Kashmir – another generation of conflict ahead

A new touchstone has emerged for gauging official India’s honesty with the six-decade-old Kashmir conundrum – demilitarisation through rollback of the AFSPA. Perhaps recalling Vajpayee’s Insaniyat  call would be preferable to continuing with bureaucratic options A prevaricating Prime Minister, an obsessed Defence establishment and a duplicitous Chief Minister – this is the triumvirate that conspires, not necessarily in coordination, to keep the Kashmir issue on the boil for another generation. What they fail to see (and that is a contagion which has spread to the auxiliary media establishment now) is that Kashmir is a human tragedy played out through myriad acts, the latest being the spurious debate over the justifiability of retaining the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and its satellite Disturbed Areas Act, rules and executive orders which have contributed to not only making Kashmir a living hell, but also a blot on India’s international image.

The answer to Executive indecision, as we Indians are increasingly finding out, is judicial intervention. Next week, the Supreme Court is expected to address a Special Leave Petition of far-reaching import. It may solve the vexed issue once and for all. A Division Bench is set to hear a dispute between the Indian Army and the CBI; the Army is seeking immunity from prosecution of five of its officers involved in a fake encounter in Pathribal, Anantnag district, in March 2000. Six civilians were branded as "foreign terrorists" and shot dead. Their true identities were revealed after two rounds of DNA testing -the first sample was deliberately switched with another, unrelated batch by officials.

Whichever way the verdict goes, the very fact that the Government of India is postponing its decision on the continued relevance of the AFSPA by waiting for ‘holistic’ directions from the apex court’s ruling on the SLP does represent a low moment for statecraft in any democracy, especially India which has the world’s bulkiest written Constitution. To a regime embattled by contradictions and bickering poles, the judiciary today is often a source of convenient ruses.
The background to the SLP is mixed up with the dreadful sense of loss which all peace-loving people feel for the years lost in the pursuit of a permanent solution to the Kashmir imbroglio. There is nostalgia at the heart of it, fond memories of the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Many today recall it as the only period in the six-decade-old conundrum when a Delhi dispensation made genuine – and humane – moves to sort out the mess.

In 2000, Vajpayee, during a visit to Srinagar, came up with the imaginative and bold promise that the Centre would resolve the Kashmir issue. His clarion call, Insaniyat ke dairey mein ("within the ambit of humanity"), stirred the imagination of the new generation because it signaled a historic departure from the Nehruvian position that the "issue" had necessarily to be resolved within the framework of the Indian Constitution.

Vajpayee overruled his stuffy Generals who, in the preceding decade, acted with such arrogant impunity that India’s case in Kashmir was substantially weakened. The officers and men of 7 Rashtriya Rifles thought up the encounter idea to to win rewards and promotions for "solving" the Chattisinghpura massacre of February 2000. The Army thought that the usual "Pakistan" cover would work.

But a strong, determined Prime Minister like Vajpayee would have none of it. He outmaneuvered his bureaucrats and and ensured that the CBI took up the case and followed it to framing charge sheets against four senior and one junior commissioned officer.

In the background, two sinister games are on at the moment. The Raisina Hills bureaucracy, which in the post-Vajpayee era has come to totally control India’s Kashmir policy, is trying its best to push some Amendments to AFSPA. According to insiders, the civilian and defense establishments have struck a backchannel agreement to stage a "dispute" by issuing opposing drafts, with the objective to keep the issue forever on the linger. This is just small manifestation of the "Deep State" in Kashmir, a paradise created by self-serving security and intelligence officials which is antithetical to lasting peace.

The other game is played by Omar Abdullah, who at an early age seems to have accumulated the combined genius of his father and grandfather in channelising the Kashmir mess to the family’s advantage. His sudden concern for the human and democratic rights of Kashmiris is based on cold realpolitik. Realising that the course of events is moving definitely towards some kind of a resolution on AFSPA (given the combination of political and civil society pressure), he is now striving to gain credit by faking a confrontation with the Army (and by extension the Prime Minister) which could make him a hero. A similar game was played by his father with the passing of an "autonomy resolution" in 2000, which, as we all know, did not work with Vajpayee.

Driven, therefore, into a cul de sac, Manmohan Singh is not expected to metamorphose into something Vajpayesque. Will be collect the gumption to call Omar’s bluff while simultaneously reminding the Generals who’s the boss? Not likely. Indications are that he would opt for the half-way house: lift of AFSPA from a few districts while retain the overall siege atmosphere.

That’s recipe for further disaster. Not only that, it would amount to a dirty trick on the Kashmiris. Using classical sleight -of-hand, rogue elements in the security forces would merrily carry out an encounter murder in a ‘disturbed area’ after dragging a hapless civilian branded as a militant several miles over free territory. Such tricks were commonplace in the north-east up to the 1990s, and only led to the deepening of the conflicts there. The axiom – one militant caught equals five new recruits – grew out of that system.

The past eight years have seen all the moves by Manmohan Singh on Kashmir run aground by inaction, indifference and intrigue. In 2006, he tried to match his predecessor’s statesmanship with transparently bureaucratic half-cocks: forming king-sized "working groups" and an "interlocutor group". Anybody recall those quaint ’round tables’?

Four of the working groups – (on) Strengthening relations between India and Pakistan; CBMs across segments of society in J&K; Economic development, and, Ensuring good governance – submitted their recommendations to the prime minister in the third round table conference which was also the last. The government later set up a high-level committee in February 2008 headed by the union home secretary for the implementation of the recommendations of the four groups. That was the last one heard of them. When the Fifth working group, tasked to "Recommend measures on how to improve relationship between the Central and State Governments," did meet, it discussed issues of regional imbalances, democracy, secularism and the rule of law in the State. Finally, in 2010, its head, Justice (retd) Sagheer Ahmed, came out with a report which has never been discussed in public.

The setting up of the interlocutory apparatus in 2010 met with contempt and it was no surprise that the three-member group was shunned by almost every individual and group which mattered. It submitted its report a year later and its members have affixed a smart touchstone for its success – "implement it in totally or not at all" seems to be their tunnel out to another innings with some self-important mission.

Manmohan Singh could yet retrieve the situation by seizing the historic advantage which Vajpayee did not get – in the form of an emasculated Pakistan. But instead of using Islamabad’s weakened leverage, thanks to the looming American threat, to win the heart of Kashmir, he is perhaps under bad advice to make a final, smashing show of force which would only result in making mincemeat of the Kashmiris’ faith in India. He should recognise that Kashmir is the final frontier in India’s struggle to solidify its democratic foundations. Retaining AFSPA will, alas, only debilitate that resolve.
-(Courtesy: The Pioneer)