Jammu and Kashmir sees violence just as matter-of-factly as most others see peace. It is marred by almost daily curfews and protests involving hundreds of thousands pouring out onto the streets. Incidents of violent stone pelting in response to gun-toting armed forces result in clampdown by the machinery of the state. This is Jammu and Kashmir today ; despite the complete weight of the establishment, violence has become a way of life.
One of Asia’s apparently inveterate and almost ceaseless conflict has no political solution in sight. Mainstream political parties at both regional and national level are perceived as having no inclination towards resolution; Instead they pay lip service in times of uneasy calm doing little or nothing to seek dialogue with the stakeholders.
The rhetoric remains the same, only the faces espousing the rhetoric change from one election to another.
This has seen growing clamour from sections of civil society, academicians and indeed all right thinking individuals, shifting the focus inexorably to a questioning of New Delhi ’ s policy on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) – is it simply erroneous or impervious to the demands of the times? Extant literature has ample proof of the utter disinterest that the state machinery has shown in any move towards resolution . As is often quoted mindless suppression by the state cannot make for an ideal climate of dialogue. Even if one discards Pakistan’s baseless claims on the state of J&K it is simply impossible to ignore a continuous and ever increasing demand for self determination. The youth fighting as armed militants today were not even born when trouble erupted in 1989-1990 but they have definitely grown up in a climate of sheer alienation, fear hatred and animosity towards the establishment which is unfortunately and largely denoted by the humongous presence of the Armed forces in the state. What no one has bothered to acknowledge are the aspirations of this youth, a constituency equally capable of swinging elections as of swinging public opinion. This is a generation which is adept at use of social media and the power of the Internet and indeed , do so, despite severe clamp downs by the government.
J&K’s chequered history from the inception of the independent countries of India and Pakistan in 1947 has little meaning for the generation of today. However, what does make a difference is regimented memory ( or in this case folklore ). More than four decades or repeated decimation and abrogation of the electoral process coupled with slow institutional decay , definitely makes for great folklore ! What does make a difference is the word -of mouth passage of information outlining the transition from the pro India times of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s to the eruption of militancy in the 1990’s to outright rebellion against Indian control in the first decade and half of the new millennium. This folklore is what moulds the minds of the youth today largely focusing on the harsh control exerted by the state through its armed forces.
Needless to say the whole process has been generously aided and abetted by Pakistan in the garb of a symbolic unity with the people of J&K . All the while, it has actually been trying to wrest control of J&K from India. Pakistan realised from its earlier futile attempts that the option is not possible militarily (Pakistan has fought four wars with India with the core issue of J&K). It has therefore adopted the via-media of a hybrid conflict meant to slowly bleed India and keep its conventional forces tied down in the bargain. In the meantime the Pakistani establishment has carefully downplayed it’s own legacy of violence in the part of J&K controlled by it , known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) or Azad Kashmir; depending on which side of the fence you are on.
The recent killing of 22 year old Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operative Burhan Wani has once again seen large scale violence erupting across the state. Interestingly the incident has numerous facets meriting attention and analysis. First amongst those is how the persona of Burhan Wani was built up. Enough investigative, analytical and anecdotal evidence exists for us to piece together this information. Wani was the son of Muzaffar Ahmed Wani and younger sibling of Khalid Wani of Tral in South Kashmir. As a young boy apparently good at his studies , he seems to have been exposed to the extreme measures adopted by the Armed forces in the case of his elder brother and his father. Following the 2008 and 2010 suppression of youth protests, Wani emerged on social media as the face of militancy , posting pictures of himself and his friends in combat fatigues with an open display of assault rifles and other weapons. Where the Armed forces saw him as a terrorist , popular opinion rapidly built up by social media , deemed him as the face of youthful aspirations.
The second facet meriting analysis is the increasing role of social media in formulating public opinion. With the near universal outreach of social media platforms it is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Similar popularising of extremist views has been seen in the case of Islamic State in the middle east. This discourse tends to veer towards the level of control that state agencies must exert on activities of non-state actors on social media platforms.
The third facet is the role of mainstream print and telecast media. In the instance of the Wani killing , an increasing focus has been on keeping the J&K issue artificially stoked in a bid to garner Television Rating Points (TRP). In the past too , the media has not shown a maturity in dealing with such news. Similarly government sources place the blame squarely on the Media for not amply highlighting measures initiated by the government to resolve the contentious issue. In either case , it has served to put a blot on the integrity and unbiased reporting by the media.
Stuck amidst the chaos, are the Armed forces, tasked to maintain peace at all costs. They have been granted sweeping powers under the Public Safety Act ( PSA) and the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act ( AFSPA) . Both these are perceived as draconian by the public opinion but essential by the Armed forces tasked to fight armed terrorists who are not bound by any code of ethics. The Armed forces are also unable to counter onslaught of media and social media generated hyperbole. The tremendous experience garnered by the Armed forces by constantly having an ear to the ground could have been gainfully utilised to ensure a transition to post conflict transformation. In practice , this is not so , indeed the Armed forces are often ignored in the play between whimsical political interests and bureaucratic tangles. As a result the Armed forces are forced to maintain a stony faced silence in a conflict that is bleeding their ability to fight conventional opponents.
Most unbiased writers have written scathing articles , ranging from the sarcastic to outrightly questioning and targeting the flawed policies followed by the establishment. Successive governments have ignored the largest stakeholders in a peace process- all those who benefit from a return to normalcy and a resurgence in tourism, once considered the biggest industry in J&K. A case in point of how political interests overtake other compulsions is the role of Mehbooba Mufti in the 2010 protests. She was then, an opposition leader; she is today the Chief Minister of the State when it is witnessing a resurrection of the same violence. The fact remains that the credibility of all mainstream political parties is at an all time low. Neither do they have leaders who by sheer force of personality can steer public opinion away from violence ; nor do they have policies to stem a growing alienation. With rapidly escalating tensions, the situation may well spiral out of control. Political rhetoric dwelling on peace has failed the test of Vox Populi.
*Amitabh Hoskote, PHD , Development & Conflict Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai