The long spell of political violence in the Kashmir Valley has finally receded at least for the Year as locals brace up to face a long and cold winter. Yet one question increasingly being asked not just in the Valley but across India is what is the definition of, ‘Azadi,’ or freedom for which many young lives were lost. Is it autonomy as a nation, freedom for the people, lack of restrictions, overcoming clutches of violence, freedom from the gun and grenade of the terrorist and presence of the Khaki? This debate comes even as there is increasing engagement by the Indian national mainstream and not just the government interlocutors but also a group of liberal political leaders and opinion makers who visited the Valley.
A few freedoms seem to have come with removal of bunkers and restrictions on movement, schools are likely to remain open in the winters and launching of branded, “Noon Chai,” the traditional Kashmir tea. But much is required to be done in removing restrictions which will come about gradually.
There were also many encouraging developments in political understanding of the situation. The Union government acknowledged that there was no major external role in stone pelting incidents in the Valley. Accepting this harsh reality was important and it is good that this was faced head on rather than sidetracking the issue and blaming outside agencies. It is evident that some introspection has taken place and political measures to neutralize the spread of alienation are being taken by political parties and agencies within the Valley and in New Delhi.
The Home Minister Mr P Chidambaram also differentiated between terrorist atrocities and political violence in Kashmir. With Kashmir in transition from a violent militancy to political militancy there is likely to be both terrorism as well as civil agitation. Therefore it would be important to ensure that both are simultaneously tackled with vigour. This would guarantee that each type of incident is dealt with on a case to case basis and not as a stereotype.
A fine grained approach is important if the violence is to be separated and then brought down slowly to political agitation on the streets and in the assembly and the parliament and so on. Thus a step by step approach would have to be progressively adopted in Kashmir and this would be the road ahead.
The ordinary Kashmiri no doubt wants Azadi from the cycle of violence. With three phases of agitations over the past years on the Amarnath issue, the Shopian accident believed by the locals as a rape and murder and stone pelting emanating from the death of a teen age youth in police firing which ultimately led to many deaths in the Valley now tapering of, there is a sentiment in the Valley whether all the agitations were any worth and if gains have been made. Is he free from another phase? We will have to wait and watch.
For the political battle between the separatists and the nationalists in Kashmir is likely to continue in the days ahead as both sides have enough ideological ammunition and also are able to induce people to sustain the struggle. There is also a sense of frustration in the people that the political elites may be dragging the conflict for their own gains and they have been held hostage by them. But unless a ground swell of opinion can be built to stop this victimization, there would be no Azadi from the vice of elite politics in the Valley.
Then there is the issue of Pakistan’s support to separatist hard liners and terrorist groups alike. In the last few days voices from Pakistan for a solution to Kashmir issue have been rising and it is apparent that there may be some back channel diplomacy ongoing. The Indian and the Pakistani foreign minister are likely to meet in the first half of the New Year possibly in the first quarter itself. While a break through agreement may not be in the offing but there may be some operational measures on travel or trade that may come about and also some political statements providing a possible road map which may be evident. This should create a positive atmosphere but until there is greater public debate selling any agreement on both sides would be difficult. More over how much the Kashmiri leadership has been brought into the picture remains to be seen for they would not like to be left out of any political negotiations. Participation in the process in some ways is another form of Azadi.
Undoubtedly in the cry for, “Azadi,” there are many freedoms which have perhaps complicated an understanding of what the people want and how to deliver it to them. Perhaps the series of freedoms that have been set into motion will provide some answers in the days ahead.