Dialogue, not force, is the way forward | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 19, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 19, 2010

Dialogue, not force, is the way forward

THE protest wave that gripped the Kashmir Valley has abated with the calling in of the army -- for the first time for crowd control since the azaadi movement erupted in 1989. But public anger against the killing of 15 young Kashmiris, including a 9-year-old boy, won't vanish soon.
The army's induction claims a high price; damage to the Indian state's credibility. The crisis has shown not just Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, but the Union Home Ministry at its worst. It inflamed the situation with its crude militaristic approach.
Absent remedial measures and popular alienation could again generate pervasive unrest in Kashmir. This time, India won't be able to blame Pakistan.
The protests were triggered by the disclosure in May of the Machil fake encounter, in which an army major had three innocent men killed after falsely branding them terrorists.
About the same time, the J&K government admitted that the army had conscripted the entire male population of 24 villages in North Kashmir into forced labour for 13 years. An NGO recently claimed the existence of unmarked graves in North Kashmir, containing 2,943 bodies.
Public anger at these disclosures erupted into an Intifadah-like movement. Youth pelted stones at police and Central Reserve Police Force troops. They retaliated in kind, and worse, by firing bullets. Such revenge attacks against civilians are impermissible.
Real trouble started on June 11, when the police fired a teargas shell into the skull of a 17-year-old student at close range, killing him. Amidst snowballing protests, the CRPF became more brutal. It beat a 25 year-old man to death. It targeted teenagers in Srinagar, Sopore and Baramulla. On July 6, it hit a 17 year-old student in the head with rifle butts. It denied having arrested him. His body was found the next day.
As mosques started playing azaadi songs on loudspeakers, Mr. Abdullah called in the army, bowing to the Home Ministry's pressure. Harsh media censorship was imposed.
Yet, until July 12, nothing was done to soothe hurt sentiments or inquire into police excesses. Mr. Abdullah didn't mobilise his MLAs or eminent citizens. He belatedly called a meeting of mainstream parties. The opposition People's Democratic Party boycotted it. Meanwhile, the Home Ministry accused separatists and the Lashkar-e-Toiba of orchestrating the protests.
While the protests may not have all been spontaneous, they undoubtedly reflected resentment at CRPF-police brutality and the government's cynical attempt to cover up its mistakes. The separatists and the PDP tried to exploit the crisis politically. But they didn't manufacture it.
Mr. Abdullah is inexperienced in Kashmir politics and hasn't set up the promised elected local bodies. (Kashmir has no local government.) There's a yawning divide between the NC-Congress alliance and the people, which young protesters have filled.
The situation has presented the two deeply crisis-ridden factions of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference an opportunity to revive themselves.
The Centre is primarily responsible for the deterioration of the Kashmir situation. It's the Centre which has deployed 4 million security personnel in J&K. It defines the security strategy framework within which the state government operates.
The Centre doesn't comprehend three fundamental realities: Widespread disaffection in the Valley; emergence of a young generation which grew up under militancy and counter-insurgency; and the futility of violent crowd-control methods.
Many in the Indian establishment interpreted the 60% turnout in the 2008 J&K Assembly elections as popular approval of Kashmir's integration with India. The elections were largely free and fair. But the people voted in a government which would buffer them from the Centre. They didn't endorse the status quo.
Disaffection with India persists in J&K -- although there's disenchantment with militancy. According to a first-of-its-kind survey conducted in late 2009 by the London-based Chatham House think-tank, less than 1% of respondents in J&K endorse the status quo. Only 2% want the state to accede to Pakistan. But support for integration with India is also limited (28%).
As many as 43% of J&K's people prefer independence. The proportion is a high 75% to 95% in the Valley. There's all-round opposition to militancy (84% to 96% in the Valley) and good support for the India-Pakistan dialogue; 55% believe that dialogue improved their security. The survey may not be perfect, but it's a good pointer.
The successful elections and Pakistan's recent withdrawal of large-scale support to militancy offered another opportunity to build peace and find a Kashmir solution acceptable to India, Pakistan, and the people of J&K and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. But the government lost the chance.
Considerable progress towards resolving the Kashmir issue was made in 2008 -- until the Mumbai attacks. It's imperative to resume the dialogue with Pakistan.
Second, recent violence, including in the 2008 Amarnath imbroglio, and protests against the 2009 Shopian "rape"-and-"murder" of two women, has followed official tactical errors. The Shopian case turned out to be false. But repression of protests, within a climate of distrust, created large-scale turmoil.
The new generation of youth grew up in a climate of militancy, repression and rampant unemployment. It faces a bleak future.
The government hasn't created conditions for a better life for young people. For them, pelting stones means defying the Indian state -- necessary for their self-esteem.
Finally, take violent crowd-control. There's no excuse for firing on protesters armed with stones. The principal crowd management methods must be non-lethal, including water-cannons, stun-guns, stink-bombs and tasers (which deliver a stunning, largely harmless, electric shock). Firing can only be the last resort, in self-defence.
The targeting of individuals "to teach them a lesson" must be illegalised and exemplarily punished.
What J&K needs is healing -- and restoration of long-denied citizen rights and freedoms. This should begin with scrapping the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and other draconian laws, releasing political prisoners, thinning out security forces, and retraining the state police.
At the same time, India and Pakistan must sincerely try to resolve Kashmir within a soft-borders formula.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.
Email: bidwai@bol.net.in.

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