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Home > India > News > Columnists > Colonel Dr Anil A Athale (retd)

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Why Kashmir is up in flames

August 29, 2008

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As someone who has been active in resolving the Kashmir issue since 1990, recent events did not come as too much of a surprise. Many observers have commented that the situation is back to the days of 1989-1990. They are only partially right, on the surface it does appear so, but there are major differences. How the situation is similar and yet different is an important issue since the Indian response has to be based on sound analysis lest we repeat our past mistakes. Public memory is short but it is the job of analysts to remember the past and bring it to public notice.

Rollercoaster public opinion in the Kashmir valley

The first thing to understand about the people of the Kashmir valley is that their views are fickle and can see radical changes.

In 1947, in the wake of the tribal invasion led and masterminded by Pakistan, the valley welcomed the Indian Army [Images] with open arms. One of INPAD's members, retired Lieutenant General Eric Vas remembers that the soldiers were showered with rose petals. It was thanks to Sheikh Abdullah's secular leadership as well as the Sufi tradition that Kashmiris rejected the poisonous Muslim League propaganda. In 1965, when Pakistan repeated the 1947 feat and sent in infiltrators, there were very few takers for the idea of merger with Pakistan and the infiltration failed to achieve the goal of engendering an insurrection.

In 1975-1976, when Sheikh Abdullah was the chief minister, there was a widespread movement in Pakistan occupied Kashmir to march to Indian Kashmir -- an exact opposite of the present Kashmiri slogan of 'Chalo Muzaffarabad'.

On April 1, 1979, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by military dictator Zia-ul Haq. His hanging sparked off large-scale violence in the Kashmir valley. Those owing allegiance to the Jamaat-i-Islami, led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, were the main target of attack. Their houses were destroyed by firebombs. The provocation: The Jamaat had distributed sweets to celebrate Bhutto's hanging. It was the Indian Army that rescued Geelani and his people.

On April 4, 1979, Kashmiris held a massive congregation in Hazratbal to thank Allah that they were a part of India and paraded a donkey with a placard that read 'I am Zia-ul Haq'.

The flip side

Post-1947 support for India vanished in a few years. In the late 1950s when Nehru sent Haribhau Pataskar to gauge public opinion in the valley (in order to hold the referendum he had promised), Pataskar told him that the valley was all for joining Pakistan.

Sheikh Abdullah, who was elevated to the status of 'Pir' (holy man) by Kashmiris, fared no better. He died in 1982. Within seven years, his birth and death anniversary became occasions to burn his effigy. A police guard was placed to protect his grave from vandalism. He now became the 'great betrayer' from his erstwhile position of 'Lion of Kashmir'.

Zia-ul Haq, the Pakistani dictator, saw a total reversal of fortunes. His bemedalled photographs began to adorn the homes of Kashmiris.

The late Hamid Dalwai, a Muslim reformist from Maharashtra, recounted his encounters in Kashmir that aptly sums up the reasons for Kashmiri flip-flop. He asked several people as to why they were unhappy in India. The answer given to him by one shikara owner was that they had everything going for them in India, "but after all, must we not care for the flag of Islam?"

Understanding the present crisis

The year 2008 till July was extraordinarily peaceful by Kashmir's standards. Pakistan was so embroiled in its internal crisis that it had no time to devote to Kashmir.

The present crisis in Kashmir erupted when an innocuous transfer of land to build temporary facilities for Amarnath pilgrims was made an issue by politicians like Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah. The usual Srinagar [Images] protests by unemployed youth and crowds on hire so rattled the government that it revoked the land transfer. At that stage, a little firmness and explanation that the land was being given to a statutory body established by the state legislature and that too for temporary structures should have doused the fires in the valley. But with an eye on upcoming elections, the People's Democratic Party and the National Conference jumped into the fray and made allegations about attempts being made to change Kashmir's demography!

When the land order was revoked, the government thought that like countless other surrenders earlier, it will get away with this one too. In any case the prime minister was busy sewing up the nuclear deal with the US and the supreme leader of the ruling combine was enjoying the Beijing [Images] Olympics [Images] in the company of her family! Nobody had much time to devote such trifling matter as a major crisis in Jammu and Kashmir [Images].

The reaction in Jammu came as a surprise to one and all (including the ineffectual Bharatiya Janata Party which later tried to jump on the bandwagon). Frankly, the protests in Jammu had very little to do with the Amarnath land transfer issue. It was a spontaneous outburst of pent-up anger at the last 60 years of mollycoddling of the valley and discrimination towards the region. Other hilly states like Himachal Pradesh [Images] or Uttarakhand [Images] are marching ahead of J&K.

It is the obduracy of the valley -- that sees demons in any and every attempt at economic development as 'Indian imperialism' -- that has got the people of Jammu agitated.

The measure by former governor retired Lieutenant General S K Sinha to extend the Amarnath Yatra [Images] saw a bonanza in the shape of over 500,000 pilgrims making the arduous trek. Even at an average spending of Rs 2,000 per pilgrim, it meant over Rs 100 crore was pumped into the state's economy, directly benefiting the common man. That this was opposed surely takes the cake, as the world over religious tourism is being encouraged.

Part II: Kashmiri separatists are isolated from reality

Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Fellow at the United Services Institution, Delhi [Images], and coordinator of the Pune-based Institute for Peace and Disarmament


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