By Shubh Soni
Two events in recent months have returned Kashmir to the centre stage of public discourse in India. The first of was the death of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016 and the protests that followed on the streets of Kashmir. The second was the surgical strike by the Indian armed forces to dismantle terrorist infrastructure across the Line of Control (LoC). But it would be incorrect for either popular discourse or the government’s response to conflate the two incidents. In essence, it is crucial to disassociate the domestic narrative about Kashmir from Indo-Pak relations — the only sustainable response to civil unrest in the valley is an outreach on the part of the Indian government towards the Kashmiri people.
Post the death of Burhan Wani, the people of the Valley took to the streets to voice their anger. The Indian government in response imposed a 107 day curfew wherein schools and colleges were shut, communication lines restricted, and media freedoms curbed. The surgical strikes, on the other hand, were a response to a terrorist attack on an army camp in Uri, Kashmir, by Pakistani insurgents. The Indian government, for the first time in decades, went public regarding an army operation across the LoC which serves as the de-facto border between India and Pakistan.
Prima facie, these two events do indeed have a common cause — the respective claims of India and Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir, from which emanates Pakistan’s support to Kashmiri separatists in India. However, at their core, these are two distinct challenges facing the Indian state,and the solutions, therefore, must also be separated.
Kashmir seldom enjoys the freedoms the rest of India has come to regard as a given.
Take the first, the killing of Burhan Wani. Wani was the son of a prominent school teacher in Kashmir. He supposedly took to militancy at the age of 15, when his brother was beaten to death by the Indian army, allegedly in a case of routine harassment. The killing of Burhan’s brother is not an isolated incident — Kashmir remains one of the world’s most militarised areas, with the Indian armed forces enjoying impunity over their actions. Such impunity has meant repeated violations of human rights by the Indian armed forces, as demonstrated by the case of Burhan Wani’s brother’s death. Added to this, Kashmir seldom enjoys the freedoms the rest of India has come to regard as a given — curfews, police raids, limited access to the Internet, and shutting down of schools, colleges, and businesses, are commonplace in the valley. As a result, the Indian state has successfully alienated the peoples of an entire state it deems a critical part of its national identity, and has only added fuel to their demands for Azadi (freedom).
The surgical strikes, in contrast, were a direct response to terror originating from Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign policy is at its core anti-India, and destabilising Kashmir is an instrument towards this larger goal. In such a context, the Indian response to eliminate terror camps across the LoC was a long time coming. It was also a major diplomatic coup to announce that these strikes took place, and also to brief envoys of 25 countries in New Delhi of the operation; the international backing received, particularly from the SAARC community, is a testament to India’s diplomatic success. These attacks also demonstrated to the Indian people, to the Pakistani establishment, and to the global community at large, that India will not let terror attacks on its soil go unanswered.
The distinction between the two events — Burhan Wani and the like, emerging as a result of the heavy-handed approach of the Indian state, and the cross-border attacks, a result of an external actor — is complicated by the role of Pakistan.
It is true that Pakistan stokes fire in Kashmir and tries to incite the Indian youth against the Indian state. It readily provides financial and technical support to anyone demanding azadi from India. But to see Pakistan as the sole reason for the civil unrest in the valley is to miss the point entirely. Unless the two problems are de-hyphenated, Kashmir will not be a “normal” Indian state even if there is a transformational shift in India-Pakistan relations. The average Kashmiri cannot be made an average Indian by simply solving the Pakistan issue — successfully negotiating geographical boundaries will not make up for history.
In fact, in recent months, India has done well to distance its Pakistan policy from the historical dispute over Kashmir. Just like the India-Kashmir relationship is no longer predicated on just the Pakistan angle, the India-Pakistan relationship too should no longer be viewed through just the Kashmir lens. India has effectively drawn its red lines by making it clear that talks between the two countries must be centred on terrorism, and that Pakistan’s outreach to the Hurriyat will compromise any potential dialogue process. The public nature of the surgical strikes, followed by terming Pakistan the mother-ship of terror at the BRICS Summit, and further isolating Pakistan at the recently concluded Heart of Asia Conference, have all added to India’s strategy of taking Kashmir out of the equation, and making terror the central theme of its engagement with Pakistan.
Ironically, what the current government has achieved vis-à-vis its Pakistan policy needs to now be applied to its Kashmir policy, i.e., it is time to de-hyphenate Kashmir from Pakistan. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had hit the nail on the head when he called for insaniyat, i.e., a touch of humanity, in dealing with Kashmir. As long as the Indian establishment continues to violate even the basic civil liberties that are guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the peoples of Kashmir will never truly consider themselves Indian. Pointing to high voter turn-out every time there is an election in Kashmir is to paper over the cracks — elections are a mere drop in the ocean. What is needed is good governance, where citizens can engage with their elected representatives on matters of daily concern; what is needed is the hope for economic prosperity, that working hard at school and college can lead to a life of material wealth. Prime Minister Modi is trying to address these very issues in the rest of India — indeed, he won the general election of 2014 on these promises — he would do well to address them in the valley as well.