Kashmir is on the streets and refuses to give up and go home. Sections of the national media have called for New Delhi to speak to the Kashmiri people and expressed fears that silence is not a sound strategy. Yet, at the moment of writing this article the situation has gone from protests, injury, and death to indefinite curfews, ban on cellular services, and clampdown on local newspapers. The omens, clearly, do not portend the prime minister addressing the Kashmiris anytime soon.
What would come out of dialogue anyway?
Most sober quarters have laid the blame for the present upsurge in street protests at the central government’s doorstep. There is a rough consensus that it was New Delhi’s non-interest in the Kashmiris’ political demands during the years of calm and the low ebb of militancy that led to this crisis. The oft-repeated line is, “Kashmir is a political problem which needs a political solution.”
The logical recommendation thereafter has been to urge the PM to reach out to the valley and make a large-hearted gesture becoming of a national leader. But, the government has chosen to remain quiet and not be seen issuing statements, holding press conferences or booking the PM a television spot. Mann ki Baat can wait. One would still like to wonder out loud what possible gains could be in store for the government if the PM were to decide to talk.
After all, this is not completely unheard of. The US president Barack Obama has chosen to address the people directly after every instance of gun-related violence as well as the protesters in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He uses this to exert leverage on the Congress and the individual States which block the legislations he would prefer to bring. He can isolate the Opposition by having a dialogue with the people. These are issues which unite common citizens across divisive political preferences and there is an evident opportunity here for the leader to raise his mass appeal and draw greater support.
In our case, the PM would immediately catch everyone’s attention, rivals and allies alike, by choosing to communicate. It would be a break from the government’s known ways and immediately pit the image of an open and peaceable leader against the “stone-pelting pyromaniacs” on Kashmir’s streets. The PM could manage to throw the separatists off guard with a carefully-worded message that conveyed his government’s intent to talk with Kashmiris but also the futility of talking to their leaders who have only made personal political gains from the conflict so far. Perhaps most importantly, he could galvanize national public opinion in favour of a dialogue with Kashmiris and responding to their demands within the framework of the Constitution.
The visible size of the protests also means that the PM would not appear to be talking to a militant minority but to the masses as a whole. In the near term, the protests could indeed turn more peaceful if not cease immediately. Specially, if instead of gagging the Kashmiri press, the government chose to ask the national media to report more objectively and avoid painting Kashmiri popular sentiments to be wholly anti-national and pro-terrorist/secessionist. But, one understands that this begins to verge on fantasy.
The Prime Minister will do no such thing.
Mr Modi is much more likely to keep his counsel and here’s why. Kashmir is not a problem of his making and it is not the issue that got him the PM’s seat. For all such matters, the general political practice dictates “don’t ask, don’t tell” - or the rationale for burying one’s head in the sand hoping to wait out any situation which the media is hooked to and so any official move can be twisted and played with.
There is no fast-track to a final resolution for Kashmir. It is a political issue with geopolitical roots. The government is afraid of having its hand forced where it is apparent that it holds no sure cards. Any attempt to launch an impotent peace process would quickly backfire due to the intense scrutiny on the issue. This has happened way too often in the past including most recently after the UPA government all but shelved the interlocutors’ report. Since the probability of losing votes is greater than any chance of progress in the short and medium terms, the path of least resistance is to take a wait-and-watch approach.
At their worst, politicians run after votes single-mindedly with no strategic thought whatsoever. Given a choice between initiating dialogue on a political hot potato and spewing empty rhetoric to gain the populist vote, is it any wonder that 39 deaths and 1400 injuries have become mere statistics? What more can the government get out of moving its feet which it does not enjoy currently? With the boot of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on the neck of Kashmir, a convenient enemy to blame across the border, and media control that Goebbels's would envy, what further possible benefit could the government wring by letting go of any of the means of control? Until there is a clear popular sentiment across the national electorate favouring dialogue on one of the most polarized issues of our time, our dear leader is going to be at a loss as to which face to speak out of.
Does that mean we should keep calm and “carry on” too?
Not at all because there still are possible and achievable ‘wins’ on this matter in the short term. The government has already scored a similar win on the Nagaland peace process and enjoys the required political capital to openly commit to tackling another protracted conflict that ails the nation. Relaxing the Stalinist surveillance and military choke-hold on Kashmiri society leading up to lifting the AFSPA in a phased manner is the most feasible compromise which surrenders the least of our security concerns. It would communicate the government’s willingness to trust Kashmiris as citizens of the country with a shared interest in peace and normalcy.
The people of India too have an instrumental role to play here. An unstable Kashmir hurts the country, fans mob mentality all over, and incentivizes Pakistan’s interference besides portraying India as no better than its neighbours in its treatment of disaffected citizens. Why would any Indian in her right mind want this? If enough influential citizens demand efforts for peace in Kashmir directly to their elected representatives and build it into a national issue, political will could actually grow in that direction too. It certainly will not germinate in isolation from the public.
Worse than this alternative is to follow the government’s routine. In most other historical instances, a decision to wait out without a roadmap has only led to incalculable loss of life and ultimately the breakup of territory – remember Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, or South Sudan, and East Timor? On the other hand, state-sanctioned violence to subdue an ethno-national movement has only succeeded in cases such as the US’s cleansing campaigns against the Native American tribes; China’s occupation and systematic re-population of Tibet and Xinjiang; and Sri Lanka’s last war on the Tamils. Are we ready to make peace with the unimaginable?