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Turning right into might

16 September, 2010

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi


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Almost every day unarmed teenagers defy curfews to protest against Indian rule even if the rest of the world chooses to ignore this extraordinary mobilisation across the valley of Kashmir. Unprecedented international media coverage of the upheaval has been met by studied silence in Western capitals despite the recent expression of concern by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Yet the protests carry on. Youthful demonstrators remain undeterred by the ferocity of the crackdown. For decades India has deployed more troops in Kashmir than the western coalition has in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, yet this military might has failed to vanquish the Kashmiri yearning for freedom. If anything, the demand for self-determination is more vocal today than ever before with the resistance-movement having entered a new phase of civil disobedience. This is much harder for Delhi to demonize and de-legitimise as the handiwork of an external force or militants.

The third consecutive summer of protest has seen unrest sweeping the valley with a new generation of Kashmiris seeking to turn right into might by peacefully pressing their call for an end to Indian occupation. In the past three months alone more than sixty people have been killed in clashes. This does not include even a single member of the security forces which shows that unprovoked and excessive force has been used against protestors armed with only stones.

The current round of protests was triggered by the killing on June 11 of a seventeen-year-old student by a tear-gas shell during a demonstration in Srinagar. Since then the agitation has gathered momentum. Every death at the hands of security personnel has catalysed more angry demonstrations.

Even the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to acknowledge that this heavy-handed approach had backfired when he called last month for “non-lethal” means to control crowds to avert more deaths. Within hours of this declaration the authorities ordered a shake-up of senior police officials in Indian-held Kashmir in a bid to staunch the growing turmoil. But the new ‘restraint’ orders did not prevent the killing of more protestors by security forces. And Kashmiri leaders vowed to step up the protests after Eid.

Although western nations continue to ignore this escalating situation, there are three recent developments that are significant to note and which can impact the Kashmir issue down the road.

One, in a rare move last month, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern about the deteriorating situation in Kashmir - on which the UN in any case has unfulfilled obligations - and called on “all concerned to exercise utmost restraint and address problems peacefully.” Even this mildly-worded statement evoked a furious Indian response. A statement issued by India’s ministry of external affairs criticised the UN’s call for calm as “gratuitous” and then claimed that he made no such remarks. However a spokesman for Mr. Ban Ki-moon made it clear that his office stood by the earlier comments. This was duly reported by the Financial Times on 27 August.

A second development last month that is noteworthy for its implications for the Kashmir dispute, is Beijing’s refusal to grant a visa to a top general responsible for army operations in Kashmir. When Lt-General B S Jaswal, chief of the Indian army’s northern command was refused permission to travel to China as part of a scheduled visit by a military delegation, Delhi announced the suspension of defence exchanges with Beijing.

This row came against the backdrop of China’s reported refusal over the past year to issue visas to Indian passport-holders from Indian-administered Kashmir. Instead visitors have apparently been given stapled paper-visas, a practice that too has evoked Indian protests. Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson recently described the Jammu and Kashmir state as Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Whether or not all of this reflects Beijing’s ire over Delhi’s support for the Dalai Lama - Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader - signaled most recently by meetings between him and top Indian officials, these Chinese actions have an impact on the Kashmir issue as they challenge India’s claim to sovereignty over the state.

The third significant development is the continuing, unparalleled coverage the Kashmiri uprising has been getting in the west, especially the American press. Rarely in the past has the Kashmiri movement received such a sustained media attention. Since June, numerous reports and analyses have appeared, mostly sympathetic towards young Kashmiri protestors and critical of India. A recent report in the New York Times (24 August) for example, described Kashmir as “one blood-soaked exception” to India’s claim to accommodate diversity within its much disputed borders. Another article in the same paper (13 August) said that the Kashmiri protests for a third consecutive year “signal the failure of Indian efforts to win the assent of Kashmiris using just about any tool available: money, elections and overwhelming force.”

Other western correspondents have reported from the Indian capital that official talk of offering an economic package to unemployed Kashmiri youth misses the point: what is needed is a political package, a political settlement that reflects the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Nowhere in this coverage is there an endorsement of the view expressed by some Indian officials that the upheaval has been engineered from outside or by militant groups. Instead the unrest has been widely depicted as indigenous and spontaneous.

None of this can provide Delhi comfort as it struggles to deal with the turmoil in the valley. The silence of western governments offers reassurance but does not - and cannot - alter the grim situation on the ground. Stuck in the characteristic mode of having no strategy other than the use of force to deal with the mass protests, Delhi has been floundering and blowing hot and cold, promising a firm and “focused” response against the agitators and in the same breath offering to open talks with them.

Its calls for dialogue have been so hesitant and conditional - protests have to end first - and projected in that wearingly familiar Kashmir-is-an-integral-part-of-India construct that they have been flatly rejected by even those leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) who are not opposed to talks in principle. For his part, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has re-stated his four longstanding conditions for any dialogue: start of the withdrawal of Indian troops, repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gives immunity to security personnel, dismantlement of bunkers and camps, and release of all political prisoners.

Moreover, declarations like those from the Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram of wanting to reach out to the protestors have rung hollow for Kashmiri leaders and the public, who have seen last year’s promises by Delhi to amend the AFSPA come to nothing. The same applies to plans to draw down Indian forces from the valley announced amid great fanfare last year. With conciliatory noises from Delhi yet to translate into any initiative for political engagement, most Kashmiris see these pronouncements as little more than a ruse to dampen the protests without conceding anything.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Singh’s assertions - of finding more ‘humane’ ways of dealing with protests - foreshadows, at best, an effort to improve the appearance of occupation rather than to deal with its substance or consequences. These efforts to improve the optics - without resolving the issue - may well assume some urgency in the context of President Barack Obama’s visit to India this November.

In October 2008 candidate Obama had spoken of the need to resolve the Kashmir-dispute during his election campaign. This had rattled Delhi even though once in office the US President never repeated these comments. Nevertheless Indian officials will be anxious to calm the situation in Kashmir before this much-vaunted visit.

Whatever this high-level diplomacy may yield in the months to come, the people of Indian-held Kashmir seem to have concluded that the real game-changer that can transform their destiny is to tenaciously press their demands and turn right into might by their unrelenting peaceful protests.

 

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