2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Splitting Headache

Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places

 

Just a few hours before Sameer Bhat, better known as Sameer Tiger, a most wanted Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in a gun battle in Drabgam in South Kashmir this week, he had pushed online a short video of a local youngster being interrogated by him on suspicion of being an informer. Towards the end of the clip, Sameer Tiger pronounces a warning on an army officer that he surely meant for a much larger audience: “(Major) Shukla ko kehna sher ne shikar karna kya chhora, tujhe laga jungle hamara hai? (Tell Major Shukla just because the tiger had stopped hunting, you thought the jungle was yours?)” Major Shukla would take a hit in pursuit of Sameer Tiger soon after, his assault party would hunt Sameer Tiger down, but Tiger’s dire dare rings on: it’s a vicious survivor’s skirmish, Kashmir, and it’s often tough to tell hunter from hunted, one day’s trophy chasers can become another day’s trophies.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a resumed spike in the locate-chase-neutralize campaign of security forces against militants – 218 in 2017 and 62 so far this year. Many of those killed were marked men – men with foregrounded profiles in the insurgency lane who had become rallying figures for others. It is evident that policy is now driven by what Ram Madhav of the Bharatiya Janata Party revealed to this newspaper in an interview last year: “We will go after them (militants) with the utmost harshness.” But there are two other aspects to the hot pursuit in daily play. Jawans have taken the recoil – 83 were killed last year and 28 so far in 2018 – and militant ranks have swelled on the rebound. Nobody can quite put a number to the ranks of those who disappear from homes every other day, but everybody who has a sense of the ground would tell you that the number is not merely high but also alarming. Just recently, I spent some time visiting homes and crossroads in the villages of Pulwama and Shopian, tormented spurs to Kashmiri insurgency, and the line that dropped like a hammer into my notebook came from a boy barely into his teens: “Bring a truckful of guns to these parts and I assure you they will all be claimed within half an hour,” he told me, “Everyone is prepared to pick one up and put it to use, just ask around.” Shadowy protagonists of armed Kashmiri secession, this side or that of the cantankerous fence with Pakistan, need not invest in motivation or recruitment; New Delhi and its striking arms are doing a splendid job of it.

You need to be stubbornly and single-mindedly averse to the truth to believe that the almost violent grouses people of the Valley now nurse are entirely and only of Pakistani manufacture. There has never been any room to doubt that Pakistan is a vandal neighbour on Kashmir and has made a manifesto of pushing across malevolent contraband to feed Kashmir’s reckless pirouette. But it is also time policymakers realized and admitted to themselves that there are willing and active consumers for that destructive contraband in Kashmir. In fact, it has become a fatal addiction New Delhi has been feeding for a long while with its refusal to address Kashmiris as its own and secure in them a sense that it is willing to assuage and accommodate. Previous prime ministers have spoken magnanimously on their architecture for Kashmiri aspiration – P.V. Narasimha Rao etched the sky as the limit, Atal Bihari Vajpayee emphasized insaniyat, or humanity. Neither did much about effecting their promise, but their enunciated policy and political parameters still gave Kashmiris heart. The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, comes cut from a radical cloth, and he will not cede half a yard to insaniyat, much less to limitless skies. Neither past nor predecessor is any guide to him. There might, in fact, be good reason to wonder what is. He has told a public Kashmiri audience, in the presence of ally and elder Kashmiri statesman, the late Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, that he did not need to learn anything about Kashmir from anyone – ” Mujhe Kashmir ke baare mein kisi se kuchh seekhne ki zaroorat nahin.” The Mufti, then chief minister, sat and heard out that rash I-don’t-need-advice-I-will-do-this-my-way pronouncement in cold horror. He did not live too long to suffer the consequences of Modi’s uncaring unilateralism, but they remain for his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, to bear. What she presides over can no longer be called a drift into crisis, it’s an alarming toboggan.

Ask her how it feels and were she to tell you the truth she’d probably have preluded that with her resignation. She is, truth to tell, no ally of Modi’s; she’s been reduced to a helpless supplicant serving time. She believes it’s a victory that the BJP was forced to extract resignations from two ministers who made common cause with the Hindu Ekta Manch and espoused the cause of those alleged to be guilty of unspeakable crimes on that minor tribal girl from Kathua. Next thing, the BJP rubs two others into her nose – one who shared the stage and cause of the Hindu Ekta Manch, and another who batted off the horror as “one of many such that happen”, no big deal.

New Delhi, irrespective of which party was in power, has done what it has willed with Kashmir; it is, in Kashmiri eyes, a thing of despotic whimsy. It has toppled elected governments. It has imposed farcical elections. It has installed unpopular puppets. And on top of those it has superimposed vastly unpopular security regimes. It has banished popular leaders, then turned to embrace and emaciate them. Mehbooba is the latest and probably most pitiable example. The one plea she fervently makes is: “Please talk, adhere to the agenda of alliance, talk to Kashmiris of all hue, give them, if nothing, a sense of a stake.” The one thing Modi is rock-jawed on not doing is talking. He is happy to let the gun do it. How many can that get rid of? You cannot do away with a whole people; that weapon hasn’t been invented.

During his extended inspection of the debris of the Soviet Empire, Ryszard Kapuscinski, master of reporting the real as surreal, ran into several such barriers and he stood by them mulling clues to the collapse. “How many victims, how much blood and suffering, are connected with this business of borders? All these boundaries of thought and feeling, injunction and interdiction, are constantly shifting, crossing and permeating one another, piling up. In our brains there is ceaseless border movement – across borders, near borders, over borders. Hence our headaches, our migraines, hence the tumult in our heads…”

Kashmir is that migraine in our heads. Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places – in hearts and heads. New Delhi holds the physical ground in Kashmir, or the part of Kashmir it holds, but it does not hold heads and hearts. It is the same migraine that the lean and perceptive Pole, Kapuscinski, sensed across the massive spread of the once and dismembered Soviet Empire. You remedy a migraine, you don’t shoot it with a gun.

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