Time for Alternatives to Violence in Kashmir
by Balraj Puri
One of the first prerequisites for fruitful talks between the government of India and the dissident leaders of Kashmir, which are being speculated about in the media after the release of the Hurriyat leaders, is de-escalation of violence in the state. Or that should be the first item of the agenda of the proposed talks. The recent tragedies at Chhatisinghpora and Pathribal should make the government and the leaders of the Azadi movement realise that violence can go out of control and become self-defeating for either side.
If the massacre of 35 innocent, unarmed and uninvolved Sikhs on March 20 at Chhatisinghpora caused universal outrage, including among Kashmiri Muslims against continuing violence, the killing of five persons at Pathribal claimed by the security forces to be militant killers of the Chhatisinghpora massacre but later found to be innocent local civilians, followed by killings of eight demonstrators, protesting against the latter killings neutralised the local anger against the militant violence and even created doubts about the identity of the killers of the Sikhs. A number of instances can be recalled where the use of violence hurt the interest of the side that used it. The classical example is that of firing on the funeral procession of Mirwaiz Mohd Farooq, widely suspected to have been killed by militants, in the early stage of militancy. The firing diverted popular wrath against them towards the Indian government. It was excessive and indiscriminate use of violence which turned militancy into mass insurgency and invited international sympathy for the secessionist movement. It may also be noted that the state governments action in suspending those responsible for the police firing at the Barakpora demonstration, exhuming and identifying the bodies of those killed by the security forces at Pathribal and appointing an inquiry commission comprising a retired Supreme Court judge for the first time reversed the unpopularity graph of the Farooq Abdullah government in Kashmir.
In any case, it should by now be obvious to the central and state governments that basically the problem of Kashmir is political, arising out of discontent of the people on various grounds, though the violent form of its expression with the help of arms and armed militants from Pakistan has certainly complicated the situation. But without attending to a host of internal problems which cumulatively assume the form of the Kashmir problem, mere use of violence, which often becomes indiscriminate, not only adds to local alienation but also weakens the country, politically, economically, diplomatically and morally. The agenda for action for Indian statesmanship not for government alone includes release of pending detained political leaders, confidence-building measures, strict observance of human rights and better understanding of diverse aspirations and interests of various regions and ethnic communities. Above all, a more humane and intelligent approach to the entire problem is required. But the leaders of the Azadi movement are perhaps in greater need for rethinking, if not on the ends, at least on the means they have adopted so far. Over a decade ago they could argue that a violent secessionist movement was the only course for the expression of their aspirations. The system that did not honour the verdict of the assembly election of 1983 and did not allow the people to elect the government of their choice through the use of the ballot in the election of 1987 forced them to opt out of the system and turn to the method of the bullet. The militant movement may also claim credit for reviving and internationalising the Kashmir problem which was almost dead for the preceding two decades. Within the country, too, there were persons whose conscience was disturbed over the way the centre had dealt with the affairs of the state, in general, and with the situation in the initial phase of the insurgency, in particular.
But before long, the limits of violence became manifest. To be sure, international concern over the Kashmir problem and sympathetic liberal Indian voices proved inadequate to get justice to Kashmir. But violence dictated an unintended course for the movement which caused a gradual decline in outside concern and sympathy. First, it was not easy for the violent movement to retain its autonomy in view of its exclusive reliance for arms and training on Pakistan. Pakistan had offered support to the Azadi movement, which was inspired by sentiments of Kashmiriat, but soon diverted it to the pro-Pak and extreme Muslim militants. The earlier group was almost wiped out as withdrawal of arms supply by Pakistan made it vulnerable to the Indian security forces. Simultaneously the new brand of militants took a toll of eminent personalities of Kashmir, who were sympathetic to the pro-Kashmiriat militants like Mirwaiz Moulvi Mohd Farooq, Abdul Ahad, A A Guru and H N Wanchoo. The Kashmiri nationalist militants could not fight on two fronts. Having declared war against India, with the help of Pakistan, they could not afford to open another front against the latter. Gradually pro-Pak and Pak-based groups took over the militancy movement. Its over-ground leadership, too, became increasingly dependent on the directions of the Pakistan government. Before it could secure Azadi from India, it lost its independence to Pakistan.
A more serious blow to the independent character of the secessionist leadership was struck by the course the new brand of militants, mostly non-Kashmiris, independently adopted. Mass killings of innocent Hindus, more persistently since 1998 (e g, in Wadhama, Prankote, Doda and Kishtwar) were followed by bomb blasts in Hindu areas taking varying toll. Hindu killing was not entirely a new phenomenon. But earlier victims were individuals who were described as informers or working against the interest of the movement, but now they were being killed in groups simply because they were Hindus. From anti-India, the dominant militant group turned pro-Pakistan and anti-Hindu. The goal of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the leading militant outfit in the state, as its leader Fazal-ur-Rehman put it bluntly, "is to wrest from Hindu majority India its part of Kashmir, which is dominated by Muslims, and merge it with Islamic Pakistan. If that takes a holy war with India, so be it."
The spate of mass killings has damaged the cause of the militant movement internationally, as is eloquently evidenced by the reactions of the governments, media and human rights organisations as also locally, as evidenced by vocal protests, including by Muslims. It has isolated the movement from liberal Indian opinion and increased communal tensions within the state which would make any resolution of the Kashmir problem more intractable. It has deprived the leaders of the movement of their main plank based on allegations of human rights violations by the security forces to justify their demand for Azadi.
Whosoever may be responsible for the present situation, whatever might have been the compulsions of the Kashmiri youth to take up the gun and whatever achievements may be claimed for the militants, the use of violent means is becoming increasingly counter-productive. Kashmiri Muslims themselves have suffered colossal losses physically, politically, economically and culturally. The sense of outrage displayed by Kashmiri Muslims over the recent killings of Sikhs does indicate that Kashmir's soul is not yet dead. But if the vicious circle of communal hatred and violence grows, this sense would gradually diminish. With the consequent brutalisation of Kashmiris, who can guarantee that the soul would remain unaffected? Would Azadi, which has so far been illusory, even if achieved, be worth its while for the price paid and the inestimable price that it may still demand, in terms of human lives and values?
Even if leaders of the Azadi movement are unconvinced about giving up their objective, which has already been distorted from its original form, they cannot afford not to give up the means that they have used so far. Perhaps a reference to Gandhi may be helpful in the present context. When he found that the movement against British Raj led by him in 1922 went astray as an excited mob, provoked by police firing, burnt a police station along with 22 policemen at Chaura Chauri, he called it off. It is not easy for Kashmiri leaders to display that much courage. The risk too for them is greater, most of all from the militants. But they have hardly any alternative except to think of alternatives to violence. Non-violence is not only morally superior but also leaves room for argument and debate between adversaries. It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the opponents. It may also help in starting a process of regenerating the civil society in Kashmir brutally damaged by forces of violence and hatred. I am in no position to predict how the government of India would respond to a non-violent offensive from Kashmir. Nor I am here absolving it of its responsibility for creating the present situation in the troubled state. It is a humble suggestion to both Indian and Kashmiri leaders for a minimum review of their approach, in their own respective interest as also of the people of the state. Even a unilateral decision by either side would be to its advantage.