The ongoing controversy sparked by Syed Ali Shah Geelani's controversial remarks was preceded by two recent incidents. Both of which have sparked fresh hopes in Kashmir. One: the recent statement by BJP leader Arun Jaitley seeking to address the concerns of the people of Jammu and Kashmir through 'insaniyat' (humane approach). Two: the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, a known hardliner, abandoning his party's customary bravado on abrogating Article 370. Jaitley's statement came close on the heels of praise from some unlikely quarters — the moderate faction of Hurriyat (M) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP). Both praised Atal Bihari Vajpayee for initiating a "credible" and "substantive" India-Pakistan dialogue — first, in 1998 in Lahore, and later in January 2004 in Islamabad, braving the furore triggered by the crises of Kargil and the attack on Indian Parliament.
Battle-scarred by two decades of militancy and high-handed State response, Kashmir encapsulates a heartbreaking story of ordinary people. The origins of this battle are over four-and-half centuries old. Successive rules by the Mughals, Pathans, Sikhs and Dogras, did not — in any way — change the lot of the common man. Kashmiri masses continued to live in darkness under governments which had clearly washed their hands of governance. Submitting his resignation to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1929, the state's foreign and political minister Albion Bannerji, then told the media: "There is no touch between the government and the people, no suitable opportunity for representing grievances and the administrative machinery itself requires overhauling from top to bottom to bring it up to modern standards of efficiency. It has presented little or no sympathy with the people's wants and grievances.
"Both in India and Pakistan, academics, media, intellectuals and government functionaries have always analysed the Kashmir tangle within the Partition framework. India perceives the issue through a telescope in Pakistan: for all the omissions committed by Pakistan, Kashmiris have to be punished. Subjugation of the ordinary Kashmiri began with the Mughals annexing the region in November 1586. The armed movements or street outpourings in Kashmir have linkages harking back to 450 years. Armed insurgencies against rulers by people like Malik Hassan, Mohammed Naji, Yusuf Khan and Abdul Khan, Sabz Ali Khan dotted the history of Kashmir at various stages. The first outpouring of anger in Kashmir was also described as Asia's first trade union movement in 1865. Scores of shawl weavers marched on the streets of Zaldagar against the 'cruel tax regime. The Dogra regime killed 28 shawl weavers at point blank range. In the global context, the blood of Kashmiri labourers was spilled much before the Chicago Haymarket incident of 1886, observed the world over as May Day. Yet again in 1925, revolting labourers at a silk factory in Kashmir, took to the streets. This was followed by the emergence of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah a decade later in 1931.
The contemporary events in Kashmir have their roots in the social, political and economic deprivations in the region, estranging and alienating an entire community. Even India's Independence could not heal the alienation. After accession, other Indian states developed, but Jammu and Kashmir withered. Guarded by a heavy military presence, not only did the state turn into a landlocked region, its connections with the external world too snapped. Even six decades later, there is little or no realisation in India about the depth of this tragic estrangement. There is no scholarly work to understand its causes. Not surprisingly, all the cures prescribed over the years have failed.
One needs to admit that no propaganda by "fundamentalists" or external aid alone can foster and sustain armed insurgencies for such a protracted period. According to the noted author on Kashmir affairs AG Noorani, India produced the alienation, Pakistan provided the gun. The alienation has only deepened over the last two decades. This explains why Kashmir's mainstream political parties fail to bail out Delhi's central political leadership at crucial junctures. The 2008 Amarnath land row saw both National Conference (NC) as well as Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP) siding with the separatists. In 1989, Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah not only resigned but took off for London, leaving New Delhi in a lurch to tackle the rising militancy.
To narrow the deep-rooted estrangement, the government needs to adopt sustained multi-pronged security as well as political initiatives. For instance, devolving power to different regions of Kashmir through regional councils could play a great role in the overall empowerment of the population. In 1993 a notification issued by the then governor established a regional council in Ladakh. The idea was extended in 2003 to Kargil, soon after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed assumed office. These councils have been successful in meeting regional aspirations. There is a need to extend this experiment to other regions and sub-regions. It may be useful to set up at least six more councils, three each in Jammu and Kashmir regions.
Kashmiri Muslims suffer from a sense of psychological, emotional, political and historical disempowerment 400 years old. Even with its flexible democratic system, India has failed to address this problem. Kashmiri Muslim sub-nationalism could have existed within the idea of India as Tamil, Telugu or Bengali sub-nationalism has. But soon after Kashmir's accession, elections to the Constituent Assembly (CA) betrayed the trust of Kashmiris. All of the 75 members were elected unopposed. And this non-representative CA not only ratified accession to India, but also gave Jammu and Kashmir its Constitution.
A glaring case in point of people's disempowerment is the ban on student unions in Kashmir University and other educational institutions. No political debates are allowed in the campus. But just 300 kms away, BJP leader Rajnath Singh and the RSS chief can speak from the Jammu University podium. The continued heavy military presence and the sealing off of traditional routes with the external world make Kashmiris feel like prisoners in their own land. Realising the urgency of the situation, former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh talked of cross-border linkages and opened the LoC for travel and trade.
The process of healing in conflict regions is always difficult and agonising. But the process has to begin. And it must begin immediately by addressing the feeling of disempowerment, the prison mindset, reviving traditional linkages with the external world, and providing thereby a basis for India and Pakistan and the Kashmiri population to evolve a long-term settlement of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.