Event ReportsPublished on May 31, 2017
Connect with people to cool down Kashmir, says ex-NSA

The pattern of violence in Kashmir has undergone a tectonic shift in the past couple of years. Conflicts between civilians and armed forces are on the rise, compounded by the participation of school children and college students. Militancy has gained social acceptance, resulting in absolute defiance to authority. It seems that we have reached an inflexion-point in the crisis, M.K. Narayanan, former National Security Advisor, Government of India, said, initiating a discussion on "Kashmir at crossroads" at the Chennai chapter of Observer Research Foundation on 27 May 2017.

Narayanan said that the current violence in Kashmir is a wide departure from the confrontations of the past. The Centre was struggling to make an assessment of the problem as protests spiral out of control. Authorities have been effective in handling the on ground situation but no one really seems to know what ails Kashmir.

Providing a brief background to the Kashmir problem, Narayanan said, "We are back to square one since the rise of armed insurgency in 1988- 89. The situation had ameliorated in 2012-13, which marked the lowest point of insurgency in Kashmir. However, the death of Burhan Wani in 2016 in an encounter with the armed forces once again escalated the conflict in the region, and this time to unmanageable levels."

Shedding more light on the history of militancy in Kashmir, Narayanan said that during the late 1980s, Sufi Islam came into conflict with more fundamentalist practices such a Wahhabism and Salafism. Aggravated by the prevailing politico-economic scenario in the Valley, Sufi Islam wilted away gradually, resulting in the entrenchment of Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

Unmanageable crowds

Despite the presence of religious fundamentalism, for several years after 1988-89, many up in arms believed that they were waging a secular conflict for want of more autonomy. Over the next decade, the impact of religious fundamentalism became more pronounced, especially with external state support. Also, the Pakistan 'deep state' got actively involved in the conflict during this period.

Speaking on the current situation in Kashmir, Narayanan said that 2016 was the worst year in terms of public order in the Valley. Violence pervades the Valley, schools and colleges have turned into battle grounds, Friday prayers are used by some to whip up anti-national propaganda, hawala operations are on the rise, and social media is running amok with fake news and religious polarisation. The boots on the ground have gone up several-fold, yet protesting crowds are becoming unmanageable and unruly.

Different schools

It is not just the Centre but even the armed forces seem to be equally flummoxed about the reasons for the ongoing public agitation, opined Narayanan. Even within the army, there are different schools of thought on how to deal with the current violence. Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat is of the opinion that any interference to maintenance of law and order must be dealt with severely. People involved in the obstruction of administration must be treated as terrorists and insurgents.

While this argument is valid, on-ground execution becomes challenging, especially when school and college students are participating in these protests without resorting to hardcore militancy and stopping with stone-pelting. Army veteran Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda has said that the government needs to reach out to the people in the Valley, especially the youth.

The pattern of violence in Kashmir has undergone a major change, noted Narayanan. Clashes between civilians and armed forces have increased several-fold in the past few years. In the recent past, participation of school kids, college students, and radicalised elements have gone up dramatically, making it even more difficult for the armed forces to dismiss the protestors without inflicting any casualty.

Protests are also getting more ingenious over time. Earlier, protests used to be confined to small numbers and in select places, but today huge crowds spread across multiple districts engage in stone pelting. Militants killed in action are treated as martyrs, Burhan Wani is even compared with Che Guvera, he noted.

Skewed poll results

Narayanan said the skewed election results in 2014 have only further aggravated the situation. Trust between people and their elected representatives are at an all-time low. The PDP-BJP coalition has made matters worse. The entire political system in Kashmir is now leaderless. People's representatives are afraid to step into their own constituencies.

There is an upsurge in unattached militancy, which is also gaining wider social acceptance. It is no longer foreign insurgents who are dominating these protests. Instead, the aggrieved locals are participating in large numbers. Not all militants are necessarily pro-Pakistan but they are anti-national, still, he said.

Delhi's standard answer to the situation is to put more boots on the ground, but this move is affecting the daily lives of the people, intensifying their animosity towards the Centre. In trying to assess the situation, the on-ground atmosphere must be given due consideration, in addition to the official figures, opined Narayanan.

People emboldened

Commenting on Kashmir's future, Narayanan said that the prolonged agitation has emboldened the people in the Valley. The cadre of protestors the armed forces are facing today are quite different from the militants of the past. The radical and rapid Islamisation of the Valley brings another new dimension to the Kashmir issue — protecting Islam. Social media is abundant with anti-national and pro-Islamic propaganda, mostly created by cross border miscreants, Narayanan said.

The government on the other hand has done little to tackle this issue, he felt. There has been no effective counter-propaganda from the administration, or any other effective form of online engagement to quell the fake news circulating on social media.

The need of the hour is to reach out and connect with the people of Kashmir, opined Narayanan. The administration needs to engage with the people on the ground, especially with the youngsters. Meaningful employment opportunities have to be created for the youth, to keep them off radicalisation.

The media — social and television media, army personnel and the political dispensation need to be controlled and refrained from using jingoistic language. "More importantly, we need to treat Kashmir as any other Indian State and must not let views on Article 370 cloud our judgement," noted Narayanan.

Concluding the discussion, Narayanan said that much of the current issue in Kashmir is not entirely the handiwork of Pakistan. "There is a genuine anger towards the political dispensation at the Centre and the State. This anguish needs to be addressed, failing which, we run the risk of allowing an intifada like situation to brew up in Kashmir."

This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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