The political ground realities in Kashmir seem to have undergone an astonishing transformation during the last three years. Beginning with the 2002 elections, the first free and fair elections conducted in Kashmir in decades, the new political momentum has surprised most observers, including the main protagonists in the Valley. While it is still too premature to declare the return of normalcy to Kashmir, and certainly too early to assume that the deep scars of the recent conflicts will be easily erased, there is no doubt that Kashmir is seeing a new political dawn. Voters defied threats from militants to make the elections to civic bodies conducted earlier this year a rousing success. In fact, these elections were more politically intense, saw greater voter turnout than civic body elections anywhere else in India. Militancy has been reduced enough for the tourists to return in large numbers. Jammu and Kashmir finally have a robust political process in place.
There are other significant signs of change as well. There is now overwhelming evidence that support for Pakistan inside the Valley is at the lowest ever in recent memory and may be as low as three per cent. While 'Azadi' is still a majority sentiment inside Kashmir, its militant edges are clearly wearing off. One sign of this is the fact that the Hurriyat's status as representative of the Kashmiris is increasingly coming to be doubted. Hurriyat is still a significant political force, but no longer in a position to cast doubt on the credibility of leaders who are part of the normal democratic process. Indeed, Pervez Musharraf seems to have acknowledged this new reality himself during his recent visit to Delhi, when he acknowledged the importance of Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah as representatives of Kashmir.
The Hurriyat itself is struggling to come to terms with this new reality. Its vacillations and hesitations over the last week on whether it should meet Manmohan Singh suggest that it is now struggling to articulate a new strategy, perhaps even new objectives. It is no longer as easy to demonize the Indian state as it used to be, and the Hurriyat is a little bit at a loss over what its rallying cry should be.
Although India's military presence remains palpably strong and intrusive, it has become more difficult to demonize the Indian state within the Valley. Even the army, after the work it did in avalanche relief, seems to have salvaged some grudging acceptance inside the Valley. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was rapturously welcomed, especially in areas where militant threats were less palpable. The incomplete Jammu-Tawi-Udhampur rail line had become almost symbolic of Kashmir's limbo status within the Indian Union. This 54 km stretch took more than two decades to complete, but a train was finally flagged off this month. The opening of road links is doubly significant. Very slowly Kashmir is being taken out of the prisonhouse of history and being restored to its natural geography. And the PoK will probably look worse by comparison with Indian Kashmir. Dark clouds still remain on the horizon. The Pandits have not returned, and militancy can still rear its ugly head. But it would be otiose to deny that things are moving in the Valley, literally and figuratively.
What are the lessons to be learnt from these changes' The first and most obvious one is an old adage. State subverting secessionism in India is a product of India's authoritarian moments, not its democratic ones. Whenever the Indian state tries democratic incorporation, it has good chances of succeeding. Simply assuring that a robust democratic process is in place in Kashmir has changed political dynamics considerably. It has given a lie to the claims of any and every group that claimed to speak on behalf of the Kashmiri people. If India trusts democracy, Kashmir will come to trust India.
Second, the Congress has, for once, shown some self-restraint in managing Kashmir's internal politics. Polls within Kashmir show that there is still considerable hostility to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, the main purveyors of authoritarian politics in Kashmir. But Manmohan Singh's credibility is gaining ground. The fact that Congress has been, for the most part, content to play second fiddle in Srinagar, has helped allay some of the legitimate fears the party evokes in Kashmir.
The third lesson is this. We are so used to seeing Kashmir burdened by the weight of history that only two options seemed possible. Either an unbearable status quo or a radical new vision. Any ameliorative approach to mitigating the conflict seemed almost impossible. But the problem with a radically new approach was that no one was quite sure what that would entail. As with most secessionist movements, it was not clear what the concrete shape of Azadi was meant to be' Every wild plan, from partition to confederation, was on the cards. Now, at least, there is the possibility that a step-by-step approach could address some of the pressing concerns of the Kashmiri people, even if it does not neatly resolve all the contradictions that Kashmir has come to represent.
It is time for India to consolidate the gains of the past few months. Two proposals merit greater discussion. The first is a greater demilitarization of the Valley. The second is the possibility of another ceasefire agreement with the militants. Both measures, especially demilitarization, would go a long way in further assuaging sentiments inside Kashmir. But ceasefire agreements have, in the past, broken down. Any ceasefire agreement at the moment should be premised upon bringing more militants into the political process. Previous ceasefire agreements have not been very successful in the endeavour. But conditions on the ground may now have sufficiently altered for this to be worth a try. And the government should now persuade as many factions of the Hurriyat as possible to join the political process.
Every one is waiting to see if Musharraf will walk his talk. But the objective reality facing him suggests that there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. He ought to have realized by now that Pakistani support for insurgency only helped undermine the political credibility of militants. The pressure from the United States of America on the General is genuine and credible, and the mood within civil society in Pakistan seems to have undergone some perceptible shift. Pakistan itself is potentially facing internal trouble in its Western provinces and will need to withdraw troops from the border with India. In fact, there is some reason to think that Musharraf can put India on the diplomatic back foot by playing the nice guy. That is why it was important for him that the Delhi summit does not fail, even if it did not achieve startling breakthroughs.
The General is a shrewd political customer, and appears to be watching developments inside Kashmir very closely. The extraordinary fact that he has asked the Hurriyat to talk to the Indian government is a measure of how much political realities have changed. There is a legitimate Kashmiri anxiety about how they fit into the peace process between India and Pakistan, two big powers talking over their heads. But, for the time being, the General is defusing rather than exploiting this anxiety.
Both India and Pakistan have made a commitment to not let terrorism derail the peace process. But it is equally important to not let terrorism occur in the first place. That could easily change the public mood and lead to a cycle of recrimination. But India's greatest success over the last three years has been to keep faith in a political process. If it lets democracy triumph, even in the face of militant provocation, it will secure the goodwill of Kashmiris.