J&K: Rendering democratic space into a subversive space – Ajay Chrungoo

Ajay Chrungoo

“Democratic process can only neutralize secessionism if it contests it and does not cohabit with it. Democracy wins if it does not offer itself as an accomplice in creating a false consciousness based on historical distortions and falsehoods.” – Ajay Chrungoo

Developments in the Middle East have created an impact in Jammu and Kashmir which witnessed a disturbed last summer. Events in Egypt and elsewhere have almost evaporated the public demoralization in Kashmir valley that had set in after the failed ‘Quit Kashmir’ campaign, and once again created a hope amongst the rank and file of the separatists that their tactics on the street may bear fruit in the near future.

The ‘Quit Kashmir’ campaign relied on violent mass mobilization, resorting to sustained stone-pelting assaults on police and paramilitary forces, hartals and protest demonstrations to bring public life and government functioning to a standstill. The campaigners were driven by a hope that the sustained mobilizations would galvanize international opinion in their favour. They believed the public outcry would force President Obama who was scheduled to visit India to exert more pressure on the Government of India to come to terms with the separatists and Pakistan. They hoped Indian political consensus on Kashmir would be further weakened to resist pressures for change of status quo in Kashmir in favour of the separatists.

After the happenings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, the Indian Prime Minister tried to assure the nation that, “whatever happens in the Gulf or in West Asia including the countries mentioned (Egypt) is a matter of concern to us… replication of such events is not possible in India, because India is a functioning democracy… There is no question that things that have happened in Egypt and other Arab countries can be replicated in India.” Dr Manmohan Singh’s statement could not hide the nervousness which has beset his government in the Centre and the ruling alliance in Jammu and Kashmir. “I hope summer this year will be peaceful… I have no power to predict the future. I can only say that there are continuous efforts on our part to ensure that there is no repeat of summer unrest in 2011,” has been the refrain of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. More conspicuous is the disconnect between the perceptions of the Prime Minister and that of the people in the Kashmir valley.

Perceptions in the valley

Merely a day after Dr Manmohan Singh said political developments in Egypt cannot be replicated in J&K, Hurriyat (G) Chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani said an Egypt-like revolution is possible in the state. He said, “This is a blatant lie. By muzzling voice of Kashmiris through brute force, India can’t claim victory. World will see one day there will be a bigger revolution in Kashmir than Egypt and other uprisings.” Geelani’s moralizing notwithstanding, separatists in the valley have over the years demonstrated the capability of mobilizing public in the streets and creating a siege on the local government. Mobilizations during summer 2011 were not as huge as during the Amaranth land row or various marches conducted earlier to Charar-i-Sharief or United Nations Military Observers office in the outskirts of Srinagar city.

Mehbooba Mufti & I.K. GujralPDP leader Ms Mehbooba Mufti, whose political party has received more than generous support from both the Vajpayee-led NDA and the Manmohan Singh-led UPA, commented on the uprising in Egypt, “We congratulate the people of Egypt on their success and for achieving the goal in peaceful manner… It is necessary to mention Egypt because they were fighting for democracy and we are fighting a war in spite of democracy.” She did not hesitate to compare last summer’s unrest in Kashmir valley with the uprising in Egypt, “Lakhs of people had thronged the roads in Cairo, but nobody leveled allegations on them. Our people are being dubbed as LeT militants, paid agents and now recently as drug addicts by the state government only for raising the voice for resolution of Kashmir issue…”

The sections of separatists, whom Government of India never hesitates to call ‘moderates’, also drew parallels between the situation in Egypt and Kashmir. All of them hoped Egypt can be replicated in Kashmir.

How the ferment inside is shaping can be gauged from the following two sample responses. One, from a former terrorist, now a self-professed moderate whom many in Kashmir believe to be close to Government of India, Mr. Firdous Sayed, one of the first of the initial band of young men who took to arms, and also one of the first to renounce them. Second, Mr. Hassan Zainagiree, who has been a pro-Jamaat and pro-Geelani columnist and writes regularly for local English dailies.

Mr Firdous Sayed compared the situation in Kashmir with Egypt thus, “On February 11, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign and Tahrir Square burst in impromptu jubilations, people in Tehran were observing the thirteenth year of Iranian revolution. Iran’s and Egypt’s revolution share a date, February 11. The comparison does not end here, February 11 in Kashmir is remembered as a day when Maqbool Bhat kissed the rope and kindled the flame of Azadi with his blood.”

ZainagireeMr. Zainagiree wrote, “No political manipulation or military might can stop simmering lava of rebellion from accumulating a critical mass and then blowing up citadels of hubris into smithereens… If today Al-Tehrir Square sent twenty first century Pharaoh of Egypt in the dark dungeons of History, some other squares are waiting and gearing up for replicating Al-Tehrir.” On the role of Islamic organizations in Egypt, Zainagiree notes, “The Islamist Organization (in Egypt) remaining invisibly visible behind the scenes used its organizational strength and mobilized large number of its supporters for the protest that was mainly non-religious and spontaneous in character. Despite being banned from political activity it accepted the invitation for discussion on political transition… Projecting a more pragmatic image of itself to domestic and international audience, Ikhwan declared it as an ‘Egyptian Revolution’, and not an Islamic revolution. With one stroke of political acumen and dexterity it blunted many arrows aimed at it from Washington, Brussels and Tel Aviv.”

Zainagiree virtually revealed the mindset of the cadre-based Jamaat, as also the core content of the processes which are making the radical and more popular separatist leader behave the way he has. Geelani, by engaging with the governments at the state and central level, and cohabiting with the likes of Arundhati Roy, once in a while extending a hand of patronage to hapless Kashmiri Hindus and Sikhs in the valley, is exhibiting a dexterity which many describe as a change of heart of the ailing and aged leader. When he chose to be one of the first leaders in the entire Islamic world to condemn the killing of the dreaded Osama bin Laden, he demonstrated a ruthless commitment to pan-Islamism for which Osama is an undisputed icon. By declaring bin Laden a martyr in the cause of Islam, Geelani also mocked at those within the government and outside who were claiming a change of heart in him.

The issue in Kashmir valley is not whether an Egypt-like uprising can be replicated. The separatist regimes have the confidence and expertise of mobilizing people, and the maturity to ignore multiplying fractures within their rank and file. The stone-pelting campaign last year amply demonstrated this. So only on many occasions in the past, be it marches to UN Military Observers Posts on the outskirts of Srinagar, or march to Charar-i-Sharief and similar mobilizations during the Amarnath Land row. The issue they are addressing is how such mobilizations can be used to wreck the status quo on Kashmir. When the Prime minister talks about the value of ‘functioning democracy’ he ignores the fact that the political class across the spectrum in the valley recognizes it as a ‘managed democracy’ and believes that the world at large is just a very small distance from recognizing it so. He is blissfully unaware that his own government has allowed the democratic process to be undermined with impunity.

Radha KumarUndermining of the Democratic process

The ‘functioning democracy’ argument as a counterweight to the mass upsurges in Kashmir valley guided by regressive political ideologies certainly has great value. But if government has a policy structure which undermines and delegitimizes the ‘democratic process’ which it has established in an extremely stressful environment of terrorist intimidation, then the ‘functioning democracy’ argument loses its value and cannot be harnessed as a protective shield.

Only recently, the New Delhi appointed Interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir said that the participation of people in Panchayat polls and the Kashmir problem were two different issues. “Polls and Kashmir issue are far away from each other. People are participating in elections to address their basic issues,” said Dileep Padgaonkar at a two day ‘Peace Conference’ organized by J&K Peace Foundation in Srinagar on May 16, 2011. In an earlier interview on Doordarshan, Radha Kumar described the elected government in Jammu and Kashmir as almost non-representative because, she argued, a large public constituency fell outside the boundaries of the democratic sphere.

These are not the isolated views of persons who might have been nominated as interlocutors by the Government of India for reasons other than their views on the democratic experiment in Jammu and Kashmir. A significant section of Kashmir experts and Track II actors employed by the Government of India profess the same views.

When the Centre allowed Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Omar Abdullah to advocate publicly, as Chief Ministers of the state, that their elected governments were just a day-to-day arrangement to handle routine problems of the people and have no locus standi to decide larger political issues, it renders the entire functioning democracy in the state to a stature worse than that of a ‘managed democracy’ which the educated middle class in Kashmir valley calls it. If the elected government in Jammu and Kashmir is accorded the status of a mere interface between the governments of Pakistan, India and the people of Kashmir, by the governments in the state and the Centre, then the democratic legitimacy automatically shifts outside the democratic sphere to the regimes orchestrating secessionist public mobilizations, but which have stubbornly opposed the democratic process in the state over the years. The international opinion which the secessionist mind in Kashmir is targeting cannot be expected to ignore this reality.

Why will international opinion not take cognizance of the fact that New Delhi itself does not accord the respect of a functioning democracy to the democratic process it established under the nose of a terrorist gun? Can Americans afford to call the elected governments in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘non-representative’ and as ‘day to day arrangements’?

The strategic fraternity in India and an overwhelming section of the Indian political class advocated initiation of democratic process in the state in 1996 to restore the democratic rights of the people. This served two other major strategic objectives. First, to mobilize opinion against terrorism and separatism and isolate the armed separatist regimes in the state. Second, to use the democratic interface as a legitimate moral shield while conducting counter-terrorist operations on the ground. Democratic interface acts as a constant deterrent against Human Rights violations and does not allow terrorists to use the argument of Human Rights violations, which inevitably happen once in a while as collateral damage when security forces confront violence organized from within the sanctuary of society itself.

The decision to initiate democratic process then was a critical decision as the terrorist regimes in the state were far from being vanquished, though falling into disarray under counter-insurgent operations. More critically, subversive entrenchment in the organs of the state administration had remained untouched and there was every possibility that restoration of democratic process might lead to widening and deepening of subversive entrenchment. But as New Delhi’s policy unfolded, the democratic process in the state far from becoming an antidote to secessionism got transformed into a process where separatists were accorded an extra-constitutional veto over all political interventions devised by the elected government itself.

All three Round Table Conferences on Jammu and Kashmir were primarily devised to ensure participation of separatist leaders. The importance accorded to separatist participation in these conferences actually delegitimized the democratic process itself. The outcome of each conference and the reports of the Working Groups created during these conferences aimed primarily to further woo the separatists. With each cycle of concessions, the separatist leaders, including particularly those whom the Government of India calls moderates, further stiffened their stance and stubbornly refused to give any credibility to the democratic process. The influence and the concomitant pressures which the democratic process could have generated were neutralized by the very character of the democratic process employed on the ground.

J & K Chief Minister Omar AbdullahConversion of Democratic Process into a Subversive Space

During the stone pelting campaign last year, the Centre was exposed in ample measure to the contradictions and pitfalls of the democratic process it employed in Jammu and Kashmir. The failure of the elected government in the state was erroneously called a ‘governance deficit’ by Delhi. The unwillingness of the state government to stand up to secessionist mobilizations and often if not always acting as an accomplice of secessionists cannot be explained as a ‘governance deficit’.

At the peak of ‘stone pelting’ campaign the Chief Minister said, “the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir cannot be assuaged only by development, good governance and economic packages but needs a political solution… We must work together to find a solution that can lead to a lasting peace in Jammu & Kashmir as per the aspirations of the people of this great land.” This was exactly the separatist line. How many times have we heard Ali Shah Geelani say that development, unemployment, mis-governance were non-issues and the real solution was settlement of Kashmir issue as per the wishes and aspirations of the people?

The attitude of the State Government during last year’s so called ‘Quit Kashmir’ campaign was of political unwillingness to stand up to the secessionists because of a definite overlap between the objectives of the secessionists and the main party of the ruling alliance and helplessness because all organs of society seem to be on the other side. They are in fact two poles of a vicious cycle which feed each other. Unwillingness generates helplessness and the helplessness feeds the unwillingness.

Omar Abdullah, responding to criticism of his handling of the situation made a very revealing statement. “By focusing on my style of governance, you are distracting from the main issue. In which protest did you see slogans against my government? The slogans were ‘Hame chahiye Azadi, Go India Go’. What has that to do with my style of governance?” he said. “There are lessons to be learnt from this crisis – lessons I have to learn, lessons the state has to learn and important lessons the Government of India has to learn. Don’t underplay the complexity of the issue that if I change my style of governance, miraculously, everything will get better. Till June, you hadn’t a problem with my style,” Abdullah observed. The real paradox is that the people on the streets raise brazen secessionist slogans and the Chief Minister does not consider them as against his government. The ruling party finds a resonance in the secessionist din raised in the streets.

One thing which has been overlooked for years by the think tanks of mainstream political parties and experts on strategic affairs is the consensus within the separatist constituency in the valley that they have to control the ‘space of governance’. This consensus reflected for the first time after the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war. Sheikh Abdullah agreed to rejoin electoral politics because he was aware that the separatist class in the valley wanted to deny the pro-India politics in J&K the space to survive in the aftermath of Pakistan’s humiliating defeat. Control of the state government emerged as an imperative strategic necessity for the separatist elite in the valley.

That Sheikh Abdullah rejoined the power politics in the state not because of any ideological transformation but to meet the exigencies of the times was clear when he responded to the statement of then President of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, that the fight for Kashmir’s right of self-determination was lost in 1948. Sheikh’s response revealed his ideological disposition and urge for an alternative strategic paradigm, “Mr. Bhutto’s statement as reported in the Indian Press is not clear to me… It is a historical truth which had been amply proved that any country which has depended on other powers for achievement of its objectives has always met with disaster… It is very difficult to understand that the fight for the right of self-determination was virtually lost in 1948.”

Sheikh assumed the helm of affairs and assiduously ensured that the cadres of Plebiscite Front and even Al Fatah were accommodated within the new power structure. The pro-Pak Islamist formation, Jamaat-i-Islami, was first to realize the import of capturing the legislative space to sustain secessionism in the valley. The then Jamaat supremo, Ali Shah Geelani, contested elections to the Assembly and won in 1972, 1977, and 1997. He had the endorsement of his party and also Pakistan. One young participant in the 2010 stone-pelting campaign explained Geelani’s participation in the electoral process, “…And there are some people who say Geelani contested elections earlier, yes he did, but why? At that time the entire pro-freedom groups contested elections, they all wanted to raise Kashmir issue through Indian Parliament.” Geelani himself describes his participation in the Assembly elections brazenly, “Yes that was a compulsion; when National Conference, Congress and other parties fight elections, they raise slogans of socialism, secular democracy and the accession of India, and these slogans are anti-Islam. We people are for Islam, so whenever these principles and ideological systems are being forced to the Muslims, we must fight against these anti-Islamic theories. That was the main objective for which we were fighting the elections.”

The transformation of democratic space into subversive space started with earnestness after Sheikh Abdullah returned to power in 1975. Indira Gandhi realized it soon and said as much to Syed Mir Qasim who was instrumental in persuading her to bring back Sheikh Abdullah to power, “… For the present it is sufficient to recall that you misled me and the Congress party about the nature of your talks with Sheikh Sahib… For me the accord was, and remains a method of fruitful cooperation among all secular and patriotic forces in the state. It certainly did not mean that Congress should fade into oblivion. I did not and cannot accept this interpretation of the accord…. At this critical juncture in our history, when international forces are working for the destabilization of India… and you admit that you are not unaware of these facts – was it not incumbent on all Congress workers to work selflessly to fight all forces that are against the secular and democratic unity of our country. Would we have carried any credibility had we done what you prompted us to do i.e., abandon the battle in the valley?”

The difference between the methodologies adopted by the terrorist regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the separatist regimes in Jammu and Kashmir must be recognized with clarity. In Afghanistan and Pakistan terrorist regimes seek creation of ungoverned spaces. In J&K armed separatism views control of governed space as a key component of strategy. That is why we see symbiotic relations between regional Muslim parties promoting religion-based identity politics, who participate in elections, and the frank secessionist formations who oppose elections.

When Indira Gandhi harnessed the democratic process to neutralize the secessionist tendencies of National conference by voluntarily vacating space for Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, she was basically committed to join the battle with secessionists and visualized a critical role for national political formations in the state. The present Congress regime has abandoned the battle in Kashmir. When Azad became Chief Minister of the Congress-PDP coalition, Congress allowed PDP to nominate candidates for the assembly bye-elections in constituencies which as per coalition sharing formula belonged to it. Abandoning Kashmir to political parties espousing Muslim sub-nationalism has in recent years been advocated by top security experts who have served Government of India at the highest level. Former director RAW, A.S. Dulat, has on record advocated such a line for Kashmir many times in the past.

Indira Gandhi visualized the role of Congress to preserve the ‘secular democratic unity of India’ in J&K. The present Congress regime is considering the Musharraf formula as a solution of the Kashmir problem and conceding to carve out a separate territorial sphere of Muslim influence in the state. It has sent unambiguous signals to displaced Kashmiri Hindus to submit to the dominant politics of the valley. The present Congress regime seeks to hostage Hindus to the imperatives of Muslim Identity politics in the state to preserve its relationship with Muslim communalism there. It has used its clout in Jammu only to paralyze the growing restlessness in the state against the increased clout of Muslim identity politics in the state.

Under A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, we have seen a perverted democratic attitude being allowed and promoted in the state, which operates beyond the Constitution of India. We have seen many times the Legislative Assembly taking up issues which do not constitutionally belong to it. The Greater Autonomy resolution by the National Conference or the Women’s Permanent Residents Bill, are glaring examples. When the Chief Minister used the podium of the Assembly to comment on the Accession of the state to the Union of India, we witnessed the crossing of sacrosanct lines being allowed by the Centre in the name of conflict resolution.

The conferring of almost a veto to the separatist leadership operating outside the democratic process by the Government of India has undermined the democratic process itself. In this situation, extra-constitutional importance accorded to Geelani or Omar Farooq is an expression of government policy to shift democratic legitimacy outside the democratic sphere. Democracy in J&K is mutating into a subversive space.

Prime MInister Manmohan SinghConclusion

We cannot overlook the core content of the democratic process employed in the state even if we choose to have faith in Government of India and assume it has allowed soft secessionism in the democratic space only to purge the secessionist sentiment. A peach fruit graft on an apple tree grows peaches, not apples. A secessionist graft on a sovereign democratic body grows only secessionism. In fact secessionist political grafts assume a malignant tendency to throw up metastasis elsewhere on the body polity. The interplay of Maoists and Islamists in Kashmir is an expression of this phenomenon.

Democratic process can only neutralize secessionism if it contests it and does not cohabit with it. Democracy wins if it does not offer itself as an accomplice in creating a false consciousness based on historical distortions and falsehoods. The Prime Minister’s hope that ‘functioning democracy’ can act as a critical deterrent against one more secessionist upsurge in the valley may be misplaced because international actors know very well that Dr Singh has shown a proclivity not to defend what is sacrosanct in J&K. These players have ample experience that Government of India undermines its own leverages in the state. They must be baffled that in a worsening situation for separatists in Jammu and Kashmir, the Government of India is more than willing to lose. – Vijayvaani, New Delhi

» Ajay Chrungoo is chairman of Panun Kashmir