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Only Statehood, Election, Indo-Pak Dialogue can Improve J&K Situation—Radha Kumar

Rashme Sehgal |
The specialist in peace-building measures says the recent targeting of Kashmiri Pandits is linked to the triumphalist rhetoric since 2019, which harps on avenging the 1990 exodus.
Kashmir

photo by Kamran Yousuf

Dr Radha Kumar, a specialist in ethnic conflicts and peace-building measures, was, in October 2010, appointed one of three interlocutors for Jammu and Kashmir by the previous central government. As the third anniversary of the revocation of Article 370 by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi government fast approaches, Kumar says the only way to retrieve the situation in the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Ladakh is through early elections and restoration of the political process. She feels the present policies of the present central government have furthered the alienation of Kashmiris. She spoke to NewsClick about how she sees the situation. Excerpts.

When Article 370 was revoked, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had assured it would end militancy, separatism and corruption and help bring development, jobs and prosperity to the erstwhile state. Three years later, what is your view on what revocation has achieved? 

Since special status (accorded under Article 370) never had any connection to development, jobs and prosperity, its removal could never have had any connection to the three either. The way special status was removed did, however, have a grave and far-reaching impact not only on development, jobs and prosperity but also on fundamental human and federal rights. Before the vitiation of Article 370, the state was ranked at the mid to high level of performance on development by the Niti Aayog. In the three years since the vitiation, it has fallen to the lowest-ranking group. 

The mass arrests of valley political leaders and cadre just before the vitiation was a brutal assault on the state’s right to consultation and dissent. Jammu and Kashmir is today the most unfree region of the country; even the right to political representation has been in abeyance for four years. The endless arrests and harassment of journalists have destroyed the independent media. The security situation has not improved, it has deteriorated. Pandits are once again being targeted, as are panchayat representatives, police and security forces. 

There have been massive protests across the country and in parts of Jammu and Kashmir over Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, the now-suspended Nupur Sharma’s remarks on Prophet Muhammed. What fallout do you see this having? 

It will harden the impression in the valley that the Modi administration is anti-Muslim. 

The Delimitation Commission has been seen to favour the Jammu region, which has 44% of the population but has got 48% of the seats. This fear of demographic change has strengthened the anti-government sentiment in the valley. Your comments? 

I have read the short delimitation report put in the public domain but found it rather specious, as I said in my write-up in The Hindu newspaper. It was a questionable exercise from the start, given that the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, was under challenge in the Supreme Court. The Election Commission should have refused to conduct it until the matter had been ruled upon. By conducting the delimitation exercise now, instead of in 2026, the year delimitation is due in the rest of the country, the Election Commission has contributed to the perception in the valley that Kashmir is being singled out for harsh treatment. Its report has further substantiated that perception by giving Jammu six more seats while the valley gets only one.

Moreover, the six new Jammu seats are Hindu-majority. Muslim political representation in Jammu has been reduced to a quarter of the seats, though Jammu’s Muslim population is roughly a third of the province’s total population. Since the report does not offer a rational justification for these decisions, the only conclusion appears to be that it shows anti-Muslim bias. 

It seems fear has spread through the Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim population in the valley due to the spike in targeted killings. Some would believe the killings also warned the government against the delimitation process. What would you say? 

That armed groups will attack delimitation and elections at any level is not surprising or new. They see these as processes of ‘normalisation’ that detract from their portrayal of the conflict. A dozen panches have been killed since the 2020 panchayat elections. 

But the targeting of Kashmiri Pandits is also linked to the triumphalist rhetoric since 2019, that now the killings of Pandits in the late 1980s and their ensuing exodus in 1990 have been avenged. The exponential growth of this rhetoric following the release of The Kashmir Files film may have contributed to the recent spate of killings of Pandits and other Hindus in the valley. 

The state government has arranged to shift nearly 6,000 Hindu residents to the district headquarters within J&K, from where they can continue to work. But the Kashmiri Pandits are unwilling to accept this plan as they believe they will remain soft targets outside the protected perimeters of their camps. What would your view be? 

The Kashmiri Pandits are in danger in the valley. But boosting security around the transit accommodations built for returning Pandits will not solve the problem. The recent killings have also targeted the Pandits who did not leave the valley. The data shows that Pandits were safest in the valley during the peace process years, when they were only very rarely targeted. Several thousand returned then, under the Prime Minister’s employment program. In other words, a more productive approach would be to restore the integrity of political representation and independent media, alongside an inter-provincial and inter-community dialogue

In the 1990s, during the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, the BJP had lent support to the VP Singh government at the Centre. Today, the BJP has an absolute majority. Yet there is no sign of normalcy, and the Kashmiri Pandits are leaving the valley again. Why is this? 

The Pandits continued to leave the valley in smaller numbers even after the 1990 exodus. By the early 2000s, less than ten thousand remained in the valley. [Former] Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s program was to bring the Pandits back to the valley in gradually-increasing numbers. Now, those who returned are leaving again because the BJP’s anti-Muslim policies and triumphalist rhetoric that crosses into hate speech have made them targets of Kashmiri armed groups, which were, in any case, both anti-government and communal. 

Some security experts have warned terrorism has entered its most dangerous phase, especially since the present killers are home-grown and challenging to identify? How strong is the Pakistani hand in this? 

There have been ‘home-grown terrorists’ right from the start. Far more Kashmiri militants have been killed over the past three decades than Pakistani ones. What has happened over the past five or six years is that local support for home-grown militants has increased sharply, whereas, by the mid-2000s, it had declined sharply. 

Regarding the Pakistani hand, I am no expert on the subject. But common sense tells us that the longer an insurgency with cross-border instigation and support lasts, the more entrenched the power of cross-border spoilers becomes. 

Why do you think the government has not yet drawn out a road map for restoring the democratic process in the valley and holding elections? 

I am not privy to the Modi administration’s thinking! But I believe it has dug itself into a hole. If elections are held, the valley’s vote will mostly go to the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party, and Jammu’s vote may mostly go to the BJP and allied parties. The constituencies to watch will be the Muslim-majority ones in Jammu. Whichever way these constituencies go, however, the restoration of an elected legislature will lead to open criticism or challenging of Union policies. The media, too, will be freer. At a time when the Union administration is being called to account for its anti-Muslim policies, it will not want additional criticism from India’s only Muslim majority territory. 

The valley has faced terrorism for three decades now. Do you see any end to this soon? 

Not without a protracted peace process between the Indian and Pakistani administrations, along with the participation of political leaders from all parts of the former princely state. 

A new dimension to this already complex situation is the recent warning by the Al Qaeda of suicide attacks. How do we stop the problem from getting worse? 

In the immediate term, the only option is containment through intelligence and action on intelligence. However, that option can merely offer a band-aid. The only policy to improve the situation is a peace process that begins with restoring statehood and elections, in parallel with India-Pakistan talks. 

Could you examine the seemingly ironic situation in which the valley has received many tourists while the violence escalates? 

The wonderful tourist influx has been a sole ray of light in the dismal Kashmir situation. I don’t see any connection between the violence and tourism—in previous spurts of armed attacks, for example, tourists had been targeted, but that has not happened this time, as yet. Of course, it is early days in the tourist season; we have to wait and see. But, by and large, armed groups kept away from targeting tourists because such actions were strongly unpopular with the valley people. Indian tourists, too, are slow to wake to danger. The tourist slump of the past two years was due chiefly to Covid-19 lockdowns and government policies restricting tourism, not tourists staying away for security concerns. 

(Rashme Sehgal is a freelance journalist.

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