A two-day roundtable on the theme ‘Jammu and Kashmir: Urgency for a Dialogue’ was organised in mid-March in Jammu by the Kashmir Foundation for Peace and Development Studies. The participants, some 50-60 persons (mostly male) came from the Valley, Jammu, Ladakh (only one) and Delhi. Among them were Firdous Syed Baba, Raouf Rasool, Zafar Mehraj, ministers Handoo and Mohd. Shafi, Saifuddin Soz, Ved Bhasin, Balraj Puri, Rekha Chowdhury, Tsering Darji, P.N. Dhar, George Verghese, Admiral K.K. Nayyar, M.K. Rasgotra, R.K. Mishra, Amitabh Mattoo, Bhagwan Josh, Kamal Mitra Chenoy and Shanti Vir Kaul. The chief minister made a brief but focused intervention. Not a single politician invited from Delhi could make the time to attend.
The meeting sought to address a sorely felt need to start a people-to-people dialogue within the state and with concerned citizens from Delhi (‘the rest of India’). Since the political leadership at all levels has lost credibility and violence has shattered life in the Valley, can we begin a process from within civil society to voice our respective concerns, to build trust and to seek an understanding of the complex and fraught situation in Jammu and Kashmir?
As Raouf Rasool put it in his welcome address: ‘Here, on this platform, we all have to make a simple judgement: do we want the situation to remain as it is or do we want it to change? If we want to save whatever is left of us then let us pledge to give each other a helping hand, a keen ear, a kind eye and, above all, a feeling and passionate heart.’
This cry from the heart set the tone. Speaker after speaker stressed the need to talk, to open up to one another. It was a cry for sincerity and good faith. Only this could begin to heal the wounds inflicted over 10 long years by violence, mistrust and hatred. Equally poignant was the cry against the awful dehumanisation of victimhood: ordinary Kashmiris feel humiliated and stripped of all dignity by the lumping of all Valley Muslims as suspect and subject to harassment and violence by the security forces at any time of the night or day, with no recourse to redress.
There was strong criticism against the state government which has abandoned the responsibility of administration, left everything to the security forces and is paralysed and inert in every sphere of governance. Some voiced their apprehension about a communally driven agenda at the Centre and the divisive role being played by the recently formed village defence committees.
No one from the Valley talked of secession, or even of azadi, and many spoke of the need to revive the elementary seeds of civil society – the little, everyday freedoms to act on local issues, to protest malgovernance, even to celebrate small joys. These are regarded with suspicion by the security forces and suppressed as signs of rebellion, but for the common people they are the indispensable signs of normality, of living with dignity, of simply being human.
Speakers from Jammu underlined the need to open up channels of communication, especially between the three regions of the state. They highlighted the complexity of the situation, the differentiations between and within the three regions, the need for handling these issues with sensitivity and care so as to avoid communal solutions, above all on the matter of autonomy. The tendency of the political leaders to talk in terms of communal identities rather than about Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh was a disturbing sign. The lone Ladakhi spoke feelingly of the way Kashmir has dominated Ladakh from the beginning, denied Ladakh its role in state affairs, and discriminated against Buddhists in all avenues of public employment. Ladakh, he said, had never wanted to be anywhere but in India and today it has no option but to seek Union Territory status. Let Jammu get statehood and give Kashmir its autonomy, was his plea. This, interestingly, led to cries of ‘No! no trifurcation’ from the Kashmiris.
The speakers from Delhi spoke with less emotion but equal sincerity about the need to face hard truths: India was not going to give up Kashmir but within this parameter everything was possible. We must learn from the past but not become its prisoners. We must look forward and think concretely about what we mean by azadi or autonomy. Kashmiris must address the question of what kind of Kashmir they want: will it be a democratic and plural Kashmir or a communal one? What kind of society, what kind of Islam do Kashmiri Muslims want? There is no doubt that Partition left a certain ambiguity in Kashmir but this can only be resolved in Kashmir itself, when the above questions are addressed and not in India or in Pakistan. For what, after all, does azadi really mean? Is it not a condition wherein all can live in peace with freedom and dignity and security of life and limb? Kashmiri Muslims must decide: self-determination or azadi for whom? If they don’t want trifurcation of the state, they must face up to this question.
It was pointed out that the question of human rights and the struggle for freedom can be compatible only if the struggle is non-violent. We should learn from Gandhi. To take to arms against the modern state is folly and doomed to failure. You are only playing into the hands of the state which will crush you. Moreover, those from whom you seek help will turn your struggle to their own purpose which may not be yours. Also, as Gandhiji said, ‘We must perforce remain non-violent if we are to represent all communities.’ A violent struggle by a divided movement is a recipe for disaster.
It was left to one of the few women speakers to point out that there was no representation of women from the Valley. This must be redressed at the next meeting since women were among the worst sufferers in Kashmir. She also outlined some concrete steps of help. We could start by supporting some of the thousands of children orphaned or otherwise crippled by the violence, with their educational needs as well as genuinely engaging with these children on a person-to-person basis. This could be one way of demonstrating that the rest of India cares.
Such was the tenor of this dialogue. It was amazing to hear that this was the first time that such a meeting had taken place. Let alone talking like this with people from outside the state, even the people from within the different regions had never got together before. Everyone stressed the need for such dialogue to continue – in Srinagar next, then in Leh. It must be sustained and broadened and deepened. This was the first time people had come together and spoken from the heart. As Rekha Chowdhury from Jammu put it: ‘People say things in bits and parts. No one has the whole truth. It must be put together by all of us. Each region has its own grievances, its own problems. So far we have talked back-to-back. We need to dialogue amongst ourselves – we need to talk and talk and talk. Then we may come to some understanding even of what our problems really are.’
So far so good. But what was not said was as significant as what was. Even today, Kashmiris seem to have a blind spot about the role of violence and its agents in the Valley. They see only the violence of the state and seem to be unable to connect this with the violence of the militants and the terrorists from across the Line of Control. They seem unable to appreciate that the scale of state violence is bound to be affected by the scale and intensity of terrorism – indeed of the proxy war which Pakistan is conducting in Kashmir. They seem unaware that Kashmiriyat is threatened as much by the brutality of the terrorists as by the violent repression of the state. As also indeed by the kind of Islam that the Talibanised jehadis espouse. Is this because the borderline between the Islam of Kashmiriyat and the Islam of the Jamaat-i-Islami is, in fact, rather thin? One must hope not.
And if the horrendous massacre of the Sikhs of Chattisinghpora, followed by the equally horrendous blundering of the security forces, dramatizes anything surely it is that this kind of action is bound to cause an out of all proportion response from a force that is strained to the limits; a force that is confused and tired of fighting this endless war against an enemy which hides among a largely hostile people, while the political masters of the state and the country fiddle and play their partisan games for pelf and power, oblivious of the fate of the country and its people. Are soldiers not human? Do soldiers have no human rights?
In such a situation, what is needed is vision and courage and integrity from the central and state governments as well as the entire political opposition. But all we have is a weak and divided political establishment which has no vision worth the name and can reach no consensus on any vital issue because it is only concerned with petty partisan politics. So it is up to civil society, to democratic Indians everywhere, to take up this challenge and to build bridges with the people of Kashmir. We cannot do this by inciting further alienation, violence and repression. But we can perhaps reach out and share our honest concerns with them. We can stand by them against the violations of their dignity and rights as citizens of a democratic country. We can help to ensure that if elections are held – even panchayat elections – these will be free and fair. But we also need to encourage Kashmiris to participate in the political process and the revival of democracy in the state. The various parties and groups must come out and take part in elections everywhere. Only then can they demonstrate their support and only then can their claims and demands be taken seriously. There is a long way to go, but hopefully the journey has begun, in Jammu.