Ugly Stability: Failing to Read the Danger Signals in Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir is on the boil again and this time India mostly has its own sectarian politics to blame for the steadily deepening crisis. The informal cease-fire on the Line of Control (LoC), which had held up fairly well November 25, 2003, through a tortuously slow rapprochement process, has been repeatedly violated by the Pakistan army in recent weeks and there have been casualties on both the sides. As Pakistan braces to face up to its political crisis, the ISI is reported to have once again stepped up the concentration of terrorists in launch pads across the LoC. A large number of infiltration attempts have been successfully foiled by the Indian army. The Amarnath Shrine land transfer issue has led to the spontaneous outbreak of violent protests with angry Muslim mobs waving Pakistani flags in the Kashmir Valley and by equally furious Hindu youth waving the Indian Tricolour in the Jammu region. 

On the positive side, the incident-free Amarnath Yatra has drawn over 5.5 lakh pilgrims this year compared with 3.0 lakh and 2.7 lakh in the full season in 2007 and 2006, respectively. Over 4.0 lakh tourists have visited Kashmir this year (4.4 lakh in the whole of 2007) despite a grenade attack at Gulmarg and some other incidents of sporadic violence. Overall, there has been a general decline in violence levels in the hinterland, particularly in the Jammu Division south of the Bannihal Pass on the Pir Panjal Range. This has enabled the Indian army to gradually reduce the number of troops deployed for counter-insurgency operations in J&K and send some infantry battalions back to their peace-time locations.

Cease-fire violations along the LoC are difficult to understand. Surely, the Pakistan army would not like to activate its eastern front when it is fighting with its back to the wall against the Pakistani Taliban in the NWFP and FATA areas and progressively losing ground to them. The only plausible explanation can be that the violations are part of an evolving Pakistan army-ISI game plan to adversely influence the forthcoming elections to the J&K Assembly in October 2008. Another round of free and fair polls conducted in a peaceful atmosphere with a large voter turnout would militate against Pakistan's propaganda that the people of Kashmir have been denied the right of self rule. Hence, the violations are part of carefully calibrated attempts to support the infiltration of additional terrorists into Kashmir to vitiate the atmosphere through greater violence in the run up to the elections.

However, the issue that is of immediate concern is the Jammu versus Kashmir violence related to the Amarnath Shrine land transfer that has completely polarised the two majority communities in J&K. Agitated over the revocation of the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board due to the politically motivated resistance of people in the Valley, the people of Jammu and adjacent areas came out on the streets in large numbers, defied the curfew that had been promulgated, fought the police and imposed an economic blockade of the Valley. In fact, the pent up emotions of nearly 20 years of insurgency and fundamentalist terrorism, perceptions of the continued political appeasement of the people of the Valley and the feeling that unjustifiably large amounts of government funds have been diverted to the Valley while Jammu has been neglected, have come to the fore. 

The agitation has been festering for almost 50 days already and, if it is allowed to continue unchecked, it could lead to an unbridgeable communal divide. This will have disastrous consequences for the future unity of J&K and India. Passions on both the sides have been inflamed and wild accusations are being freely hurled. Some political leaders in Kashmir Valley are openly speaking of approaching Pakistan for getting essential supplies from Muzzaffarabad in POK and sending apples for sale along the Srinagar-Baramulla-Muzzaffarabad road if the Jammu-Srinagar lifeline is not opened right away. In what is a new and diabolical dimension to the ongoing crisis, sporadic cries of azadi are again being heard across the Valley and Pakistan's leaders have begun to say that their hearts bleed for the Kashmiri people. From Pakistan's point of view, the ISI could not have scripted it better - if it had orchestrated the ongoing drama.

Sadly, a vital national interest is once again losing out to the cynical calculations of vote bank politics, administrative paralysis and inept political leadership. Political leaders in the Kashmir Valley as well as the Jammu region have not only made no attempt to stem the rot, but have actively encouraged the agitators to fan the flames of hatred. Political leaders at the national level have been indulging in a blame game and threatening to take the land transfer issue to all corners of India. All thinking Indians must recognise that in today's day and age, with media cameras panning every street 24x7, if the people of Kashmir Valley come out on the streets again in the hundreds of thousands and demand azadi, as they had done in 1988-89, no amount of force will succeed in retaining the Valley within India. 

The need of the moment is to take the message of communal harmony and goodwill to the agitators on both sides of the Pir Panjal Range. All national political parties must rise to the occasion and come together to stop the bandhs, lift the blockade of the Valley and appeal to the people to put an immediate end to the violence. India's open society and liberal democracy provide enough opportunities for the redressal of grievances. Violent agitations cannot possibly resolve social tensions; these can only create greater disharmony. 

If need be, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Leader of the Opposition L K Advani should travel together to Jammu and Srinagar to heal the wounds and assuage hurt feelings. The seriousness of the situation demands statesmanship of the highest order.