KASHMIR: TIME TO LOWER THE TEMPERATURE

Congress leader P. Chidambaram may have been overstating his case when he said that Kashmir is nearly lost because of the Narendra Modi government’s harsh policies. According to the former finance minister, these were exemplified by the chief of army staff, Bipin Rawat’s statement that the stone-throwers who interfered with the army operations were “anti-nationals. There is also a state minister who has said that they should be shot.

If anything, these belligerent observations show how tempers are running high. As a result, there is little doubt that the situation in the valley is now much worse than it has been in recent years. A measure of the deterioration is available from the fact that the polling percentage in the recent Srinagar by-election was an abysmal 7 per cent while it was a respectable 33.8 per cent in Anantnag in June last year when the chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, won from there.

Although the main features of what is happening in the valley have always been there – the infiltration of jehadis from Pakistan and their occasional acts of terror, the throwing of stones by youngsters, the provocative stance of separatists like the Hurriyat leaders. But there is still a feeling that there is a great deal more of anger and alienation than before.

The latest manifestation of this disaffection is the almost routine acts of boys and young men to appear on the scene to disrupt a military operation against terrorists by throwing stones at the army personnel. Clearly, the continued presence of the army and paramilitary has lessened the fear which the locals earlier felt. This boldness was evident when boys were shown attacking a jawan of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) as he was walking past them.

Unfortunately, this video footage has led to several Kashmiri students of Mewar university in Rajasthan being assaulted and posters appearing in U.P. asking the Kashmiris to leave. This display of intolerance has made Union home minister Rajnath Singh direct all state governments to ensure the safety of the Kashmiris.

Evidently, the downhill slide is continuing and there is an urgent need to lower the temperature before more such untoward incidents take place in Kashmir and elsewhere, forcing the world to take notice. As of now, the international community is too preoccupied with the threat posed by the ISIS to worry about what is happening in Kashmir. Even Pakistan has been unable to raise the issue of violence in Kashmir because the world sees Islamabad as the main instigator of terrorism in the valley.

For India, however, it is not what the world thinks which is of importance so much as its own responsibility in ensuring that peace prevails in one of the most beautiful parts of the country so that tourism can once again lift its economy. Considering that the BJP is in power both at the centre and in the state, where it has an alliance with the local People’s Democratic Party, it is in a position to formulate and implement policies which have wide acceptance and are capable of defusing the tension.

Arguably, what may be preventing such an ameliorative approach is the presence in the BJP of hardliners who believe, as Chidambaram has noted, that no mercy should be shown to the subversives. It is also known that these hawks in politics and in the administration enjoy the vociferous support of some of the TV anchors who believe in responding to stones with bullets – pathhar ke jawab bullet se.

Not surprisingly, the pellet guns were their favourite. Now, however, the centre is considering replacing these with guns which fire rubber bullets. The CRPF has also been told not to fire when in doubt, especially where children and teenagers are present.

But it is not only a moderation of the crowd control options which is important. Both the centre and the state will have to regain the trust and confidence of the people by being sensitive to their grievances, which include the overbearing presence of the security forces. Instead, the latter can also be deployed to run medical camps or mitigate the unemployment problem by recruiting the locals as when 19,000 young men turned up for their physical and written examinations prior to joining the army.

What their eagerness showed was that there was no antipathy towards the army and the paramilitary as the separatists would like to believe. The hardliners will have to realize, therefore, that they must not fly off the handle over every incident of a Pakistani flag being waved or the Pakistani anthem being sung. In most cases, these are instances of youthful bravado which will die down if ignored. Giving undue importance to them will only exacerbate the situation.

Besides, the government has to make a big-hearted gesture like withdrawing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), especially in view of the Supreme Court’s observation that the Act does not allow killings even in disturbed conditions and that the army personnel will have to face criminal prosecution if found guilty of using excessive force. A committee under Dileep Padgaonkar had also called for reviewing the AFSPA and lifting the Disturbed Areas Act where the AFSPA is applicable.