Where new beginnings lead to dead ends
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In two decades of reportage on Kashmir, I have never witnessed such rage here. Unlike previous protests, it isn't just anger, but more than that. Kashmir isn't unused to killings but the hanging of Afzal Guru, its secretive nature and the clampdown in its wake, seem to have changed the discourse on the ground.
Unlike in the last three summer agitations, the mainstream political parties aren't seen as independent entities that disregard the overwhelming public sentiment to stay in power. Now they are being looked upon as merely an extension of New Delhi. This is the primary reason why both the ruling National Conference and its main opposition, the People's Democratic Party, are competing to disassociate themselves from Afzal's hanging.
Though there is a strong belief in Kashmir that Afzal didn't get a fair trial, the reasons why he has become a "martyr'' don't have entirely to do with him. Kashmir's pent up sentiment against the perpetual status quo needed a trigger to explode, and the hanging has provided that. The J&K government knew this, and that is why it had locked down the entire Valley even before news of the hanging broke on Saturday morning.
The official explanation for Afzal's hanging and its timing is simple: the law followed its course and he was given the capital punishment only "after exhausting every legal recourse". In Kashmir, this explanation is read as a selective use of the law. Leave aside the separatists, hundreds of questions asked by Kashmir's mainstream political establishment have never been answered. Why was the law being followed differently on what even the CBI called "cold-blooded murder'' in Kashmir? Instances are cited of ordinary people being picked up, killed in staged encounters and subsequently dubbed as foreign militants for medals and cash awards. In each, the judicial processes were never seen to be so "efficient", or sensitive to the sense of collective helplessness in Kashmir.
The government's reaction to the Delhi gangrape is being compared with the cases in which the armed forces are accused of committing rape and sexual assault here. Among the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee that the government didn't accept was the need to remove immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to armed forces personnel charged with rape and sexual assault. Justice Verma's committee had asked the government to allow such cases to be tried in civilian courts without the prior permission of the Central government.
The only time the Supreme Court has intervened and taken suo moto cognisance of deaths in Kashmir was in the case of the deaths of pilgrims during the Amarnath yatra last year. This issue was certainly important and the intervention of the apex court made the administrative machinery more accountable. But these were not the first deaths in Kashmir to raise serious questions for the government to answer.
The questions about the double standards practised by New Delhi with regard to Kashmir are no longer a part of the rebel discourse alone; they are being raised by mainstream politicians as well. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah questioned this double standard in the response to the barbarity of rape. If it is not a standard operating procedure of the armed forces to rape women during operations in Kashmir, he said, they should not seek legal immunity under AFSPA. His demand for the revocation of AFSPA from select places where the army wasn't even deployed was turned down, he says, "because [the] army's convoy routes pass through these areas and they don't want to ply their vehicles without the immunity of this special law". He has pointed to the recent attack in Chhattisgarh where an air force chopper was hit, and asked why there isn't a clamour for AFSPA in that state.
But while Abdullah is loud and clear on AFSPA revocation, his own slate isn't clean. The state government has been booking even children under the draconian Public Safety Act, which provides the government with the licence to lock up anybody for a period of up to two years without facing the scrutiny of the courts. This law was introduced in 1978, apparently as a preventive measure against timber smugglers, but its misuse is rampant against political opponents or to carry out the whims of the security establishment.
PDP supremo Mufti Sayeed says the government has "reduced Mahatma Gandhi's country" to a "banana republic" and has "imprisoned an entire population". He also expresses a "serious apprehension" that the Afzal execution may push another generation of Kashmiris towards armed insurrection. Mufti is not only a former chief minister of J&K but a former Union home minister as well.
Kashmiris have a wicked sense of humour and there is a joke doing the rounds that once the curfew restrictions and the information blockade bring the immediate crisis under control, New Delhi will appoint a new set of interlocutors with a mandate to ascertain what Kashmiris really want. As if New Delhi needs a new emissary to provide a different perspective on a solution after every agitation. More seriously, this time, too, a similar strategy has started to play out according to the same script, and such voices will get louder once there is enough proof that the clampdown has exhausted the angry population.
But this time, interlocutors may not even be able to find enough material to write a report. Even the regular hosts of the peace junkets are sceptical this time. There can be little doubt that the emissaries will, instead, be asked to return to Delhi and spend time in the archives to retrieve the findings and reports of their predecessors and convince New Delhi to start implementing some of them. They would be advised to read the press statements that accompanied the report submitted by Dileep Padgaonkar and his team on the Union home ministry's website more than six months ago. The home ministry inserted a caveat saying that the report was the view of the interlocutors, ignoring the fact that they were government appointed and their report wasn't the outcome of a private mission.
This report had not made any bold prescription to match the sentiment on the ground. Instead, the interlocutors had stayed within the red lines of the government's traditional Kashmir policy, even trivialising the "azadi" demand as a "dirge" to secure Delhi's acceptance. The fate of the interventions made by Delhi's high-profile emissaries, like former PM Rajiv Gandhi or a dozen or so other similar peace missions, hasn't even been discussed publicly.
The mainstream parties in Kashmir, too, have gone through the embarrassment of a summary rejection of their prescriptions. The ruling NC's autonomy document was rejected after a two-third majority in the J&K assembly passed the autonomy resolution in 1999. The PDP's self-rule document or Sajjad Lone's doctrine of achievable nationhood weren't even acknowledged, let alone debated.
"Dialogue" and "peace process" are perhaps the most abused words in Kashmir today. In fact, they have lost their dictionary meaning and are read as delay tactics. Today, there is no need for a new start in Kashmir. What is required is an acknowledgement of the truth on the ground.