Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kashmir and the return to "normalcy"

After nearly three months of a near-intifada like situation, things seem to be returning to "normal" in Kashmir. The question to be asked is what is "normal" in the valley. The answer to that would more or less determine "what is to be done" in the medium term by stake holders - the Indian state, the Kashmiri political actors and broad Kashmiri society. (cartoon courtesy The Hindu newspaper)

For the Indian state, "normal" simply means a return to status quo; i.e. a highly "security" oriented valley, where incidents of violence are held to a minimum, protests that can be managed and the administration's writ is restored. For the Kashmiri political actors, depending on where they stand on separatism, "normal" is different. For those actors that have accepted Indian citizenship, "normal" is when they can articulate their politics within the framework of what every other political actor in any other state (province) in India works with. Differences are articulated with the manner the development paradigm plays out and the political elite would want to keep the differences articulated at the rhetorical level - i.e. the political opposition blames the incompetence of the ruling party in implementing policies, over which both have generally the same opinion. Thus, the National Conference and its supporting Congress would want to function in a violence-free environment, dispensing patronage and working for the "development" of Kashmir, while the Peoples' Democratic Party would want to expose the former's incompetence in maintaining law and order and implementation of the "development" policies. At times that are abnormal, these parties tend to frame positions on the "nationality" question in terms of "autonomy" or "self-rule" - i.e. articulating sovereignty within the framework of the Indian state, but with powers that are larger than the present status quo of Kashmir as a federal unit of India. But again these positions come up and are expedient when the separatists seem to have their stock running high.

For the separatists, again, "normal" is different for different actors. For the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, led by "hardliner" Syed Ali Shah Geelani, "normal" is when the idea of a Islamic state of Kashmir has enough currency and is articulated through the anger of the Kashmiri people alienated with the Indian state. For Geelani, it is only a break from Indian secularism and civic nationalism, that can be construed as a return to "normal". The normal and the ideal for Geelani is a Kashmir that is annexed to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For others in the Hurriyat Conference and the separatist "mainstream", there are different motivations for separatism and different ideas for a sovereign Kashmir, but the binding element is a Kashmir that breaks from its past - of an unhappy existence within the Indian state, of false promises of autonomy and failures of the Indian state and so on. There is an Islamic element in many of the separatists' articulations, but there is a preponderance of alienation and angst with the Indian state, that is seen to have militated against the interests of "Kashmiriyat". "Normal" for these sections, is when the Indian state is willing to talk to them to listen to their articulations for a newer future for Kashmir.

From the writings of the "ordinary" Kashmiri citizen, from the voices of Kashmiri civil society though, "normal" seems to be a different story altogether. "Normal" is when the Kashmiri citizen is not subjected to repeated and humiliating "security checks" by personnel holding automatic weapons stationed every 50 metres. "Normal" is when the Kashmiri citizen does not feel harassed by "curfewed nights", "encounter killings", and the feeling of being ghettoised. "Normal" is when the Kashmiri youth does not feel repressed and like an alien when she/he goes out of Kashmir for a job like any other youth in India does. "Normal" for the Kashmiri Pandits is when they do not have to stay in camps and come out of their miserable existence as refugees in their own land and "normal" for the Kashmiri trader is when he is allowed to go to Muzaffarabad unhindered to sell/ buy wares. Of course, as some would argue, there are different views for different classes in Kashmiri society over sovereignty, independence, Islamisation/"jihad" and Kashmiriyat. But as the protests show, there is an unifying factor of alienation and anger against the security forces that seems to transcend views on the aforementioned political subjects. In other words, irrespective of class background, age, gender, the protests have seen participation from various sections and reducing it as some experts have done to local grievances articulated by some from particular class background and separatist motivations alone does not seem to capture the story entirely well.

So, the past few months were times, abnormal. The average Kashmiri citizen, particularly its youth vented out their anger at the abnormality by throwing stones at the Indian establishment - its paramilitary stations, its offices and its army locations. The Tehreek and its supporters wanted to keep the anger on and prepare the Kashmiri citizens for a new jihad - not the failed earlier course of militancy, but this new Palestinian like model of protests. No wonder Geelani wants the Kashmiris to continue civil disobedience, not to attend school and keep the "intifada" like situation on. For Geelani, continuing with the abnormal is the way out to prepare Kashmir for his understanding of the "normal". The separatists are not happy with the deaths of protesting Kashmiri youth killed by indiscriminate security forces' firing and want an urgent redressal by the Indian state.

Meanwhile, after months of vacillating and dilly-dallying - the Indian central government's initial assessment was that the violence and stone throwing was motivated and engineered from outside, then they grudgingly accepted that there is a popular anger that requires some response from them and that culminated in the all party delegation's visit followed by some concessions on the hard security approach of the Indian state. But there is still no acceptance of what construes as "normal" for the Kashmiri citizen. There is still no change in attitude on whether or not to amend/ repeal the much reviled Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is seen to give impunity to the Indian security forces that has made living in Kashmir abnormal for many of its citizens. There is some grudging acceptance of the venality of the Public Security Act and the detentions that it has entailed, and the need to compensate/ address concerns of protestors' families who have lost their dear ones either to security forces' firing or incarceration. But these steps are token and keeping in mind what is "normal" for the Indian state.

It was the same understanding of what was "normal" that drove the Indian state's inaction and maintenance of stasis after Kashmiris voted in the assembly elections. The "overwhelming" response in the elections was construed as a change from the demands for "azaadi"; only it was not so. The participation in elections were an outcome of the Kashmiris' understanding of "normal" - while their alienation and anger was intact, they expected the elections and the outcome to address their other daily concerns. Which did not quite happen. The Indian state's intransigence on their "security approach" and the Kashmiri political class - the ruling parties and the opposition's inability to work toward the Kashmiri perception of "normal" only heightened local grievances and strengthened the claims of the hard jihadis.
Therefore, much more has to be done by the Indian state - again to revisit its hard security approach. Militancy has been more or less defeated and the currency for hard militancy does not exist in Kashmir anymore. And there is no wrong in addressing angst over historical wrong in Kashmir on the question of the "special status" of Kashmir that has been unfairly addressed by the Indian state. That would mean, continuing political negotiations with all sections of Kashmir's polity and trying to find a way to unite a divided Kashmir without losing sovereignty or exacerbating tensions with neighbours. That would entail a revisit to the "soft borders" idea with an open mind, a look at the "special status" through the autonomy framework and enhancing connectivity with the various parts of divided Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian state should show the gumption to do so and not be afraid to transcend and reject the narrow approach articulated by the likes of the Bharatiya Janata Party or the "strategic community" which want a continuation of the "security" status quo and the management of the "Kashmiri problem".

It is impossible to accept that despite whatever currency the idea of a Islamic state of Kashmir holds, the Indian state has to pander to such a demand, as articulated by some liberals in the Indian intelligentsia. Some "liberals" hold the view that the Indian state has expended too much energy on Kashmir and it is better off giving up claims of sovereignty over the region. That is a foolhardy premise, that amounts to giving up the very basis that constitutes the foundation of the Indian republic. One must remember that exploring the middle ground - the grant of linguistic federalism for e.g. made it possible for states like Tamil Nadu to accept Indian nationality without exception, after grievances over linguistic freedom were addressed adequately. It required a tweak to Indian nationalism to make it federally inclusive and grants of linguistic freedoms to make the idea of India more coherent to Tamils for example. It requires a similar exploring of the middle ground on the question of "absolute" sovereignty in a much depressed, divided and historically wronged region.

Progressives vis-a-vis Kashmir should not give up the middle (and the correct) ground of questioning excesses by the Indian security apparatus, the incompetence of the Kashmiri ruling elite, the vacuity of some separatists' proposals on sovereignty and the incongruity and foolishness of the idea of a religious state driven by millenarian ideas. They can still manage to articulate the concerns of the average Kashmiri citizen while doing so. They (we) should demand a grander gesture from the Indian state that goes beyond the token, expedient moves to restore "normality" and push the Indian state's version of "normal" to be closer to what the Kashmiris demand as to be their "normal" state of existence. The steps taken by the Indian left, whose leaders were the first to visit the Kashmiri valley in turmoil and who have articulated bold measures to alter India's security approach, engaged in talks with separatists of all hues and views are in the right direction. Yet the Indian left is a marginal player politically in a politically volatile region. It requires the Indian ruling classes therefore to accede to the demands made by the Indian left, to be responsive to the Kashmiris. And progressives both in Kashmiri society and outside should work towards exploring and working of the middle ground and be consistent to their first principles of secularism, peace and democracy. That is closer to "what needs to be done" from a left, progressive viewpoint than what seems to be articulated elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where Is the Matter of Public Interest?

Many interests wrangle in Parliament and within government over the property rights of an individual.

An EPW editorial on the proposed "Enemy Property Bill". Read more here.