Even as the two-month-long Amarnath Yatra came to an end on Saturday, the protests that have rocked Jammu and Kashmir over the Amarnath land transfer issue are refusing to die. The land row may have achieved what years of militant violence largely failed to do, (I mean), fuse Muslim separatist sentiment into mass protests that seriously challenge Indian rule and South Asia’s stability.
The dispute over land for a Hindu shrine trust, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, and the killing of 21 Muslim protesters by police has galvanized separatists after years of relative stability in Kashmir that saw some hope for India negotiating a political solution.
The crisis in Kashmir, have played into the hands of the separatists. Protesters shout slogans atop the wreckage of a police vehicle they burnt in Srinagar on Thursday. A man was killed when police opened fire on a crowd that marched in defiance of a curfew in the city.
It is all a huge setback for a political solution to Kashmir. Central government is back to where we were many years ago.
After months of relative peace which turned Kashmir into a near-forgotten conflict, the region has exploded again with some of the biggest protests since violence erupted in 1989. What started as a dispute over land allocated to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) which was formed by the State Government to manage the affairs of Amarnath shrine in Kashmir, has snowballed into a full-scale protest across India, and Kashmir in tow different dimensions.
The dispute has also pitted Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu, the two regions which along with Ladakh make up the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in what is the biggest communal crisis faced by the Central government in Delhi since it took office in 2004.
At stake is the risk of the ‘Balkanisation’ of Jammu and Kashmir comparable to the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In this, worst case, scenario, the state would break up into its three different regions with Jammu and Ladakh favoring India and Kashmir either battling for ‘independence’ or tilting towards Pakistan. (The state is the part of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir which remained in Indian hands at partition in 1947 with the other side controlled by Pakistan.)
Little wonder then that analysts in India are describing it as a major crisis, calling it the greatest test for the Central government since it took office.
And although some Indian analysts have accused Pakistan of stoking tensions in Kashmir, the protests look to be, at least in large measure, spontaneous.
So is this a re-run of 1989? At the time separatist sentiments which had been simmering before 1947 when the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Maharajah from Jammu erupted into full-scale protests which were primarily Kashmiri nationalist rather than religious. According to the Kashmiri version of history, India then tried to crush the revolt with a clumsy heavy-handedness that only inflamed Kashmiri anger further.
The revolt turned increasingly lethal and vicious in part due to Pakistan’s involvement in supporting the separatists and to the Islamist influence of the ‘Mujahideen’ who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After Pakistan and India tested nuclear bombs in 1998, Kashmir was dubbed the most dangerous place on earth, bringing the two countries to the brink of war in 2001/2002.
So if today’s protests turn out to be a re-run of 1989, the outlook is grim, both for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and for the peace process between India and Pakistan. Is there still time to find a solution before Kashmir spins off into another 20 years of violence? Or have the troubles already passed the point of no return?
Unsteady progress between India and Pakistan over Kashmir also might have been dashed by the biggest demonstrations in Kashmir in two decades.
Indeed, some fear Kashmir will become a diplomatic football once again between the two nuclear rivals, with New Delhi unsure of a new civilian government in Islamabad that it perceives is in a dangerous vacuum.
Kashmir has been racked by militant violence since 1989, when an insurgency against Indian rule erupted. Around 43,000 people have died but the past few years had seen some progress. State elections in 2002 were regarded as largely fair despite a separatist boycott and violence. Insurgency attacks fell in the past few years.
Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf made some peace proposals in 2006 that were seriously discussed in India.
Looking back, it seems like one missed opportunity, said Siddharth Varadarajan, diplomatic editor of The Hindu newspaper.
“One lesson is that the Indian government cannot just allow Kashmir to drift along. There has been a level of simmering resentment that the government has been unwilling to deal with.”
A government with eyes on 2009 elections might do just that—drift along and hope protests fizzle.
For the most part, Kashmir is not an issue for voters in the rest of India.
Some analysts predict a doomsday scenario, with more protests leading to the break-up of the state, split between the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Muslim Kashmir valley.
Others predict mass protests forcing the government to appease separatists with some negotiations, from issues such as tentative demilitarization to relaxation of border controls.
Experts say perceived Indian oppression of protests could spark tension between Pakistan and India as well.
According Sajjad Lone, leader of the main separatist alliance All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which rejects militant violence, protests have changed the whole parameters of the conflict.
The peace process was for years seen through the eyes of Pakistan and India. Kashmir was confined to being an ornament. There is increased relevance being given to Kashmiris. That new focus could fall on state elections which are due later this year.
The state government is leaderless and the first step to a peaceful solution might be free and fair elections.
Separatists want elections boycotted. Mainstream parties that participate in elections are overshadowed by separatists.
To make matters worse for New Delhi, once-split separatists have shown some unity. Indeed, one political winner seems to be hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for years seen as marginalized.
Ajmer Alam Wani
[Image courtesy: http://graphics.boston.com/resize/bonzai-fba/AP_Photo/2008/08/12/1218554050_6800/539w.jpg]