The Amarnath crisis takes its toll
CONFRONTED with a crisis following the withdrawal of the People's Democratic Party from the Congress-led coalition, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad resigned without facing the confidence vote. The Congress-PDP coalition's fall is a setback to the cause of moderation and political reconciliation. This is only one casualty from the crisis over the transfer of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), and the violent protests over the transfer and its reversal by Governor N.N. Vohra.
The crisis has undermined Kashmir's internal peace process and might lead to a revival of militant separatism -- and a shift towards intolerance and assertion of communal identities.
The gains of the past six years -- a substantial decline in violence, economic revival amidst a tourism boom, isolation of strident extremism, and a general acceptance of mainstream political activity and electoral politics -- are now in jeopardy. In Kashmir, the biggest winners are the Hurriyat hardliners led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who got totally isolated because of his extremist positions.
Another important gainer is the moderate Hurriyat, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, which has moved from near-irrelevance to prominence by opposing the land transfer on the ground that it would lead to the Valley's demographic transformation. The two Hurriyat factions are now discussing unification.
Nationally, the greatest gainer is the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has cynically fomented violent Hindu-communal protests in many parts of India. The protests' death-toll has crossed the double-digit mark.
There are no heroes in the land transfer drama. The greatest villain is former governor Lt.General SK Sinha, a BJP appointee, who, just before his retirement on June 4, ordered the state to transfer 100 acres of forest land to the Board, of which he is the president. This was to be used to provide temporary accommodation to pilgrims to the Amarnath cave, where an ice stalactite forms. The transfer was illegal and violated the Forest Conservation Act.
Gen Sinha has encouraged pilgrimage to this ecologically fragile 10,000-foot-altitude area, carved out roads through the mountains, promoted tourist facilities including a helicopter service, and extended the annual duration of the yatra from four to eight weeks -- although the ice lingam lasts for only one month. The result is a several-fold increase in the number of pilgrims to 400,000, and environmental destruction.
J&K's forest minister and Deputy Chief Minister Muzaffar Baig, both from the PDP, went along with this, including land transfer. The PDP falsely claimed the Congress, which threatened to block the rebuilding of the old Mughal Road to connect the Valley to Rajori and Poonch, blackmailed it. When protests erupted, the PDP played the helpless victim.
The Congress, too, failed to remove Gen. Sinha. It succumbed to his pressure, and venally manipulated the state machinery. Such venality led in the past to the Kashmiri people's alienation from India, and created grievances, which the separatists exploited with help from Pakistan's secret agencies.
Also culpable was the National Conference's Dr Farooq Abdullah, who established the SASB in 2000, thus taking the pilgrimage's charge away from the Muslim family, which had discovered and looked after the cave.
This was a case of the government wantonly interfering with a worthy instance of spontaneous Hindu-Muslim harmony and cooperation.
As protests erupted in the Valley over the land transfer, Hurriyat leaders jumped into the fray. They were marginalised ever since Gen Pervez Musharraf dropped the azadi agenda and proposed autonomy for the different regions of J&K without redrawing borders.
In recent weeks, they had even come around to a position of not opposing the coming Assembly elections.
Rather than making a generous gesture to religious Hindus, in keeping with Kashmir's syncretic culture, Hurriyat leaders and JKLF chief Yasin Malik depicted the land transfer as a means of forcibly settling Hindus in the Valley. This was patently absurd, given the tiny size of the plot and the makeshift structures being erected.
They deliberately organised processions to and from the Jama Masjid and the Hazratbal shrine. They also claimed the protests were spontaneous eruptions of popular anger against India's Kashmir policy.
They wrongly maligned the peace process as a way of perpetuating the status quo. This was their way of regaining their lost relevance.
In reality, the protests were driven by the same narrow-minded motives evident in the earlier mob violence over the "sex scandal," in which vigilantes burnt down the house of a woman suspected to be involved. They caused great hardship to the public by disrupting food and fuel movement.
The Valley protests were replicated like a mirror-image in the Jammu region under the BJP's leadership. The BJP instigated violent protests in other parts of India by drumming up its utterly fraudulent slogan of "Muslim appeasement" and "anti-Hindu prejudice" on the Congress' part. This infuses sectarian divisiveness and communal poison into faith.
This might help the Valley separatists revive the jehadi militancy which has lost popular appeal. Separatist militants can no longer recruit cadres. But under today's polarisation, Kashmir might return to the rule of the gun -- with disastrous consequences for all of South Asia.
Governor Vohra must use all the contacts he has cultivated as the Centre's envoy for the Kashmir dialogue. He must employ his experience as a former home secretary to stabilise the situation by acting in good faith. In particular, he must activate the deliberations of the five Working Groups set up in 2006.
These Groups are meant to deal with improving the Centre's relations with J&K, furthering relations across the Line of Control, boosting economic development, rehabilitating destitute families and reviewing the cases of detainees, and ensuring good governance.
However, it won't be enough to resume the domestic peace process. India must earnestly pursue the new round of dialogue with Pakistan, launched last month. The two governments must quickly resolve the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes, liberalise visa regimes and expand economic cooperation.
That's the best way of neutralising militant separatism in Kashmir