So how Peepli is this valley?

Sanjay Kapoor

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was a Kashmiri, but when he chose to extend special privileges and status to the people of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 immediately after Partition, he was trying to tell them that life would be better in a secular, democratic, pluralist polity rather than in a theocratic State. By doing this, Nehru transformed this contentious border state as the touchstone for testing the idea of India. He believed that a modern secular nation providing quality governance would triumph over a religious State and that would provide an enduring solution to this dispute rather than a political one cobbled by unsure leaders. 

After 63 years of our Independence, if the Kashmiri youth bare their chest in front of gun-toting paramilitary forces and demand "azadi" (or merger with a violence-wracked, economically devastated Pakistan) rather than being part of India's "phenomenal growth story", then, surely, successive governments in Delhi could not adequately understand or translate Panditji's vision. Something seems to have horribly gone wrong with us! History is unlikely to judge this embarrassing botch-up kindly. 

In the late 1980s, when Kashmir saw the onset of armed militancy, it was attributed to electoral fraud perpetrated on the people by the Indian establishment and the progressive communalisation of Indian society and polity. The demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the killings that followed across India, struck a body blow to India's secular credentials. Since then, the valley has been in permanent ferment. Surely, the situation has been aggravated by the support separatist forces have got from neighboring Pakistan, whose domestic politics routinely gets irrigated by the Kashmir issue. The legitimacy that militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Taiba or Hizbul Mujahideen enjoy in Pakistan is fundamentally due to the emotional sway Kashmir has on the sections of people in Pakistan. The Pakistani leadership, over the years, has cleverly diverted attention from their own failings and organised corruption, and their inability to bring about land reforms in their iniquitous feudal country, by raising the issue of injustices in "Indian-occupied Kashmir". Occupation by a "Hindu India" of a "Muslim Kashmir" also helped in militarising the Pakistani society and lending content to radical Islamist organisations to establish "Ummah" with Saudi Arabian funds. 

While the Pakistan establishment might have contributed in keeping the Kashmir dispute alive in international forums while also feeding the angst of people out there against the Indian State, the crisis visible in the fabled valley is definitely our doing. India got numerous opportunities to showcase a Constitution committed to religious and ideological plurality which was superior in dispensation to anything that was exclusionary. This commitment also meant providing quality, egalitarian governance, and proving on the ground that "everything was good and wonderful" about the "secular" Indian State. So while the Indian government was liberal in doling out funds and subsidising the lives of ordinary Kashmiris, it did many things wrong. And the most damning has been the large-scale corruption and human rights violations spawned by special circumstances that reveal themselves in the valley. 

The turbulence in Kashmir has allowed the nexus of local leaders, central bureaucrats and security agencies to drain off central funds to their advantage. Bribery and corruption is so rampant that it is impossible for the vast number of jobless young people to get jobs without greasing palms. Shoot to kill, or torture to death in police custody, seems to be the unilateral norm: with not one alternative combat tactics tested to deal with civil unrest. The return of participative democracy has not really helped. I am sure if anyone tries to make a jet black comedy like Peepli Live in Kashmir, it would look no different. At least in Kashmir, the demand for freedom has allowed them to step out on the streets and curse the authorities. In other parts of India, citizens are often trapped in a tragic theatre of the absurd from where they can find little escape. 

The pain and misery of everyday living in rural areas is so unbearable that the protagonists of Peepli Live unemotionally seek the option of committing suicide so that their families can get some compensation. A reactive State responding to sensation-ridden TV media tries to find ways to stop the suicide but finds that there are no government 'schemes' under which it can be done. Only the dead get rewarded. Peepli Live surely shows the Indian dream gone miserably wrong. The Maoist surge, misplaced and mismatched, is an expression of this rage. 

Under these predictable circumstances, would we have the moral authority to tell the Kashmiris that we serve life better than our star-crossed neighbours?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2010

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