It really cannot get more bizarre. The day US President Donald Trump ordered his bombers to drop the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) on the impoverished district of Nangarhar in Afghanistan to smoke out the Islamic State (IS), there was perceptible glee amongst many of those who have no qualms in recommending firing of machine guns at Kashmiri stone pelters. Social media was full of harebrained suggestions including use of such excessive force as witnessed in Afghanistan against Kashmiri protesters who have compelled the police and security forces to explore new ways of crowd control and violent demonstrations. They have used ordinary bullets, rubber bullets, pellet guns and water hoses. Nothing seems to have worked beyond a point.
Increasingly, a narrative is being explored about why Kashmir should be given so much political space. Many of the ruling party supporters say that these Kashmiris are a pampered lot and their special status should be withdrawn and outsiders should be allowed to settle in the state. Others suggest splitting the state into three parts and also creating an enclave for the internally displaced Kashmiri Pandits (IDP) who were forced to leave the state at a time of “frozen turbulence” – this is the title of the book by the former Governor of Kashmir, Jagmohan. The thinking behind this proposal is to kill the resistance of the Kashmiris and their demand for azadi. It is a matter of surprise that this dispute has continued to simmer even after 70 years of independence and all the concessions that have been granted to the people of this state under the Indian Constitution. Why has the Indian State failed to earn the confidence of Kashmiris and integrate them with the rest of the country?
These are worrying questions and answers to them have been explored by many bright and well-intentioned people. Leaving aside the plebiscite, which was promised in 1948, the government has tried everything. We have seen power democratically getting transferred to regional parties like the National Conference and more recently the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Also, the government managed to use the independent Election Commission to rebuild the faith of the people of this state in the democratic process after the manner in which an election was stolen in the late 1980s. We have also seen President’s Rule with the government trying to use police and security forces to silence any dissent. For a short while, calm would seem to return to the Kashmir Valley and then there would be an incident – either a cross-border attack by terrorists from Pakistan or a messy scrap between the army and the radicals. What is really distressing is that there are about seven lakh security personnel posted in the Valley, but it doesn’t really solve this intractable problem.
The BJP, before it came to power at the centre, had criticised the Congress government for its kid-glove treatment of Kashmiris. It promised to talk and act tough. In 2014 Secretary-level talks with Islamabad were postponed when Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit met the separatist leadership. Since then there has been no revival of the dialogue process between the two countries despite some sporadic expression of resolve to do so. Instead, we are seeing increasing attitude by the security forces backed by an aggressive majoritarian public opinion that they should be brought to heel. There are routine suggestions from many arm chair experts that we should follow the example of Israel and its taming of the Palestinians. There is abundant praise showered on Israel and its Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, for ignoring liberal objections to his methods and quashing the Islamist threat emanating from his neighbourhood and within. These Israel supporters want the Narendra Modi government to replicate a similar policy – to degrade the protesters and tackle their demands. The Netanyahu government has bombed Palestinian enclaves in Gaza where hundreds and thousands live and where there is little space to escape the assault. What is also typical of this strategy is the impunity displayed by the Israeli security forces towards Palestinians. Israelis seldom get punished for their crimes. Recently, an Israeli soldier got 18 months for killing an injured Palestinian. In other civilised societies there would have been outrage, but Israel, an enlightened society otherwise, showed little remorse. Netanyahu wanted the guilty soldier to be pardoned.
Similar impatience is visible amongst ruling party members towards Kashmir. But unlike what is happening in Gaza, our nuclear-armed neighbour, whose existence is fed by the contestation in Kashmir, is always ready to go to war over this fabled valley. India has fought four wars with Pakistan and there is no guarantee that another war will sort out this issue. Perhaps the US senses this violent churn in the sub-continent – its new president has offered to mediate between the two neighbours. Bad times!