Thursday, July 24, 2008

Deadly Cocktail

Alienation and communal fissures make Kashmir a tinderbox that can explode with a spark.

The fissures of communalism run deep in Jammu and Kashmir and there are enough groups among both Hindus and Muslims who are quick to take advantage of a situation. This is the message from the conflagration that swept across the state in June. An order by the forest department of the Jammu and Kashmir state government to transfer to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) less than 40 hectares of forest land to construct temporary sites for pilgrims visiting the Amarnath shrine near Pahalgam in the Kashmir valley triggered the outbursts that ultimately resulted in the fall of the Congress-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) coalition government and the imposition of governor’s rule.

The scrapping of the order by the state government did not end the controversy. It only triggered protests on the other side – by Hindutva groups in Jammu. Four people were killed and many injured in the valley in police action over many weeks.

Some of the logic used to justify the protests against the transfer was mind-boggling: the separatists – who included a section of hardline communal elements such as the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (TeH) – claimed that the transfer of forest land to the board for constructing restrooms and other facilities for pilgrims would result in a demographic invasion by outsiders. The ridiculous follow-up protests led by the BJP and its fraternal organisations, once the order was cancelled, included calls for blockading food supplies to the valley.

Part of the reason for the fury of June had to do with the simmering discontent that has remained in the valley. The alienation of decades has not disappeared with the return of a semblance of peace since 2005. Human rights violations by the armed forces stationed in the valley and the lack of a sense of participation by the Kashmiris in the various political processes in the state have only served to keep alive the feeling of hurt and anger. The snail’s pace of progress of the peace dialogue with moderate separatist outfits (such as the Mirwaiz Farooq faction of the Hurriyat conference) has not helped matters. Fears of a state-orchestrated change in the demographic profile of the state have always simmered under the surface. In this situation all that is required for an eruption is a spark like the land transfer of 40 ha.

The valley’s political outfits, be they Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s TeH or other moderate separatist groups of the Hurriyat conference, or the “mainstream” National Conference and the PDP, all took up radical positions, in this case communal positions on the SASB issue. All factions of the divided Hurriyat have called for a boycott of the upcoming state elections and even though the subsequent cancellation of the order by the government saw a reduction in tension in the valley, they have not withdrawn their boycott call, hoping to further delegitimise the Indian State in the valley. The halting steps made in the direction of peace in the valley now seem to have been reversed.
The SASB which is headed by the Jammu and Kashmir governor was established in 2001. The previous governor, S K Sinha, whose tenure ended in June this year, was an appointee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in the centre at that time and was known for championing Hindu chauvinist interests. It is a mystery why the United Progressive Alliance government continued with him until the end of his tenure.

The BJP along with other organisations of the Sangh parivar were naturally quick to take advantage of the situation and called for a “Bharat bandh” to protest the cancellation order. Trying to use the volatile situation to reap communal votes, the BJP conveniently ignored the fact that the J&K government had not withdrawn any facilities to the pilgrims. Instead of using the forest department land, it has given the tourist department the responsibility of providing facilities for the pilgrims, whose numbers have soared every year since the mid-1990s.

Years of conservative indoctrination and the communalisation of the insurgency movement have threatened to wipe out the tolerance inherent to the syncretic Kashmiri culture. No wonder an order ensuring provision of facilities for pilgrims turned out to be an emotive issue exploited almost without exception by the various political groups in the region. Competitive communalism now thrives in Jammu and Kashmir as the separatist as well as extremist political organisations in the Kashmir valley on the one hand and the BJP and the members of the Sangh parivar on the other have used the same mechanisms of fomenting communal hatred to further their expedient causes.

An EPW editorial

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