Why Jammu and Kashmir’s new Lt-Governor must act fast, with sense and sensitivity

Since the state was reduced to two union territories, this year has been one long missed opportunity, which China took as an ‘aa bael, mujhe maar’ opening.

WrittenBy:David Devadas
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There could hardly be a more telling indicator of the extent to which the past year has been a non-starter in Jammu and Kashmir than GC Murmu, the first lieutenant-governor of the union territory, being replaced on the first anniversary of the bifurcation of the erstwhile state.

Of course, his removal was not a punishment. Rather, Murmu’s dependable loyalty to the prime minister and home minister — he’s worked closely with both in Gujarat — is apparently required elsewhere. But the fact is that there’s precious little to show for his time in the new union territory.

Now, three years after Yogi Adityanath pipped him to the post, it is up to the man who might have been Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister to make his mark. The new lieutenant-governor, Manoj Sinha, has a reputation for reaching out across the ideological and sociological spectrum and resolving contradictions. The extraordinarily diverse Jammu and Kashmir will more than test those talents.

Sinha must hit the ground running. People across regional, ethnic, and religious lines are frustrated and angry. The administration is bogged down. Militancy is rising. Large numbers are massed at infiltration launch pads on the Line of Control, China has intruded into adjacent Ladakh, and the state was discussed again at the UN Security Council on August 5, the first anniversary of the constitutional changes that downgraded and split the state.

Huge wasted opportunity

It is a shame that this past year was wasted in intra-governmental friction and inertia, instead of being used to win hearts and minds. Now, Sinha must ease the anger and frustration that could spark an uprising in Kashmir — the putative half-front in what Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat has called a two-and-a-half front war.

As I warned in my last column, China and Pakistan could attack next year, if not in October, and they would hope to foment unrest within the valley in tandem. Innovative efforts were required over the past year to prevent that, and it was entirely possible. For, while last year’s constitutional changes set off the Sino-Pak axis like a half-cocked alarm, believe it or not, many citizens within the erstwhile state showed considerable openness. Many in Ladakh and Jammu and some in the valley were open to the promise of development and clean, responsive governance.

After the first few weeks, even those who had been upset had largely settled down. So, already by early September last year, people by and large were ready to at least see what the promised new beginning would be like.

With unprecedented power at its disposal, and without any interference from greedy local lobbies, the government could have tried to win over hearts and minds within the state more easily than ever before.

It turned out to be a false dawn. Restrictions were prioritised instead of engagement, and there is no sign of development, jobs or new initiatives. And the place has been denied fast internet amid a pandemic, home study rules, and myriad uncertainties. So the frustrations of people at large, even in Jammu and Ladakh, have risen.

On the morning of the anniversary, Ashok Bhan, the respected former director general of the state's police, sent me an article he wrote, tellingly titled “Surge in Home-Grown Militancy: Pro-Active Outreach Essential”. The tragedy is that if people-friendly economic and social outreach had taken place, the country might have had a bulwark against external aggression instead of a possible third half-front of hostility.

Reducing status spawns terror

The openness of large sections of people was an amazing change from the past, which should have been grabbed without a moment’s delay. Recent history showed that inimical powers would surely use a reduction in the status of the state to foment trouble. Some sections of the population would surely be ready to play that game.

Kashmir’s first militant group, Al Fatah, emerged in 1967 with the help of Pakistan, after the titles “prime minister” and “sadr-e-riyasat” were reduced to chief minister and governor in 1964 and ‘65.

And in 1988, when the newsmagazine for which I then worked sent me to Kashmir to research a feature on pashmina, I discovered huge public anger, which could easily be ignited. A major strand of my report was about mass anger over the rigged elections of March 1987.

It was published in July 1988. On the last day of that month, the first bomb blasts of the militancy, which still continues, took place. The emergence of militancy in 1988-89 can be linked to that rigging in 1987, though deeper roots lie in the global rise of Islamism from 1979, and Sheikh Abdullah’s acceptance of reduced status in 1975.

My mind leapt to those precedents when a BJP spokesman berated me for being “pessimistic” during a television debate a few days after the constitutional changes which further reduced the status of the state last August. If that recent history was anything to go by, I thought, there could be an explosion of militancy in a couple of years.

Exactly a year on, it is plain to see that the self-congratulatory complacence of our rulers was misplaced. Militancy has indeed got a fillip. A very large number of young militants are being killed, but more keep joining the ranks. Just last Sunday, they abducted a Kashmiri soldier who had gone home for Eid, and they shot dead a BJP sarpanch in Kulgam on August 6.

Issue internationalised

The day the state was reduced to two union territories a year ago, we were told that not only would militancy end, this brilliant move would take the Kashmir issue off the international agenda. The reverse happened. China and Pakistan promptly took it to the UN Security Council, where it was taken up after a gap of almost 45 years.

The closed door meeting of the UNSC on Jammu and Kashmir on the first anniversary of the constitutional changes was un-minuted but 14 of the 15 members reportedly spoke.

At his summit with Prime Minister Modi at Mamallapuram last October, President Xi is said to have suggested tripartite negotiations between China, Pakistan and India over the future of Jammu and Kashmir.

That disastrous idea (for India) shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it apparently did — to our rulers, and to Delhi’s so-called strategists. China and Pakistan are the thickest of friends. And China made it amply clear that it does not consider Jammu and Kashmir to be Indian territory when it stopped giving visas to citizens from the state on Indian passports in 2009. They even refused the then Northern Army Commander, who hailed from Jammu.

And China clarified in 2010 that the two countries only have a 2,000 km border (presumably removing Jammu and Kashmir from the equation). At least external affairs minister S Jaishankar should have remembered that, for China stated that to contradict him when he was India’s ambassador to China. (He had told China’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, that the two countries have a 3,488-km long border. It published his statement with that clarification.)

My sense is that the constitutional changes did not cause China to eye Ladakh or other parts of the erstwhile state. As I have often said since 2011, China already did. The constitutional changes just gave President Xi a providential opportunity to press forward.

China grabbed it as an “aa bael, mujhe maar” (inviting a bull to gore oneself) moment. Tragically, those who gave it that opportunity weren’t even conscious of China. The day it happened, I was amazed that even men who had been near the top of India’s intelligence agencies didn’t see that it would make India an international punching bag. My first response was that it was terribly timed in light of the international scenario. I referred specifically to Afghanistan and China.

China has already come calling. Once the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan have sorted out their power play in Afghanistan, they too might take up the “aa bael, mujhe maar” opening. As I noted, the really big troubles erupted not immediately but a couple of years after previous erosions of Jammu and Kashmir’s status.

Those who should be strategising to head off the obvious and potential troubles don’t seem to be doing so with adequate urgency. One hopes that at least Mr Sinha will reach out to the grassroots within Jammu and Kashmir as urgently as possible. It is imperative for its own sake, as also to stymie that putative half-front.


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