How far is Srinagar from Delhi?

The recent events in Kashmir are a grim reminder of a stark reality

How far is Srinagar from Delhi?
Amid the splendor of spring and blooming tulips, Kashmir valley suddenly erupted into a sense of desperation soon after the arrival of octogenarian separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani from Delhi. For the last several years, Geelani has been spending a few months of winters in Delhi owing to his failing health. On April 15, when he was returning to Srinagar, his supporters organized a reception which was attended by hundreds of people. Masarat Alam, one of his staunch followers who many believe can succeed him, was also among those who enthusiastically received Geelani.

Alam was behind bars for four years following the 2010 civil unrest that claimed over 120 lives in Kashmir. But on the face of it the new dispensation led by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed played a gamble and released him much to the discomfort of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party that is in coalition with Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Alam’s presence in a rally organized to welcome Geelani did not come as a surprise. However, the pro-Pakistan slogans and waving of Pakistani flags by many of the supporters raised heckles in Delhi. When Alam was released 40 days back, the ultra-nationalist media had made it an issue and projected it as something very explosive, and “detrimental to the national interest”. The national media, particularly some news channels, questioned the state government’s wisdom to release him without even respecting the observations made by the Supreme Court in Alam’s case. It was in fact the infamous Public Safety Act (PSA) that was used as a revolving door to keep him in the prison. At that time the media had warned the government about the “dire” consequences of his release.

When pro-Pakistan slogans were raised at Geelani’s rally, Alam also echoed them and obviously it became a fodder for unleashing a new phase of trouble in Kashmir. The TV channels went ballistic building pressure on the central government to re-arrest Alam. The BJP led government, which has in past taken on Congress questioning its policy vis-a-vis Kashmir, was now itself caught in a catch-22 situation. Now it was the turn of Congress to question BJP’s credentials. Since the media suggested his re-arrest as the only solution, the Modi led government mounted pressure on PDP led government in the state which gave in and ordered his re-arrest almost on similar grounds that had been hanging over his head for four years.

This led to a strong reaction. Geelani denounced his arrest and also called for Tral chalo, where a brother of a Hizbul Mujahideen militant had been killed in a “fake encounter” a week before. Masarat’s detention charged the already restless youth. Consequently, a protest demonstration at Narbal was being quelled by police. It failed to see the reason of tackling them through non-lethal methods and that resulted in the killing of a 16-year-old boy, Suhail Ahmad Sofi. Suhail’s death sparked a fresh wave of resentment and Kashmir was on the edge once again. The state government did move swiftly to act against the erring police personnel, but the damage had been done. For a moment it looked that the Valley, which had suffered hugely due to floods in September and was limping back to normalcy, was stepping into a new phase of desperation and unrest. Record number of visitors to Tulip garden soon faded away in the cries and sobs of a wailing mother.

Ironically, India’s national media did not spend any prime airtime discussing the death of the teenager the way it had consumed most of such time when Alam was released and the Pakistani flag was waved in the rally. One may not be wrong in suggesting that a section of media was directly responsible for this situation that led to the civilian killing. Some of these over-zealous anchors have assumed the all-encompassing role – from a thanedaar to a magistrate to a judge – while sitting in a cozy studio in Delhi or Mumbai. No doubt the media has a role to play in raising the genuine concerns but the way it forces its will upon the government, it has nothing positive to offer. In this particular case the governments in Delhi and Srinagar came under media pressure.

One may not support the idea of raising the flag and slogan, but we no longer can shut our eyes to reality. Pakistan has been a factor in Kashmir since 1947. It must be kept in mind that such incidents have happened in the past and may continue to take place in future. Whether people in Kashmir are politically aligned to Pakistan or not needs to be debated but the sense of alienation on the ground is surely filled with an emotion like this. When a Pakistani national is killed in a gunfight with security forces in Kashmir, there are thousands of people who come out to give him a decent burial. This speaks volumes about how far Srinagar is from Delhi.

In Kashmir the realities are mixed. We have seen the unprecedented turnout of 70 percent in assembly elections, which according to voters was meant for governance. Political alienation is another stark reality that comes up again and again and the outpouring like that of April 15 rally is something that cannot be ignored.

Governments and policy makers fail to recognize the changes in the period between 2003 and 2008 when Kashmir saw a relative normalcy. Since two tracks of dialogue – between Delhi and Islamabad and Srinagar and Delhi – were on, people had reposed faith in that process with the hope that some credible movement was there. They did that keeping in view their transition from violence to non-violence.

Since 2008 there has been complete absence of political engagement. That is why a political unrest is unavoidable. Unfortunately those at the helm in Delhi fail to recognize Kashmir as a political issue. Taking the turnout in elections as the final verdict they see it as a riot-oriented and law and order issue that has backfired time and again. People in Kashmir are fed up with violence and unrest and do not want to see another generation getting consumed in uncertainty. That can only be achieved by moving forward on a path where a process akin to that of 2003 is restarted. Pakistan also needs to play a constructive role in this regard. Its threats may not work in isolation. In Kashmir the present government must also keep its promise of keeping the democratic space open and the separatists need to be pragmatic in their approach. Only then can we save precious lives like that of Suhail.