Winter of discontent

It is somewhat piquant that Syed Ali Shah Geelani, hardline leader of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, should be in a controversy for participating in a seminar on the subject “Azadi: The Only Way”. Azadi, as it is commonly understood in the context of Jammu and Kashmir, implies complete independence for the Kashmir Valley and the creation of a tiny sovereign entity, one of the world’s smallest nation states.
Whatever else this may be, it is not Mr Geelani’s goal. He has long been considered the Islamabad military-intelligence establishment’s representative in the Hurriyat. His advocacy is not for independence but merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, on the grounds of religious congruence.
Of late, Mr Geelani has lost traction in the Kashmir Valley. There are a variety of reasons for this. Pakistan is no more the attractive homeland for Kashmiri separatist sentiment that it was in, say, the early 1990s. As a devastated, torn nation, it is not the sort of society Kashmiris, even Kashmiris who have no love for India, necessarily want to join. That aside, especially after 9/11, pan-Islamism has slowly overtaken Pakistani-centric Islamism in parts of the Valley. This has led to younger extremist leaders taking charge on the streets, as was seen in the recent strife and stone attacks. Mr Geelani was peripheral to the story.
It is therefore with abundant caution that one approaches the “Azadi seminar” issue. Preaching secessionism and the dismantling of the Republic of India is certainly in violation of the Constitution. However, for purely tactical reasons, the government would need to be careful before taking legal steps against Mr Geelani. Nobody wants to revive his career and make a martyr of him. If his political innings is ending, India must celebrate, not enhance his street credibility.
Even so, to finesse the legal response to Mr Geelani’s preaching of the break-up of India, in the heart of the national capital, is not the same as to condone it. Those who are making the argument that Mr Geelani is entitled to demand “azadi” and “liberation” from India and that this is a (perverse) validation of the right to free speech are being dishonest.
Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution gives India’s citizens the right to “freedom of speech and expression”. Article 19(2) “imposes reasonable restrictions” on the right to free speech “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. A hate speech — for instance Varun Gandhi’s infamous “I will cut their hands” polemic early in the election campaign of 2009 — would invite action under Article 19(2). In principle, Mr Geelani is equally culpable.
Also, it would be facile to draw a distinction between actually seceding and calling for secession in a provocative fashion, just as it would be specious to distinguish between an act of violence and rhetoric that threatens such action. As such, being measured in the legal weapons India chooses (if it chooses any at all) in taking on Mr Geelani is one thing, upholding his right to promote sedition is another.
To be fair, potentially seditious remarks are not new to Indian public discourse. At various stages — not just in Jammu and Kashmir, but also in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and several states of the Northeast — India has lived with them and allowed the moment to pass. Why then is Mr Geelani’s presence at the seminar causing such disquiet? It is here that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is experiencing a growing trust deficit in terms of its handling of the Kashmir problem. While it cannot arrest Mr Geelani — one understands that — surely it can politically challenge his remarks? Why is the Indian state silent? It is not the only stakeholder in the Kashmir mess, but it is at least one of the key stakeholders. Why is it not being heard?
Second, the seriousness with which the UPA government is approaching the Kashmir question is suspect. Over the summer, the Congress was caught in a wrenching debate between those who wanted to withdraw support to chief minister Omar Abdullah’s National Conference government and those who didn’t. President’s Rule and a Congress-backed government led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party were discussed as alternatives. The Mufti family was sent feelers. Finally, Rahul Gandhi put a stop to speculation and put his weight behind the junior Mr Abdullah. While still unsure, the UPA government went along.
The choice between the Muftis and the Abdullahs was decidedly tactical. It was more in the nature of an internal discussion in the Congress on patchwork remedies. Absent was any big-picture strategic call.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has repeated itself in recent days. The all-party delegation that visited the Kashmir Valley opened doors for India. It was seen as a serious intervention and was expected to be followed by the appointment of a “Kashmir committee” that had political heft. Instead, the government has nominated a senior journalist and two academics. The “official” committee resembles a track II mission. It debuted in Srinagar with gratuitous comments about Pakistan’s role and willingness to discuss even Kashmir’s independence. Are these part of its mandate? Why is this committee either putting off people or, in the Valley, raising expectations it is in no position to fulfil?
While seemingly different, the clumsy response to Mr Geelani’s outrageous seminar and, at another level, the putting together of a committee that lacks substance suggests a pattern. The UPA’s Kashmir policy is not so much middle-of-the-road as a muddle-headed free-for-all. It is beginning to disconcert both mainstream public opinion as well as those who hope for an honourable attempt at settling, to whatever degree possible, a dispute India regards an “internal issue”.
The UPA is playing for time. With the winter approaching, it probably believes Srinagar is done with its protests for the year. It may have postponed the problem, but Kashmir — every aspect of Kashmir — will return to haunt the Manmohan Singh government.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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