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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 19 New Delhi May 2, 2015

Kashmir: Masarat Alam, My Neighbour

Saturday 2 May 2015

by Mohan K. Tikku

The locality in Srinagar where Masarat Alam Bhat—who has been much in the news these past few weeks— comes from is where I once used to have my home: Zaindar Mohalla. It used to be a place where the two communities had lived cheek by jowl for generations. In those halcyon days, the mutual sharing and caring was something that happened even without anybody noticing it. The marriages of the daughters of some of our Muslim neighbours, for example, were performed in our house simply because it was a bigger place in an otherwise congested neighbourhood.

A stone’s throw from Zaindar Mohalla (no pun intended in view of Masarat Alam’s known expertise in organising stone-throwers!) lay Kathleshwar, which is where the Katjus had migrated from. As a child, I once witnessed K. N. Katju taking time off during an official visit as the Defence Minister to come to see his ancestral neighbourhood. I was too young to understand what being a Defence Minister of India meant, but could still recall the image of a tall achkan-clad Gandhi-capped Katju speaking movingly of the place from where his family’s long trek to central India had begun.

Today, reading some of Masarat Alam’s statements scares me. It scares me to imagine how our one-time neighbourhood must have changed. And if it has, what then could be the meaning of the return and resettlement of those displaced back in their homes in the Valley that leaders in New Delhi and Srinagar keep referring to at convenient moments. Are we talking for real, or just to impress each other? It is tragic that even those who keep talking of Kashmiriyat as some kind of a mantra do not fully appreciate the enormity of the task at hand. Creating special enclaves for the migrants has become so contentious an issue that some among the local youth have come out on the streets. The point to ponder here is: Would going back to the old neighbourhoods be an option? It is not just the restoration of these old and decrepit places that would be problemmatic. A far trickier issue is if it would be possible or advisable to dispossess the current occupiers of the houses that the migrants had left behind. And in that event, how does one restore or recreate the gentleness and the geniality that had once existed among the denizens of these neighbourhoods? That is the mother of all challenges.

Whether Masrat Alam should be in jail or out of it is not the critical question. The issue to address is the radicalisation of youth in the Valley, which has been going on for well over three decades. Yet, radicalisation of the Valley youth—of which Masrat Alam himself is a product—need not surprise anybody. It had been happening before everybody’s eyes, and yet few were inclined to take notice of it. True, it happened with overt and covert support from across the border. Addressing the Oxford Union a few days ago, former ISI chief Asad Durrani proudly counted creating an “uprising in Kashmir” among the major achievements of the organisation he once headed.

But that is only part of the story. The more disturbing part is that it succeeded because the mainstream parties (and politicians) ignored the early warning signals. They did so for reasons of short-term gains, including their local constituency compulsions. And while all this was going on, the policy-makers in New Delhi were refusing to take note of its long-term negative consequences. That is what has made the Masarat phenomenon look like the sudden rise of a Frankenstein.

But, how did one get here?

True, an Islamist/ pro-Pakistan strand had been running as a substream through the Kashmir discourse ever since the uprising against the Maharaja began in the Valley in the nineteen-thirties. A decade later, when M.A. Jinnah landed in Srinagar with the aim of winning the Valley for the Muslim League and the yet-to-be-born Pakistan, he was made to feel unwelcome and had to return empty-handed. Sheikh Abdullah, following his ascendance to power, would not give much quarter to such elements and sent many of them packing across the ceasefire line into the Pakistan-occupied part of Kashmir. Among those so despatched was the grand uncle of the present Mirwaiz Omar Farooq.

Since the Sheikh’s successors in office did not command any of his popularity or power, they could not have followed his example of summarily dismissing the secessionists. They could not even bring themselves to follow the example of G.M. Sadiq as the Chief Minister in the mid-sixties who set out to face the separatist challenge politically and in open public fora. And to his credit, he did manage to contain their influence at the time to a considerable extent.

A few years later, it was still possible for Mrs Gandhi—with G. Parthasarathi by her side—to sign the 1974 Indira-Sheikh Accord. That Accord, if followed up with perspicacity and wisdom, should have helped lay the basis for finding an internal resolution of the Kashmir issue. But the gains made in terms of the Indira-Sheikh Accord were frittered away by leaders of the mainstream parties as they were playing games against each other. Thus, the political space was left open for the separatists to occupy. That set off the process of pushing the mainstreamers to the margins. As a result, the 1974 landmark agreement has been left in the limbo as if it just did not exist.

For many people in this high season of religious obscurantism, it may be hard to believe today that the Communist Party used to be in the vanguard of the politics in Kashmir through the forties and the fifties. The ’Naya Kashmir’ programme itself was crafted with help from the political Left in the Valley. Later in the sixties and even upto the early seventies, the Congress party had created a formidable base that was strong enough even to challenge the National Conference in its fortress. But that was set to change during subsequent years. From then on, leaders of the two parties lost the plot and were spending time running each other down, while the ground was left for the radicals to grab. Ever since, the State Congress leaders have been spending more time paying court in the Delhi durbar than attending to their constituents back in the State.

The shenanigans that the two parties played through the eighties, of course, came with a price tag. The Congress-National Conference rivalry was pushed to such absurd limits during these years as to have the Centre manipulate a change of government in Srinagar. A few years later, the results were there for all to see. If a number of local leaders were complicit in the rise of the separatists, the Centre had been equally incognisant of what was happening on the ground. And then, each time the situation blew into a crisis, New Delhi’s approach has been one of undertaking a firefighting operation, and then sit back and let things slide as before. Rigging the vote in the 1987 Assembly elections to keep the emergent Muslim United Front at bay was part of the same ‘crisis management’.

The current situation is further complicated by the fact that an improbable coalition of ideologically diverse players is now at the helm in the State. Much of the rhetoric that the BJP and the PDP representatives have been spewing out in recent weeks has been directed at each other. The high decible tv anchors have been having a ball. The two parties have appeared more keen to pander to their respective regional constituencies in Jammu and the Valley than in meeting the challenges their government is faced with. Putting Masarat Alam or someone else behind bars cannot be a solution. There is no escape from meeting the challenge politically.

Rather than scoring brownie points against each other, the PDP-BJP coalition needs to do three things. One, work out a politically nuanced coherent plan to address the separtist challenge together. Second, address the problem of youth radicalisation that has taken place over the past three decades. A whole teenage generation has come up in the last 25 years of high tide of militancy in the Valley. This generation has to be reclaimed. No doubt, it is a tough call and a long haul. But there is no escaping its reality. And finally, the politicians must stop using the security forces for cover as the easy way out, and then blame them when things go wrong as happened at Tral and Narabal. When left to the security face, things are bound to go wrong in any civilian-military interface. One would have liked to see the ’leaders’ starting a dialogue with the youth even if they came carrying stones. It is high time the mainstream politicians get ready to stand up and be counted. It is a battle than cannot be fought—or won—from the tv studios!

[A shorter edited version of this article appeared in the Asian Age earlier.]

The author is a veteran journalist based in New Delhi.

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