By Swapan Dasgupta
There were many eye-openers for the parliamentary delegation that visited Jammu and Kashmir earlier this week. One encounter that shook many MPs was with a 'civil society' body known to be close to the All Party Hurriyat Conference.
The delegation comprised, among others, two extremely articulate individuals: a doctor who had earlier practised in Britain and a lady who teaches English at a local college. The dup made a spirited and eloquent presentation of the terrible plight of Kashmiris under "Indian occupation" and why Kashmiris would spurn all "packages" and never reconcile to being a part of the Indian Union. While leaving, the doctor taunted the MPs: "We hope to see you again in six months, when you come to sign the first India-Kashmir Accord."
Ever since the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union in 1948 there has always been a significant separatist current in society, some favouring integration with Pakistan and others espousing an independent Kashmir. At particular moments in the state's history, separatism has also seemed the dominant tendency in the Kashmir Valley. In 1989-90, in the aftermath of the Rubaiyya Sayeed kidnapping, the assassination of the older Mirwaiz and the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from the Valley, it almost seemed that the azadi euphoria would prevail over Indian nationhood.
Two decades later, history seems to be repeating itself, but with one significant difference. Rarely, if ever, before has the politics of separatism entered the mainstream political discourse of India. It is not merely that the cry of azadi defines the streets and by-lanes of Kashmir, drowning out other voices. What is truly amazing is the legitimacy that has been conferred on separatism by the media and the liberal establishment.
Even in the worst days of 1989-90 when India was governed by a ramshackle coalition were the separatists given such a sympathetic hearing by a community of opinion-makers close to the government. It has become drearily routine for advocates of separatism to be given prominent play in the media, often at the cost of the representatives of political parties in Kashmir. It has become fashionable for angst-ridden intellectuals from the Valley to highlight a perceived distinction between Kashmiris and India and to even proclaim that just because they carry Indian passports doesn't make them Indians.
The perception that Kashmiri separatism is winning and India is on the verge of being turfed out of the Valley isn't on account of a groundswell of support for azadi in the West. If anything, both the separatists and their backers in Pakistan have been struck by the fact that, unlike Gaza, this intifada has been relegated to the fringes of Western concern. Yesterday's radicals like Tariq Ali have attributed this indifference to Islamophobia and the economic lure of India. On its part, India has also interpreted it as the international community's growing exasperation with anything with a Pakistan link.
In the mid-1990s, a former Foreign Secretary of India used to say that that the Hurriyat was being kept alive by the US Embassy in Delhi. Today, no one makes any such claims and, post- David Miliband, every visiting dignitary is careful to avoid the K-word while engaging with India.
The paradox is that despite an absence of outside pressure, a section of the Indian political establishment appears to be losing its nerve and discovering the virtues of the separatists. Sonia Gandhi's brief intervention at the all-party conference on Jammu and Kashmir called for recognition of the "legitimate grievances" of the Kashmiri youth. It was an ambiguous statement that need not be over-interpreted. But it was the encouragement to Sitaram Yechuri and a clutch of MPs to call on Syed Ali Shah Geelani during the visit of the parliamentary delegation that needs dissection.
In theory, there is nothing per se objectionable about engaging with every section of Kashmiri society, including secessionists. Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, for example, has long been seen as a desirable moderate. He is nominally in favour of azadi but given the right circumstances, his azadi may not be incompatible with the Constitution, particularly if the world community states its firm opposition to changing geography. Geelani seems beyond the pale today but his background suggests that he too may be willing to redefine his priorities if azadi is seen to be a pipedream.
It is ultimately a test of nerves and endurance. The separatists got a big window of opportunity earlier this year thanks to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's mishandling of the initial protests. To this was added the image problem of the Abdullah dynasty. A civil unrest against an elected government was twinned with the rising tide of Islamism and a pre-existing desire for Kashmiri distinctiveness. The results were explosive.
That a purely military response to the crisis is unwise is understood. Going by the classic anti-insurgency doctrines, the security forces can at best demonstrate that the Indian state cannot be defeated militarily and that separatists should explore other realisable alternatives. It would be fair to suggest that the resolve of the security forces in the Kashmir Valley hasn't eroded—although there is an urgent need to fine tune its crowd control methods. What has waned, however, is the endurance level of the political dispensation in Delhi.
The division in the Cabinet over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is one example of the confusion that persists in Delhi. The other is the contradictory positions over the future of the Chief Minister—an issue where political wisdom and ground realities have been ignored in favour of Rahul Gandhi's flight of whimsy. Equally troubling is the belief that it is possible to engage fruitfully with the separatists from a position of equivalence. The net result is a situation where the separatists have convinced a large chunk of the Valley that azadi is imminent.
No wonder Geelani was crowing as an obsequious Yechuri and company paid obeisance to him in the full gaze of the cameras. It seemed a dress rehearsal for the actual capitulation ceremony.