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THE FRUIT OF TAKING SIDES - In a national crisis, parties might try to think beyond elections

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By Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha ramguha@vsnl.com
  • Published 30.08.08
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In the summer of 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the Kashmir Valley, the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade. The state government was then run by a coalition of the People’s Democratic Party and the Congress. When Vajpayee gave a public address, the PDP legislators were in attendance, led by their chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. However, the Congress legislators and ministers chose to boycott the proceedings. This was done on the advice of the Congress high command in New Delhi.

The boycott of Vajpayee’s Srinagar speech was a shocking display of political partisanship. For the speaker was speaking as the prime minister of India, not as the representative of a particular political formation. In asking their legislators to behave as they did, the Congress bosses displayed a pettiness unworthy of the history of that once great party. The act also manifested a cavalier disregard of the national interest. From the early Nineties, the Kashmir Valley had been in the grip of a popular insurgency. After a decade of very intense protests, the tempers had cooled somewhat. The tourists had begun returning to Kashmir. An election had been held, with a voter turn-out of 44 per cent, commendably high in the circumstances. The prime minister’s visit was a further signal of, as it were, ‘normalcy’. Constitutional propriety demanded that when the head of the Union government came visiting, the elected functionaries of the state government turned out to hear him. Now, more than ever, the politicians of India needed unitedly, and across party lines, to reach out to the people of Kashmir. Sadly, perhaps even tragically, they could not.

Five years later, the compliment — if one can call it that — has been returned. The award, then retraction, of those few hectares of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board has led to a surge of sectarian protest in India’s most beautiful and most tormented state. The Hindus of Jammu saw the retraction as an appeasement of the minorities; the Muslims of Kashmir saw the original land grant as the beginnings of a Hindu colonization of the Valley.

As things got hot, and then hotter, prudence, as well as the national interest, demanded that the Bharatiya Janata Party work with the Central government in seeking to douse the flames. For within a few days of the protests it became apparent that the gains of the past few years were in danger of being wiped out. However, rather than be cooperative, or at least neutral, India’s leading opposition party chose to throw its very considerable weight behind one set of sectarians. With an eye to the next general elections, it sought (as it had once done with Ayodhya) to make a local dispute a rallying ground for all the Hindus of India. Within Jammu, leaders of the BJP urged the agitators to become more unruly and violent. Meanwhile, cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sought to hold protests and bandhs on the Amarnath issue in places as distant from Amarnath as my home town, Bangalore.

In a letter he wrote to the prime minister, the BJP leader, L.K. Advani, described the ongoing conflict in Kashmir as one between the ‘nationalists’ and the ‘separatists’. In truth, this was a dispute between two sets of communalists, one Hindu, the other Muslim. Ever since the expulsion of the Pandits in the early Nineties, it has become difficult to see the popular movement in Kashmir in purely nationalist terms — at the very least, it must be termed ‘national-communal’. It took 15 years after their expulsion for Mirwaiz Maulvi Umer Farooq to visit a Pandit camp in Jammu. Meanwhile, the other leaders of the Hurriyat also wear their religion on their sleeve — not least Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who, in a recent interview, makes it clear that he wants the people of Kashmir to be governed by sharia law. (In the same interview, he also points out that his commitment to the cause of Islam is far older than that of Osama bin Laden.)

The current movement in Jammu is no less communal. Its central focus has been around a pilgrimage sacred to Hindus alone. It has consistently and explicitly used Hindu idioms and symbols. It has been peopled and on occasion led by cadres of Hindu chauvinist organizations. It has encouraged attacks on innocent Muslims in the Jammu region.

When — or if — an impartial history of the discontent in Jammu and Kashmir in the autumn of 2008 is written, it may well see the blockade of the Jammu-Srinagar highway as the ‘tipping point’ that turned the ordinary Kashmiri away from (an admittedly imperfect and not wholly voluntary) adjustment with India towards a renewed engagement with and embrace of the idea of ‘azadi’. Now, weeks after the event, the blogosphere is clouded by partisan propaganda. Websites favouring the sangh parivar dispute the ‘secularist’ claim that the highway was blocked by arguing that trucks and goods are moving freely. Websites sympathetic to the Kashmiri freedom fighters dispute the ‘Indian’ claim that movement along the highway is unhindered; Muslim truck drivers, they say, are still being stopped and beaten up.

Partisans will cloud the issue, but the facts are these — for several days the highway was indeed blocked, and by Hindu protesters from Jammu. It was eventually cleared by the army. But by that time the original act had sent this unambiguous message to the residents of the Valley — if you do not give in to us, we can, and perhaps will, starve you to death. The threat then provoked this counter-threat — in that case, we will seek succour from Pakistan. And so in answer to the blockade the Hurriyat organized its aborted march to Muzaffarabad. However short-lived the blockade may have been, the fact that it did happen once, and could happen again, played a far greater part in alienating the Kashmiris from India than the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board.

One does not look to parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam to act other than in the interest of the castes or sects or regions they seek to represent. But the BJP and the Congress claim to be national parties — and yet, their behaviour is so often at odds with this self-perception. By boycotting Vajpayee’s speech in April 2003, the Congress very clearly worked against the national interest. By endorsing the Jammu protests and the highway blockade in 2008, the BJP did likewise. Beyond Kashmir, there are other areas and instances where, in the past, the interest of India and Indians would have been better served by a constructive, broad-minded collaboration between the country’s major political parties. Unfortunately, both parties tend to act, especially when out of power, in a wholly opportunistic manner. Thus, peace talks with Pakistan and a closer engagement with the United States of America are both manifestly in the interest of India and Indians. But if the BJP were to pursue these policies when in power, the Congress would be certain to oppose them. And vice versa. The same is the case with economic reforms with regard to labour laws and pension funds. The same party which promotes rational and long-term policies when in power, discards them in favour of sectarian or populist measures when out of office.

Once, when a single nation had to be created from a thousand different fragments, Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee came together to do so. They were ready to disregard their past political disagreements so as to peaceably and successfully unite India. Sixty years later, one does not expect Advani and Sonia Gandhi to serve in the same Union cabinet. But one can still hope that, when the nation is faced with a crisis, they can think of an interest that goes beyond the winning of the next election.