New Delhi must seize the moment
After the failure of the all-party delegation to make any headway in Kashmir because of the refusal of the separatists to talk to the team, it is back to square one in the state.
Following the setback, the Centre apparently considered pursuing a new track by playing hardball with the Hurriyat conference. But this hasn't found favour with the opposition parties. They continue to insist on meeting all stakeholders even if the effort is yet to prove successful.
It is unlikely that this amiable approach will work because the Hurriyat appears to have decided, presumably at Pakistan's behest, to use the unrest to raise the stakes to an unacceptable level.
In New Delhi's view, this indicates a transition from the demand for a still undefined "Azadi" (freedom) to a regressive Wahabi theocracy. It is, however, difficult to believe that the hardliners have seriously come to the conclusion that the moment has come for them to attain their dream of a sovereign Kashmir.
Since it is not known if Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Company at all have a base among the ordinary people -- Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti says that only five percent of the population support the uprising -- the Hurriyat hawks can afford to recklessly carry on fomenting trouble for they are not interested in the parliamentary system.
The fact that their personal lives are not affected in the least is undoubtedly an encouraging factor. They might have piped down if the government incarcerated them and kept them in jails outside Kashmir, as R.K. Singh, the former Union Home Secretary and present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP, has suggested. But the government might not be able to secure the opposition's approval for such a hard line. The disagreement between the government and the opposition on this question, and also on talking to Pakistan, is likely to strengthen the Hurriyat's mulishness.
Arguably, the government does have time on its hands. For one, it can claim that it did try to reach out to the separatists and, therefore, can wait till good sense prevails.
For another, the government is aware that Kashmir no longer arouses the kind of concern which it earlier did among the international community either because of the supposed human rights violations or because it can become a nuclear "flashpoint" between India and Pakistan.
Instead, the world today is far more concerned about Pakistan's role as an incubator of terror. The world knows that if Pakistan has its way in Kashmir, it will give a huge boost to the terror factories run by the Pakistani Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), endangering not only India but the West and Israel as well.
New Delhi can, therefore, play a waiting game because there is no one among the militants to talk to as they constitute a leaderless mob with the Hurriyat representing an unreliable, even traitorous, group which does not have the interests of the Kashmiris at heart.
At the same time, the Centre cannot ignore what the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, called the "lack of governance" in the state, which may have been compounded by the Centre's mothballing of the report of a committee which investigated the situation in Kashmir in 2010.
The senior Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader, Muzaffar Baig, too, has echoed Owaisi's concern.
Had the Centre shown greater interest in development projects, it could have been able to blunt the edge of the militancy even if such measures could not by themselves eradicate the sense of alienation which has unfortunately taken root among a section of the people.
The belated, though not total, ban on the use of the pellet guns was a welcome move. But the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is still in place, although its withdrawal could have been a huge confidence-building measure. Its very presence is suggestive of a police state, which is why former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram favoured its scrapping.
It is worth noting that in a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, a group of 22 retired judges and bureaucrats has called for the withdrawal of AFSPA and the Disturbed Areas Act.
India has had a long history of dealing with insurgency with a fair degree of success. The reason is that its democracy promises a safety-valve for the more sensible among the malcontents which their authoritarian supporters like China in the northeast and Pakistan in Kashmir cannot provide. But, typically, India is rather too lackadaisical in its approach, which makes it lose interest in a restive area once the trouble dies down. There is little doubt that it will be the same in Kashmir for it is unlikely that the disturbances will continue for an indefinite period of time.
However, this time, New Delhi must seize the moment as soon as it presents itself by initiating a process of gradual demilitarisation, which means that the army and the paramilitary forces will only guard the border and be far less visible elsewhere.
The internal security will have to be left to the police. Srinagar should begin to look like any other Indian city.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. Views expressed are personal.)