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As the Valley goes up in flames and teeters on the edge of a precipice, experts are urging a reluctant centre to hold talks with all stakeholders for a political solution

~By Seema Guha

Last week, the Supreme Court waded into the Kashmir quagmire. In a ruling on a petition filed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association to stop the use of pellet guns on protesters, the judges of the apex court had this advice to give: “The Court would get the government to do so, once the Bar Association agreed to get the students off the streets.” The Bar Association also wanted Delhi to explore talks with the Hurriyat. Speaking for the government, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi countered: “They are separatists. What kind of dialogue they want to have?’’

This debate is rather strange considering that the government had already said that pellet guns would be replaced. But BJP leader Yashwant Sinha wrote a stinging piece in a website on what he felt was so-called judicial overreach. He, like many others, could not figure out why the Supreme Court was brought into the scene by the lawyers.

Sinha wrote: “But if the plea of the Association came as a surprise, the observations of the court have left me completely baffled.’’ He went on to talk of the effect of the deadly bullets: “Nearly a hundred people were blinded in Kashmir during last year’s upheaval because of the use of pellet guns. The anger in the Valley at their use is therefore both understandable and justified. The people feel that they have been specially subjected to this discriminatory treatment as nowhere else in the country have pellet guns been used to quell or disperse crowds.’’ Sinha knows a thing or two about Kashmir having led a concerned citizens group to the Valley twice last year.

He further says: “While I am amazed at the naivete of the learned judges of the highest court of the land, the statement of the Attorney General effectively betrays the lofty promises made in the Agenda for Alliance of the PDP-BJP government in J&K.’’ The agenda was for talks with all stakeholders in Kashmir and engaging with Pakistan to ensure peace in the Valley.

After last year’s violent summer (the winter months force most people to stay indoors), the government had the opportunity to begin a dialogue to diffuse the situation. But hoping to score in the UP elections, the BJP ensured that no talks took place.

“This is also a clear departure from the Vajpayee line on Kashmir so lovingly referred to in the Agenda.’’ Sinha said. His reference to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is valid. Vajpayee was the only BJP leader to talk of “Insaniat’’ which Kashmiris respected. His agenda was very different. Talks were initiated with the separatists and though it did not come to fruition, a sincere attempt was made.

AS Dulat, the former head of RAW, was also a part of Vajpayee’s PMO. He was instrumental in getting many former Kashmiri fighters living in Pakistan to return home. Dulat has been deeply concerned at the turn of events. His prescription to calm tempers is: “Talk and talk quickly.” He told India Legal: “There is no other way. We need to start a dialogue with the Hurriyat. We have to begin engaging with Pakistan. All this has to be done fast, there is no time to waste.’’

The palpable anger that ignited in the streets of Srinagar since Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter by security forces in 2016 has not subsided. Indeed, the clumsy handling of the situation by both the state and the central government further fuelled the flames and has now brought Kashmir to the edge of the precipice. It could tilt either way unless saner voices in the government prevail.

After last year’s violent summer (the winter months force most people to stay indoors), the government had the opportunity to begin a dialogue to diffuse the situation. But hoping to score in the UP elections, the BJP ensured that no talks took place. Yet, the signs that the protests would resume were there for all to see. When an entire population, especially the youth, are out on the streets ready to take on the might of the Indian state, it is apparent that alienation is complete. The cry of azadi is reverberating across the Valley, and perhaps this is the worst uprising Kashmir has seen.

The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti calling on the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi. Photo: UNI
The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti calling on the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi. Photo: UNI

Radha Kumar, who in 2010 was appointed by the Manmohan Singh government as one of the three interlocutors for J&K along with Dilip Padgaonkar, former editor of The Times of India, told India Legal: “Yes, this agitation is the worst, not only because school kids and girls are stoning the security forces but because all ages and genders are coming together in a wave of general public rage. The larger issue is anger and despair at the continuing refusal of the government to hold sustained talks for a political solution, the failure to undertake peace-building, the predominance of security forces and continuing human rights abuse. This has been coupled with increasingly abusive language and attitude ranging from TV anchors to ruling party spokesmen.”

Hyper-nationalism is manifesting itself in expectations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no ordinary leader but a decisive man ready to wield an iron fist

The three interlocutors had submitted their report in 2011, along with their recommendations. Unfortunately, the UPA did not continue the dialogue. Were they equally guilty? “The UPA was to blame for a different reason—failing to continue the dialogue—indeed move it to the next level, which is exploring how to restore Article 370 and failing to take advantage of opening talks with dissidents. But they did not indulge in hate speech,’’ Kumar said.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is certainly fishing in troubled waters in Kashmir. This is expected, considering that India has given it the opportunity to stoke the flames. Delhi has to first put its own house in order. The already complicated situation in Kashmir has been further muddied by the unlikely coming together of the BJP and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), both of which are pulling in opposite directions. While Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s Jammu ministers are urging a hardline stance (many Kashmiri Pandits were asked to leave the Valley), her people are annoyed with her for giving in to the BJP. In the muddle, the separatists are getting the upper hand.

If this were not enough, India-Pakistan ties are at an all-time low ever since the Uri terror strike. Adding to this is the domestic situation in Pakistan where the army is now publicly calling the shots. Army commander Qamar Javed Bajwa, selected by Sharif for his apolitical nature, is now changing colour.

News of Indian industrialist Sajjan Jindal’s visit to Pakistan last week to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif led to much speculation in the Pakistan press. Jindal is close to both Modi and Sharif. He was present during the PM’s unscheduled visit to Nawaz Sharif’s home in Lahore on Christmas two years back. Though it is dangerous to join the dots (as Sharif’s daughter tweeted that the visit was just a routine trip by an old friend of her father’s), Pakistan was abuzz with rumours.

Had Jindal come as Modi’s emissary? Would the two meet during the Shanghai Cooperation summit later this year? Nobody knows. But the fact remains that every time India-Pakistan ties look up, they are quickly disrupted by a terror attack. The last was after Modi’s Lahore visit when the Pathankot and Uri attack froze any engagement.

This time, a day after the Pakistan army chief toured the LoC, two Indian soldiers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Ever since the surgical strikes last year, there has been a constant refrain from ordinary people for an eye-for-an-eye and for teaching Pakistan a lesson. The BJP government as well as the larger Sangh Parivar has been promoting hyper-nationalism.

This is manifesting itself in expectations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no ordinary leader but a decisive man ready to wield an iron fist.

The whole situation is a veritable witches’ brew. Where do we go from here? As Dulat, Radha Kumar, Yashwant Sinha and saner elements have stated, start talking. Don’t sit on your high horse. Who will make the first move?

Kumar said: “Only the centre can take the initiative. Governor NN Vohra has belled the cat by coming to Delhi to urge talks but it is seems at this stage that the government is only thinking of getting elected legislators together.”

That is obviously not enough, but maybe it will lay the groundwork for talks with the Hurriyat, JKLF and other stakeholders.

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