Nov 22, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt;Seize the moment

For all those who went into a hysterical overdrive after Barack Obama hinted at a more aggressive American role in Kashmir, take pause. The first phase of the Assembly elections has not just belied the prophecies of the pundits and the punters; it has conclusively shown that the sentiment in the Valley is far too complex to be slotted into easy categories. But even more compellingly, the quiet, almost crafty way, in which Kashmiris have bucked all expectations, proves that no one can claim ownership of what they really feel or think. Not the Indian government, not the Pakistani patrons, not journalists like myself who thought we understood, not the cynical commentators who said it was time for India to let go, not even the azadi proponents who argued that no compromise was palatable or possible, and certainly, not America.

Salman Rushdie, who dedicated the book to his Kashmiri grandparents, may have first captured this instinctive rejection of foisted knowledge, in Shalimar the Clown. In a thinly disguised allegory of Western intervention in the region, this is
what the Jewish-American Ambassador to Kashmir is told by the woman he has courted, seduced and then abandoned. “You took beauty and created hideousness,” says Boonyi Kaul, a Pandit, to the European born, Max. “Look at me. I am the meaning of your deeds. I am the meaning of your so-called love, your destructive, selfish, wanton love. I was honest and you turned me into your lie. This is not me. This is not me. This is you.”

It could almost be what the Kashmiris are saying to all of us today — no matter where we stand along the political or ideological axis. When we hold up a mirror to them, they don’t see themselves; instead they see variations of what we want them to be or what we have pushed them to be.

So, how does one understand what’s happened last week? First, these are the bare, indisputable, facts. More people voted in the Valley than anyone thought was possible, given that the state was just emerging from the violent shadow of the Amarnath controversy. The turnout was significant, not just in border areas like Gurez (which has traditionally been out of step with the pro-azadi sentiment), but also in the two other sensitive seats of Bandipore and Sonawari. By and large — and this is the most miraculous achievement of all — there have not been any complaints of coercion and no stories of troops making reluctant citizens vote at gunpoint. But yes, separatist politicians, who gave calls for the elections to be boycotted, have either been locked up in their homes or made to keep shut. The year 2002, widely accepted as a watershed election for its fairness and transparency, still had to grapple with the gun. Militant violence tailed candidates and voters alike. This time, so far at least, those guns, too, are silent.

Could we be looking at this as the biggest shift in the Valley? Is there a possible transition from violence to non-violence, both by those who take to the streets to protest the idea of India and those whose duty it is to defend it? It’s probably too early to draw firm conclusions, but increasingly it looks like the new battlefield in J&K is going to be intellectual, ideological and emotional. We may witness a clash of ideas more than a clash of armies.

Does the fact that people participated in the political process mean they no longer want azadi? No, it doesn’t, much as mainstream politicians would have us believe. But, does it mean that they have finally begun to feel like stakeholders who have invested in the system? Yes, it does, much as the separatist lobby would like to deny it.

The power to vote out a politician in an election that gives them the space to do so has made people believe that the Assembly does have some meaning. The Amarnath controversy may have divided the state, but ironically as J&K fought over allegations of an economic blockade, both sides realised that they needed to be heard inside the political system. To that extent, the polls became more, not less important. Azadi definitely remains a philosophical and sentimental aspiration in the Valley, but the leaky drain and the schools without teachers also matter, and in a tactile and more immediate way. Neither cancels out or displaces the other, and that’s what makes it all so complex.

It may be too early to say, but it also looks like India and Pakistan have made some headway in back-channel talks on Kashmir. The meeting between the two national security advisors is said to have turned the tide. Indo-Pak watchers know that peace is usually a temporary lull in a stormy relationship. But if the relative peace holds through the length of the Assembly elections, it could be transformative for both sides.

The lesson from the first phase of elections is a modest one. There is an opportunity for another chance to mend and build broken trust and then, possibly, the relationship. It would be a mistake for hawks in policy-making to gloat and think a resolution is around the corner. It would be an equal mistake for the hawks in the separatist camp to cry foul in an election that has been transparent and has shown that people would rather participate in the system than remain on its margins. A window has opened; New Delhi must not let the curtains drape over it.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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