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So, what will the Kashmiri people accept?

August 11, 2010 14:39 IST

After very hard and acrimonious bargaining they will ultimately settle for unadulterated autonomy, which will allow them the right to rule themselves, within the Indian Union, says Gurmeet Kanwal.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have at last realised that it is time to deliver in Kashmir and has come out strongly in favour of a healing touch. He has spoken of feeling the people's 'dard aur mayusi' and has expressed his anguish over the recent killings in Kashmir Valley.

He has appointed an expert group headed by former Reserve Bank of India governor Dr C Rangarajan, with N R Narayana Murthy, Tarun Das, P Nanda Kumar, Shaqueel Qalander and an official representative of the J&K Government as members, to formulate a plan for creating new jobs in the state. However, he has stopped short of also appointing a political interlocutor to unconditionally resume the stalled dialogue with Kashmiri political parties representing all shades of opinion.

While the prime minister's initiatives are a welcome development, the situation in the Kashmir Valley continues to be grim and is reminiscent of other revolutions in recent memory. In February 1986, the Filipino people restored democracy through the People Power Revolution. In 1989-90, Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in Poland beat back the mighty Soviet Union's tanks. The citizens of Czechoslovakia shook off totalitarian Communist rule in the Velvet Revolution. The victory of the Ukrainian peoples' Orange Revolution represented a new landmark in the history of peoples' movements for democracy. The Cedar Revolution in April 2005 ended the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon after 30 years. The Nepalese revolution next door is the latest manifestation of the power of the people.

Clearly, there is a lesson in this for India. If the Kashmiri people come out on the streets of Srinagar, Baramulla, Sopore, Kupwara, Anantnag and half a dozen other towns like they did in 1988-89, in today's mega-media age, it will be well nigh impossible to keep Kashmir by force this time around. The situation in the Kashmir Valley is far more critical than ministers of the central government are ready to admit at least in public. A new generation of students born in the early 1990s has taken to the streets and they are not going to go back home empty-handed.

Brought up during two decades of violence under the shadow of the guns of the security forces as well as the terrorists, their hopes for the future remain unfulfilled. They are educated and they are jobless. And, they are angry. While some of these protesters are no doubt being paid to shout slogans demanding azadi and hurl stones at the security forces, most of them appear to be genuinely concerned about the lack of resolution of the core issues and the government's inability to resolve the socio-economic challenges facing the state. The successful resolution of insurgencies requires a three-pronged approach: governance, development and security, along with perception management.

While the security situation has improved considerably over the last few years -- exemplified by the demands for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and even for the withdrawal of the army from counter-insurgency operations -- poor governance and the lack of adequate socio-economic development continue to hamper efforts to put an end to the insurgency being sponsored by the Pakistan army and the Inter Services Intelligence. No insurgency anywhere in the world has ever been solved by the security forces alone.

Another major cause for concern is the palpable sense of alienation of the Kashmiri people from the national mainstream. While the prime minister has taken several laudable initiatives, including the appointment of five-task forces and holding of talks in February 2006 with the political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir other than the Hurriyat leaders who refused to participate, there has been marked slackness in following through and promises have not been kept.

Meanwhile, loose talk of abrogating Article 370 of the Indian Constitution -- the glue that binds the Constitutions of J&K and India -- continues unfettered. Except for a very small minority that has been deeply influenced by radical extremism, the Kashmiri people do not wish to either join Pakistan or opt for independence from India. Creeping Talibanisation in Pakistan goes against the grain of Kashmiriyat and Sufi culture. So, what will the Kashmiri people accept?

After very hard and acrimonious bargaining they will ultimately settle for unadulterated autonomy, which will allow them the right to rule themselves, within the Indian Union. They will accept that the central government continues to deal with defence, foreign affairs, currency and communications while the J&K Assembly is left free to legislate on everything else. Is that too much to concede?

The late Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao had said the 'sky is the limit' for autonomy. When asked whether he was proposing to hold talks within the framework of the Constitution, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said he was willing to host talks within a 'humanitarian framework'. Dr Singh had made a pitch for "mutual tolerance, understanding and accommodation" in his first term.

All-party talks must be held to evolve a national consensus on resolving the problem in J&K. As soon as the composite dialogue with Pakistan is resumed, discussions on J&K must be taken up in all earnestness. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and political leaders belonging to all political parties at the Centre and in the state must rise to the occasion and provide the leadership that the situation requires.

As for the security forces, they must be allowed to conduct their counter-insurgency operations against Pakistan-sponsored terrorists in accordance with the well established rules of engagement, but must do so with a sense of utmost restraint.

Gurmeet Kanwal is the director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.

Gurmeet Kanwal