Valley of errors

The Congress, Sonia Gandhi and Kashmir

By Politics and Play- Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 16.04.16

Both during and after the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi told voters that they had given the Congress 60 years in power, and all he asked for was 60 months. His supporters on social media use that same trope, albeit in more forceful language. All that is wrong with India, they assert, is the product of 60 years of Congress (mis)rule. The Congress, for its part, retorts that all that is right with India must likewise be a product of their years, or decades, in power.

One place where things have mostly gone wrong for India since Independence in 1947 is the Valley of Kashmir. The place has always been troubled; many, and at times perhaps a majority, of its residents have never been entirely comfortable with being part of our republic. Now the Valley is seething with discontent once more. There is deep resentment at the paltry compensation given to the victims of the terrible floods of 2014. The attempts to enforce a beef ban in the Valley have been (rightly) opposed. The promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party when they formed a coalition government with the People's Democratic Party have been violated (which is why it took so long for a fresh government to be formed after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's death).

As I write, a fresh controversy has erupted after a clash between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar. It does appear that the non-Kashmiri students were treated harshly by the police. Yet the cure prescribed by their supporters seems to be worse than the disease. Posting more than a thousand paramilitary troops inside a college campus is surely a gross over-reaction. If even the educational institutions in Kashmir become armed garrisons, what hope is there for peace with honour in the Valley?

In the two years it has been in office, Narendra Modi's government has not handled Kashmir or Kashmiris with either wisdom or compassion. From a long-term perspective, however, the Congress hold greater responsibility for the failure of the Indian State to effect an emotional reconciliation with the people of the Valley. Jawaharlal Nehru put Sheikh Abdullah in prison for more than a decade. Nehru released him in 1964, but then Lal Bahadur Shastri placed the acknowledged leader of the Kashmiris back in detention again. In 1966, Jayaprakash Narayan urged Indira Gandhi to release Abdullah in time for the 1967 election, so that Jammu and Kashmir could have a credible government at last. She declined to do so, only releasing him several years later when the Sheikh was old and tired, and willing to become a vassal of New Delhi's.

In 1982, Sheikh Abdullah died, and was replaced by his son, Farooq. The following year, Indira Gandhi, angry that Farooq Abdullah was in dialogue with other non-Congress chief ministers, engineered a split in the National Conference and had Farooq replaced by his more pliant brother-in-law. Then Indira Gandhi was assassinated, and her son, Rajiv, succeeded her as prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi's government rigged the J&K state elections of 1987, provoking massive anger, which fuelled the insurgency that began shortly afterwards.

Sonia Gandhi once said she entered politics only to honour the sacrifices made by Nehru, Indira and Rajiv. In the matter of Kashmir, she has certainly followed in their footsteps. In her time as Congress president, she has been party to, or instrumental in, some key decisions that have deepened the alienation of Kashmir and Kashmiris from India. I list four such below:

1. In April 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Srinagar - the first prime minister to do so in more than a decade. A PDP-Congress government was then in power in the state, after the first free and fair assembly elections in 25 years. In a petty display of partisanship, the Congress ministers in the state government (almost certainly directed by the high command in Delhi) boycotted the prime minister's speech. Vajpayee had come with a healing hand, speaking of how any solution to the Kashmir dispute "within the bounds of humanity [ insaniyat ké daire mé]" would be considered. This was a time of hope in and for Kashmir; militancy was down, and tourism was on the rise. But when the Opposition needed most to stand behind the prime minister, it boycotted him instead.

2. Mufti Sayeed had been a reasonably competent chief minister, and with a Kashmiri party in power and relative peace in the Valley, some hope remained. Had Sonia Gandhi had the wit and the will, or had she been better advised, she would have let Mufti continue for the full term of six years. But, in 2005, the Congress insisted that it was now time for them to occupy the post of chief minister. So Mufti stepped down, and the First Family loyalist, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was sworn in as chief minister instead. Once more, partisanship had triumphed over common sense and the national interest.

3. In 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had come to power in New Delhi. It won a fresh term in 2009. The next year, it decided to appoint an interlocutor for Kashmir. There had been serious protests in 2008, featuring stone-throwing by young boys. The attempt to appoint an independent person or body to reach out afresh to the Kashmiris was well-judged. It was suggested to both the prime minister and the home minister that Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a distinguished former high commissioner and governor, be appointed the sole interlocutor. Gopal Gandhi had worked in conflict-torn Sri Lanka and South Africa, spoke decent Urdu, was deeply knowledgeable about modern Indian history, and had a most engaging personality. He would have been a fantastic choice; as a former home secretary who knew Kashmir well told me, "Even the Hurriyat leaders would have come out to meet Gopal Gandhi."

In the event, a team of three interlocutors was appointed, whose collective expertise in conflict-resolution fell short of Gopal Gandhi's. The Hurriyat refused to meet them, and the initiative came to naught. It was speculated that, while her son was taking his first steps in politics, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to give prominence to a Gandhi related not to her family but to the great Mahatma himself. Whatever the reason, the failure to appoint a credible interlocutor set back the possibility of peace in Kashmir once more.

4. In 2012, and again in 2013, the J&K chief minister, Omar Abdullah, urged the Central government to consider a limited, phased, withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Because it gave total immunity to the army, the AFSPA was widely resented in Kashmir (as also in other border states like Manipur and Nagaland). Omar Abdullah suggested that at least in districts away from the border, and at a time militancy was on the retreat, the AFSPA be withdrawn. These areas could return to civilian control, allowing the aam admi and aam aurat of Kashmir to breathe more freely. Sadly, the Congress government at the Centre was too timid to go ahead with this confidence-building measure. They were reluctant to assert themselves against the army, confirming the view - held by many in Kashmir - that the security establishment, and not elected politicians, largely determined New Delhi's attitudes towards, and policies in, the Valley.

There are many reasons why the 'Kashmir Problem' has persisted for so long. The malevolent hand of the Pakistani State/army is one. The supplanting of a syncretic Kashmiri Islam by fundamentalist Wahabism is a second. The expulsion of the Pandits is a third. The apathy of Indians outside the Valley to the sufferings of Kashmiris is a fourth. The human rights violations of the Indian army and paramilitary forces are a fifth. And the errors and crimes of the Congress are a sixth.

That the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Modi does not recognize the deep roots of Kashmiri discontent is not surprising. Pluralism, whether religious or cultural or intellectual, is antithetical to Hindutva. But freedom, democracy, tolerance and pluralism were once absolutely integral to the charter of the Congress. These values and ideals were promoted by the greatest of Congressmen, M.K. Gandhi, and encoded by a Constitution framed and passed by an assembly a majority of whose members were from the Congress. Tragically, with regard to Kashmir, those values and ideals have been erratically applied by Congress leaders such as Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and, not least, Sonia Gandhi.