In Kashmir crisis, an opportunity for Narendra Modi

The writing is on the wall.
The writing is on the wall.
Image: EPA/Farooq Khan
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Four days into the unrest in Kashmir, 30 are dead, and prime minister Narendra Modi has not had a word to say. On foreign shores, he’s playing drums and tweeting birthday greetings.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In crisis, there is opportunity. No politician knows this better than Modi. A newly-appointed chief minister in 2001, Modi used the Bhuj earthquake to rebuild Gujarat and build his own image as that of a leader who could deliver.

Modi has always claimed a strong will and vision. He likes to use the word “first” a lot. Nothing he does, he makes sure to tell us, has ever been done before. So, if that is how he looks at the Kashmir crisis, then he may have an opportunity at hand to end the state’s cycle of violence.

With a full majority, Modi’s better placed to do that than any other prime minister since 1989—which is when, incidentally, the armed rebellion in Kashmir began.

Abdication of responsibility

The challenge in Kashmir can overwhelm anyone in power in Delhi. Every few years, there is an uprising. The resultant killings, protests, and curfews are now routine. India’s response, too, follows a standard template. Meanwhile, old op-ed pieces and social media hashtags get recycled.

With the exception of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Delhi’s political elite have mostly believed in leaving Kashmir to be handled by the security establishment. The uprisings of 2008 and 2010, and the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013, demonstrated how New Delhi views the issue through a security prism.

The trouble with this approach is that while you put down a rebellion, you also end up planting the seeds of the next.

In 2010, more than 112 persons were killed, most of them stone-pelters in their late teens and early 20s. It began with the killing of an innocent boy. Back then, I had asked some of the stone-pelters what motivated them. They pointed to the 2008 uprising, which, they said, shattered their innocence. They asked their parents and grandparents, and read up books and mined the internet to understand Kashmir’s history.

Thus internalising this history of conflict, they considered it their duty to join it. By repressing the young rebels, New Delhi only radicalised yet another generation. Juvenile stone-pelters had turned into militants.

Burhan Wani was only 16 in 2010. Neutralising him was important for the security establishment because his persona and his videos were inspiring many a Kashmiri youth to take up arms. Authorities, perhaps, did not expect the scale of popular anguish at his killing.

The time was just right: the generation broken in 2010 has now moved on, but a new one is striking back.

Fourteen-year-olds are today at home in Kashmir, utilising the curfew to ask their elders about the history of Kashmir, hearing about rapes and massacres, martyrdom, and the right to self-determination.

Dial P for politics

The first step towards solving a problem is to acknowledge that there is one.

No less than former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A S Dulat has called for political intervention to break this cycle of violence in Kashmir. Dulat looked after the restive state during critical years, first as part of the Intelligence Bureau and then RAW. He prescribes only one mantra for Kashmir: talk.

Kashmir is a political problem that needs a political solution. But New Delhi, under Modi—as much as under Manmohan Singh—seems to treat it only as a security issue.

Every so often, India does make the right noises about reaching out and talking, appointing interlocutors, and committees. However, rarely does anything come out of these initiatives. They are forgotten once “normalcy” returns on the streets. New Delhi, thus, only proves right the Kashmiris’ allegation that it is not sincere about finding a solution.

If the government is ready to talk to rebels in the northeast, why shun those in Kashmir? It is open to talks with Maoists if they put down arms, but it has had a rigid approach even when militancy was on a decline in Kashmir. India insists Hurriyat leaders are nobodies; why, then, does it have a problem in Pakistani diplomats consulting them? If the only issue is retrieving Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, what is India doing to make it happen?

No matter how you look at it, India’s answer to Kashmir is maintaining the status quo. Smug in its confidence that security forces can handle any situation, New Delhi doesn’t see the brewing storm.

When thousands of people—those that India calls Indians—shout slogans of azadi (freedom) while mourning a militant, there is indeed a problem. And the problem isn’t Pakistan. It’s a local rebellion, involving those whose teenaged children are willing to give up lives.

The scale of the anti-India sentiment in Kashmir valley overwhelms New Delhi. But if you listen closely, Kashmiris are, in fact, seeking an end to this conflict. They are seeking closure. A bold and brave political establishment needs to talk to everybody, including Hurriyat and Pakistan. It must send out a signal of its sincerity.

Areas that don’t see militant activity don’t need the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, for instance. By punishing a stone-pelter with denial of passport and government job, you are only pushing him deeper down the path of rebellion. With disinformation campaigns and psychological warfare, you may be able to manage a security situation, but you are further vitiating the environment of distrust.

If Narendra Modi must don his politician’s hat while looking at Kashmir, now is the time.