The recent attacks on police stations in Kashmir, the death of several policemen, the killing of the local militant, Burhan Wani, and the general turmoil in the Valley have placed Jammu and Kashmir on the boil after nearly a decade. In recent years, the border districts were vulnerable because of the infiltration of Pakistan-sponsored and trained armed mujahideen from across the border. However, it is the homegrown militants who have acted as the main players in recent incidents. This has often been interpreted as a sign of general frustration, particularly amongst the young Kashmiris, over the present state of affairs. The disenchantment has the potential to blow up into a major crisis. Despite the best intentions, we have failed to completely win over the Kashmiri minds for total integration with the rest of the country.  The present generation of young Kashmiris have been brought up facing Indian troops and paramilitary personnel in their daily lives. The unique Kashmiri identity, natural barriers with the rest of the country, a sense of deprivation, real or imagined, rising expectations as a result of education, constant instigation by elements across the border, romance and the lure of militancy and, of late, the attractions of militant Islam have all combined to mould a very complex personality that is the Kashmiri youth today. 

There is hardly any scope for a pan-Indian identity. Arguably, the economic difficulties and the sense of frustration are more and less similar to any part of the country. But what differentiates a Kashmiri young man from millions of his brothers and sisters in orher states is his sense of alienation, his feeling — since childhood — that he lives in a State dominated by the presence of security forces and that unless the Indian forces are moved out real peace and freedom will not be achieved. At another remove, Pakistan with its strict Shariat- dominated social order has greater emotional appeal for him than a secular India. Hence the frequent incidents of clashes between Kashmiri students and their friends from other parts of the country during any India-Pakistan cricket match.

While this may be a simplified manifestation of a very complex socio-religio-political mindset, it is quite obvious that the policy makers in Delhi have never genuinely tried to feel the pulse of the Kashmiri people, their sensibilities, their hopes and aspirations and above all their sense of pride and self-respect. Every agitation and turbulence in the Valley has been promptly branded as the handiwork of militant instigators from across the border or as the conspiracy of pro-Pakistani elements. The indefinite extension of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), imposed in Jammu and Kashmir after the violent agitation in the early 1990s, is a case in point. While some powers to deal with the incursion of armed militants from across the border is justified, there is hardly any need to empower the armed forces with draconian laws first imposed by the British to deal with the Quit India movement of 1942. In a tense atmosphere, it is virtually impossible to prevent stray incidents of excesses and intimidation by army personnel. But even a single incident can lead to the emergence of a hundred Burhan Wanis.

Apart from the consequences the actual need for such special powers for the armed forces is also debatable. The powers of the army to conduct search and seizure operations or effect arrests without warrant or fire at persons who threaten law and order are available to the law-enforcement authorities under the existing laws. It would be irrational to expect the armed forces to exercise such powers without serious consequences for the civilian population. We are not facing an all-out insurgency in Kashmir; the challenges to normalcy and peace must be countenanced by the law-enforcement agencies. Take for example the movement spearheaded by the Maoists in Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhatishgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and the peripheral States. The casualties have included both innocent civilians and the security personnel. But there has been no necessity for the imposition of AFSPA in any of these States and the local police force, sometimes with the help of paramilitary personnel, has been dealing with this problem for quite a while. Some of the States have also raised or trained special armed forces to confront the Maoists, but the army has never been called in.

It may of course be argued that the terrorists from across the border and their local militant supporters like the Hizbul-ul-Mujahideen are far better trained and armed with deadlier weapons than the Maoists. But the solution lies in properly training and equipping the State police rather than depending on the army which is always the last resort. Long-term involvement of the army in dealing with what is basically a serious law and order problem is becoming counterproductive.

It is direly important, therefore, to withdraw AFSPA from J&K perhaps with a little modification. In order to detect and foil dangers of incursions, it may be necessary to give special powers to the army up to a certain distance, say 5 kilometres from the line of control. Gradually it may be prudent to hand over border patrolling to the BSF, leaving the army free to concentrate on surveillance and intelligence gathering and follow-up action with the help of local police. The second role of the army is to help the civil administration in restoring law and order or in times of natural calamities.

Drawing the Kashmiri population, especially the youth, into the national mainstream is a difficult and painstaking process, one that requires considerable patience.  Self-seeking political parties tend to criticise the Government in power as being soft towards terrorists and anti-nationals. Any move towards reconciliation, therefore, is really difficult to implement in terms of a long-term strategy. It has been often argued that economic development should be the main plank of any policy to draw people away from alienation and strife. But recent experience in Western Europe or the USA demonstrates that economic prosperity alone cannot guard against religious or ethnic intolerance. The bond of nationhood, which was once one of the most potent factors in terms of national integration, is losing its appeal in the age of the internet and the revolution in communication technology.

Unfortunately, the heart of India does not attract the present generation of youth. The petty party politics and lack of idealism of our present set of leaders have left the younger generation thoroughly disillusioned. This is reflected in the open defiance of authority and the anti-national slogans raised. The political process calls for cleansing. This is more urgent than taking punitive action against the student leaders. The triumvirate of the three Bollywood Khans are perhaps our greatest insurance against ISIS propaganda. Unfortunately we are yet to see such national idols coming up from within J&K whom the Kashmiri youth can identify as their own. Hence the romantic attractions for social media savvy home-bred militants like Burhan Wani.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a retired Principal Secretary, Govt of West Bengal.