Amarnath Agitation: The Way Ahead
For two months now, Jammu and Kashmir authorities have been striving to gain control over a mass agitation which has its roots in rank incompetence at political and administrative levels in the State. The transfer and cancellation of land allotted to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board was initially exploited as a political issue by all parties in Jammu and Kashmir as well as some at the national level. Thus the PDP made common cause with communal and separatist parties which represent factions of the All Party Hurriyat Conference and participated in the mass agitation including the march to Muzzafarabad. With State Assembly elections and General Elections due for Parliament all parties found this an opportune time to exploit the situation, which was described by well known analysts and former Punjab Police Chief, Mr K P S Gill as, an extraordinary combination of, “political opportunism, folly and weakness”.
The masses in Jammu who have been feeling discriminated for a long time have drawn up comparison of the difference in the development levels in both the parts of the state and are now demanding their rights. They have used the land transfer issue as an inflection point for their agitation.
There are many seething undercurrents as well. The Amarnath Yatra is attended by thousands of pilgrims each year and has been one of the most popular events of mass movement of people to Kashmir. These are guided through the tour by a bevy of locals from Kashmir almost all of whom are Muslims and take up odd jobs of erecting tents, transporting people on horse back, carrying baggage and so on. This is a major form of livelihood for the local people who also get an opportunity to hire their animals and sell odd wares. A large number of organizations from the plains also set up langars (open kitchens) for the devotees along the route which facilitates movement and provides refreshments at regular intervals free of cost. These elements have powerful stakes in the issue.
The separatists in turn have got a very major cause to fan the dying embers of the movement of secession and separation. Both streams in the separatists got a boost and veteran leaders as Geelani felt vindicated that their stand of seeking secession had proved to be right given the antipathy in the population in Jammu. This sentiment will now be difficult to overcome. As Ajay Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management has brought out, “---- the subversive impulse that has found new momentum in Kashmir will not easily disappear, and separatist elements will continue with intensifying efforts to capitalise on the developments of the past weeks through new alignments and new initiatives”.
Thus at one point and over one issue, regionalism, religious division and separatism have come to the fore in the State which has not just affected the Valley or Jammu but the peripheral areas such as Kishtwar and Poonch. This multiple sentiment of division would need some time and extensive recuperative measures to heal.
So what is the way ahead? Return of state authority is the first choice to be exercised in all earnestness. The State is responsible to ensure security and well being of its citizens including protecting them from the vicious propaganda of divisive elements. These have to be dealt with firmly. Thus a blanket approval for protests and subversive propaganda cannot be allowed to continue in the Valley nor blockade or targeting of vehicles transporting supplies and essential goods in Jammu be permitted. Thus on both sides of the Banihal, law and order has to be restored.
A policy of zero tolerance has to be adopted so that the agitating masses are warned that any further anti social or act of rioting will be dealt with firmly as per the law of the land. It is not difficult to identify the perpetrators given the ubiquity of television cameras and crews.
A clamp down on leadership which is causing violence is also essential and the state cannot tolerate their intransigence any more if they are not respecting public order. Ajay Sahni of the Institute of conflict management has put it bluntly as the need for, “coherent advocacy of the rule of law, the necessity of imposing the writ of the state, or of protecting the lives, properties and freedom of movement of the common people”. Sadly this had no, “meaningful space in the frenetic policy discourse over weeks of crisis” resulting in anarchy. Use of laws under the Public Safety Act and other instruments has to be effectively made.
Effective coordination between the army, the state police and the administration with clearly designated areas of influence and operations is also important to control the violence and break its cycle. At this time, all state instruments would have to be employed to effect rather than awaiting a graduated response.
Logistical support to the Valley is most important with the holy month of Ramzan fast approaching followed by winter, adequate stocking and continuous supply of food and other commodities including medicines has to be maintained. Had the government employed chartered aircraft to fly in medicines, it would have created a major positive impact on the population. But perhaps it was felt that this would have given grist to propaganda of economic blockade, such negativism cannot be allowed to restrain policy which is in human interest.
In as much as the land issue is concerned there are a number of options available. The judicial approach appears to be the best one at present for that would at one remove get politics out of the issue. The interim order by the Divisional Bench of the J&K High Court as far back as May 17, 2005, empowering the Shrine Board to use the land to house pilgrims during the annual Amarnath yatra should form the basis of any solution or negotiation through the courts rather than on the streets. In case the parties want to contest this has to be done through due judicial process. As last reports came in this appears to be the emerging solution.
Postponement of state elections could also be one of the options exercised. A call for the same may make the political parties lose interest in the issue immediately especially with larger states also due for elections, Jammu and Kashmir may be put on the back burner.
A control over those who are manipulating the media and networks such as cable television to advantage for fanning separatist agenda has to be exercised and all those guilty booked under the relevant act, their networks targeted and neutralized. The manner in which the separatists used misinformation is evident by what the former Governor Lt Gen S K Sinha had stated, “Although I had been making all efforts to promote Kashmiriyat, a communal feeling was infused into the masses intentionally that a conspiracy was going on in Kashmir to bring the Hindus back into the Valley, and to bring up a new colony in Baltal called Amarnath Colony”. Given that the inhabitability of the Baltal area is very low not more than three to four months in a year, an Amarnath Colony as per Sinha was an absurd idea but people were carried away by the separatist propaganda. It is control of misinformation which now deserves attention of the state.
While the nationalist forces have to be strengthened and given necessary support, those who have swayed for a short period of time and are willing to come back need to be accommodated with a firm signal of disapproval. Any attempts at secessionist sentiment or anti national pronouncements would have to be dealt with firmly.
The grievances of the people of Jammu have to be addressed with alacrity and measures to provide immediate economic succor, employment opportunities in the state and the private sector to overcome the feeling of marginalization need to be undertaken. Setting up adequate grievance redressal mechanisms across the country to prevent such aspirations lying unaddressed remains another major way to assuage the people, which can result in spontaneous eruption once an issue such as the Amarnath with high emotive content comes about.
Finally across the border there has to be a firm signal that violation of the Line of Control or encouragement to infiltration or public statements by the government supporting the sentiment in Kashmir will not be acceptable. Islamabad appears to have been encouraged by a soft response and has resorted to sporadic offensive posturing through violation of the Cease Fire on the LOC, which may soon spiral out of control resulting in what could well lead to a major confrontation on the LOC in the days ahead. To avoid such a situation the correct message of firmness has to go across.
The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is grave but not irretrievable. With a positive approach of exercising full state authority rather than abandoning it, order can be restored and will be done so in the days ahead. Finally it would be the healing process which will make the ultimate difference this has to be begun on both sides of the Banihal pass now.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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