It’s perhaps easier to stay outside the power structure and criticise the system, than air the same views after assuming political office. With power comes responsibilities and compulsions, which are impossible to shrug off. That’s one way of interpreting the AAP’s response to the controversy over Prashant Bhushan’s alleged remarks criticising the Centre’s efforts to maintain peace in Kashmir by deploying security forces. He had also proposed a referendum by Kashmiris on the Army’s presence in the Valley.
AAP supremo and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was quick to dissociate himself and the party from Bhushan’s comments, making it clear that when it comes to Army deployment for internal security, “there is no question of referendum”. Kejriwal, however, clarified that the AAP firmly believed in its original stand of participatory democracy, involving deeper engagement of the electorate in matters of governance — evident in his assertion of “respecting the sentiments of the locals”.
Though Bhushan has issued a stock clarification following the latest controversy, saying that his interview has been sensationalised and he has been quoted out of context, his views on Kashmir are well known. In 2011, when Anna Hazare’s Lok Pal movement was at its peak, he had been a notch more radical calling for a plebiscite in the Valley to decide whether the people wanted to remain with India. It had attracted the displeasure of Hazare and the wrath of an extremist Hindu fringe outfit, which had assaulted the activist-lawyer in his chamber.
To be objective, Bhushan’s latest comments as well as his earlier critical observations on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in J&K call for introspection, especially from those deciding the fate of a people from the echelons of power. AFSPA has given sweeping rights to the Army to disregard human rights and commit excesses in the name of security — one of the prime reasons for the disenchantment of Kashmiris with the Centre.
Kashmir has been the hotbed of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism since 1989, with extremist forces both within the Valley and across the border unleashing a reign of terror on the largely peace-loving community. Fearing for their lives, Kashmiri pundits had to flee the Valley. Over the years, the Centre’s clampdown under the pretext of containing extremism has been no less violent. Today, Kashmir is at the epicentre of international focus as much for the Army’s brutalities — mass graves and rapes of Kashmiri women — as for the infiltration of Pakistani Army regulars and jihadis to wage proxy war with India.
Tired of living in fear, with no scope of employment in the region due to lack of development, frustrated youths in the Valley have taken to pelting stones at the Army and the latter resorting to firepower to quell such uprisings. It’s a bloody Paradise, for which the Indian government too should be held accountable.
The Centre is paying a steep price for this conflict. In the expenditure budget of 2013-14, the allocation for defence is about Rs2,53,345 crore, a chunk of which must have been spent in the Valley, and in Manipur — the other state reeling under AFSPA.
Kashmir is an emotive issue for this country. Any debate on the Valley evokes extreme reactions from the majority, often drowning the possibility of a democratic negotiation on the Kashmir imbroglio. In the thick of electoral politics, Kejriwal is now forced to walk a tightrope on his party’s basic credo — its commitment to deepen participatory democracy — and the not-so-idealistic electoral compulsions. In the case of Kashmir, for example, this could even entail compromising on the wishes and aspirations of the people in the Valley.
Without being too optimistic, one can hope that Kejriwal’s vision of Swaraj — his resolve in strengthening the roots of democracy by involving the aam aadmi in everyday issues like water, electricity and safety of women will one day open the doors to a broader and more radical engagement on the Kashmir tangle without stoking jingoistic national pride and majoritarianism.