Monday, June 30, 2008

Kashmir's newest Intifada

Something dramatic has happened in Kashmir over the past one week. It has gotten murky like a bat out of hell. Tulips and tourists have suddenly been abandoned, like used condoms. All of a sudden, as if on cue, people revolted. Despite government's assurances of peace and the all-is-well rhetoric, these last couple of days have pointed to the contrary. Much to the chagrin of New Delhi, the ruling establishment and intelligence sleuths in Kashmir, the make-up wore off. The mask slipped unexpectedly. And Kashmir rebelled -- again.

One cannot comment in hindsight because we still seem to be trapped in some sort of mindless frenzy. From the outside it looks like a maelstrom where everything seems to be going inwards. Including sanity. From whatever I've managed to glean from my interaction with a cross section of intellectuals and Kashmir-watchers here in New Delhi and my conversation with folks over the phone, it is clear: India has gotten it afield in Kashmir. Somehow they just can't fathom the sentiment.

Oflate I've posted on the ecological fall-out of the now-communally colored Amarnath yatra. The pilgrimage has been an annual affair for more than a century. Being brought up in Kashmir, I vividly remember how peacefully the yatra used to be conducted in the past. There never was anything sectarian about it. Till winds of hate blew in. And there was a missionary board! Things soon spiraled out of control.


Kashmir is a theatre of many vicissitudes. It has many legatees. There is India. There is Pakistan. Then there is Kashmir itself. There are pro and anti India parties. There are pro and anti Pakistan bodies. Mainstream parties often compete with separatists for attention span in Kashmir. Both have a visceral hatred that is often mutual and both follow a distinct brand of politics. While the separatists live off dissent and hard-talk, the mainstream guys tweak their policies, as and when expedient.

Ergo -- after all the peaceful years of yatra, the National Conference [Dr Farooq Abdullah's party] decided to form the Amarnath board in 2000 to streamline the yatra. It soon turned out to be Frankenstein's monster. In 2003 Gov Sinha took over its reigns. He picked a petty minded official [Arun Kumar] -- who looked more like a ring-master with a whip than a state bureaucrat -- to run the board. Slowly the missionary board flexed its muscles. It began a parallel government. They started collecting taxes on their own. They tried to insulate the annual religious exercise and reduce its local dependence. So the poor pony-wallas and restaurateurs and porters, who made their livelihood out of it and eagerly awaited the annual yatra, were soon out-of-business. It completely altered the local economic parameters.

Not completely satisfied, the board looked further ahead. With no respect for the fragile eco-system of the area, it worked on plans to increase the influx of yatris. More yatris meant more pollution. More environmental depletion. The missionary board would have none of it. It now eyed prime forest land. Hundreds of yards of it. Green, lush real-estate in the middle of gorgeous woods with European hoopoes in them. It appeared to silence the wood-songs for ever. It wanted to dig up the myriad fragrant flowers to erect hundreds of thousands of toilets on it.

Gov Sinha is an old ailing gentleman who took pre-mature retirement from army before taking up boring assignments like the ambassadorship of tiny Nepal. In 2003 he was send to Kashmir. Sinha quickly turned aggressive in the usually peaceful Raj Bhawan and teamed with Arun [petty-minded, poison-tounged] to carry out a number of scams. Only last year the gang tried to hoodwink people by installing a fake ice-cube in place of the naturally occuring formation, because the stala-gmite melted away quickly. Prior to that Arun's wife [also a civil servant in JK state] unscrupulously attempted to expedite the land transfer. To his credit Mufti Sayed initially did try to block the deal. Raj Bhawan eventually persuaded the current state government to allow the transfer.

The Congress led government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad put its John Hancock on it. They rather insensitively -- and irrationally -- endorsed the transfer of land to the missionary board. The ever tipsy Mufti Sayed's PDP too signed on the dotted line. Like good ol' boys. At this point it looked like an arrangement that suited all stakeholders. The land transfer was quietly sanctioned. The board could not have asked for more. The poison-tounged Arun was wild with glee and whipped at the terrified June air. It was a co-ordinated chorus. NC-creates the monster. The monster is hungry, as they usually tend to be. It asks for land. Congress gives it land to graze upon. PDP's sloppy gatekeeper [forest minister] throws open the doors. The monster triumphantly walks in, looks at its spoils and wags it tail. It doesn't look back though. In a distance a storm was brewing.


Before we go to the eye of the storm, a quick word about the opera of normalcy in Kashmir. Frankly, the peace concerts by Junoon and artificial tulip gardens, named after a former dead prime minister, is a big farce. It is a joke with a fake gloss. Beneath the façade of golf courses and houseboats and Farooq Abdulla's dance jigs and ski resorts, Kashmir has big, dark, deep wounds. Big enough to keep dolphins in. The wounds from the war years haven't healed yet. The
alienation sentiment lives on. And unfortunately India is a little unsighted on this.

So our monster's whinnying was soon picked up by the deflated separatists. It was God sent fodder for them. They swiftly banded with the conspiracy theorists. Slogans came up at an amazing speed. 'Kashmir on sale'. History tells us that nothing moves masses like nationalism with a dash of religion thrown in. Soon Kashmir poured out on streets. In scenes reminiscent of the early 1990's when the struggle started, an Intifada [uprising] began. It all came back, the Kane Jung's [stone pelting], flag-waving, the songs, the exuberance.

Young men marched on in their hundreds demanding the revoking of land transfer. Politicians were caught unawares with their pants down. Police panicked. They used excessive force to quell the protests. People held on. Years of war have made them tough fiber. A week of complete shut-down ensued. Such open defiance of authority came as an utter jolt. Kashmir wanted no compromise on its land. Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own, Seneca the Roman thinker averred long years ago. Correctly so.

Politicians being politicians, soon did a volte face. PDP started making noises. The deputy CM, a PDP guy, spoke in such harsh language [against the land transfer] that Mr Geelani, the no-nonsense separatist leader seemed to have genuine competition in a long time. NC threw up its arms. They thought the land deal was plain bad and admitted that the monster made by Farooq Abdullah had got some of his stupid brain and was behaving ugly. Meanwhile Kashmir burned.


Day six of the Intifada, PDP pulled the carpet beneath Congress' feet. The government clearly is in a minority now. It may drag on though with some little support. The missionary board has been de-fanged. The state government has taken over the yatra management, as I post. The posion-tounge has been diagnosed with a rare foot-in-mouth disease and dispatched to some less aggressive errand. For the moment the storm seems to be slightly weakening. However nothing short of a complete revocation of the original transfer order will satisfy the masses. The ruling Congress party is playing it safe though, trying to balance the equation because the hindu right-wing is seething in Jammu provence. Ironically hot heads -- on both sides of the divide -- always think they get a raw deal.

Remarkably the last one week witnessed a hundred marches. People's power. Green flags on Srinagar's main clock tower, mass cancelling of weddings, torching of CRPF bunkers and 500 injured. Five dead. An outpouring of emotions as if all hell had broken loose. Warring Hurriyet factions united. No business, no schools, no transport, not a whimper of life for more than a week. An issue that connected and electrified seven million people. In a week of mass mutiny -- on an unprecedented scale.

I reckon it is about two things.

One: Kashmir is not 100% healed. It is still wounded, despite the swaddles and doles. Rather than concentrating on trivial issues, like concerts and silly parks, the government of India must address the main problem: the strong sense of detachment Kashmiris harbor. Un-healed it is a tinder-box.

Two: Kashmir's newest Intifada is nothing but pure nationalism. People in all societies and all ages have experienced it. There is nothing odd about it. Though the separatists may claim victory and the mainstream parties like PDP may attribute it to their born-again activism, the truth remains that more than religion, more than communalism, more than separatist politics, more than the environment [that's my position], it is about love for Kashmir -- Her waters. Her colored birds and trees. Her forgotten culture and greens. Her land. It may be latent but events in this past few days have shown that it takes only a couple of hours to fly off the handle.