Aug 16, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

First — since there’s no way of putting this lightly — here’s how bad it is. Jammu and Kashmir is standing on the precipice of partition. The danger of disintegration is no longer just the lament of worried columnists. The faultlines of rage running through the state have the force to rip through its centre and tear it apart into small pieces. And while we Zre legitimately all hot-faced about why Pakistan is meddling in our problems instead of mopping up its own mess, here’s the sad truth. India has only itself to blame for the current crisis. A strange combination of passive inaction and blundering aggression has taken us to the brink, and not even one political party seems to care.
There is, to start with, the impassive and infuriatingly languid response of the UPA. When Jammu and Srinagar were first ablaze with tension, the government was too busy lobbying for its own survival. If even a fourth of the energy that went into saving the nuclear deal had been diverted northwards, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess today. Instead, the government sat paralysed for more than a week when the Valley first erupted into violence. And when the new Governor tried to undo the mess created by his bumbling predecessor (by letting the state government take charge of the 40 hectares of land initially transferred to his office), no one thought it necessary to explain the decision to the people of Jammu. It was another month before violence on the other side of the Pir Panjal range shook the Centre out of its stupor. And by this time, the regional divide was complete and the protests on either side had very little to do with land.
Even beyond the alarming delay, the Home Minister and his team have a lot to answer for. Shouldn’t the obvious decision have been to start talks with both the separatists in the Valley and the protestors in Jammu? So what if the Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti is peopled by members of right-wing groups like the VHP? Or that some protestors in the Valley question allegiance to India? Once they become the face of the agitation in either region, the Indian State needs to find a way to do business with them. If there is one thing that the otherwise polarised state agrees on, it is the unresponsiveness of the government.
It may, at first, seem innocuous that the all-party delegation left the Valley without meeting fruit traders who had waited for two hours to get a mere audience. But when you consider that the traders had pleaded for a meeting on the eve of their protest march to the Line of Control, you have to wonder how many more acts of self-destruction we will witness. The Governor has now promised investigations into the use of ‘excessive force’. But surely everyone should have understood that shooting a separatist was only going to be a force-multiplier for further conflict?
The fact is that there was a complete misreading by policy-makers and intelligence sleuths on how deep the anger and alienation is on both sides. The government did not think that Jammu would have the gumption to sustain a violent agitation. Nor did its advisors anticipate that in the Valley, a sea of protestors would move in waves to protest what they allege is an ‘economic blockade’. The Army may have swiftly taken charge and ensured that the national highway is open for trade and traffic, but the mutual suspicion between the two regions is now so acute that fear itself is the blockade.
LK Advani may describe this clash of identities as a collision between “nationalists and separatists”. But here’s the question. For a party that has always pitched itself as the macho alternative to the Congress’ more effete nationalism, and for a man who has cast himself in the role of the ‘Ironman’ who will keep India safe, don’t he and the BJP understand that they are playing dangerously with the country’s national interest? The conflict within J&K was always isolated within a geographical context. The pro-azaadi voices in the Valley have never found a chorus among Indian Muslims. And we have always cited this as a testimony to our secularism.
We are all ashamed of the forced exile of the Kashmiri Pandits. Still, we have always attempted to see the conflict in the state through a political prism, rather than a religious one. To now mobilise a pan-Hindu anger – over what is essentially a regional conflict (though admittedly tinged by religion) rooted in decades of complicated history and perceptions of discrimination on both sides – is to create monsters that could come back to devour us all. It was Advani who officially dismissed the proposal to bifurcate the state when he was Deputy Prime Minister. It was Vajpayee who first promised everything “within the boundaries of humanity” to the Kashmiri people. History recognises the BJP as the architect of the peace process within the state. But now, every day that extremist anger in either region feeds off the other, it only strengthens the opponent across the border. Does the BJP not see that?
And what of the homespun political groups? In the Valley, there is now a dangerous blurring between mainstream and separatist groups. Their agendas are almost indistinguishable as the state prepares for a volatile and bloody election. But they have a responsibility to their own people as well. For years, they have claimed that their demands are ethnic and political and not communal or religious. Well then, this is the time to reach out across the divide and prove that. Instead of marching toward the Line of Control, let them march to Jammu. Let them defy the curfew if they must and break down the blockade that stands between their people. They can’t always paint New Delhi as the villain and themselves as the victims. Their credibility is as much on test.
Finally, we now know that the PM can be single-minded about things he cares about. Can he please spare some of that obsessive passion for Jammu and Kashmir? He can no longer leave this to bureaucrats and naysayers within his government. He needs to make an imaginative and personal intervention. Before it is much too late.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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