With Parliament now in session, domestic affairs are once more in the forefront of public attention. The Prime Minister’s energetic progress through diverse lands, which included a pioneering visit to Israel, had crowded out the normal day-today activity of the Government, including diplomatic dealings, but as matters change and old problems revive, some of the harsher realities to be faced by the country have once more risen to the surface.
Abroad, the PM vigorously rallied international opinion against all forms of terrorism, to measurable good effect, but shortly after his return the terrorists struck hard in an effort to disrupt the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir.
This was not the first such attack, for the large numbers of annual pilgrims who come from the plains are vulnerable to terror attacks, but despite the risks they have refused to be deterred. Though protection for the pilgrims has become ever tighter, given the numbers involved and the difficulties of the terrain to be patrolled, it can never be absolute. The terrorists, ever lurking for an opportunity, have struck whenever they had the chance and they did so again this time, taking a terrible toll of human lives.
For decades, such terror strikes have been mounted with the purpose of dividing communities and fomenting strife between them. Support from across the border is a key factor. This is India’s biggest security challenge, deliberately aimed at damaging the basic structure of the country and its secular and inclusive character. Over the years, as armed bigots have continued their outrages against peace and order, the people of Kashmir have maintained their composure and tolerant disposition, notwithstanding the crescendo of violence to which their land has been subjected. At the same time, new generations of boys and girls have been schooled in disaffection and their activities like stone-pelting have proliferated.
This could have encouraged the instigators and led them to believe that an attack at Amarnath would be divisive and lead to a cascade of further incidents. But the reality was entirely different. The people of the Valley came out in indignant repudiation of what had been done in their land. Far from joining in, they showed their rejection of the violence and divisiveness inflicted in their name, in order to affirm their own distinctive values and way of life.
‘Not In My Name’ is a rallying call that has gained currency as a response to sectarian extremists who, unchecked, have hunted down their quarry in different parts of the country; the concerted response from Kashmir similarly dissociates that part of the country from the sectarian sentiments of the perpetrators of the Amarnath attack.
No less striking, and with important practical consequences, is the chorus of sympathy towards Kashmir from all sides, including senior leaders of the Government. In the midst of outbreaks of trouble when terrorists are active and have to be confronted, Kashmiri sentiment can be overlooked as the security apparatus grapples with the immediate task before them.
No end to this task is presently in sight but some significant shifts in sentiment need to be noted. After the recent attack the pain and distress of Kashmir have been recognised with greater emphasis, and also the fortitude of its people. The country’s top leadership has made a big effort to reach out to the Kashmiri people, in terms that address the tribulations of the people, and the message they have communicated goes beyond the familiar reiteration of the need to restore security and law-and-order as an essential prelude to further remedial activity.
In this, there could be the hint of a shift that can be the precursor to a more comprehensive and constructive way of meeting the current challenge.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has been especially forthright on the subject and her views merit serious consideration. As she put it, the recent events in J&K have brought all communities closer in promoting their shared interests and beliefs.
Their newly affirmed readiness to work together has strengthened the State Assembly by making it a genuine forum for debate and decision. In these improved circumstances, the Chief Minister sees the opportunity for revival of dialogue to address the dangers within the State, and has called for resumption of talks between contending parties.
This is a bold step, for the country’s ruling party, the BJP, Ms Mufti’s coalition partner, has not yet taken any initiative in this direction, and channels for dialogue, where they exist, have been starved of attention. Indeed the notion of entering into dialogue with adversaries does not fit comfortably with the stern official policy towards contrary opinion to be seen in Kashmir and elsewhere. In pressing her point, the Chief Minister has observed that readiness to talk should not be regarded as some sort of appeasement.
Mufti has also not shied away from calling for resumption of Indo-Pak dialogue that has been languishing for the last few years. She observed that PM Modi had made more than one effort to open lines of communication with Pakistan and lamented the lack of response from the other side. Nevertheless, she seems to be of the view that this is a good time to revive the process, and many may share her judgment though few have been so articulate in expressing it.
The Chief Minister’s observations throw into relief some of the abiding considerations that affect the Indo-Pak relationship. Over the years, there have been many ups and downs, much strife and conflict, but the shared ways of life and deeply embedded social values they have in common remain.
There is thus a very special flavour to their interaction when it occurs: only recently PM Modi met his Pakistani counterpart at a multilateral meeting, and though there was nothing much at stake, the fact that they met and shook hands was the only talking point in their respective countries.
Such gestures remind us that, however infrequent the occurrence, there is no curbing the expectation of better things when representatives of the two countries do meet.
Maybe the events of the last few weeks can now nudge the two countries into starting to talk again. There is a large agreed agenda of issues that need to be discussed, and though the dialogue has stuttered, bold leadership can give new momentum and take matters forward again.
All the evidence indicates that efforts to improve relations and build a structure of peace with the neighbour enjoy public support and sympathy.
The call given by the Chief Minister, which is in the spirit of the present state of relations, can encourage the two countries to make a fresh effort.
(The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary)