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Kashmir: Sidelining the Separatists

The single-minded focus on the "Kashmir problem" has led to the neglect of developmental and governance issues within the state. Fortunately, a multi-party system is evolving slowly and beginning to occupy space earlier monopolised by extremists.


Sidelining the Separatists

The single-minded focus on the “Kashmir problem” has led to the neglect of developmental and governance issues within the state. Fortunately, a multi-party system is evolving slowly and beginning to occupy space earlier monopolised by extremists.


hen the chief minister of Kashmir announced the carving out of eight new districts in the state, the people there showed an unusual amount of jubilation. It was a form of distraction from the increasing acts of violence around. The new districts took the total to 20 but there are protests from areas, which are aspiring for a similar status. These districts were created more to maintain regional parity than because the demands were just and this had added to the unrest in the other areas.

But the decision itself highlights the point that people want their other problems, and not just the “Kashmir problem”, to be resolved. In fact both the government of India and the separatists had been avoiding attending to many urgent problems of the people. The change in the attitude of the people was bound to occur as the current problems became more pressing.

An indication of a new popular trend was available in the assembly election of 2002. I met the voters gathered around a polling booth who pretended that they had been forced to come there by the security forces. I told them there were many ways in which they could make their votes invalid. They insisted that they would use the right to vote to ensure ‘azadi’ from corruption, nepotism and maladministration. The higher turnout of voters was one of the reasons for the split in the Hurriyat as Geelani accused the other faction of an ineffective boycott campaign.

In the municipal elections of 2005, voter turnout was much larger; in particular of women for whom seats were reserved for the first time. The attacks on poll rallies, polling booths and candidates

  • some of whom were killed – did not deter the enthusiasm of the voters. They were keen to see their civic problems dealt with.
  • The assembly by-elections in April 2006
  • three in Kashmir valley and one in Jammu region – were qualitatively different when voter turnout of 69 per cent broke even the
  • peace time record. There was no allegation of coercive voting; nor of militants threatening voters. It was universally accepted that the elections were fair and even the separatists recognised the legitimacy of the ballot. Conceding that the voter turnout was unprecedented, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the hardline faction of the Hurriyat Conference said, “it was the direct effect of the Pakistani president general Pervez Musharraf’s u-turn on Kashmir”. Similarly, conceding that the mass turnout of voters was voluntary, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the rival faction of the Hurriyat, defended the right of the people to participate in the election. He did not see anything wrong in people electing their representatives. He said, “if people pay taxes they are entitled to see that the money is in the right hands”.

    There are thus many things which Kashmiris have learnt to value more than the vague slogan of azadi which is the Urdu translation of two distinct concepts in English, viz, freedom and independence. There are many countries in the world which are independent but not free. If the content of freedom could be increased in Kashmir politics and its value properly explained to the people, the importance of independence would decline to a proportionate extent.

    It is in this context that the value of the new districts has to be appreciated. It has reduced the distance for many people to the venue of district administration. In Doda district, for instance, people at its extreme edges had to travel a distance of about 100 km or more since some places are not connected either by pucca roads or through a transport service, to reach district headquarters. Now the district has been divided into three. The headquarters of each one of them would be much easier for their inhabitants to reach.

    But freedom also implies power to take decisions. To come near the seat of authority would certainly provide relief to the people. But they must also be in a position to influence the decision-making process. Unlike districts in the rest of the country, where elected authorities under the panchayati raj system take vital decision about their people, in J and K state the districts are still run by the government officers headed by a deputy commissioner. In many states deputy commissioners are subordinate to elected heads of the districts.

    Hijacking the Separatist Agenda

    An over-centralised administration has been a major cause of alienation among the people and tensions between and within regions. Instead of dealing with individual grievances of regions and districts and seeking short-term acclaim, people at each tier of administration – region, district, block and panchayat – should be empowered. The urge for power or self-government cannot be substitute for a good governance and development. Here again the government has appointed a working group to work out changes in the centre state relations without attending to internal changes. This, again, amounts to placing more emphasis on more powers for the state without bothering how these are used. In other world more emphasis on independence from outside without freedom to the people to take decisions about their problems; which have been major sources of confusion in the Kashmiri mind.

    In a state as diverse as J and K, there is all the more reason for having a federal and decentralised constitutional set-up. Such a decision was taken a number of times but never implemented. The Delhi Agreement of 1952 between Nehru and Abdullah provided not only autonomy of the state within India but, on my suggestion, also provided autonomy to the regions within the state. Again, the J and K State People’s Convention convened by Sheikh Abdullah in 1968, representing the entire political spectrum of the Kashmir valley, unanimously accepted an outline of five-tier internal constitution of the state drafted by me, which provided sharing of power between the state regions, districts, blocks and panchayats. Finally this formula was an unwritten part of the Indira Gandhi-Abdullah accord. Before returning to power in 1975, he was required to assure people of Jammu and Ladakh, at a conference of their representatives, that he would implement the five-tier internal constitution in the state.

    After two round-table conferences, convened by the prime minister, in which representatives of all diverse identities were represented, a decision was taken to reform the internal system of the state. It is time the earlier commitments of Kashmiri

    Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 leaders on a federal and decentralised setup are thoroughly discussed and consensus evolved over implementing them.

    All these measures may not fully satisfy the urge for azadi of the people of Kashmir valley and work out a solution of the vexed Kashmir problem to the entire satisfaction of India, Pakistan and different ethnic and religious identities of the state. But it is obvious that alienation of the people is not entirely due to external causes. Internal causes, including systemic defects and political and governance factors are no less important. To the extent internal causes are resolved, external aspect of the problem would be easier to solve. It is not possible nor necessary to remove all causes of discontent. It is equally important to provide democratic outlets for discontent. In this context a positive development is the emergence of a multiparty system and a vocal opposition in the state assembly, for the first time. For instance, the two main parties in the assembly from the Kashmir valley, the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party compete with each other in taking up popular complaints, including human rights violations and are pressing the centre to keep the peace process alive. Of course when their own cadres are killed by the militants, they have to protest. On the whole they have occupied the considerable space which was the exclusive domain of the separatists. Therefore Mirwaiz, the leader of the Hurriyat, the main separatist conglomeration, has complained that the mainstream parties have hijacked the separatist agenda.



    Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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