Wednesday, August 11, 2010

KASHMIR: AFTER THE GALE, BACK TO SQUARE ONE

A disease can only be cured if it is diagnosed correctly. We all know that. The odd diagnostic error does take place despite the best available tools but never when the same symptoms keep recurring through the life of an individual. Their should be no exception to this rule. But there is one, albeit in different type of body, and it beats understanding and defies logic. Never in the history of the world has there been a continuum of errors in diagnosing an ailment like this. They first led to an imperfect and incomplete amputation of a substantial part of India's body and later to vicious attacks, still continuing, on the still-healthy main body.

I sometimes wonder whether it is worth the while repeating what I have been saying for long, over and over again. The effort, beyond a point, drains me as very little creative energy is needed to dig out old stuff, spruce it up and pass it off as new. For some of us who pick up a pen to pour out something that energises us from within, repetitiveness becomes a burdensome chore. But, there are some issues which keep hitting you in the face again and again without any loss of force, that refuse to go away or get stale. In fact, the impact actually gets magnified, as does the frustration and dismay, because what seems to be as clear as the proverbial day light to you and many others, inexplicably remains invisible to or unaddressed by the powerful few, not because they cannot see it but because they, in most cases, choose to keep their eyes wide shut.

Kashmir, the fish bone that Nehru mindlessly left in India's throat, is still stuck there, 63 years after he committed his first Himalayan Blunder. And it is stuck there only because at a very fundamental level, we refuse to admit that it is there and why. Despite all that has happened and is happening, we want to keep fooling ourselves into believing that the increasing pain that we are feeling is only temporary and will go away on its own if we keep feeding soothing lozenges to the bone. Over time, goes the asinine argument of the coward couched in comfort in India's capital, it will become part of our body and even strengthen it. But it hasn't and it won't.

Every time there is an upsurge of violence in the tiny Valley of Kashmir by ethnic Kashmiri Muslims, those who frame and influence India's policy masochistically bring it centre stage and engage in astonishing denial and self-flagellation. And come up with outlandish suggestions which they know have never worked and are not going to ever. 64 years of bribing Kashmiris at the expense of other, hard working, non-complaining Indians has only helped the problem and the riches of corrupt Kashmiri politicians and officials bulge. Yet some of us who should know better can do no better than continuing to suggest an increase in what is a glorified 'hafta'. Some others talk loosely of a political settlement, of giving 'genuine' autonomy, whatever that means -- and it means little considering how little the writ of the state already runs in a fully Islamised and purged-of-Hindus Valley. Now even that little it is under threat -- Syed Shah Gilani has decreed that Friday, not Sunday will be observed as holiday in Islamic Kashmir -- but everyone wants to pretend otherwise, even though they can see that his word is law, that he, as MJ Akbar says, is in power while Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is in government.

When Rahul Gandhi compelled Farooq Abdullah to abdicate in favour of his son Omar after the elections in 2008, India's national media was euphoric. More than the youth factor that had been exciting them only because Rahul Gandhi was young, it was the PLU connection that set their pulses racing. The beginning of a new dawn, they all proclaimed excitedly, thrilled that India was finally passing into the hands of photogenic, English-speaking, TV studio-friendly, feudalistic politicians who were on their social wavelength.

No one then bothered about the irritating detail that there was no enthusiasm at all where it mattered; the ground had shifted so much in 20 years of terrorism that Omar was actually irrelevant where he should have been relevant. No one thought that it was of any importance that Omar could barely speak Kashmiri and was considered an outsider by the people in the Valley. Also overlooked was the fact that thanks to the Pakistan-injected radicalism and jihad, the Abdullah family had come to be hated by many in the Valley as being stooges of India, that even Sheikh Abdullah's grave was being protected by India's security forces. Omar sounded good on TV and was a good friend of some Delhi journalists. He in a sense represented their victory and for them that was all the qualification that was needed to be a great CM in any state in India.

No wonder they have all been taken by surprise by the magnitude of the latest violence; the myth lies shattered once again. The stones thrown by protestors shouting 'azadi' have hit Omar and India hard. This unexpected development has jolted everyone who was equating tourist arrivals -- a vital economic activity for the Valley -- with peace and was lauding India's 'nuanced' handling -- read criminal inertia -- of the Kashmir issue, and Omar's connect with the youth of the Valley.

But, as always, at the end of yet another boil, nothing has changed. We are back to playing the same games that we have been for years and that have led to this mess. The PM has made an emotional speech that he very well knows will have no takers; there have been the usual, stereotyped discussions in TV studios from which nothing new has emerged because no one wants to confront the problem at the root, even though nearly every single Kashmiri who appears on TV says that it is not autonomy and development that they want but 'azadi'. Knowing fully well that is not an option available through plebiscite under which they can choose either India or Pakistan, everyone knows that azadi from India equals merger with Pakistan. In fact that is precisely what Gilani, the man who is the de facto ruler of the Valley, the one who has once again asked Kashmiris to cheer Pakistan's Independence Day, has been saying openly for decades.

Yet, when the Mirwaiz tells Prannoy Roy that Musharraf's dangerous plan on Kashmir was only an interim one and not the final solution to the issue of self-determination, the latter is surprised and says that Musharraf had told him that it was final. Evidently, even that sell-out deal that nearly went through and its implications have not been given the attention that they deserve, and Musharraf's word, Kargil notwithstanding, has been swallowed with naïve PLU trust. Similarly, when asked about Jammu and Ladakh which are ethnically completely different, even though Lone dismisses the stake of the Ladakhis by saying the population is small and that of the Jammuites by saying 'they', read Hindus, can take two-two and a half districts, and when every leader says that no resolution is possible without involving Pakistan, the likes of Barkha Dutt who are abnormally sympathetic to separatists refuse to budge from the disingenuous liberal line that the problem is political, not religious.

A few sane and informed voices like MJ Akbar and General Shankar Roychowdhuri who have voiced the plain truth that the anger and agitation in the Valley has been precisely orchestrated by a Pakistan which, among other things, wants to take revenge for Bangladesh and which will not let the problem be solved ever except on its terms, have been conveniently drowned out once again. Listening to them means abandoning the disastrous template of inaction that India has been sticking to and adopting a radically different, result-oriented one. That no one is prepared to do.

That is why a pacifist, economist Prime Minister is led to admit almost helplessly that India has no choice but to talk to Pakistan. That is why we keep seeing the sorry spectacle of Pakistan continuing to brazenly prosecute its proxy war and humiliate India at the same time. That is why the Foreign Secretary has to make the dumb declaration, much to Pakistan's joy, that talks are the "most intelligent means" to stop cross-border terror. Surely we must be the only people on the planet who believe that eloquence can defeat the power that grows from the barrel of a gun.

India simply has no Plan B, much less a Plan C or D, to get Pakistan to stop terror in Kashmir and elsewhere. The elementary realisation has not sunk in that unless the cost to Pakistan for waging a proxy war is raised substantially, it will never stop it. Why should it cease fighting a cheap war that is eroding the will of a hapless Indian government that believes that "doing nothing" equals being "most intelligent"? That this is the sorry state after two decades is a humiliation that only India can live with. And still nurse dreams of becoming a super power.

Pakistan's generals and jihadi masterminds in Pakistan are counting the number of those killed in police firing with glee even as India's rulers and opinion makers are feeling sorry and guilty, and rightly, for the loss of precious lives. Once again, the actions and reactions have blown over. But there is no one in any doubt that this is just another lull and that another gale will hit, at an unexpected time and with unexpected fury, and the whole dreary drama will be repeated.

Semantics apart, let us be clear that no solution, even interim, is possible between the now almost totally radicalised Kashmiri Muslim led by Gilani, and India without involving and conceding substantial ground to Pakistan. Going back to the 1953 position of near total autonomy, even if it were possible, is not going to settle the matter; that was a problem even then, as was Pakistan a player, much smaller than it has been thoughtlessly allowed to become now. There is no way that any government in Delhi can get away by making even the slightest of concessions because that will be viewed by Pakistanis as the victory of jihad and the defeat of "Hindu" India, and will lead to impossible demands and much greater violence.

Where does that leave us? Back to where we started. This is a recipe for disaster. The longer the drift, the better it is for Pakistan because it will push India more and more into a corner as the anger and violence and dead count rise, thanks primarily to Pakistan's relentless efforts. What better way for Pakistan to fight its war than by letting a few Pakistani jihadis and ordinary Kashmiris loose against India?

Kashmiris are mere pawns and their leaders are puppets on a Pakistani string. India is fighting the wrong people. The findings of the Chatham House survey on Kashmir substantiate this view. If they are correct then, as I had written earlier, for India it is very good news.

As per the survey, virtually no ethnic Kashmiri Muslim wants to join Pakistan. That is an extremely significant finding because it shows that having seen the way India and Pakistan have shaped up since Partition, Kashmiris realise that being swallowed in and by Pakistan is a far worse proposition than what they have experienced with and as part of India, despite decades of violence sparked and sustained by Pakistan. Most want Independence. So, when Kashmiri separatist leaders, except those for who believe Pakistan is the natural home of Kashmiris, say that talks with India should start with azadi -- secession -- and then worked backwards, the unspoken sub-text is that they want India to not only give them near total Independence but also thereafter become its guarantor!

Thus, at one level, they have a common cause with India against Pakistan. Or at least they want to leverage India's power to protect their Independence from a nation that they see going rapidly down a slippery slope. Paradoxically, if Pakistan is actually weakened to the extent that it can no longer wage a proxy war, the bargaining power of Kashmiri leaders will get substantially eroded and their demands will become realistic.

That again brings us back to the original position that no lasting solution acceptable to India is possible till Pakistan's ability to torpedo it is not totally eroded. Therefore, as long as we do not address this core issue, we will remain stuck in the vortex that we are in and will keep getting sucked deeper and deeper till something gives.

The war over and in Kashmir, as I have said earlier too, is, for Pakistan, the beginning, not the end, a pit stop, not the finish line. India is fighting the Fourth Battle of Panipat there. Loss is not an option; victory is vital. The sooner we understand that, the better. Talks with Pakistan will be the most intelligent option after that, not before.