Jammu and Kashmir: A tale of two flags

The contrast between the agitators in Jammu, holding the Tricolour and shouting "Bharat Mata ki jai," and the separatists in Kashmir Valley, marching across the LoC to Pakistan, with the Pakistani flag, sums up the crisis in a way which will remain in the nation’s consciousness for years to come. The clash is not between two regions, but two value systems. The character of the two groups of agitators is defined by their respective flags: The Tricolour represents the spirit of India — respect for diversity in all its multitudes, be it faith or language; The Pakistani flag denotes an exclusivist character devoid of the right to dissent in all avenues of life.

It’s not that the separatists merely wave the Pakistani flag. They have soaked in its spirit. Following in the footsteps of Pakistan, Kashmiri separatists had cleansed the Valley of all the Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits), kafirs in their parlance. In spite of India being a vibrant democracy and a secular state (biased against the majority community), the separatists hate India. Because its demography is Hindu? They love Pakistan. Because it is an Islamic state?

The "secular" camp in the rest of India has not condemned this brazen display of strength in the Valley against India. Of course, there have been subtle allegations against the BJP of politicising the Amarnath shrine board issue. To extend support to those hoisting the Tricolour is "communalism" and to find rationale for the ones seeking a theocratic state is serving the cause of "secularism". Could there be a bigger irony?

The claim of the Valley agitators that they were only asking for the removal of the blockade on the highway from Srinagar to the rest of India flies in the face of facts. It was the separatists’ agitation, later joined by some other parties, against the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board that sparked the present situation. Agitation leaders were provoking the people of the Valley to join the anti-national stream that separatists have always fuelled in Srinagar and the Valley. The government, both in Srinagar and the Centre, capitulated without even an attempt to drive some reason into the general public already incited by anti-India and Islam-in-danger propaganda.

For all the claims of Valley politician like Omar Abdullah, that local Muslims have been taking care of the pilgrims for ages, they have failed to take into account the fact that a sea change had taken place in the annual pilgrimage to the shrine. First, the number of pilgrims has increased manifold. The management of facilities for pilgrims could no longer be in a laissez faire manner, in the hands of private, small-time enthusiasts. Only a government-supported modernisation would have assured the pilgrims amenities they are entitled to, considering the terrain, weather conditions and the age-profile of the pilgrims.

Those opposing lease of the property to the board were, in fact, not interested in the land transfer itself. Their purpose was to send a message that wherever Muslims are in majority, people from other religions will not get a foothold. It is significant that the Jammu and Kashmir legislature had passed the law creating the Amarnath Board and the structure of administration for the Vaishno Devi shrine of Jammu, laying down specific duties for both the boards. Most political parties had supported the legislation. It is clear, therefore, that the anti-Amarnath Board agitation was a recent phenomenon and its link with separatists and militants cannot be ignored. The militants have always tried to disturb the pilgrimage, leading to deaths of many pilgrims.

Even if the demand of the fruit-growers and transporters of the Valley about their products rotting due to the blockade were true, the way out was not another agitation — clearly meant to provoke police firing. The Valley separatists were clearly giving warnings that any accommodation with the Jammu agitators would bring them back on Srinagar streets. At the drop of a hat, the separatists organise hartals in Srinagar but have no word of sympathy for the people of Jammu who too have the right to raise their demands.

The clear division of public opinion, between the Valley Muslims and the Jammu Hindus, is the result of mishandling of Jammu and Kashmir affairs for over five decades by the Congress and the National Conference (NC). For decades, the Congress allowed NC to dominate Valley politics without any hindrance. People of the state, as a result, watched helplessly as the government, led by a single party, the NC, became a hotbed of corruption.

For a while, the NC leadership was sought to be built outside the influence of the Sheikh Abdullah family. But Indira Gandhi entered into an agreement with Sheikh Abdullah and handed the state back to the NC, and the Abdullah family, as if it was his jagir. The failure to build alternate leadership in Kashmir has cost the country dear. The uncontrolled dominance of one family over the resources of Kashmir, and growing public anger against this swelled the support base of separatists. The jihadi found a fertile ground and provided the Pakistani establishment yet another opportunity to pursue its agenda.

The Congress-led government in New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for what is happening in Jammu and Kashmir. In many ways, it is a result of the Congress’ continuing selfish and family-oriented approach to the Kashmir problem. And its myopic vote-bank politics in kowtowing to the irredentist demands of one community.

The Central government remained unmoved when thousands of Pandits were driven out of their ancestral land and forced to take refuge in Delhi and elsewhere in India. It was only during the six-year rule of the BJP-led NDA that things began to change in the Valley. The first truly free general elections in 1999, and the goodwill it created for the Central government, even among some of the separatists; the determined peace initiative of the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that split the separatists and narrowed the support base of militants — all this was bringing the state closer to a peaceful settlement. But the Central government changed and with it the momentum of earlier moves was lost. Now, the manner in which the government has handled the agitations in Jammu and Kashmir has enabled the two separatist factions to come together, that too with the injection of more pan-Islamic sentiments. The tipping point almost seems to have achieved.

The sins of omission and commission on the part of Congress in Jammu and Kashmir will cost the country dear.

— The writer can be contacted at punjbk@gmail.com

Balbir K. Punj

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