deeper anger at being pushed to the margins of public energy that has drawn doctors and homemakers onto the streets of a once-quiet city.

In both cases, an inordinate length of time lapsed before the government reacted. It took ten days of violence in the Valley and 39 days of stormy protests in Jammu for New Delhi to sound the alarm.

Tragically, while we lament the communal polarisation underlining these demonstrations, the law itself is tainted by religious divisions. According to the state’s Shrine Bill, the Governor, ‘if Hindu’ shall manage the Amarnath and the Vaishno Devi shrines. And the Chief Minister, ‘if Muslim’ gets to or control the wakf land. In a state where Muslims and Hindus alike agree that the yatra is a proud symbol of an essentially syncretic tradition, why should political control be categorised by religion? In fact, why should there be any political control at all?

In a crippled little limp towards peace, an all-party delegation will be in Jammu by the time this column goes to print. Its task is clear — to make sure that the divisions don’t deepen and leave a wounded state split wide open. But after that, the politicians have to get out the way. An election season notwithstanding, Jammu and Kashmir’s parties have to agree to amend the current law. A multi-religious body of independent state residents should be entrusted with the job of managing the religious bodies on either side of the divide.

Governor NN Vohra inherited a problem he did not create. But as someone who has been a peace mediator in his earlier avatar, let him lead the way by surrendering his own seat on the Amarnath Shrine Board. This will make way for an entirely homegrown team of people from both Jammu and Kashmir to look after the yatra. That should be the first step towards ending the insidious and illicit relationship between politics and religion.

Otherwise, the siege within will prove to be much more fatal than the opponent across the border.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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