At a time when commentators were talking of the end of the insurgency and life was returning to normal in the Kashmir valley, the Amarnath crisis and the associated violence this summer of 2008, came as a rude shock to many. The separatist tone of the protests in the valley created a furore in Indian media. If we were to put the facts of the crisis itself aside, the accompanying protests provided a fascinating opportunity to observe the change sweeping the Kashmir valley. Indeed, the Amarnath crisis may have inadvertently acted as a window of opportunity to bring peace back to Kashmir. Policymakers in Delhi cannot therefore afford to miss the positive outcomes generated by the crisis.
Firstly, it is worth analyzing why the protests in the valley against the government’s decision about transfer of land to the Amarnath shrine board started with pro-independence overtones, then acquired religious hues and thereafter a pro-Pakistani tint. The ISI hand if any, was seemingly minimal in these protests. Officials in Islamabad were apparently as surprised as New Delhi to see the pro-Pakistani tenor. In fact, it is entirely possible that the Pakistani flags placed by some elements at Lal chowk in Srinagar on India’s Independence Day were only a ploy to keep the nation’s attention riveted on Kashmir. To get the attention of the Indian mainstream, nothing works better than a Pakistani flag. One only needs to look at how interest in the Bodo-Muslim clashes in Assam in early October rapidly rose after some Pakistani flags were sighted. The Pakistan card is a bogey that separatists have used in the past as well to put pressure on New Delhi. While some Pro-Pakistani groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba tried to piggy-back on the protests and gain propaganda mileage with motorcycle riders shouting anti-India slogans, they were soon drowned out by the pro-independence voices.
Therefore, whatever mix of aspirations drove the Kashmiris, one thing became clear from the protests. There is definitely an indigenous opinion within the valley about the future of Kashmir, one that is not driven by external entities like Pakistan. In that sense, these protests were reminiscent of the protests of 1963-64 after the theft of the Hazratbal relic, which were entirely indigenously spurred (before Pakistan began its decades-long covert intervention in the valley with Operation Gibraltar of 1965).
At the same time, the protests in the valley do not signify a boost for the armed separatist movement. In fact, the Amarnath crisis represents a decisive shift in the nature of political protest the valley – from one of armed violence to one of non-violent protests. It will take some time before the valley rediscovers completely the power of non-violent dissent, but the process has begun. Yasin Malik, the former Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front militant turned separatist leader, was quoted by The Economist recently as saying: “[today’s Kashmiri youngsters] are even more angry than my generation, yet committed to non-violence”. Why this shift has happened amongst the youth is worthy of an entire sociological treatise. In short, the collective failure of insurgency to achieve political goals, the progressive marginalization of Kashmiris in Pakistan-backed militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and the emergence of regional parties other than the National Conference, could have all contributed to it. The latter is particularly noteworthy. Although non- National Conference forces have been active in the valley before, never were they able to influence decision making at the Center as they did during the Amarnath crisis. The triangular struggle to win over public opinion between the National Conference, People Democratic Party and All Party Hurriyat Conference during the crisis represents the coming of age of Kashmiri politics and the end of political monopoly.
Another positive outcome of the protest was that they triggered a debate in the Indian hinterland about the future of Kashmir, something that 18 years of insurgency was unable to do. The Times of India actually ran a poll during the crisis asking if Indians want Kashmir to be retained at all costs. To most Indians, such a question would not have arisen even a year ago.
Even at the Centre, the protests saw a departure in the way New Delhi has handled the Valley at times in the past. The Central government neither enforced a media blackout nor denied the content of the protests as Pakistani propaganda, seeking instead a negotiated settlement. While this is in part due to the realities of coalition politics at the Centre, it is nonetheless significant.
The protests in Jammu were equally worthy of attention. While a section of the media sought to cast the protests purely in religious terms, the participation of Gujjars and Dogri Muslims indicates there was a “regional” factor also involved. This in turn may have forced Kashmiri separatist leaders to rethink the costs of secession from India. The Jammu protests hastened the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway for trade. Not only will this move help build better ties between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and J & K, the resultant economic prosperity could transform opinions about the future of Kashmir. This has happened before. Peace returned to Northern Ireland essentially after Britain promoted private sector investment and trade in the province, and paved the way for the Good Friday accord. In the case of Kashmir, Article 370 and the law and order situation have prohibited private investment in the past. The alternative therefore, clearly lies in promoting trade across the border. This also creates the possibility of exposing people in PoK to the possibilities of democratic, non-violent solutions to the Kashmir dispute.
One cannot say that the Amarnath crisis was the best thing that ever happened for Kashmir. In fact, one of the most worrisome fallouts of the crisis is the potential of it being exploited by radical groups in the hinterland. (The Indian Mujahideen had cited the blockade of the valley during the Jammu protests as one of their justifications for the Delhi blasts in September.) But the Amarnath crisis has certainly served to put Kashmir as one of the key issues on the 2009 election agenda. Given the importance of the Kashmir dispute to national security concerns, this would not be an unwelcome development.
(This article was originally published in The Indian National Interest Review, Nov 2008 issue)