City City Bang Bang, Columns

Stuck in Kashmir

It is difficult to use the word solution in any discussion on Kashmir anymore without attracting the charge of naiveté. With such entrenched positions and so many false starts and unfulfilled promises, even any movement towards a solution, too, looks like a distant prospect. For the rest of India, the Kashmir problem is difficult to comprehend fully and entwined as it is with terrorism and Pakistan. It gets seen through the lens of the anti-national and therefore invites little sympathy.

To be sure, there are voices that are tired of the problem and suggest that India would be better off without Kashmir, as there are those who argue that it is morally untenable to hold on to a territory against the wishes of its people. But these are marginal strands of opinion that have little mainstream currency. On the other side, there is deep and widespread disaffection among the Kashmiris, as it was quite evident in the interactions with the all-party team that visited the Valley a few days ago. It is difficult to shy away from the fact that the historical machinations of politicians, combined with the excesses committed by the armed forces (both sides may disagree on the quantum of such violations, but are agreed on the fact that some excesses have taken place) have created a climate of mistrust bordering on hatred for the Indian state.

In some sense, everyone is trapped in their positions. The Indian government has limited room to manoeuvre; the idea of an independent Kashmir is unthinkable for several reasons. Given India’s diversity and its federal structure, there is fear that any concession to Kashmir will snowball into a larger fragmentation of the country. More importantly, the involvement of Pakistan in Kashmir rules out any option of an independent Kashmir; for it would dramatically alter the balance of power between the two countries. Also, being a democracy, any government in power can go only so far in making concessions to those that a large part of the country sees as anti-national.

For the Kashmiri insurgents, there is little reason to change tack. The desire for independence has always existed but surfaces with renewed fervour whenever circumstances weaken the position of the Indian state. The combination of a weak government in the state and some tragic killings of innocent young people has fanned the fires of separatism and created a groundswell of popular sentiment. Independence is what Kashmiris have always wanted, and the Indian state, in spite of having 60 years to change this view, has done little in this direction. The AFSPA is just another sign of the government’s unwillingness to give Kashmiris what the rest of the country has and furthers the case that the state behaves like an occupier rather than the government.

For the Army, Kashmir is a no-win situation. It finds itself thrust in a role that is unfamiliar, that of selectively attacking its enemy and holding out in the face of sustained and implacable hostility. When it manages to bring the situation under some semblance of normalcy, the politicians, far from trying to convert the lull into something lasting, begin to relax and focus their attention elsewhere or worse, start playing games of petty politics.

The excesses committed by the armed forces are almost a given, considering that the process of separating the complicit from the innocent is doomed to some failure and the pressure of living in a hostile habitat with one hand tied behind the back is bound to create distortions from time to time. No wonder the Army opposes the relaxation of the AFSPA, for then it is rendered vulnerable, being asked to perform a role and then being denied the means to do so.

The truth is, nobody can win in Kashmir. The separatists do not have the firepower to establish independence by force nor are they in a position to use world opinion to force India to move towards this option. By any account the recent uprisings, where ordinary citizens stood up to the Army with nothing more than stones (for most part) should have been a stirring signal sent out to the rest of the world. It should have, under normal circumstances, created greater support for the Kashmiri cause, but the truth is that embroiled as Kashmir is with Pakistan and jihadi terrorism, sympathy from the world is extremely unlikely. Status-quo in Kashmir is the best option as far the rest of world is concerned.

From an Indian perspective, any belief that Kashmir can be tamed through force is doomed to failure. More violence will create more insurgency and deeper disaffection. A new generation will get further radicalised and the cost of maintaining Kashmir will continue to mount. It is important to accept that Kashmiris have a legitimate reason to feel the way they do, and to act on that basis. The only way forward is for each side to accept the limitations of the other and work in baby steps. Perhaps, the most important change needs to be made in the mind of the ordinary Indian, who needs to view the Kashmiri cause with a little more sympathy. This is not easy for we tend to see Kashmir in terms of power and strength rather than through the filter of what is just and fair, and it does not help that the shameful treatment of Kashmiri Pandits makes it difficult to uncritically accept the grouse of the Kashmiris.

But without a sense of emotional contiguity with the people of the state, Kashmir will remain an alien problem and a dispute about territory rather than people. The separatists will need to view their strategic options and will, at some stage, need to realise that even if their ultimate aim was independence, the circumstances are far from ripe today to take a decisive step forward. It is better to use the current situation to create a little more elbow room and begin some dialogue with a more amenable government. For Delhi, it is important to communicate its seriousness and to make some concrete gestures that make the genuineness of its intention clear.

What we don’t need are extreme characterisations and maximalist positions. Kashmir needs the fathomless wisdom of Vajpayee rather than the penetrating intelligence of a Chidambaram. The journey towards any settlement in Kashmir will be the product of time and language. Time used well will erode positions imperceptibly and language used creatively can be harnessed to describe old problems in new ways and can shave the most troubling parts of extreme positions and move towards a somewhat dissatisfying but workable equilibrium. As of now, there is no rosier picture we can conjure up on Kashmir.