Thinking Beyond the Omars and Muftis

  • Aditya Sinha
  • Publish Date: Feb 10 2016 4:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 17 2016 5:44PM
Thinking Beyond the Omars and Muftis


"The PDP-BJP coalition has damaged the very roots of Kashmiriyat.” If I told you which Kashmiri politician told me this recently you might be shocked (though the savvier among you might hazard a guess). Obviously no one expected that the PDP’s electoral victory and its subsequent tie-up for power with the BJP would come to such a pass where the ruling coalition’s own members were critical. After all, the best prime minister in recent times from the Kashmiri point of view was the BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee. Furthermore, it was expected that Chief Minister Mufti Mohd Sayeed, with long years of dealing with Delhi behind him, would “manage” Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose bark seemed worse than his bite, Gujarat 2002 riots notwithstanding.
All that came to a crashing thud on November 7, 2015, when Modi visited Srinagar and at the Sher-e-Kashmir stadium and responded to Mufti suggestion that he try to improve diplomatic ties with Pakistan. “I don’t need any advice from anyone on Kashmir,” Modi brusquely said, and it took Mufti a couple of days and a taunt from the Opposition NC before he could recover from the shock. Once he did, however, Mufti went back to sooth-saying how Modi would reign for ten years. So strong is his desire to install his daughter Mehbooba as chief minister before he retires from the scene.
Ironically, just three weeks after snubbing Mufti, Modi resumed the peace process and sat down with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in Paris where both were attending the UN Climate Change conference for an accord to combat global warming. It was followed up by a meeting in Bangkok of the National Security Advisors Ajit Doval and General (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua, and then a visit to Islamabad by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The Delhi media has tended to gloss over Modi’s 18 months of flip-flops by pointing out that it is only now that the government of India has a direct line to the Pakistani military establishment, following Gen Janjua’s appointment in October. The last time there existed such a line was with President and Army chief Pervez Musharraf which was also when India and Pakistan had come closest to an agreement, going by the accounts of both former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Musharraf’s foreign minister Khushid Mahmud Kasuri.
These meetings were crowned by a December 9 visit to Islamabad by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Though she had gone for a “Heart of Asia” conference on Afghanistan, she and her hosts managed to come up with a joint declaration about resuming bilateral dialogue that, as she told Parliament a few days later, her government would try to innoculate against “interruptibles”. If you talk to BJP-leaning journalists in the Capital, they will tell you that this abrupt rapproachment after 18 months of “nakhra” is part of a grand strategy.
Maybe. One has to feel a bit skeptical about the Modi’s government’s intentions. On the same day that Sushma made her statement to Parliament, the Hindustan Times carried a story in which it quoted an unnamed top government source saying: “India’s prime concern behind resuming the talks was to avoid creating the impression before the international community that it was totally reluctant to speak to Pakistan”. Presumably this came at the behest of a powerful man in the prime minister’s office who was trying to assuage the feelings of the BJP’s rank-and-file, whose only grand strategy is to freeze Pakistan for a decade.
From this statement, Modi only jumped into the talks because US President Barack Obama twisted his arm into doing so. Modi, who enjoys travelling abroad and basking in the rock-star status that non-resident Indians bestow upon him, has been getting an earful from world leaders. Imagine what these leaders tell Modi: you want to sit on the High Table of international politics, you want to sit on the United Nations Security Council, but you can’t even manage relationships in your own neighbourhood? Sort out Pakistan – and certainly don’t go to war – and we’ll see about the Security Council thing.
There are thinkers who agree that there has to be a grand strategy – though not of Modi’s making. There are several interweaving factors: the US’s play in Afghanistan and its desire to reach a settlement with the Taliban; the evolving situation in Syria, and the Sunni-Shia conflict; Western civilisations’s increasing nativism as personified by Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Modi doing a deal with Pakistan is just a piece of this complex interplay.
Within his party and his constituency, however, Modi does not have maneuverability. For them, Kashmir is a territorial problem – not a people-centric problem – only in that Pakistan keeps demanding it. For them, it is better to cold-shoulder Pakistan for the next ten years while India continues its upward economic trajectory. Pakistan’s decline in the meantime would mean that in a decade each’s bargaining power would have transformed drastically, so that India can dictate peace on its own terms.
The BJP’s approach, as seen by its governing partner (some would say Trojan Horse) PDP, is ham-handed and regressive. If in 2008 the Amarnath land transfer controversy and agitation solidified the Kashmiri view that India wanted to turn the Muslims in the Valley into a minority, it was both a step back as well as a continuity, in Delhi-Srinagar relations. Disgruntlement of youth and the goal of secession remains a constant; but in 1990 there was a fear for political identity, in 2008 it had become a fear for demographic identity, and in 2015 it is becoming a fear for existential identity.
The PDP is helpless and its members obviously realize they can do precious little except to take care of themselves. Mufti has fast-tracked his agenda of installing Mehbooba but there is little hope she will address the fears of Kashmiris as the BJP continues to work towards its own agenda in J&K. How can she? She and Omar Abdullah are the embodiment of entitlement; they are like the dynastic, dictatorial rulers in the Arab world that have been the bulwark for the United States, and that have been why democracy has never been able to take root in many countries – leaving a vacuum for religious identity politics.
Others in the PDP are no help, as embodied by what Kashmiris call their ministers: dream-merchants and shop-keepers. No wonder Kashmiris say the current PDP government represents a “B-team ministerial team led by an A-team chief minister”. It is also not surprising that there is talk that some disaffected senior PDP members could even replicate the events of 1984 – in which Dr Farooq Abdullah was dismissed as chief minister and his government replaced by a coalition of defecting NC members, led by his brother-in-law Gul Shah, and Congress legislators. Ironically, if PDP members defected and brought down Mufti’s government, they would have to seek the support of Dr Farooq. Yet as a senior PDP man said to me, “In 1984, Kashmiris were not ready to accept such a political arrangement. Today they are.”
That is only a short-term solution and given the current disaffection in the Valley – non-mainstream forces are said to have penetrated deep into the structures of the state in Kashmir – any alternate political arrangement would have to go beyond the Omars and the Muftis. Engineer Rashid appears to have grabbed a hold of the current zeitgeist and the Mirwaiz is forever itching to come centre-stage, but it is a big question whether or not anyone wants to do business with Modi’s BJP – one which may not return to power come 2019.
If one looks at Kashmir’s movement, its strongest moments have also coincided with those periods where India was vulnerable internationally, though India was able to weather the worst in the early 1990s. India has big-power ambitions, and one consistent goal for New Delhi has been the reform of the UN and the expansion of its Security Council’s permanent members to include the G4 group: India, Germany, Japan and Brazil. This met with fierce resistance in 2005 by the so-called Coffee Club, nearly 50 nations that oppose permanent membership to the G4, like Pakistan (opposes India’s permanent membership), Italy (opposes Germany’s), Argentina (opposes Brazil’s) and South Korea (opposes Japan’s).
In September Modi invited the G4 to discuss UN reform, and this launched a process in which 2016 will be taken up by agreeing on wording of a document that will lay out the goal of UN reform. After that, the lobbying will begin for a general assembly vote as well as one by the Security Council. This process is likely to reach its conclusion by 2020. Obviously then, India will be sensitive to the international concerns, not just on its relationship with Pakistan, but also on the political grievances of Kashmir.
This is a tricky game to play. This is a good time to press for a political settlement, and that requires political leaders who know when to do hard bargaining and when to be accommodative. One reads Delhi journalists speak of a new generation of militant youth, but really, what has changed? It just means another generation of young Kashmiris are throwing away their best years. This may not be a good time to do so, given the way that Da’esh has made even US politicians speak nativist nonsense. Militancy will only be depicted as something sinister, something Da’esh-like – and this is something New Delhi has been adept at doing since 9/11.
It is the Americans and the British and the Europeans who will have leverage with Modi and his successor over the next five years. I recently read the graphic novel “Munnu” by Malik Sajad. There can be no more convincing and more eloquent way of describing the Kashmiri condition to the outside world. One is confident that the roadmap ahead is not beyond the Kashmiri genius.

(Aditya Sinha is a journalist, and the co-author of 'Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years)