While sections in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to believe, as Bal Thackeray did, that the gun is the only solution for the unrest in Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown a willingness for conciliation which holds out some hope of forward movement.
In contrast to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s rejection of any compromise with the protesters — they are not satyagragis, he said mockingly, reflecting the BJP’s hardline position — Modi has described those who lost their lives as “part of us”.
This is however not the first time that such “one-step forward, two-steps back” tactic has been in evidence.
Indeed, the situation has been complicated by, first, the lack of forethought in tackling the dissenters and, secondly, by the absence of a uni-directional approach.
The first deficiency was evident in the killing of the Hizbul commander, Burhan Wani, by the security forces. It may not have been a rogue operation like the one in Pulwama district, in which a lecturer was killed and houses ransacked, which was “not sanctioned” according to the northern army commander, Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda.
But, if the security forces had been somewhat more circumspect while going after the so-called poster boy of the insurgency, the violence of the last one-and-a-half months could have been avoided and the prime minister and the home minister would not have had to try so hard to douse the flames.
Their exertions could have been avoided if in addition to ensuring that the security forces acted with restraint, as the army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, has counselled, the government had advanced in one direction instead of alternating between hawkishness and pacification.
But, even if the government forsakes a muscular approach, it is unlikely that it will be amenable to the “grand bargain” proposed by the Congress leader, P. Chidambaram, “under which Kashmir acceded to India”.
There is little doubt that it is no longer possible to return to the pre-1953 position to allow Kashmir to fly its own flag and have undiluted say on all subjects except defence, foreign affairs and communications. Even the committee the Manmohan Singh government had set up in 2012 had said that a restoration of the state’s pre-1953 status would “create a dangerous constitutional vacuum”.
Instead, it wanted a “case by case review” of all central laws which have been applied to the state since 1952.
Since an agreement on these lines will take time — if it can be achieved at all — what is needed at the present fraught moment is a large-hearted gesture to demonstrate that the prime minister’s distress over the preference of local youths for stones and not laptops was not mere rhetoric.
While the centre’s decision to look for alternatives to the pellet guns, as indicated by Rajnath Singh, is welcome — chilli grenades are being considered — it can only be the first step.
A more substantive initiative will be to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which is seen as a law whose inbuilt restraining factors have not been enough to dilute its draconian nature. It is more than likely that the security forces will not like such a step to be taken. Nor will the combative television commentators.
But, for once, the centre will have to show that it is guided by what Modi called “insaniyat, jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat” (humanity, democracy and respect for the state’s special identity) than an insensitive, file-bound, bureaucratic approach which ignores popular sentiments and political compulsions.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, too, had called for a solution within the ambit of insaniyat. But it has become a convenient word devoid of any meaning. To invest it with genuine significance, the government has to opt for bold, out-of-the-box thinking.
The AFSPA has been a favourite tool of the security forces in both Kashmir and the northeast. Even 16 years of fasting by Manipuri civil rights activist Irom Sharmila failed to have an impact on the policy makers in Delhi.
Apart from the reluctance of the security forces to let go of the ruthless authority provided by the act, it is possible that the governments, of all hues, are unwilling to give the impression that it is being withdrawn under pressure. Both the BJP and the Congress have baulked, therefore, at the idea of scrapping the AFSPA.
But there are other factors in the BJP’s case which undermine its case to reach out to the malcontents in Kashmir. Foremost among them is the party’s Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthani identity which the Kashmiris (and the minorities) find daunting.
If the Modi government’s emphasis on Hindi is coming in the way of the army recruiting young people from the non-Hindi-speaking states, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call to Hindus to produce more children is a palpable battle-cry against Muslim “domination”.
For all of Modi’s and Rajnath Singh’s mollifying efforts, the background of majoritarian politics — enforced with the charge of sedition against dissenters and internationally-acclaimed NGOs — is not conducive to winning hearts and minds in Kashmir.