This year, the Kashmir Valley has undergone one of the worst phases of disturbances it has seen over the last few years, particularly after the July encounter of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The continued cross border acts of terror sponsored by Pakistan have only helped complicate matters further.
After prolonged spells of curfew, there is finally some semblance of normalcy as the year is winding up.
However, former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha, who made two trips to the Valley with an independent delegation comprising of members of the academia, media, journalism and bureaucracy, says the peace is fragile. He also says that sections of the media have done immense harm to the cause of peace.
Sinha says the time is ripe for the Indian government to start a dialogue, and that too with all the stakeholders including the separatists, as they, he says, cannot be wished away.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Whom did you meet during the two trips you made to the Valley?
The first time, we met people in Srinagar. Many doors, which were not even open for the all-party parliamentary delegation, opened for us. We met a very large number of groups, associations, individuals, over the three days we spent in Srinagar. But we could not travel elsewhere in the valley.
The second time, we visited Shopian, Baramulla, and Anantnag. During the rest of the time, we met groups in Srinagar that we had not met in the past.
When we went the first time, we met a delegation of the Kashmiri Pandits who still live in the Valley. The second time, we met the Shia leaders, and their religious head, the Agha Syed Ali Hasan Mosvi. We also went to the Gurudwara and met the Sikh community from across the valley, as the district heads had come.
The agenda was the same for both trips, but we spoke to various different people both times around.
What is the sense that you got from the visits?
The overall impression that we got is that willingly; unwillingly; wittingly and unwittingly, we have succeeded in alienating the people of the Valley.
The Valley has seen disturbances in the past, the more recent ones in 2008 and 2010. But the disturbance this time is different. It has been more prolonged - it is now in it's sixth month.
BLURB: It's not a good feeling to have to spend each day under the shadow of security forces
Secondly, it is largely controlled by the youth - very young people who took charge and dictated terms, who refused to listen to anyone. The established leadership of any kind had become irrelevant. They could only respond to the youth, not control them. Whosoever we met repeated the same narrative.
What is this narrative?
It is very simple. This narrative is based on a feeling of betrayal and discrimination by us against them.
The story begins in 1947. The accession, they feel, was conditional, even coerced. In any case, in accession, the Maharaja gave authority to India in three areas - foreign policy, defense and communication - and much of it was incorporated in Article 370.
Yet over the years, Article 370 has been diluted, considerably and repeatedly. By us. So the autonomy they enjoyed has been taken away.
The narrative thus leads to holding a plebiscite according to the UN resolutions. They don't go into why a plebiscite could not be held. The call for such a plebiscite has now turned into a cry for 'Azadi'. And the youth especially are staunchly of the view that nothing short of Azadi will do.
The other is a sense of discrimination and they quote various examples of how 'we' have always discriminated against the Kashmiris. Violence has been met by violence. Pellet guns have been used in Kashmir and it has become a huge emotive issue as pellet guns have not been used anywhere else in agitations like the one in Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka or anywhere else for that matter.
Their sensitivity has become very fragile. They are prepared to rush to conclusions. Individual instances have been generalised, as though they happened to the entire Kashmiri people.
Can you give us an instance?
This recent episode of issuing identity papers to the refugees from West Pakistan is a case in point. There is a law under which no outsider can become a state subject. And the government's assertion is that they are giving them identity papers so that they could look for jobs not in Jammu and Kashmir, but elsewhere including in paramilitary forces.
But it has been so misunderstood that Engineer Rashid decided to, in this cold, sit for a whole night outside the Chief Minister's residence. The messages are not conveyed, the truth becomes a casualty and falsehood often prevails.
It is a very grim and tricky situation.
Normalcy seems to have returned...
There is calm on the surface today. Normalcy has largely returned, shops are open, exams were held, schools reopened, transport is plying, and even some tourists have reached Srinagar.
But it is a very fragile calm. And one does not know how long it will endure.
One more thing we noticed while meeting people was that there is still a lot of respect for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. They fondly remember the approach of 'Insaniyat' that Vajpayee had expounded.
We have come back with an impression that though it is a very difficult situation - bordering on the impossible - there is still hope if were to engage the stakeholders in a dialogue. And why not, considering the BJP-PDP agenda of alliance talks about starting a dialogue?
It is the best time to start a dialogue with all stakeholders in Jammu and Kashmir.
By all stakeholders, are you implying that a dialogue should be started with the separatists as well?
Yes, the separatists are mentioned in the agenda of alliance.
Why then is the government so reluctant to talk to them?
I cannot explain that. Perhaps because the situation has become very nixed because of the incidents of cross-border terrorism that have been unleashed by Pakistan. Clearly, Pakistan is trying to fish in troubled waters in J&K and is responsible for these various incidents.
It is in order to prevent them that we have security forces deployed almost everywhere. That also creates a strange kind of a feeling that you are living day to day under the shadow of security forces. It's not a good feeling.
But reports indicate that the number of local young people who have taken up arms, joined various anti- state violent outfits, has gone up...
There is a certain number which the government sources mention. We were also told that there are two kinds of militants: foreign militants pushed by Pakistan and local militants. Local militants are inadequately trained and aren't able to put up much of a fight and get killed.
That is the price Pakistan is extracting from an atmosphere of disenchantment in the Valley. The young are easily misled.
Do you think there is a need to de-hyphenate how we look at what is happening in Kashmir with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir?
I should think so. This is what I told many groups. That if they have issues with us, then we should discuss bilaterally. So when I am talking of a dialogue, I am talking of a dialogue between the stakeholders in J&K and the Government of India. That is the dialogue that I am talking about.
I am still firmly of the view that till the time Pakistan abides by its commitment not to misuse its territory for exporting terrorism against India, we should not talk to Pakistan. I disagree with those who felt that to begin with the talks must be trilateral or even triangular. If our Kashmiri friends want the talks to be held with Pakistan, they should come out openly and condemn the terrorism being unleashed by Pakistan against India.
What do you have to say about the role of media when it comes to covering Kashmir?
Sections of the Indian media are hated with a passion in Kashmir. The Kashmiris have a feeling that those sections of the Indian media, especially some TV channels, are projecting every Kashmiri as a Pakistani agent, as a terrorist are and completely misrepresenting facts about what is happening in Kashmir.
This is an even worse, or a more bitter complaint, than what they make against the authorities. Such elements in the media have done a lot of damage to the cause of peace.
Was there a difference in the levels of disenchantment in Srinagar and in the other districts?
People were more blunt in the districts. For instance, youngsters told us that one great contribution that India has made was to remove fear from their minds. The Kashmiri youth, they said, was not afraid of dying anymore.
This sounds like a very scary scenario...
What needs to be done then?
Dialogue. That is the only way.
Do you think the government will exercise this option?
I don't know. We have to keep trying. If you go back into history, it is eerie that the discussion which was ongoing in the 1960s is the discussion which is going on even today.
Read the writings and speeches of Jai Prakash Narayan in the 1960s, especially after the 1965 war, and you will find that he raised the same issues then that we are raising today. This is the severest of all complaints: why have we allowed the political problem or issues of J&K to languish for 70 years?
That is why everyone is demanding that the issue be resolved.
Do you think that the locals are wary about the BJP being an alliance partner? This is considering the fact that a section within the party has been talking about abolishing Article 370...
People have to believe in the agenda of the alliance. And the government has to ensure that the agenda of alliance is implemented. I have already talked about the agenda of alliance: dialogue. So that has to be taken forward. The agenda of the alliance also says that there will be no interference with Article 370. It is a political document.
The BJP has committed itself to non-interference in Article 370. So whatever anyone might say, here is the written word which gives this assurance I am sure the leadership of the BJP would have taken into consideration all factors and the totality of circumstances, in giving especially these two assurances in the agenda of alliance, that is the dialogue and Article 370.
Do you feel that the Kashmir situation has been mishandled? That it has made the separatists all the more relevant?
I think the separatists were always there. One can't wish them away. If one could, then they would have become irrelevant by now. They have a narrative; one may or may not agree with that narrative. But that is why we have to engage them in a dialogue.
In my interaction with all the groups, I told them that there can't be a difference with regard to facts. The starting point of a dialogue must be the re-establishment or the narrative of facts supported by the documentation, which nobody can challenge. That is the most important thing.
Of course they have a great deal of misunderstanding with regard to various facts. So they will have to be clarified. That can be done only through dialogue.
Do you think the UPA II not acting on the interlocutors report was a mistake?
It was a big mistake. Anything which you initiate and which raises hopes and then is not implemented will dash those hopes to the ground and lead to frustration.
That is why, we, the group of concerned citizens, were very forthright in telling everyone that we are not sponsored by anyone, certainly not by the government. But still some hopes have been raised, and I only hope that in future those hopes will not again be dashed to the ground.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu