Around this time of year, when scorching heat starts to grip most parts of mainland India, the picturesque valley of Kashmir, high up in the Himalayas, starts receiving tourists in droves. Famed for its salubrious weather and lush scenery, Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places in the Indian subcontinent. But the valley has been caught up in a vortex of violence for almost three decades. The genesis of strife can be traced to 1947 when India gained independence from British rule and Pakistan came into being. Kashmir was free to accede to either nation, but the Maharaja, ruler of Kashmir, initially neutral, eventually acceded to India. According to the UN, “Kashmir’s accession to India became a matter of dispute between the two countries and fighting broke out.” It has continued to be a sticking point for the two nuclear-armed nations ever since. Armed insurgency, that started in the valley in 1989, gave the hitherto political problem a totally new dimension. Hundreds of thousands have perished in the low-intensity conflict during the last 29 years.
The huge security grid that India has in place in Kashmir has been able to contain militancy over the years. Counter-insurgency operations by security forces in the valley have never been popular (with reports of gross human rights violations and misgivings) but overall the government managed to control the narrative. Also successful assembly and parliamentary elections, held in 1996 (after nearly a decade) brought some hope that a new political engagement with the people was possible. Polls were also held in 2002, 2008 and 2014 even as public participation in those elections was relatively marked down in parts of the valley.
In leaving the political aspect of the Kashmir problem unresolved, subsequent governments erred badly. Mistaking elections as the final will of the people (in reality votes were sought for local administrative and civic issues), there was a sense of complacency on the part of mainstream politicians in the valley. On its part, New Delhi dithered over initiating a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. As years went by and tourists returned to Kashmir, a slow churn was also taking place. Insurgency and the political sentiment, which had never really abated in Kashmir, began to take root once again. Since 2014, there is a renewed ‘freedom’ struggle at hand, which has only intensified with each passing day.
The lack of any genuine political pact and zero breakthrough in peace talks meant that by the summer of 2014, home-grown militancy had come full circle. The death of 22-year-old local charismatic rebel leader Burhan Wani became a tipping point. The young man, strapping and tech-savvy, took to social media and caught the imagination of an entire new generation of youngsters, most of whom were disenchanted and disillusioned with the status quo. What followed was a series of violent protests and statewide revolt that left the region completely paralysed. Unable to tackle the new wave of uprising that clearly enjoyed civilian support, the authorities resorted to frequent curfews and internet shutdowns. These did not help matters.
The government of India did appoint the former Intelligence Bureau chief Dineshwar Sharma as interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir in 2017, but most observers felt that in the absence of any real political will to resolve the Kashmir imbroglio, such a step was mostly cosmetic. In a Srinagar parliamentary bypoll held in 2017 (after the MP resigned) the voter turnout of 7.14 per cent was the lowest in the constituency in decades.
Fast forward to May 2018. News of highly qualified youth taking up arms in the valley has come as a stark reminder that shrinking spaces for public discourse could result in devastating outcomes. Last week, Dr Mohammad Rafi, 33, an assistant professor of Sociology at Kashmir University, was killed by security forces near Srinagar. A meritorious scholar, he had cleared the National Eligibility Test (NET) and Junior Research Fellowship — both prestigious competitive exams that could have opened higher avenues for him. Instead, the young academic chose to join militant ranks. A few days later, he was among 10 people (five rebels and five civilians) killed in an orgy of violence.
Grim as the situation remains, there is a sliver of hope. The turmoil in Kashmir remains an interplay of several factors — political, territorial and historical — which need to be addressed. India, being the bigger power in the region as well as the largest democracy in the world, must accord space to all hues of opinion in the valley. Subsequently, Islamabad should help New Delhi kickstart the stalled peace process. The further the delay, the worse it becomes in Kashmir.