Jammu and Kashmir may have receded into the background during the current nationwide turmoil over the citizenship law issue, but it could be hugely presumptuous to assume that normality has returned to the Kashmir Valley or that the Kashmir issue is now history.
The visit of a diplomatic contingent to the Valley may have assured the world that things are not quite as bad as portrayed in parts of the media, but neither has it demonstrated everything is normal and as it should be.
Although Article 370 of the Constitution has been abrogated and the erstwhile state divided and downgraded to two Union territories, the fundamental disaffection that fuelled the three-decade-long insurgency in the Kashmir Valley has not gone away. If anything, existing faultlines have only been exacerbated.
What might have lulled many in New Delhi into complacency is the relative calm in the Valley. The sky did not collapse upon the Valley after the Government of India’s decision to scrap the state’s special status and divide it in two. The expected popular upsurge predicted by some did not materialise and as of now an uneasy calm prevails in the Valley.
The problem, to be sure, exists as it always did, mainly if not exclusively in the Kashmir Valley. The rest of the state, comprising the Jammu and Ladakh regions, have not been affected by insurgency or pro-independence politics except in pockets. So, when people talk about the Kashmir problem, they actually refer to the disaffection and insurrection in the Valley and not the entire state.
The Valley, however, happens to be the most populated part of the state and peopled mainly by Sunni Muslims -- the native Kashmiri Hindus having been long hounded out. The Valley’s Kashmiris have been the most dominant section of the population and after Independence have controlled the state’s politics and administration.
Yet, a large section of the Valley’s Muslim population has for various reasons remained disenchanted with the Indian State and has been demanding independence, or “azadi”. The so-called Kashmiri separatists represent this section and have openly collaborated with Pakistan in their struggle against New Delhi.
The question is whether all that ended on August 5, 2019 with the abrogation of Article 370 and the state’s bifurcation? Is the worst behind us or should we be prepared for yet another surge of unrest?
The public anger in the Kashmir Valley might be subterranean as of now but whether it will persist or dissipate is uncertain. One factor in favour of continued peace is war weariness. The Valley has seen unremitting violence for over 30 years in which thousands have been killed, the economy destroyed, and the environment wrecked. Many might not wish to return to that cycle of bloodletting, uncertainty and fear.
On the other hand, there is the matter of honour. The Valley’s Kashmiris feel they have been betrayed yet again by New Delhi, their identity and rights snatched away. They feel the floodgates of demographic invasion from the rest of India has been opened and many might well believe the only way to preserve their future is resistance.
This fight against the Indian State might not be in the form of renewed insurgency as in the past this has proved ineffective against the Indian Army. Terrorism too has never shaken New Delhi’s resolve.
This could be one reason why the August 5 decision has not triggered a surge in terrorist or insurgent violence. Unconfirmed reports suggest that large numbers of terrorists have regrouped in the mountains but have remained dormant. The Indian Amy too has not engaged them, perhaps as it does not want a spike in the violence level at a time the international community is focussed on the situation in the Valley.
The Pakistan Army’s intentions are not transparent at this juncture, but the chances are that once the snows melt, they will try to push in a large contingent of trained insurgents into India. The current high level of border engagements between the two armies does not augur well.
More than insurgency and terrorism which the Indian Army, police and paramilitary are quite capable of handling, it is the response of the Valley’s mainstream leadership that is a matter of maximum concern and one reason why the Valley’s top politicians, including three former chief ministers, remain under detention.
Article 370 formed the bedrock of mainstream politics. This special status was used to justify their relations with the rest of India. It allowed the Valley’s politicians to counter the separatists and argue they were in fact protecting Kashmiris and insulating them from a potentially hostile India.
In a 1981 interview to India Today, Sheikh Abdullah, the Kashmiri political stalwart, had denied that Article 370 was preventing Kashmir’s integration with the rest of India: “Where is the question of non-integration? There are certain powers that are handed to the state and certain powers are retained by the Centre. Now, there are cries from the states that there is too much power concentrated in the Centre, and there should be decentralisation of power. What I say is the feeling all over the country. Our relations with the Centre are based on Article 370, and everybody must accept that position and function according to that.”
The Sheikh had stressed Article 370 should stay as long as the people of Kashmir wanted it to stay. But today that consideration has gone down the gutter. By unilaterally scrapping the state’s special status, the message to the Kashmir Valley’s people and leadership is that their opinion does not matter.
This and the incarceration of the Valley’s mainstream leadership means that New Delhi has no friends left in the Valley. Once released, they are certain to take to the streets. Will this lead to violence or talks? If it is the former, then the world will sit up in alarm and pressure New Delhi. Whatever the outcome, at some point New Delhi must resume negotiations with the Kashmiri leadership.
Many years ago, Nelson Mandela had warned about the danger of shying away from negotiations. If negotiations broke down, the result would be a bloodbath, he wrote, and “after the bloodbath, we would have to sit down again and negotiate with each other. The thought always sobered us up and we persisted, despite many setbacks. You negotiate with your enemies, not your friends.”