Kashmir Teeters on the Edge

With an election coming in 2009 in India, the disputed Kashmir Valley, which has endured an uneasy peace since 2003, could become a flashpoint again, especially with both Pakistan and India facing domestic political crises. The events of June and July, in which the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party accused India of knuckling under to Muslims over a failed attempt to construct shelters for Hindu pilgrims, could well be used by the BJP in the upcoming elections. On the Pakistani side, political instability for the fragile ruling coalition also carries the danger that activists will seek to exploit the Kashmir issue.

Violence spiked up in Jammu again this week, with at least 12 policemen and about 30 protesters injured over the past two days. A police post and government buildings were torched by Hindu protesters demanding restoration of forest land for the pilgrim shelters. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called a meeting of his constituent parties this week to discuss the continuing violence.

Given those dangers, it is worth it to look at what actually happened in June and July. In the valley itself, it began with the usua 40-day dry spell, locally called the wahraat, which generally begins in the third week of June and is marked by scorching sunny afternoons during which the mercury peaks close to 40 degrees Celsius. Despite the fact that this year's wahraat remained relatively cool thanks to an early monsoon in the Indian plains, scores of marriages, university examinations and various business activities were postponed as the fury of a blazing public agitation towards the end of June threw the Valley out of gear.

For nine consecutive days, spontaneous protest demonstrations, often laced with fierce clashes with riot police, refreshed the memories of January 1990, when a mass uprising against central government rule heralded a bloody phase of armed insurgency in the Valley. The latest spell of violence was provoked by the decision of the Congress-led state government to transfer around 99 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), to be used for erecting shelters for pilgrims for two months every year during the time of the Amarnath Yatra. The governor of the state heads the SASB, which oversees the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave, which houses an ice lingam.

For nine days following this seemingly innocuous decision, angry protesters filled the highways and streets in almost every part of J &K's Muslim-majority areas, shouting slogans in favor of Pakistan and against New Delhi's rule in Kashmir. The protesters alleged that the land transfer was the beginning of "Hindu settlements", which were being instituted with an eye to altering Kashmir's Muslim-majority status. The issue seemed to have united all shades of separatists in the Valley. Both 78-year-old hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, known for his uncompromising stance on the right to self-determination for Kashmiris, as well as the moderate secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, drew parallels to the Israeli expansion into Muslim habitations of Gaza and the West Bank.

"Now even our religion is not safe," Geelani told a press conference on 19 June. "India is trying to alter the demography of Kashmir by outnumbering the Kashmiri Muslims. This is the question of our survival and existence. People should raise their voice against this sinister civilisational agenda." A week earlier, speaking to a Friday congregation at the historic Jamia Masjid, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is also considered the chief cleric of Kashmir, said that he would resist New Delhi's attempts to "change the demographic composition of the state." The move was also seen as violating the provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which grants special status to J & K, and allows the state autonomous jurisdiction over several topics, including the ownership of property.

Both leaders subsequently agreed to form a civil society pressure group, called the Action Committee against Land Transfer (ACALT), comprised of human-rights activists, traders, industrialists, trade-union leaders, poets and journalists. During the nine-day agitation and police action that ensued, seven people died, and hundreds of others, including paramilitary personnel and policemen, were injured. Following the Mirwaiz's analogy, the local press likened the uprising to the Palestinian Intifada. In Srinagar, angry youths who had masked their faces out of fear of police retribution clambered up street hoardings and tore down message boards that had been erected by the Indian security forces.

On June 27, around 60,000 protestors stormed the city center, Lal Chowk, where a group of masked youths, in a show of long-subdued defiance, demonstrated against Indian rule. Several scaled the 60-foot clock tower, atop of which three protesters pulled down the Indian tricolor and unfurled a green flag, typically signifying Islam. Although the flag did not bear official Pakistani markings, this act of defiance invited the wrath of the local police, and a crackdown, with lathis, tear gas and bullets followed. Indeed, so severe was the anger on streets that the crowd quickly sidestepped the staid auspices of the ACALT. Thousands of protesters began streaming through the streets bearing their own set of slogans, which variously favoured Islam, Pakistan and "Kashmir's freedom from Indian rule". For its part, the ACALT had prescribed only one slogan: "Kashmir's auction is not acceptable."

'First victory'

The fallout was significant, and one of the first impacts was felt by J & K Governor S K Sinha, a former general in the Indian Army. He was forced to leave office amidst vehement protests against him, in both the pro-India and secessionist camps. His term was to have expired on 4 June, but he proved unwilling to leave Raj Bhawan till the row over the land transfer had spiralled into a mass rebellion against New Delhi. Local political parties, such as the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference and the Mufti Mohamed Sayeed-led Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), accused Sinha of pursuing an "extremist Hindu agenda" in Kashmir.

New Delhi's official interlocutor for negotiations on Kashmir, N N Vohra, was subsequently appointed to replace Sinha. Vohra promised to "restore order", but his words failed to cool tempers. The PDP, an ally in the Congress-led coalition ruling J & K, walked out, leaving Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad at the head of a minority government. Sensing more trouble, Governor Vohra, in his capacity as head of the Shrine Board, moved to revoke the order to transfer the contentious piece of land.

This gesture too failed to have any significant impact on the situation, however. Under massive pressure, Chief Minister Azad revoked the land-grant order on 1 July, triggering spontaneous joyous reaction throughout the Valley, as people celebrated what some leaders termed their "first victory". The governor's announcement that the SASB would not take over the land that was already transferred to it by the government had been broadly symbolic, and did not give as much a sense of 'achievement' to the restive masses as did the formal cancellation of the papers. It is for this reason that Azad's decision to revoke the order made the real difference. Significantly, for the first time in the past 20 years, an anti-New Delhi mass uprising culminated in widespread celebrations in favour of a government order.

In Jammu, rightwing Hindu groups launched violent resistance against the decision. Jammu's Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashok Khujoria accused Azad of "surrendering" before the "Muslim fundamentalists". He went to the extent of calling for an economic blockade of the Kashmiris, and before long Srinagar-bound trucks carrying essential commodities were being stopped from proceeding onward from Jammu. Reports of Muslims being roughed up, their shops attacked and Indian flags hoisted atop some mosques in parts of Jammu created further unrest up in the Valley.

All of this was taking place even as thousands of Hindu pilgrims were in the valley, on their way to the Amarnath cave. Fearing polarization across Hindu and Muslim communities, top separatist leaders including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik decided to appeal directly to the pilgrims. They not only offered the pilgrims relief materials, but assured them of security on behalf of the majority community in the valley. Kashmiri Muslims were thus seen offering drinks to Hindu pilgrims, notwithstanding the air of fear and insecurity that had wrapped the Muslim population in Jammu's Hindu areas over the previous weeks.

Even these gestures could not douse the communal flames in Jammu, however. The tension escalated, and on July t2 he authorities imposed curfew on Jammu city and various other areas. It was in this context that Governor Vohra asked the chief minister to prove his majority on the floor of the 89-member state assembly. On 7 July, Chief Minister Azad did indeed appear in front of a packed house, yet he skipped the trust vote after a lengthy speech. Instead, he proceeded to Raj Bhawan, where he tendered his resignation. As Himal went to press, the protests in Jammu were unabated. The state had also had yet another bout of direct central rule, as by 11 July the governor had announced the dissolution of the J & K Assembly, and had taken over all constitutional and administrative powers.

Thin foil of peace

The unrest comes at a particularly unfortunate time, as it puts various peace moves on the back burner. Kashmiris in the Valley waged their nine-day 'battle for land' at a time when most secessionists and leaders of the Pakistan-based armed guerrilla groups were accusing Pakistan of having effected a U-turn by withdrawing support to them.

At the same time, Indian peace activists were pushing Kashmiri separatists to participate in the state assembly elections, currently slated for October. At least a dozen second-rung secessionist leaders had already crossed the floor and joined the 'pro-India' parties. During a seminar on 25 May organized by the son of a slain secessionist leader, top leaders of the moderate faction of the secessionist Hurriyat Conference, including Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and professor Abdul Gani Bhat, advocated "realism", and urged some "rigid" sections to "read the writing on the wall". In recent months, myriad rumors had been floating around suggesting that New Delhi was lobbying hard to ensure that some bigwigs within the Hurriyat Conference would take part in the polls. That voters' participation in the October poll would be significant was already a foregone conclusion after the head of the coalition of militant groups, Syed Salahuddin, stated that the "poll boycott could not be enforced at gunpoint". A marked decline in violence and a steep increase in tourist inflow would have further reinforced this political evolution across the political spectrum.

The agitation of June showed just how fragile the peace process in Kashmir truly is, including how supposedly middle-of-the-road professionals joined the demonstrations. Clearly, there is a veritable volcano of disillusionment and alienation that has been wrapped in the thinnest foil of peace and normalcy, kept in place by economic sops from the Indian state. The Srinagar government's decision to provide additional space to a Hindu shrine served the function of a random needle, which pricked this illusive foil to expose the bitter truth: that the anger, frustration, tendency to revolt and rejection of New Delhi's rule among the population of the Kashmir Valley is as fierce as it was in 1990. Added to this was the immediate and opposite response of radical Hindu groups in Jammu and elsewhere, indicating that J & K remains a tinderbox. Such a state of affairs should certainly worry policymakers in New Delhi and Islamabad over the coming months.

Reprinted from Himal Southasian, a monthly journal of news, analysis and comment published in Kathmandu