Invoking Vajpayee in Kashmir
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced on Wednesday that an all-party meeting would be held on August 12 to the discuss the Kashmir situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to attend the meeting. During his address to members of the Rajya Sabha, Singh was unambiguous in his assertion that Pakistan is sponsoring the current unrest. He also rejected the possibility of holding talks with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. The past week has seen the Government of India propagate the idea that Pakistan is responsible for the current unrest in Kashmir. The National Investigation Agency has also jumped on this bandwagon armed with a confessional statement of a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative.
The anti-terror agency said it was gathering evidence of the LeT’s role in the ongoing turbulence in the Valley. During an address to the media, top officials of the NIA said the interrogation of Bahadur Ali, who was captured recently in north Kashmir, revealed the possible involvement of the terror organisation in aggravating the situation. Statements by Singh and the NIA come soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence on the issue more than a month after Kashmir erupted in violence. As per recent reports, the current unrest has claimed more than 50 lives and left more than 5000 injured. Speaking at an event in Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday, Modi said that the Centre would try to find a solution to the problem “through development”.
Repeating the script often followed by the BJP, Modi invoked former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and said that the Centre would follow his mantra of “Insaniyat (humanity), Jamhuriyat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s pluralist ethos)”. Even Rajnath Singh found time to invoke this mantra. It isn’t hard to fathom why the Vajpayee years are often remembered as the most fruitful in the history of the Kashmir peace process. Since the Vajpayee years, it has become fashionable for successive governments to invoke the mantra of “Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat and Kashmiriyat” when speaking of the conflict-ridden state. One must examine whether the current ruling dispensation at the Centre government and its partner in the State have followed this mantra of establishing peace in the region.
It is a fact that few governments have embarked on the path that Vajpayee did in his search for a panacea to the Kashmir problem. The current ruling dispensation falls short on various counts. In his famous “Good Friday” speech in April 2003, Vajpayee spoke of a desire to solve all problems “domestic” and “external”.
In a speech addressed to Kashmiris at the Sher-e-Kashmir cricket stadium in Srinagar, he even spoke of extending a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. “As Prime Minister of the country I wanted to have friendly relations with our neighbours and I went to Lahore, but it was returned with Kargil. We still continued and invited General Pervez Musharraf to Agra but again failed,” Vajpayee said. “We are again extending a hand of friendship but hands should be extended from both the sides. Both sides should decide to live together. We have everything which makes us have good relations,” he said. This was a tacit acknowledgement of the international nature of the problem.
The current NDA government has adopted an aggressive posture, maintaining that the Kashmir issue remains an “internal matter”. There is some truth the current NDA government’s position. Interference from rabid elements from Pakistan in the Kashmir Valley cannot be condoned. Nonetheless, sustained periods of peace in Kashmir have always been a result of better ties with Pakistan. In November 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to a formal ceasefire along the International Border, the Line of Control and the Actual Ground Position Line in Jammu and Kashmir.
This agreement not only saved countless lives, both civilian and military but also ushered a period of sustained peace in the region. The ceasefire across the border was further strengthened during the Manmohan Singh era until the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Both sides had come close to a resolution, which would have initiated a certain degree of autonomy and demilitarisation to the state. Unfortunately, both sides lost their nerve and since 2008 Kashmir has entered a new phase of civil unrest.
The Vajpayee government had also reached out to separatists, inviting them for talks. In contrast to governments before and after them, it was a bold move. Unfortunately, this ended in tragedy when separatist leaders who talked to the government were shot down. This is not to suggest that the Centre must talk to separatists. In other words, the Vajpayee government showed a willingness to engage with all shades of public opinion in Kashmir.
In sharp contrast, the Modi government has drawn clear lines in the sand. Last year, the Centre decided to call off NSA-level talks with Pakistan after officials from Islamabad met separatist leaders. After more than a month of violence, there are indications that the government may reach out to separatist leaders to stem the current unrest. Of course, Vajpayee also spoke the language of development with the promise of greater employment opportunities for the region’s youth and better rail and air connectivity. But unlike Modi, who seems to have reduced the current unrest to a hunger for economic development, Vajpayee understood that the Kashmir dispute is a political problem that requires a political solution. And this solution will only be arrived at if the government addresses all shades of public opinion, including those of the Kashmiri Pandits.
Finally, there is no way “Insaniyat” and “Jamhuriyat” are ever going to make their presence felt unless draconian laws like AFSPA and Public Safety Act continue to rule the roost. These laws have only further alienated the people of Kashmir. To prevent further incitement of violence in the state, the Indian State cannot and must not merely depend on the brute force of its armed forces. The state does not need one soldier for 15 or 25 civilians, depending on which report one reads. Leaders from across the aisle have suggested that after the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas, the primary responsibility of maintaining law and order should be handed over to the state government and the J&K Police. Rajnath Singh has asserted that once normalcy and peace are restored, there will be further engagement with all while moving forward in resolving issues.
This is a reasonable position to take. But the problem is of past precedence. Despite a prolonged period of relative peace and calm between 2003 and 2008, little or no steps were taken to demilitarise or withdraw AFSPA from certain districts in the state. There was little dialogue with the key stakeholders in the region. Allied with the chronic state of poor governance in the state, Kashmir is tinder box always waiting to explode. Of course, one is under no illusion that the challenge of maintaining peace in the region is immense. But if the government seeks to invoke Vajpayee’s legacy, it must act accordingly.