Sunday, 3 April 2022

Taking Kashmiri Pandits for a ride

Dissecting Mohan Bhagwat’s mouthings

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) head honcho, Mohan Bhagwat, intoned, “I have a feeling that the day is very near when the Kashmiri Pandits (KP) will come back to their homes and I wish that day comes soon.” Coming to grips with feelings and wishes is a first step in diving into details how to return KPs to the Valley. One way is by unsustainable force majeure, and the other, durable returns with dignity to a meaningful welcome.  

It is possible that Bhagwat has in mind the ‘chronology’ being rolled out in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Having voided Article 370 of any meaning, Amit Shah is inclined to hold elections to the toothless assembly. The delimitation exercise is done with, elections are slated for autumn. A detailed written critique by the opposition – the Gupkar Alliance – has it that the delimitation was designed assist with ushering in, for the first time, a Bhartiya Janata Party run government to Srinagar. This end can be assured by tacit and timely hints by Shah of a return to statehood but only once a Jammu origin, preferably Hindu, chief minister is in place. Article 371 protections, popular with the Jammu support base, can be offered. Once the new dispensation is there – democratic by all appearances – Bhagwat’s feelings and wishes can be materialized.

Bhagwat was speaking in reference to the film, The Kashmir Files. The film reportedly depicts not only peoples’ participation in the forcing the exodus of KPs from the Valley, but also shows the terrorists, including Kashmiris, evicting those who stayed, or returned, through massacres. Therefore, any durable returns of KPs would involve defusing the threat from these two interlinked quarters.

The first – people – is relatively easy to tackle. Even at the outset of the militancy, there was considerable Kashmiri public support for KPs. That the film elides this shows that it does less than justice to truth. In fact, it merits Bhagwat’s praise precisely for this deliberate omission. Kashmiris of all political hues – mainstream to separatists - have been consistent in wanting the return of KPs. Islamists may have reservations, wanting homogeneity for the Valley to buttress their position on a Pakistani affiliation for Kashmir. Some may tactically link the return of KPs to the State easing up or making political concessions. But there is no shade of public opinion directly opposing returns.

 This can be suitably leveraged for societal backing for the initiative. In any case the Kashmiri ‘bluff’ needs being called. If and since conditions for returns do not obtain, it is easy for Kashmiris to pretend to be holier-than-thou and voice sweet nothings on wanting returns. If so, then this bluff can be called in rolling out the initiative. Even so, it is infeasible that the movie’s depiction of Kashmiris is designed to endear them any to their KP brethren. In fact it makes returns problematic, deliberately scratching at scabs to place reconciliation out of reach.

The second – terrorists – comprise two entities: local homegrown militants and foreign –Pakistani - terrorists. The statistics on incidents reveal that for the past three years local militant deaths outstrip those of foreign terrorists. Alongside, infiltration levels are acknowledged - by no less than the Army chief - as negligible. Thus, foreign terrorists present are at best residual and are being wrapped up by and by. Pakistan is internally beset currently, besides has not quite stabilized Afghanistan in the way it might have hoped on the departure of the Americans. For now, the Pakistanis and Indians are in the same boat that fortuitously sailed by with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Thus, the threat perception – though flogged out of force of habit and to buttress vested interests – is benign. It has been further defused by the two sides, India and Pakistan, reportedly maintaining back-channel links. That the Line of Control ceasefire remains robust and Pakistan passed up an opportunity to embarrass India over the recent non-event of the misfired missile, indicates that the back-channel is effectual. It has given India the reassurance to transfer elements of a strike corps facing Pakistan, and of Rashtriya Rifles formations in J&K, to Ladakh for enabling its mirror-deployment there against China. 

As for the local militants, the statistics reveal their short life-spans. When their bodies are picked up after brief firefights in which they do little damage to security forces, very little hardware is recovered. This further proves that Pakistan has been behaving itself of late. Earlier Pakistan did so to see the backs of the Americans from Kabul in face of Indian persuasion of their strategic partners, the Americans, stay on. Now, Pakistan continues the policy of disengagement from Kashmir, in part to stabilize its northern front and placate India to do well by Kashmiris.

Consequently, militancy has little to do with Pakistan, but much to do with what locals perceive as India’s suppressive template. Managing the aftermath of the Article 370 required tens of thousands of additional central police deployed. Besides, the pressure mounted by Operation All Out and its successor operations - that since Burhan Wani’s death account for some 1000 militants – generate backlash. This is the outcome of disenfranchisement and humiliation felt by youth, and not quite result as the info-war spin emanating from Badami Bagh has it: that youth are being motivated by influencers colourfully phrased as ‘white collar terrorists’. Collective trauma cannot but find expression in such pushback to actions of a suppressive State.

In Bhagwat’s imagination, the speedy return of KPs in such a milieu may be through appropriate upping of the security template. The democratic veneer will allow for harsh measures. The central police forces are already in place. That militants are able to mount sporadic militant actions, such as grenade throwing and selective killings as of off-duty policemen, suggests that a return to original habitations within the Kashmiri populace may not be possible. The targeted killings last year of Kashmiri Pandits can be taken as messaging on this count.

Even if threat of murders keeps KPs from their original habitations, there is a second model of return: to separate colonies constructed for the purpose. Those that have been constructed have proven that this is a failed experiment. Some who returned to stay over were unable to access work places and sustenance last year after the targeted KP killings.

This brings to fore the third option: that of a separate enclave for KPs within the Valley. This is the Israeli model of settlement. Now that land purchase has been thrown open to non-Kashmiris from the mainland – apparently 24 purchases have already been made under the scheme – this policy can be upped with more land usurped in protectable enclaves. KP numbers would require boosting since KPs are unlikely to want to return to a conflict zone. Only those in refugee colonies may chance it; not so those who have resettled placidly elsewhere. The Sainik colonies rumoured can potentially populate these enclaves. It borrows a page from the Pakistani book wherein Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Northern Areas have been subject to an invasion of settlers, including recipients of government largesse for services rendered in the military. The West Bank model can then be expanded at will by the elected government in place. This will put paid to any Article 371 dreams.

Thus, Bhagwat’s feelings and wishes can yet see light of day. As to whether this is helpful to KPs is another matter. What is certain is that the only manner in which KPs could have returned much earlier and could yet return is not on the cards. When even the liberal oriented Manmohan Singh government, carrying forward the legacy of the Vajpayee government, on both the internal and external fronts, did not succeed over its two terms, it is impossible to visualize the Narendra Modi government changing its spots. Modi has already taken the first steps in this direction by using the Ukraine War to suitably distance himself from the Americans, whose anticipated criticism of forthcoming initiatives can be suitable ignored.

Peace studies literature and successful practice elsewhere has practicable ideas on how to bring about returns. These can be adapted to conditions in Kashmir. Kashmir itself has the spiritual and moral resources that can be deployed in effecting reconciliation as prelude to a return with dignity for KPs. Transitional Justice and Conflict Transformation are two subject areas that have ample scope for application in Kashmir. The reopening of the case against Bitta Karate is precursor. However, this cannot be one-sided. It would require landmark cases of human rights violation on part of the State to also be probed. Reconciliation through mutual truth telling, catharsis from forgiveness, reparations, compensation etc need being operationalised.

This would require appropriate change in security arrangements. The removal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North East is a model for J&K. The security indices south of the Pir Panjal are stark. Sporadic incidents such as last year of a set of terrorists getting lucky and accounting for 10 members of security forces is a threat, but a manageable one in terms of putting protocols in place for army aid to civil authority. However the center of gravity is in the Valley. Here the visually oppressive presence of security forces will have to be removed. The under-supervised central police and the over-empowered special operations group of the police would have to be suitably tempered.

Portents of the latter are not in sight, seen in the resignation of the former policeman who headed the notorious force from his billet as adviser to governor for contesting in the upcoming elections. If the ideas is to install him in power, given his pro-ruling party affinities and being from the Jammu region, this puts paid to both the political outreach necessary and the supportive security rejigging recommended.

Clearly, if the boosting of box office prospects of The Kashmir Files by powers-that-be is any indicator, all that alone can see KPs reinstalled in the Valley with dignity is not quite on the cards. Earliest, it will have to await the national elections of 2024, when and if Modi is dethroned. Till then, the regime will play the KPs along, for their electoral worth, using them also as another stick to beat Kashmiris and India’s Muslims with.

Notably, the movie is not so much about the past in its Kashmir bashing, but is to condition the audience to the forthcoming depredations on both Kashmiris and Muslims. The Kashmiris will be subject to Bhagwat’s unarticulated model of return of KPs, while Muslims elsewhere in India are put on notice of a like fate as KPs for yet-to-unfold, Covid-interrupted initiatives as National Register of Citizen’s and National Population Register. It’s going to be a rough ride till 2024 in which KPs must reckon with Kashmiris and India’s Muslims as fellow, beleaguered travelers.