As India completes 55 years of independence, Kashmir remains a problem. New Delhi has messed it up again. This time it is the doing of the BJP-led government. Heavens would not have fallen if the state election had been deferred.
Surely, the purpose is not to go through with the exercise but to involve the people. When Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee repeatedly says the election will be free and fair, it amounts to an assurance that there will be an atmosphere where every voter can participate.
When there is not even a semblance of an effort to create such conditions, there is bound to be suspicion over the government’s intentions. It is apparent that the main political parties were expecting New Delhi to have talks with them through its various interlocutors before the announcement of election. In the absence of any move towards dialogue, their reaction could not be favourable.
The Hurriyat’s ‘no’ is categorical. Shabir Shah, the mildest among ‘the separatists’, says he has no option but to boycott. He had indeed wanted to participate in the election and was looking for a gesture to justify his participation.
Even the Mufti’s party’s leader, Mehbooba, who challenged New Delhi’s arrogance but not its authority, had expected that the government would do something, at least impose governor’s rule, to make her cooperation feasible. She is far from happy. The Congress is yet to assess the sincerity of the Vajpayee government for holding free and fair election.
New Delhi should have been concerned over the way the main political formations are behaving. It cannot afford to have a situation where the ruling National Democratic Alliance is the only player.
How will it serve New Delhi’s purpose in its endeavour to put J&K on the track of representative governance? New Delhi should realise that the coming election is crucial to establish its credibility not only in India but the world over. The very solution of the Kashmir problem is linked with the polls.
The international community, waiting anxiously for the election, will also be looking at the turnout. One need not take its reaction seriously even though US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that Kashmir is on the ‘‘international agenda.’’ Still, the boycott by the major parties may raise eyebrows and lessen the credibility of the polls. And what does New Delhi prove if the ruling National Conference (NC) makes it alone? The manner in which the party withstood the pressure of terrorists is commendable. It stands courageously in the field despite the murder of hundreds of its activists. But had it given the reins of administration to the state governor after the announcement of election, its stock would have gone still higher. But then, even Omar Abdullah, chairman of the NC, has not resigned from the central cabinet.
It is not too late to recover lost ground. Let New Delhi say it loud and clear that the government will hold talks with the elected representatives on the future of the state within the Indian Union. The proposal by the Hurriyat’s Sajjad Lone that the election can be part of a dialogue with the separatists is worth pursuing. He has given New Delhi an opening as his father had done before his assassination.
New Delhi should not be unnecessarily suspicious of the new crop of elected representatives. They would have affirmed loyalty to India’s integrity before their contest. The Hurriyat’s objection to such a requirement is only for the record. Their leaders have submitted a similar affirmation whenever they have gone abroad on an Indian passport.
Still the government cannot run away from the fact that the state has a special status under the Indian Constitution. The state joined the Indian Union on certain conditions, giving New Delhi only defence, foreign affairs and communications. It is for the state to expand the three subjects, and not for the union to do so. In fact, Kashmir’s first chief minister conceded powers beyond the three subjects.
The real problem is that New Delhi has always fallen short of the expectations of the people of Kashmir, first by encroaching on their exclusive constitutional territory and then by suppressing their legitimate demands by force. Today the same situation exists in a different way — with Kashmir asserting its right to maintain its identity and the government of India using all methods to water down even the reduced powers given to the state.
However, both Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and the Hurriyat have gone about restoring the state’s identity in the wrong way, the former by avowing all loyalty to New Delhi, the latter by introducing violence with the assistance of Pakistan. In the process, the people have got alienated.
The BJP-led central government has aggravated the situation: it has taken up its Hindutva agenda in right earnest in the state itself. This will further distance Muslims in the Valley where the Gilanis in the Hurriyat have already destroyed the essentially plural concept of Kashmiriyat. The proposal to divide the state into Buddhist Ladakh, Hindu Jammu and Muslim Valley is meant to divide it on communal lines.
The BJP has said it is opposed to trifurcation. Nobody takes it seriously because the proposal has come from its parent body, the RSS. The latter has already constituted the Jammu State Morcha to contest in the election. Its appeal to the BJP to jointly fight the election to avoid a split in the parivar vote is to span the seemingly opposite positions. Strange, NC continues to be part of the ruling alliance at the Centre.
The fresh bout of violence — the government has failed to protect the Amarnath yatris — is meant to scare away voters. This can further lessen the turnout. By allowing international observers, New Delhi will be helping them to put things in a proper perspective. If it does not like ‘white-skinned observers,’ let it invite NGOs from SAARC countries. They will go down well with the Indian activists.
Published in ExpressIndia