A paradox in the Valley
The crimson-decade that began with more than 500 conflict-related killings in the year 2008, finally ended with almost an equal number of fresh corpses in Kashmir last year. That brutal summer of 2008, after the Amarnath land row, inaugurated a new age of mourning in Kashmir.
This brought to the fore new patterns of mass resistance, new modes of street protests and new tools of state repression. The Hurriyat’s politics got a fresh lease of life and the space for the political mainstream began to shrink, yet again. Social media became an extended battlefield. Yet another generation of Kashmiris was inoculated with the germ of defiance, which manifested itself a few years down the line in the form of “scholar-led” militancy, with unprecedented social approval.
Outrage over the Shopian rape incident, invocation of collective conscience during Afzal Guru’s execution, the capture of the newsrooms in Delhi, the sanctimonious politics of rescue during the September 2014 floods, a North Pole-South Pole alliance in 2015, pellet-gun-related mass blinding during the Burhan Wani agitation were some of the major provocations during this time that pushed Kashmiris towards a suicidal upsurge against the Indian state.
However, in the 2008 assembly elections, around 60 per cent polling was reported in the state, which was astonishing since the million-people marches, barely a month earlier, were ostensibly indicative of an out-and-out boycott. In the 2014 state assembly elections, the participation was even higher at 65 per cent. Ironically, true to the nature of cyclic turbulence in Kashmir and merely three years later, a voter turnout of 7.1 per cent was reported in the Srinagar by-poll. The absence of a correlation between electoral participation and people’s resentment with respect to the Indian state adds an important layer to the complexity of the multi-layered quagmire of Kashmir. Meanwhile, the central government sent a special representative to listen to people’s “grievances” but no one seemed interested in bartering “aspirations” for “grievances” and the dialogue couldn’t take off.
Now that the state is gearing up for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, Kashmir is experiencing a severe winter of despair. The government forces are in hot pursuit of highly motivated and poorly trained armed militants, but strangely enough, the militancy is not showing any signs of fatigue.
The size of funerals accorded to the fallen rebels has grown exponentially, and the rate of new recruitment has not diminished either. Youth have lost all fear of death and encounter sites are being attacked to rescue trapped guerillas, in an unparalleled display of militant spirit by the people, who could be made to fall in line by a lone stick-wielding cop a few years ago.
Our experience tells us that if the people’s call for the restoration of their political agency is responded to only by deploying stronger and more lethal weapons, then this asymmetric war is not ending anytime soon. On the contrary, if the Indian state still takes a step back, recognises the problem and reaches out to the Hurriyat and other stakeholders with an offer of unconditional dialogue, then there is a hope that a new decade of destruction could be avoided.
At the root of the political problem in Kashmir is the paradox that those who represent the sentiment do not participate in the electoral process and those who participate in the electoral process do not represent the sentiment. Elections have been held regularly since 1996, but there is a feeling that the elected representatives are either a disempowered lot, a group of helpless “daily-wagers” with the Government of India or that the elected representatives are misrepresenting their electorate by not speaking out about the basic Kashmir issue. This needs to change.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Kashmir needs non-violent and democratic methods to achieve political aspirations. But at the same time, people have egregious memories of the 1987 elections and faith in the electoral process is missing. There is a feeling that if those who do not believe in solutions within the “integral part” framework wish to engage democratically, then a fair electoral opportunity is not given to them. The lack of faith in the electoral process also stems from the fear that voter-turnout is misused to negate the legitimacy of the political aspirations of the people and governance issues are used to confuse their narrative. This has, in turn, led to a situation where the people of Jammu and Kashmir are losing out both in terms of political aspirations and governance
The way out of the deadlock in Kashmir is to strengthen democracy. The Indian state must be extra accommodating of dissent, when dealing with Kashmir. Those who win elections must have the freedom to truthfully represent their electorate. The existing “mainstream” political parties must not feel threatened by intrigues originating in Delhi.
The perception that it is not the ballot but the deep-state that changes regimes in Kashmir must end. In the true spirit of free speech, public debate must be allowed to include the whole range of issues, from governance to regional aspirations to issues of minority communities like the Kashmiri Pandits and, most importantly, the right to self-determination. That is how the environment of suffocation and siege can end in Kashmir.
The politics of day-to-day governance and the politics of larger aspirations can’t remain separate for long. This dichotomy is harming Kashmir and in the absence of the right people to speak for them, Kashmiris are dying to be heard.
However, it must be understood that after a hundred thousand deaths, there is no going back. People can’t be asked to forget and move on. There must be a resolution if we want that the decade ahead of us to usher in peace. Without being sincere about enlarging the democratic space in Kashmir, every call for de-escalation will be seen by people as an invitation to surrender and will be vehemently resisted.