Kashmir's Problems Need a Political Solution

 
 

There seems to no end in sight to the continuing turmoil in Kashmir. Although the curfew has been lifted in many places, the violence continues unabated. The nature of violence has even taken on a new dimension; unlike earlier protests against the establishment, which were mainly the handiwork of separatists with the backing of Pakistan, this time around ordinary citizens, including women and children, have taken to the streets to protest against the excesses of the security forces. There appears to be a total loss of confidence in both the state government and the Indian government.

The unabated violence has already claimed the lives of over 60 innocent people, many of them young children, and over 100 people have sustained serious injuries because of the indiscriminate use of pellet guns. The security forces also seem to be at their wit’s end, as they are unable to come out with a counter strategy to stone throwing protesters.

The curfew, which has continued for over 57 days, has brought the entire valley to a complete standstill. It is reported that many persons inimical to India are openly using young children as cannon fodder against the security forces. For the first time in the troubled history of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the entire Muslim population is feeling totally alienated with the state.

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Kashmir had always wanted to be independent and it was for this reason that Maharaja Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, did not want J&K to accede either to India or Pakistan. However, Pakistan did not take kindly to this idea, as the population in the Kashmir Valley was predominately Muslims. Pakistan retaliated by sending irregular forces, mainly comprised of Pathan tribesman from the northwest Province, to take the Kashmir Valley (barring Ladakh and Jammu) by force. The Maharaja, alarmed by the sudden turn of events, pleaded with the Indian government to send its army to repulse the attack. India agreed to come to his rescue on the condition that he gave his consent to sign the Instrument of Accession with India. The Maharaja, much against his wishes, signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 2016. The forces from Pakistan were repulsed from the main towns but did manage to capture a large portion of Kashmir, which is now under the control of Pakistan. India’s then-prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not wish to send the army to evict the tribesmen from the illegally occupied portion of Kashmir, as he viewed that such an act would invite the opprobrium of the United Nations.

The situation in Kashmir has never been same again. In 1987, the Indian government was accused of rigging the elections and denying full autonomy to the state. This gave birth to the Kashmiri insurgency, which during the 1990s escalated into the most important internal security issue in India.  Thousands of people have died during fighting between insurgents and the government, as well as thousands of civilians who have died as a result of being targeted by the various armed groups.

Violence has long been exacerbated by an unwillingness to consider political compromise. One of the prominent insurgent leaders, Sayeed Salahudeen, who was willing to drop demands for independence, agreed to participate in the J&K state elections in 1987. He was heading for a landslide victory, but, at the instance of Ghulam Mohiuddin Shah of the National Conference, the election was rigged and Sayeed lost. He escaped to Pakistan in disgust, where he now leads Hijbul Mujahedeen to fight for the self-determination of Kashmiris. The situation from then on has gone from bad to worse.

In 1986, Ghulam Mohammad Shah, who was the brother-in-law of the then-chief minister of J&K, Farooq Abdullah, ousted his relative and became the chief minister. Shah tried to build a mosque within the precincts of an old temple in the civil secretariat, which led to protests. He warned Kashmiri Muslims that Islam was in danger and incited Muslims to attack Hindus. This led to ethnic cleansing where hundreds of Kashmiri Hindus were killed, their shops either burnt or looted. Many of the Hindus living in south Kashmir had to flee from Kashmir. By 1990, between 600,000 and 800, 000 Hindus had left Kashmir. The two communities, which had been living in harmony for centuries, suddenly became sworn enemies. Although the Shah government was subsequently dismissed, the damage had already been done. This, coupled with the alleged rigging of elections in 1987, gave birth to insurgency in Kashmir.

In 2010, news emerged of a fake encounter by the security forces, who claimed that they had killed three Pakistani infiltrators. They had actually rounded up three innocent civilians and killed them in cold blood. This incident lead to a renewed insurgency led by separatist leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Hurriyat Conference. The Indian government was forced to sentence all the six army persons to life in prison.

One of the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference popularized a novel method of attacking the riot police: He instigated youngsters to throw stones against the security forces. The security forces were forced to retaliate with tear gas and rubber bullets, and also in a few cases live bullets. The resulting clashes claimed the lives of over 100 people, including many teenagers.

The then-Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced an economic package to diffuse the situation, and restore normalcy in the state. This move paid off, as the insurgency in the state petered off, and barring a few isolated incidents, normalcy and peace was restored in the valley.

However, on July 8, 2016, the security forces killed Burhan Wani, a local militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani had used social media to attract young, educated Kashmiris to join him to wage a war against the state. He became very popular with the youth of Kashmir. Eyewitness account belied the accidental encounter theory and said that the J&K police had killed Wani and his two associates, while they were trying to escape from their hideout.  The killing of Wani, who had not refrained from personally taking up arms, sparked a wave of protests in Kashmir. For the first time, ordinary citizens, including women and children, took to the streets and indulged in stone throwing against the security forces. They also burnt and damaged public properties.

If the security forces had arrested Wani and his associates, instead of killing him, the situation would not have spiraled out of control. Today, Wani is considered as a martyr by hundreds of Kashmiri youth, and has become the face of new insurgency. Earlier the militant groups went looking for fresh recruits; now youths are willingly joining militant groups.  An editorial in the New York Times on the growing violence in Kashmir points out that the new generation of youth has only seen Kashmir being subjected to India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants the military wide powers to arrest, shoot to kill, and occupy or destroy property. People are feeling suffocated by the security forces being stationed in all parts of Srinagar.

Political leaders from all parties in India, concerned over the growing violence and death of innocent people, raised the issue in the Indian parliament and urged the government to stop using pellet guns against the stone throwers. They also called upon the government to reach out to the people to end the violence, and restore normalcy in the state. However, the biggest challenge now is that there is not a single leader who has the backing of the people with whom the interlocutors can talk. For the first time, citizens are forming their own groups to take on security forces. The separatists also don’t seem to enjoy the confidence of the people.  In fact, the state government led by its chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, a one time sympathizer of separatist elements, seems to be at a loss. The Indian government also looks clueless as to how to diffuse the tension.

The government decided to send an all party delegation to reach out to the people and other fringe elements. However, it was an open question whether citizen groups would be willing to meet the delegation, as there is a simmering anger in the valley against the establishment. One must understand that the Kashmir issue calls for a political solution, as the people are clamoring for independence. The government of India will not kowtow to any such demands, as such a move may inspire a few states in the northeast to claim independence or autonomy. Further, if India grants the wish of the people of the valley, Pakistan will take advantage of the situation by forcibly annexing Kashmir.

The Kashmir imbroglio offers no ready solutions. The decision to send an all party delegation to Srinagar to engage with civil groups was a bold move, but, as expected, the separatists snubbed the delegation and refused to meet them. Still, the Indian government’s efforts to break the current impasse and restore normalcy in the strife-torn state are a step in the right direction. Both the state and the Indian government should continue their efforts to engage with the civil groups to bring about a semblance of normalcy there.

Once this is achieved, serious efforts should be made to find a political solution to this vexing issue. This can be done by engaging with all stakeholders, including Pakistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, should also realize that by aiding and abetting terror groups, they are only putting the people of the Kashmir Valley in danger. Such attempts would only harden India’s stance. Both countries should keep the interest of Kashmiris in mind, and look to find a solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders. This is not an easy task, but the only permanent solution to put an end to the continuing conflict.

K.S. Venkatachalam is an independent columnist and political commentator. His articles have been featured in many leading newspapers.

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