Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 19:30 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 19:30 | SYDNEY

Kashmir: Vale of tears


Rory Medcalf


27 August 2008 17:26

With so much attention on the Caucasus and Pakistan, we should not ignore the disturbing news from another quarter: Kashmir.

It’s always easy for the media to portray the streets of Srinagar as a war-zone: fortified checkpoints, troops in the streets, stone-throwing protesters, shadowy militants, heavy-handed police and the like. For much of the past six years, such depictions would have been simplistic and wrong: yes, there remained violence and dissent, but an increasing proportion of the population simply wanted to get on with their lives, regardless of the sovereignty question. The boom was in tourism, not terrorism.

Now, however, the images of trouble reflect the reality. Dozens of people have been killed in recent weeks; many of them protestors shot by security forces. The authorities are facing angry mobs from both Muslim and Hindu communities. These are the biggest street demonstrations that the state of Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed since the current cycle of turmoil and bloodshed began two decades ago.

Indian governments, central and state, must bear responsibility for the tragic mess that Kashmir became in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the ugliest kind of local politics, democratic processes were thwarted. Clumsy repression worsened dissent. A campaign for rights and autonomy became a struggle for independence. Non-violent activists turned to the gun. A window was opened for Pakistan to transform an independence struggle into a proxy war. The toxic intermingling of that conflict with Pakistani-backed extremist groups operating in Afghanistan helped turn Kashmir – traditionally a home to religious tolerance and syncreticism – into a focus of jihad. And this included the attempted ethnic cleansing of much of the Hindu population of the Kashmir Valley.

Yet by the turn of the century, some things were starting to improve. In the period leading up to the historic state election of late 2002, Indian authorities carefully used low-profile dialogue to manage the complex and multiple political differences of Jammu and Kashmir, in tandem with a more professional security presence as well as military and policing efforts to restrict the flow of militants from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.

These steps culminated in a credible election (as an Australian diplomat at the time, I served as an election monitor), overseen by India’s proudly independent electoral commission. The fairness of the process – in spite of a boycott by much of the disparate separatist movement — was underlined by the surprise defeat of the entrenched National Conference party. Thus emerged a precious opportunity for India to prove and cement, in the eyes of the world, the relative legitimacy of its rule.

An opportunity that is now dissipating. This opinion piece by leading Indian commentator Shekhar Gupta provides a damning account of how, in the past few months, New Delhi has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – indeed, as he convincingly explains, India has achieved the rare feat of snatching someone else’s defeat. And all major parties are culpable. These other opinion pieces, from the same authoritative newspaper, give a taste of how robust the debate within India on this issue has become. (One of the virtues of India is that at least there is an open debate.)

To outsiders, the proximate causes for the current chaos may seem obscure, and include a dispute over the allocation of land to Hindu pilgrims in a Muslim-majority region. The tragedy is that this may well have been manageable had there been some courageous efforts at political compromise. But instead there appears to be dangerous pandering to identity politics by all major players – not least in order to firm up ethnic and religious vote blocs, because  new state elections in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as national elections across India, are not far away.

Thankfully, at this stage Kashmir’s new strife seems largely internal to India, without much of a Pakistani hand – though there are claims that this is changing. India will have to lift its game, and soon, if it is to continue to quarantine the renewed volatility in Kashmir from the woes and uncertainties of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But I suspect the next state election in Kashmir will not be democracy’s finest hour, and that the West will reluctantly find itself worrying about Kashmir again.