Chaos in Kashmir

 Chaos in Kashmir.

Hardnews Special

Something sinister is happening in J&K. Who is behind this? And why?

Sanjay Kapoor, Hardnews, Delhi

Indians hate a weak government. And they know one when they see one. Quite evidently, the one that is in power in Delhi is living up to BJP leader LK Advani's claim that it is perhaps the weakest government that the country has ever had. Earlier, evidence to corroborate Advani's allegation would have been hard to compile but, after the shoddy manner in which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his home minister, Shivraj Patil, have handled the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) blowout, there is no confusion left.

People all over the country seethe with rage when they see television footage of how petty and opportunistic politics- backed with utterly incompetent leadership - was threatening the unity of the country. They wonder whether what is being played out could be handled differently. The biggest question that has not been answered is: why has the central government allowed the agitation in J&K to carry on for so long? Is there a design to it, or has the government's hands been stayed by some extraneous players to achieve a larger geo-political objective?

There may not be ready answers to these questions, but it is possible to perceive a pattern in the turbulence that seems to have gripped south Asia in recent months. By the look of it - it is a far larger and deeper game that is being played out not only in J&K, but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Does someone smell sulphur in the region?

The Americans after 9/11 are definitely the big players in the region. There are others - China, for instance -- that want to leave their impress on the region. Indeed, there is an abundance of ‘authoritative' material floating around all over the place about how Islamic terrorists are trying to provoke India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight with each other.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave credence to this line of thinking when he agreed to a suggestion - made during his trip to Havana to attend the NAM summit - that Pakistan, too, was a victim of terror. Implicit in his admission was the understanding that non State actors like Islamic militants wanted to engulf this region in chaos and attain their larger objectives laid out so many times by the cave-dwelling duo of Osama bin Laden and his Sancho Panza, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Much of the confidence building measures between India and Pakistan were premised on the belief that both the countries were suffering from the scourge and they needed to pool their resources to fight it. Pakistan was also forced by India's coercive diplomacy, backed by the Americans, to stop supporting the Kashmiri ‘freedom movement'. The peace visible in the Valley was an outcome of these exertions. So if violence and chaos returns to the Valley, then what is the inference one can draw from it? Quite clearly, the alchemy that brought peace in the Valley is either not working or has been withdrawn. Is the US looking at Kashmir differently, and no longer perceives it is an "internal matter" of India? 

According to a well informed South Asia observer: "Kashmir looks very bad, the Pakistanis and Indians will regret their inability to reach some kind of overall agreement. This will endanger both of them." This observer is dropping grave hints of what Kashmir can do to both India and Pakistan. It is a serious observation that seems to elude the leadership in Delhi. The longer it takes for peace to return to Kashmir, the easier it would be for Kashmiri separatists to demand intervention from international bodies. And the way it is looking, the solution to the Kashmiri problem is inextricably linked to the conduct of the preponderantly Hindu Jammu region of the state.

To reiterate, the people of Jammu have been demanding rescinding of the order that granted the Amarnath shrine land to the state government rather than to the body that conducts the famous journey (yatra). The J&K government had overturned an earlier order enacted at the behest of former governor S K Sinha who thought it prudent to grant the organising committee of the shrine ‘temporary land' for organising the long yatra to the Amarnath cave. Governor Sinha's decision to transfer land to the Hindu body stoked communal organisations of the Valley who wanted the order to be withdrawn. Quite clearly, someone had played mischief in the Amarnath yatra land issue.

Many believed that the decision to transfer the land to the shrine board was in many ways like the sneaky manner in which idols were planted in the disputed Ramjanambhoomi site in Ayodhaya after Independence, and the scandalous way the doors were opened of a frozen conflict. That incident was singularly responsible in reshaping Hindu--Muslim relations in post--Partition India and redefining Hindu communalism. In implications, the land issue over Amarnath yatra could be far more serious as it could initiate the process of balkanisation of the country if the central government does not nip these diabolical attempts in the bud. 

What lends seriousness to this issue is the manner in which the Albanian dominated Muslim enclave of Kosovo was granted freedom from Serbia. The Westphalian concept of sovereignty that the State should enjoy was violated with impunity. At the time, when the US government gave recognition to Kosovo, there were fears that a similar model could be replicated in Kashmir. Recently, Russia did one better and split Georgia and recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Like all such interventions, the Kashmir issue, too, could be rhetorically couched in a language that drips of altruism and the desire to douse fires of all those old conflicts. It can be rationalised that these conflicts are feeding the grievance of the Muslims against the modern State and providing active and angry recruits to al--Qaida and its fanatical avatars.

Sorting out the Kashmir issue  - if India and Pakistan do not get down to it - would be part of a larger project to neuter radical Islamists who are stirring up tensions at the Afghanistan--Pakistan border and spreading terror in India.

Another conspiracy theory, many would say, but the happenings in this region are more real than the sneaky designs that carved Kosovo out of a helpless Serbia. Take a look at the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of this interesting game that is being played out in this explosive region. It would become transparently clear how a not so invisible a hand is slowly reshaping politics and different objectives are being met - at great costs.

The epicentre of this grand strategy is the Federally Administered Tribal Agency (FATA) region of Pakistan, which has been listed by the Bush administration and endorsed by the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, as the place where the US and NATO forces should direct its fearsome energy and firepower. Obama's visit to Afghanistan last month reinforced the priorities of the US and there are ample indications that the world sees another round of fierce hostilities waged at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Reports coming from Afghanistan show regrouping of the Taliban forces and the aggressive manner in which they are attacking international forces. The face-off in Khost and in other areas indicates renewed attempts of the Taliban to take control of the countryside and drive the US and NATO forces out of the country.

The US government has made it clear that the FATA is fountainhead of militancy in the region. They have been trying to convince the Indian government, too, the importance of sanitising this area to ensure that there are no terror strikes against Indian assets. The horrific bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July that killed scores of people was proffered as an evidence of how Islamic terrorists were arraigned against New Delhi. Western diplomats in Delhi were found quizzing Indian media about how the Indian government would react to this incident. This was especially after Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai squarely blamed Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and threatened action. What these diplomats wanted to find out was simple: "Will India put its boots on the ground in Afghanistan?"

The Indian government's reaction was measured. It did not acquire the kind of maniacal pitch that the western nations were expecting from it. During the meeting of the foreign secretaries, the Indian government did not really make too much noise on this, realising that any overt display of physical presence would deepen Pakistan's security establishment insecurities, which might hit back against India's attempt to surround them. But ambivalence on the part of the Indians is unlikely to stop the US and allied forces to go into Pakistan.

What is going to be the outcome of this operation is not known, but this is surely going to shake things up in Pakistan and further de-legitimise the country's political class. One of the issues that Pakistan's political parties wanted to impeach recalcitrant former president Pervez Musharraf was the manner in which he allowed US forces a free run of the border areas as well as the use of predator drones to kill the Taliban leadership. They were also keen to haul him for using US aid to fight terror to beef up the ISI and fund destabilising operations against Afghanistan and India.

There are also sections in the Pakistani army which want to escalate hostilities against India, thereby repeatedly violating ceasefires, firing at Indian army posts, helping the terrorists to penetrate India, and perhaps, mobilising the bomb blasts. The recent events point to that - and also prove that the new regime, in the absence of Musharraf, will not be able to control the army and intelligence agencies.

It is difficult to make sense of how the new lame duck Pakistani leadership looks at the US, but there is growing evidence that their growing fall in stature and credibility is allowing Washington to do what it wants in a country in the throes of serious economic and political crisis and instability. At the time of writing, Pakistan had barely $8 billion in foreign exchange reserves and was in no position to buy expensive oil or wage a war against any entity.

The recent expose by the New York Times that the US ambassador to UN, Zalimay Khalidzad, was advising PPP Chairman Asif Zardari, clearly shows that the Pakistani leadership has become a plaything of all kinds of experts and freelancers from the US. There is a strong possibility that the neo-con US administration may use the confused Pakistani leadership to do exactly what is wanted of them, and that includes leading a high profile search for Osama bin Laden in the caves of the country's frontier, and waging urban warfare in towns like Peshawar etc.

The net outcome of such an operation would be that US forces would stay longer in that country and could also force the new administration in Washington to follow the same policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan as that of the Bush government. Going by the statements of Obama during his trip to Kabul, he would not mind such a proactive approach.

 

As for India, at least on Afghanistan, New Delhi has refused to get drawn into the designs of the western powers, but the happenings in J&K clearly show that things are not really in New Delhi's control. Interestingly, the violence and instability got ratcheted up after the government of Manmohan Singh won the trust vote in Parliament.

If one looks at the time-line of the Amarnath happenings, the decision had been taken much earlier, but the content of agitation suddenly took a turn for the worst. Faction--ridden Hurriyat, and the fundamentalist groups led by hardliners like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, that had been largely moribund, suddenly got a new lease of life. Other political parties like Mehbooba Mufti's People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Farooq Abdullah's National Conference, after initially leading the agitation, vacated the space to the Hurriyat. After the Jammu violence spun out of control and the allegations of ‘economic blockade' against Kashmir began to gain currency, the Hurriyat astutely resurrected the old demand to open the roads leading to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The gravaman of the Hurriyat was that fruit-sellers, a big lobby in the Valley, would be able to sell their produce in Pakistan rather than suffer bankruptcy. New Delhi denied that there was an economic blockade and the home ministry painstakingly tried to tell the media that the road was clear. But truckers who tried to cover the distance between J&K had other experiences. Reports began to emerge in the media of how the truckers were beaten up as they tried to climb up to the Valley. What was also disturbing was the manner in which the Jammu agitation was communalising the countryside and spawning a riot--like situation in all those areas where there was mixed population.

And what did the government do to break the seemingly difficult gridlock that was challenging the relationship of Kashmir with rest of the country?

Nothing!

Instead of breaking the blockade by creating an air-bridge between Srinagar and rest of the country, it chose to indulge in useless declamations that the Kashmiris were telling lies. The Hurriyat and other Kashmiris, who are now quite adept at raising the pitch on human rights violations, pointed out that medicines had disappeared from the market and there was shortage of other essential items. But Home Minister Shivraj Patil, displaying a stodgy bureaucratic mindset, refused to show an iota of creativity or sensitivity or efficiency in handling this situation. Symbolic gestures, too, were missing.

What was terrifying was that the all--party meeting called by the home ministry to find a solution to the Jammu happenings failed to produce any results.

Things spun out of control when the Hurriyat gave a call to march to Muzaffarabad and one of their leaders, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, was shot, among several others. There were reports of individuals being shot at point blank range. Later, National Security Advisor (NSA) MK Narayanan claimed that Aziz was not shot by security forces but by someone (read militant) who was used to push things from bad to worse. Media reports, later revealed, that the agencies had neither done an autopsy nor any investigation to arrive at this conclusion.

Be that as it may, Hurriyat rallies grew bigger in size and the one at the famous Eidgah was stated to have attracted more than three lakh people. For the first time in many years, the Pakistani flag was also unfurled on Indian soil.

On Independence Day, the security forces had hastily pulled down the national flag from Lal Chowk lest it gets desecrated by the separatists. Two hours later, the separatists flew their own flag. For the first time since the 1990s, the entire Valley was put under curfew. Governor NN Vohra, who had rescinded the earlier order of his predecessor, appeared to have lost control of the state. His much vaunted skills were shown to be inadequate.

It also seemed as if the control of the central government had slipped. Central forces that had been withdrawn to prevent a bloodbath in the Valley ended up feeding the impression that the Indian State had retreated from the Valley. As agitators heaped insults on the Indian government and its symbols, there was no one to really stand up for New Delhi.

Later, the NSA visited the Valley and decided to use the iron hand to stop the manifest stasis. Midnight arrests followed and Hurriyat leaders were detained. Strict curfew was also imposed, but this was at best a short term solution. Mercifully, the Pakistan government has been largely quiet on the happenings across the border, preoccupied as it is with its own turbulence and misery.

Despite Pakistani army's change in priorities - it is more occupied with its western border - the Indian government has been claiming increased violation of the ceasefire. For a few weeks now, not a day passes without the media claiming firing from across the border or infiltration by the Mujahideen. It is clear that there is an attempt to heat up the border again - either by Islamic fundamentalists within the Pakistani army or by some extraneous forces. Some of the Mujahideen got into the Jammu sector and had a bloody confrontation with the armed forces on August 27. Happenings at the border are clear pointers that the day is not very far the two forces may engage in more serious confrontation than what has been witnessed in the last few years.

The violence in J&K is not going to leave India's politics unscathed. The BJP that was looking so battered after the trust vote has suddenly found its teeth and support. Its front organisations like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal are back in business. They are taking the simple message to all those who are willing to listen of how the central government is appeasing Kashmiri Muslims.

Their argument- why cannot the land be given to the Amarnath shrine board for even the two months when the yatra takes place? did not get a cogent answer from the authorities. People in parks and buses discuss just one thing: Is the government so weak that it cannot control the happenings in the border state? They wonder how the agitation could carry on for 50 days without the government finding a solution.

The UPA government's fall in credibility after the manner in which wads of notes were shown in Parliament to save the government is bleeding its reputation. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi's image has been badly damaged. The BJP has succeeded in consolidating the large constituency of urban middle class Indians who are worried about the country's unity and integrity. There is fear that India could lose Kashmir if the central government continues to be run by non-politicians.

Suddenly, people are talking of Indira Gandhi and how she stood up against all those who tried to balkanise the country. They point at the manner in which she liberated Bangladesh and cocked a snook at the Americans. The shrewd statesmanship of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is being recalled -- how he took the initiative to restore ties with Pakistan and bring peace to Kashmir. His statement that "humanity was above the Constitution" is being squared with the bureaucratic approach of the prime minister and his abjectly inept home minister.

The opportunities Manmohan Singh got to heal the divide or ease the fears of the masses were squandered repeatedly, especially during the address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. Indeed, with inflation breaking the back of the nation, and the poverty index expanding with the majority living on merely $1 plus per day, as the recent World Bank Report stated, the criticism against the prime minister has sharpened. Focussed only on the nuclear deal, and playing footsie with the US at any cost, he seemed to have left the nation to sink to its abysmal fate. So did Sonia Gandhi. The fact is, this is the widespread opinion.

J&K represents a clear, present and persistent danger. Article 370 that gives special status to Kashmir is being questioned by the Jammu agitation. The response of the Hurriyat and the Kashmiri masses would make it difficult for any government to sell Article 370 any longer. What is worse is that there is no democratic space left to discuss many of these issues --- so badly fractured and impatient has the polity become.

The situation has been exacerbated by a very tricky and volatile external environment where
the US and other powers, including China, are trying hard to enlarge their areas of influence. Those sympathetic to America say the US would do nothing to undermine India's importance. Devaluation of India would hurt investment and strike a body-blow to attempts to make India a countervailing force to China. On the contrary, China would be chastened if the US cleans up Pakistan. It is a complex, differently layered political reality that we face today. The nation cannot afford a weak and non-committal government in Delhi. This is because something sinister is in the air. And it will unfold in the days to come.