Oct 25, 2008

India - Kashmir's failed uprising

Happymon Jacob

Elections to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly have been announced, and are scheduled to be held in seven phases spread over five weeks. The decision to go ahead with the elections on schedule was taken following intensive discussion, punctuated by numerous disagreements, from both the Election Commission and the mainstream political parties in J&K. The dissidents have made it clear that they will not only boycott the elections, but will also actively campaign against the electoral process itself.

Even as the debate about the political wisdom of conducting elections at this point in time rages on, now is an opportune moment to take a close look at the recent uprising in Kashmir, and ask why it has failed to achieve anything substantial. After almost four months of anti-India slogans and sustained agitation, and despite limited moves towards unity by the Srinagar-based dissident camp, the current uprising in Kashmir seems to have reached a dead-end. Calls by the Prime Minister and the Hurriyat Conference (Mirwaiz) chief for dialogue to resolve the Kashmir issue, indicate that the recent uprising, which garnered nationwide attention, seems to have lost its momentum.

Indeed, Kashmir’s latest experiment with dissidence did appear to have the right mix of all the necessary ingredients for success: mass participation, willingness to defy state crackdown, emotive slogans striking the right Kashmiri chords, timely political alliances and the ever-green romanticism of azadi. More importantly, unlike during the 1990s, the Indian intelligentsia was more sympathetic to the Kashmiri cause this time around, while militants kept away from the scene, not wanting to malign the mass movement. Yet the uprising seems to have fizzled out. It has quite obviously failed to reach any logical conclusion, although its reverberations will continue to impact on the state’s polity for a very long time to come.

What explains its failure?

What then explains its failure? Have dissenting Kashmiris grown disillusioned, sceptical as to the fruits of their struggle against the Indian state, and resigned themselves to submission? Or, can its failure be attributed to successful handling of the situation by the governments of New Delhi and Srinagar? Has the Indian state, after all, learned to contain dissidence in its frontiers? Not really.

An ex post facto analysis of the recent events in Kashmir reveals a clear set of factors responsible for the failure of the Valley’s latest uprising. First of all, the dissident leadership in the Valley did not have a common minimum programme. The lack of an understanding of their political endgame rendered them incapable of negotiating effectively with New Delhi.

Secondly, this lack of common understanding was augmented by acute dissent and leadership struggles within the dissident camp. Hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s claim to ‘sole leadership’ failed to resonate with the other leaders, who have since sought to distance themselves from him. Opposition became all the more serious when Mr. Geelani began questioning the credentials of other dissident leaders to lead the Kashmiris.

Many meanings of azadi

In addition to the aforementioned factors, differences of opinion within the dissident camp represent more than a mere leadership struggle. They stem from something fundamentally ideological: differing conceptions of the very meaning of azadi. That the camp did not have a commonly agreed upon programme, and was stalled by leadership quarrels, underscores the fact that there are many meanings of azadi in the Kashmir Valley. To the one extreme there are those who, like many of the mainstream parties within J&K (such as the National Conference), argue that the word points to greater autonomy and additional political rights. And to the other are those (represented by the JKLF and Mr. Geelani) who typically seek complete independence from India, and see azadi as embodying this desire. Somewhere between these two divergent views are those who argue that it is the Kashmiris’ demand for self-respect, dignity and their inalienable democratic rights, which constitute the true basis of azadi.

The two most important pro-azadi leaders in the Valley, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mr. Geelani, have radically different views as to what azadi entails. Consider, for example, that Mirwaiz has been an important moderate voice, whereas Mr. Geelani harbours no such illusions of temperance. A close reading of Mirwaiz’s statements, taken at various points in time, makes clear that he is more pro-Kashmir than anti-India, willing to talk to and reason with New Delhi, and is flexible in relation to what self-determination entails; his ‘United States of Kashmir’ proposal does not seek complete independence for Kashmir. In other words, the Mirwaiz is willing to make adjustments and seek balance when talking to New Delhi. But Mr. Geelani has made it clear that the resolution to the Kashmir problem lies in nothing short of Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan, and rejects the need to converse with New Delhi.

Most importantly, however, azadi needs to be understood as the rallying cry of a large number of an aggrieved people. For them, the word means something more tangible, something that pertains to their daily lives, than anything so fundamentally ideological: it means freedom from the fear of militants and security forces, as well as dignity, and the absence of New Delhi’s political high-handedness. Moreover, one would have to concede that it is a question of the unresolved issue of sub-national aspirations, and its consequences within the Indian state.

Zardari’s Kashmir policy

The relative silence of Pakistan, and the pro-India statements of President Zardari, should be understood as the fourth reason for the failure of the dissident movement. That Zardari did not choose to lash out against India during the recent anti-India protests in Kashmir is significant. His assurances that there would soon be good news about Kashmir and that both the countries are working towards it show a desire to distance himself from Pakistan’s traditional stance on Kashmir. And more was to follow. Recently he branded Kashmiri militants as “terrorists” and claimed that India was important for Pakistan’s growth. Surprisingly, he received little rebuke for these comments from within his country. Pakistan’s desire to make peace with India, and to rid itself of extremism, also means that it many not continue to support the various dissident parties within Kashmir — as it has done in the past — at the expense of India and its fight with terrorism, though the Pakistani Army and the ISI may fail to demonstratively adhere to this new way of thinking.

Lastly, the anti-Kashmir agitations in Jammu dented the dissident cause. For the rest of the world, ‘Kashmir’s freedom struggle’ is now more nuanced, and Jammu has played an important part in highlighting the conflicts within the conflict. Agitations in Jammu made obvious to all what was already well known within J&K: Jammu and Leh have never been part of the struggle in Kashmir, and were always uneasy about the political supremacy of Kashmiris in the state. Kashmiris have always relied on their own centrality to tell the story of their struggle, yet the reorientation of focus towards the politics of the Kashmiri/Jammuite relationship, have complicated the equation. The introduction of the Jammu and, to a lesser extent, the Leh narratives have crowded the picture. A conflict-within-a-conflict has been unearthed, and it threatens to disrupt the over-simplified nature of the Kashmiri’s argument.

That said, much as New Delhi hopes that elections in the State will bring back normalcy, it needs to ensure that those elections are free and fair, lest the State fall back once more into instability. In other words, New Delhi, in its over-enthusiasm to stabilise the state, must not try to create a fa├žade of normalcy by playing foul with elections. It must demonstrate what it has learnt since 2002, and let the electoral process answer questions it cannot.

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