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Perceptions in Kashmir
- New Delhi should heed the voices of dissent in the valley

The crisis looming in Jammu and Kashmir following the People’s Democratic Party’s threat to withdraw from the state’s ruling coalition has, for the present, blown over. But the impasse on the basic issue involved continues. The PDP and the National Conference are not exactly negligible categories. Between them, they represent the overwhelming section of the Jammu and Kashmir electorate. At least they constitute a clear majority of those who, voluntarily or otherwise, choose to exercise their franchise in the state. In the view of both these parties, a strong correlation exists between the presence of Indian army personnel in the vicinity of residential areas in the valley and the incidence of so-called encounter deaths and custodial killings. They have been drawing attention to the most heart-wrenching spectacle witnessed in recent weeks: women of different age groups regularly assembling in parks and street corners in Srinagar and other towns, and wailing for their sons, brothers and husbands who have disappeared after being picked up, either openly or clandestinely, by security forces. Bodies of some of these persons nabbed, say, in Srinagar, have often been discovered, several months later, in impromptu graves in a village two hundred kilometres away, or not discovered at all. Nobody is around to account for such incidents nor is there any way to check the veracity of the official versions regarding how or where the claimed encounter deaths have taken place. The protesting women know what they are talking about, a plaintiveness mingles with their raging fury.

Even if the grisly stories of instant official awards for liquidating supposed militants are taken at less than their face value, the magnitude of the insensitivity being exhibited in the matter by the authorities concerned evokes both alarm and despair. The credibility of the reports on excesses committed by the army and security personnel can hardly be denied wholesale: they are in accord with the tradition dexterously built in the country since independence to crush the resistance of those rising in revolt against State power. What happened in West Bengal in the Seventies and is happening, on and off, in the North-east, especially in Manipur, represents a pattern: security contingents in Kashmir are treading the path of that tradition. After all, since the valley is claimed to be an inalienable part of India, the modus operandi of officially sanctioned activities in the name of maintenance of law and order cannot be any different there. Besides, as everybody knows, army personnel are by training somewhat rough: one cannot expect, it will be said, normal civilities to be observed by them on every occasion; some young men picked up in Srinagar, Baramulla or Ganderbal will, it follows, disappear one day and their families will be unable to trace them, even if they try for decades on end; they will fail to trace even their bodies.

Given this background of events, what the PDP has proposed — and the National Conference has endorsed — is eminently reasonable. Insurgency activities have, to an extent, subsided in recent months, cross-border infiltration too has gone down; dialogue intended to understand each other’s point of view has ensued between the governments of the two countries. In the context of the seething discontent of Kashmiris over so-called encounter and custodial deaths and the lengthening list of young people who have vanished into thin air, a diminution of army presence, particularly from densely residential areas, could contribute to a cooling of emotions. It might also have the incidental advantage of reducing the discontent of householders whose dwellings have been forcibly taken over by the army. Of equal — if not greater — significance, the gesture could have helped to reduce the degree of general animosity in the valley against those who plot their destiny in New Delhi.

There is the parallel issue of abolition — at least an abridgement — of the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which is in effect carte blanche for troops to go on a rampage, and for which they are not held accountable. Reservations concerning the act are not exclusively a Kashmir-centred phenomenon; other state governments, individually as well as collectively, have in the past asked the Centre either to annul the act altogether or introduce substantive modifications in its corpus. An official committee presided over by a retired judge of the Supreme Court has made identical recommendations. The authorities, however, have till now refused to budge.

All that the PDP has been campaigning for is a stage-by-stage reduction in troops posted in the valley. To argue that even a phased withdrawal of forces will tempt Pakistan to launch a surprise attack across the line of control is specious; it could be suggested with equal felicity that a de-escalation of military bandobast on this side of the border would actually induce Pakistan into making a reciprocal gesture.

The Congress party does not like the idea of losing control over the administration of yet another state, which the PDP’s walk-out from the coalition will entail. It has therefore sought the device of a three-tier official committee to be presided over by the defence minister to examine some of what are described as the ‘problematic aspects of the situation’ in Jammu and Kashmir. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and his party have, reluctantly, agreed to wait for decisions the committee arrives at. Committees are, as everybody knows, intended to buy time. Besides, an army spokesman has sought to pre-empt the matter by arguing against the feasibility of any troop reduction in the area in the immediate period. The prospects therefore are hardly cheerful.

Some outspokenness is called for. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have their own reasons for procrastinating; once Kashmir disappears from the day’s agenda, the parties of the establishment would have to discover another alibi for not attending to the basic problems afflicting Indian society, such as food, clothing, health, education and housing, for the nation’s millions. The eclipse of Kashmir from the roster of problems is also bound to lead to a clamour for a cutback in defence outlay, and a consequential decline in earnings from commissions. Such nightmares cannot but frighten the ancien regime.

During these goings-on in Srinagar and New Delhi, there is one dog that did not, quite intriguingly, bark in the night; it waited till daybreak. The Indian army is not advancing the cause of any popular democratic revolution in Kashmir. What stands then in the way of the country’s Left from openly coming out in support of the demand formulated by the PDP' A phased withdrawal — not a wholesale retreat — of army contingents involves few risks. This is one instance where it is possible to have recourse to a genuine empirical experiment. In case the partial withdrawal does not lead to a reduction in the level of tension, it should be possible to reconsider the decision. The statement issued on behalf of the leading constituents of the Left is therefore somewhat disappointing. It rightly condemns the dilatory tactics of the Centre the setting up of so-called expert committees amounts to, and yet adds an exasperating rider, “All measures required for meeting the terrorist menace [in Kashmir] must be undertaken and there can be no lowering the guard in this respect”.

Is there any realization in any quarters of the consequence of what might ensue if a disenchanted PDP at some point pulls out of the state government' Corresponding to the so-called threat perception, should not a perception in minds that matter exist of the extent of alienation of Kashmiris from New Delhi, and its implications' Perhaps these same minds assume tomorrow to be a postponable day. But low-key noises by the Pakistan prime minister at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation sessions may be no clincher; the danger, all of a sudden, of an internal combustion in the valley can scarcely be ruled out.

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