The real issues are quite different, but nobody seems ready to name the elephant in the room.
That there has been no news from Kashmir was assumed by large sections of the people in the country as being “good news” from Kashmir. That may not necessarily be so. Irrespective of whether the foreign media were exaggerating certain incidents, the version put out by government agencies did not tell the full truth either. And worse, there was no way of knowing.
But it should be clear to anyone that information “management” alone cannot win the “war” in Kashmir. The problem is larger, and lies elsewhere. Nor does linking the scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A with the prospect of opening IITs and IIMs in the state do full justice to the realities. Even with these provisions in place, the state has made enormous progress in the field of education since Independence and the accession 72 years ago. Back then, Kashmir used to have just two colleges affiliated to Panjab University as the state did not have a university of its own. Even the matriculation exams used to be conducted by the Punjab Board. Today, the state has over a dozen universities. Srinagar alone has around half-a-dozen of them, besides engineering and medical colleges.
The real issues are quite different, but nobody seems ready to name the elephant in the room. It has to do with the growing clout of the radicals in the Valley under the tutelage of the Wahhabis. The Wahhabis’ engagement in Kashmir did not begin yesterday. It is considerably more than a century old, and is growing. Sir Walter Lawrence, who travelled extensively in the Valley in the 1880s and early 1890s, found many foreign Wahhabi preachers had already arrived on the scene, and a few were active in some villages.
Ever since, it has been steady progress for the Wahhabis. The mainstream political parties never felt persuaded to challenge them, and on occasion even treated them as allies. Those who often bemoan the disappearance of Kashmir’s indigenous “Reshi” culture should look for their answers here. Further, the increased inflow of Gulf money after the oil crisis of the 1970s helped them create an extensive network of madrasas across the Valley. The outcome is a generation of young and not-so-young people who were indoctrinated at these seminaries.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Gen. Zia-ul Haq in Pakistan was also getting ready for some action. According to Pakistani researcher Arif Jamal, Gen. Zia one day summoned a few disgruntled Kashmiri youth with militant inclinations to inform them that after the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia had offered to amply compensate Islamabad for its help in the Afghan war, and Pakistan was inflating the bills. So there need be no shortage of cash. All that they needed to do was to recruit young Kashmiris and provide military training. Perhaps a bit uppity, one of them turned to ask the general as to who would get the maximum funds. Zia’s cryptic reply was — the one who recruits and trains the maximum number.
All through the mid-1980s, while the Congress and the National Conference leaders in Kashmir were fighting like Kilkenny cats, the Wahhabis were working on a parallel strategy. Now, they would contest the forthcoming Assembly elections under the banner of the Muslim United Front, and capture a majority of seats — which they very well could. Their plan — one leader of the movement once explained to me — was to pass a resolution in the Assembly undoing the accession, and then the rest would follow.
It was too close to call! Still, there should have been constitutional ways of dealing with the situation, even if it came to pass. But the state’s Congress and National Conference leaders, too hungry for power and too tired to put up a political fight, decided — with New Delhi’s blessings — to rig the 1987 Assembly elections instead.
Stymied in their plans, the Wahhabis went up another route. With most of the mosques already under their control, they had their microphones blaring one January 1990 night asking the minority Kashmiri Pandits to leave their homes, or face certain death. A few hundred of them were even shot dead in various incidents just to make the point that the radicals meant business. And the message went home loud and clear.
The plan was well thought out. It was felt since the jobs, properties and other economic assets that the Pandits were to leave behind would benefit many among locals, including some “moderates” — they all would develop a vested interest in preserving the new status quo. So there would be little prospect for the Pandits to go back home. And here the radicals indeed had a point. Never mind the pious noises the mainstream leaders in New Delhi keep making about the Pandits’ return from time to time, little has moved on the ground.
On the other hand, the radicals have been quick to use any forum that becomes available to them. Thus, amid crowds protesting over some local issue or shouting “azadi” slogans, one has witnessed an ISIS banner suddenly going up. The state has a job waiting to isolate such elements and show them up for what they are. That is not an easy job at the best of times.
Despite the decades of dithering and suffering, successive governments in New Delhi have not been able to develop strategic foresight on Kashmir. Their decisions were often made on narrow political considerations and with short-term goals in view. The sudden decision to scrap Articles 370 and 35A recently may have been no exception. The challenge in Kashmir — as in dealing with extremist situations elsewhere — is to evolve well-calibrated multi-pronged strategies to tackle the radicals without alienating the ordinary people. Bundling a whole population together is obviously not an efficient and cost-effective way of achieving that goal.