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Will the Jhelum smile again?
Colonel (retired) Anil Athale
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Coverage: The Amarnath Row

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October 15, 2008

My book Let the Jhelum Smile Again was released in Pune 11 years ago by the then Jammu and Kashmir [Images] Governor, General (retired) K V Krishna Rao. The book was a result of six years of research and field work, that included numerous visits to all (not just Srinagar [Images]) parts of the state -- Rajouri, Poonch, Kupwara, Uri, Sopore, Sangrama, Tregam, Doda et al. My conclusion then, as now; was and is, that the Kashmir issue is a socio-economic problem that has been converted into a political problem of azaadi or merger with Pakistan by a power-hungry leadership. My recommendations then were to give a push to horticulture and tourism. A rail line in the valley, inaugurated a few days ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images], was being advocated for the last 16 years.

My formula for a solution in Kashmir was:

As someone associated with the Kashmir issue for over 18 years, the recent events came as a shock, the Amarnath land issue agitation in Srinagar valley and its counter in Jammu made it appear as if the situation had gone back to the 1990s when curfew, bandhs and daily demonstrations were the norm.

So as I landed in Srinagar last month for a two-week study tour, I was apprehensive. It was a day separatists had ordered a strike and Srinagar resembled an armed camp. All the way from the airport to Badami Baugh cantonment, a CRPF jawan could be found every 100 yards.

The whole Amarnath land dispute episode was a series of blunders by the government. It was never explained that the land grant was only for three months to have temporary shelters to house pilgrims and their Kashmiri helpers in case of bad weather (four years ago nearly 200 people died in unseasonal snow). Immature young mainstream politicians were the ones who did the initial mischief. The marginalised Hurriyat leaders saw a golden opportunity and took over the agitation, pushing out the bratty upstarts.

But what aggravated the situation was the total inaction on part of the state government (the governor being confined to Raj Bhavan and tongue-tied) and the central government sleeping, the supreme leader of the Congress (Sonia Gandhi [Images]) was busy watching the Beijing [Images] Olympics [Images], Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was busy with the nuke deal and Home Minister Shivraj Patil [Images] was busy changing his clothes. When the road link between the valley and Jammu was disrupted and the fruit crop was rotting in the valley, all that was needed was one phone call, a few flights of Indian Air Force's giant IL 76 transport aircraft and the valley agitation would have fizzled out!

Even without the Kashmiri demand, the route to Muzaffarabad (in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) was slated to open anyway. The Hurriyat leaders soon converted the land agitation into a demand for azaadi that in reality demands secession. During my trip to the valley I interacted with a wide spectrum of civil society at Uri, Baramulla, Sopore, Bandipore, Gandarbal, Anantnag and Pehalgam.

The question posed to the Kashmiri was, what is their definition of azaadi? Does it mean freedom of religion, speech, movement or economic activity? And which of these freedoms were not available to him in India? There was really no coherent answer. The constant theme was that "Kashmir was separate from both India and Pakistan". I pointed out that Kashmir was linked to India ethnically, historically and economically. That some of these links were through the present day Pakistan is true but Kashmir was always part of the Indian subcontinent, never separate. The growth of separatist sentiment is a legacy of the last 60 years when an indulgent media legitimised the issue of creation of a 'unique' Kashmiri identity.

The most interesting point about the present agitation is that it is confined to essentially urban areas of the valley. Jammu, Ladakh and Kargil [Images] have been virtually untouched by this demand for azaadi. In short, a vocal and assertive minority wishes to impose its political preferences on the majority of the Kashmiri people.

The link with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir has done some good too. The Kashmiris are well aware of the disastrous situation there. Petrol is Rs 125 a litre and rice is Rs 35 a kilo as opposed to Rs 3 in the valley. I asked the people whether they were serious about boarding a sinking ship that is Pakistan.

The army, specially the Rashtriya Rifles, have done a wonderful job of winning over the civil population. The army-run goodwill schools are extremely popular. The real issue in Kashmir is not azaadi but unemployment and presence of lumpen elements in cities like Srinagar, a ready fodder for agitation and violence. The problem is exacerbated by a rising population and lack of investment in industry or agriculture. The Tatas have excellent hotels in Colombo, London [Images] or Maldives [Images] but none in Kashmir. There is the problem of pollution that may destroy Kashmir's famed saffron crop and affect its horticulture industry.

These issues could only be addressed if we have an effective governor and make it clear to the separatists that secession is not an option. India has both the will and the means to remain in Kashmir indefinitely.    

While at Bandipore with the army, one was witness to the ongoing operation against a group of 10 terrorists who had sneaked in from Pakistan. Using helicopters, unmanned drones and electronic detection system, they were being tracked all the time and were ultimately eliminated. It would be fair to say that the armed threat in the valley is now firmly under control.

Where we seem to lack is on the media front and making our case forcefully. It is time the government of the day shed its diffidence, stop getting influenced by parachuted journalists and self-styled mohalla leaders and act tough with the miscreants for the overall long term peace and prosperity of the people of Kashmir. After all, it was not very long ago, in 1976 to be precise, that under Sheikh Abdullah it was the people of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir who wanted to come to India! On April 4, 1979, in the wake of the hanging of Z A Bhutto, there were riots against Syed Ali Shah Geelani's Jamait-e-Islami, 30 people were killed, their houses burnt and its was the Indian army [Images] that came to their rescue.

About 150 years ago Abraham Lincoln defied the call of a part of the Union for secession and today we have the United States. It is time India acted like Lincoln and not like 'men of straw' who succumbed to pressure in 1947. It is time that India makes it clear that secession is not an option and that Indian unity is non-negotiable.

Colonel (retired) Anil Athale is a Chhatrapati Shivaji Research Fellow of the USI, Delhi [Images].

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