Since early August, there has been a slew of veiled threats by the Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan that suggest a war between the two nations was among the imminent possibilities. Indian strategists have argued that Pakistan’s bluster was a thin smokescreen created to camouflage its lack of military ability and the parlous state of its economy. Pakistan is a nuisance, though, to be sure, it would be a mistake to consider its nuisance value as a benign irritant. Pakistan has deliberately practised ‘cultivated irrationality’ in its approach towards India. In 1999, it gave stark evidence of defying templates by occupying heights of Kargil during peak winters.
But the locus of resolving the Kashmir imbroglio lies within, not outside our country. In dissecting the current state of tense impasse, a few points need to be made. One, the views on merits or demerits of the decision to abrogate Article 370 no longer matter outside of the courts of law. The Rubicon has been crossed and any future resolution of the problem will have to be found ahead of that line. Two, sustaining the status quo is not a viable option and, sooner rather than later, the government will have to move beyond the regime of restrictions. Three, we are in it for a long haul. The thoughts of turning a quick leaf are overly optimistic. It may be years before we can declare mission accomplished.
What is the most likely scenario that awaits us? And what are things we can do to move the needle in the right direction?
It is possible that once the curtailments in place are eased, sporadic agitation may erupt. Indeed, most of the restrictions – the imposition of curfew and Section 144 (except in some parts of the Valley) have already been removed. While cellular phones and internet are still not functional, all landlines have been restored and the few failures in this regard are purely for technical reasons. There is no embargo on movement, though the local populace appears to have a placed a self-imposed curfew on itself; markets in Srinagar open in the mornings and evenings but the shutters are largely down during the day. People are freely moving for essential activities. Children though are conspicuously absent from schools and attendance of teachers is abysmal.
In spite of the modicum of ‘normalcy’ there have been very few agitations. The long presence of the NSA to oversee the aftermath of Article 370 has clearly had a salutary effect on creating the right security envelope for maintaining calm. The only notable incident of violence has been the horrific terrorist attack on the family of a fruit-seller in Sopore, who refused to let his produce rot and defied militant diktats against reopening of business. Four people, including the two-year-old Asma, received bullet injuries.
But barring that incident, the overall quiet in spite of the lifting restrictions may well mean that peace and tranquillity could slowly return to the Valley. To assume that as the prime possible scenario, however, would be a mistake. Stoked from across the border and by elements within, an eruption can hardly be ruled out. Since the leadership of all hues is currently incarcerated, the organising ability to foment trouble has been largely proscribed. That could change.
It is at that turn that both the firmness and the restraint of security forces will be pivotal to the outcome. It is obviously problematic — to say the least — to ‘win hearts and minds’ of mobs determined to pelt stones and cause destruction, but the focus of the security forces must be to minimise or eliminate collateral damage. The stratagem of lifting and re-imposing restrictions where needed may have to be applied for some time to come.
In the meanwhile, movement is needed on other fronts as well. The holding of the panchayat elections must be followed up by similar exercise for the other local bodies. Exploratory talks also need to be initiated with a carefully selected segment of political and local leaders — not only the ones that support the Central government’s stance but also others who could play a role in restoring normalcy in the Valley. To begin with, these could also be on the lines of ‘track-two’ talks, by eminent people familiar with the nuances of the Kashmir issue.
The common man in Kashmir should also feel a palpable difference under the Governor’s Rule. Winters are nearly upon us and ensuring a near-uninterrupted supply of electricity and subsidy on kerosene are examples of two steps that could make that difference.
Just as the bad elements should invite punishment, the good sections of the population must be treated with rewards. The country has long ignored the nomadic people of Kashmir – the Gujjars and the Bakkerwals — who have had no issues with the government and vote in large numbers. Developing the areas contiguous to the Line of Control (LoC) rapidly and providing these communities with basics of health and education when they migrate in the winters, would make eminent sense. It could have a salutary effect on the estranged sections and will also send a message to those living in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
This and many other fresh ideas were presented to the state government in 2003 by the then army commander Northern Command Lt Gen Rustom Kaikhusro Nanavatty in a comprehensive report titled Jammu and Kashmir: Strategy for Conflict Resolution. Even a decade and a half later, it may be well worth to extract that document from the archives for guidance.
It would also make sense to stop the seasonal move of durbar and leave the seat of the government permanently at Srinagar. It is in the winters that the Kashmiri needs the government the most. Why should such an expensive and outlier practice be allowed to persist merely for the comfort of those in power? In any case, this winter, the senior functionaries of the state government will be needed to exercise control from the Valley. Remote control governance will not cut.
No one in the country — Kashmir, included, of course — doubts the will of this government to bend the arc of history. There is an overt display of ‘muscular’ resolve that can work in favour of changing separatist perceptions. The government has also done exceedingly well in corralling world opinion in its favour. Internally, the support is widespread and largely unequivocal. The political opponents of the BJP have also, rightly, joined the chorus of approval.
With this as the backdrop, it is needed that the country bends the bulk of its energies towards internal healing while keeping a sharp eye on the trouble from across.