What's in an And?
As an ardent admirer of Jared Diamond’s ongoing treatise (expounded in a series of best-selling books beginning with ‘Guns, Germs, Steel’), I have come to believe that Geography, more than any other factor, is indeed the fundamental vector in shaping the course of Human History: when we speak of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the epicenter of the Amarnath Controversy, the operative words are neither ‘J’ nor ‘K’; it is, infact, the quintessential ‘&’. This ‘&’ seeks to drive an irreconcilable wedge between the two; and Minority Appeasement, that cunning little creature about which we discussed in the last post, is, as it turns out, the double-edged sword that has brought this about.
For as long as one can remember, these two regions, connected only by an umbilical cord of the Jammu-Srinagar national highway painstakingly tunneled through mountains, have functioned as disparate geopolitical entities: a Hindu-dominated J on the plains, and a Muslim-dominated K in the Valley. Ergo, when the J&K government handed over 100 acres of forest land to the Shrine Board, the Muslim-majority in Kashmir saw it as appeasement of the Hindu-majority in Jammu, possibly with an eye towards an impending Assembly election; when they took it back, the rest of the country saw it as an effort to once again appease the already over-appeased Kashmiri Muslims. Despite this somewhat hasty governmental-afterthought- to take back the allotted land thereby removing the immediate cause of Kashmiri discontent- the Valley continues to boil: in the words of a separatist pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader, Syed Gilani, the land itself has become a ‘non-issue’. If so, what then is the issue? Clearly, this somewhat simplistic communal distinction isn’t adequate to explain what’s happening in- and to- J&K.
For the first time, the (Indian) state seems to be at a total & utter loss: sure, it was a mistake to give land to the Shrine Board in the first place, now we can all see that; but wasn’t that decision revoked, and the mistake rectified? Why, then, aren’t things settling down? Why, for instance, are millions of Kashmiris suddenly marching all over Srinagar hurling green-colored Pakistani flags, wishing each other ‘belated Happy Independence day’ on 15th August? Why have they all set their watches thirty minutes behind? Don’t they- can’t they- see that that these Pakis have done nothing for Kashmiris except to smuggle them guns & bombs to blow each other to smithereens? Surely, they ought to understand that we, the Indians, are their true friends, their only well-wishers.
And that is the exact point of this whole Controversy: the Kashmiris do not see us, the Indians, as their friends; on the contrary, we’re perceived as the Enemy; even more worryingly, Pakistan is viewed as the Good Guy. Suddenly, this business of Minority Appeasement isn’t confined to India alone; it has quite simply gone transnational.
To understand why- despite the state government’s best efforts to assuage the Kashmiri sentiment in the Amarnath land-allocation controversy; despite the imposition of Article 370 that guarantees Kashmir’s special status; despite the tens of billions of rupees spend by the GOI to develop the Valley- we Indians have become villains in the eyes of countless ordinary Kashmiris, and not just extremist-jihadis, it is important to look at what followed the government’s decision to take back the land: a nationwide Bandh was called by the BJP to gain political capital from that decision, citing it as yet another example of Congress’ efforts at Minority Appeasement; thousands of saffron flag-hurling Hindu hardliners, led by the VHP-RSS combine under the banner of a swiftly-assembled ‘Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti’, took to the streets in Jammu; and most dangerously, the Jammu-Srinagar highway- that most delicate umbilical cord- was blockaded, effectively cutting-off the Valley from rest of the country. In the midst of all this anti-Kashmiri sentiment across the nation, 500,000 Hindus quietly completed their annual Amarnath pilgrimage, unmolested & unharmed.
Now, under these circumstances, what would you think if you were a Kashmiri living in the Valley? Wouldn’t you feel that an entire nation was suddenly gunning for you; trying to starve you to death by cutting-off the sole supply-line to the Valley; and, in short, threatening your very existence? The presence of half a million armed-to-the-teeth battle-ready troops in Indian Army uniforms with not the best sort of human-rights record to speak of, living in your midst for the past two decades would only aggravate your sense of alienation, even hostility, to Mother India. Add to this the fact that what used to be trickle of barely 20,000 pilgrims every year from the mainland less than fifteen years ago has become a flood of 500,000; not only that, suddenly, these pilgrims- or those managing their annual pilgrimage anyway- are claiming your land, land that is clearly not theirs, and what’s more, your government is only too keen to hand it to them; today, it is land for the Yatra; tomorrow, it will be land for other things, and very soon, you- and by you, I mean people who’ve lived in the Valley since forever- will have become exiles in your own homeland.
In contrast, you would see a mute Pakistan- which has of late been much too involved in its own political mess to give little more than ‘moral support’ to the ‘struggle’ in Kashmir- to be the very incarnation of the Mahdi, the Promised Deliverer; or atleast, as a fellow Muslim in the struggle to establish the Dar-ul-Islam. And this is precisely how ordinary Kashmiris- students, wives, houseboat wallahs, apple pluckers, children- are beginning to see their world.
For the first time, the struggle in Kashmir has gone non-violent; and not because of any particular fascination for the Mahatma either. It’s simply because it’s simply not possible for millions of ordinary civilians to procure AK-47s & turn up armed at rallies: a mass movement, if it is really that, has, therefore, definitely got to be non-violent because of logistical considerations. There is, ironically enough, peace in numbers. Also, for the first time since 1989, the militant-jihadis- the Lashkar-e-Toibas and the Jaish-e-Mohammeds of this godforsaken world- have taken a backseat, quite content to let unarmed civilians take to the frontlines. And for the first time, the GOI- and its half a million troops stationed in the Valley- don’t know what to do. What, for instance, should be the ideal strategic response to an unarmed pregnant woman climbing up a pole to take down the tricolor and hoist a green Pakistani crescent in its place? Arrest her? Shoot her? Perhaps. But what if, for instance, she is not alone; what if there are 300,000 other unarmed women, children and men cheering her from below? What is the ideal strategic response, then? Do we shoot all of them too?
In the inevitable blame-game of History, who will ultimately be held responsible for putting us- India- squarely in the accused-box: the half-baked thinking of the state government that led it first to give land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, only to take it back a couple of days later; the RSS troika (RSS-VHP-BJP combine), which made such a nationwide ruckus out of that decision, and ultimately, instigated the Blockade of the Valley; the Ministry of Home Affairs- and the GOI- which thought that the Blockade wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and that it may, in the end, actually help quiet things down, take the steam out of the struggle, so to speak? The answers, I’m afraid, are not going to be easy.
If and when History does indeed decide to pronounce judgment on us- Indians, Kashmiris, Hindus, Muslims, secularists, communalists, civilians, military- it would most probably don the dress of the Prince in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and say: “A curse on all your houses!”
(To be concluded)
Monday, August 25, 2008
What's in an And?