Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Election over, there’s work to be done

The successful conclusion of the elections to the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly is being widely and rightly hailed as a victory of democracy. The large turnout of voters — even in the Kashmir valley (despite the boycott call given by separatist organisations),  the transparent and largely peaceful conduct of the polls, and the extraordinarily large number of candidates, make the elections one of the most inclusive and credible in the history of Jammu and Kashmir.  
That Kashmiris who took to the streets a few months ago in a mass intifada-like uprising should turn out in even larger numbers to vote in the state election may be seen by cynics as evidence of Kashmiri fickleness. This would be a mistake. We are witnessing a new transformative politics in Kashmir: the “ordinary” Kashmiri is seizing every opportunity to achieve peaceful change, from the politics of the street to the politics of the ballot.   
It would be a mistake to view the elections as signalling a return to “business-as-usual” in the politics of the state. The triumph of democracy should not be a moment of triumphalism. In fact, by acting in a statesmanlike fashion now, New Delhi will demonstrate a willingness to reward participation in the democratic process and not be seen as capitulating to extra-constitutional pressure.  This unique opportunity must not be missed.  
How should New Delhi respond to this new politics of peaceful positivism? Neither development nor reconciliation can be magically decreed.  But much can be done unilaterally and immediately to respond to the deep yearning of the people of the state for security in all its dimensions:  that is, freedom from fear in the physical, political, economic and cultural spheres. The following is a tentative five-point charter: 
First, and immediately, to take advantage of the improved situation on the ground, the government must strike a better balance between the rights of the people and the need to deal with militancy. The release of political detainees must be a top priority. A general amnesty would be a powerful gesture symbolising the new spirit of reconciliation. It is also time now to consider seriously returning the armed forces to their pre-1989 position, ensuring — in letter and spirit — zero-tolerance for human rights violations and repealing many of the laws that have given the security forces a virtual carte blanche in the valley. The Jammu and Kashmir police needs to be now given full responsibility for maintenance of law and order even while it needs to be further modernised.   
Second, and most critically, there is need to respond credibly to the legitimate aspirations for autonomy, self rule and regional balance. There are initiatives that the government of India can take unilaterally to signal seriousness of intent, including on issues such as the jurisdiction of Article 356 relating to emergency powers and mode of appointment of the governor.  To deal with the more far-reaching changes, the government should revamp the working group set up to examine centre-state relations chaired by Justice Sagheer Ahmed which has so far failed to submit a meaningful report.  Within a fixed time frame, this group should invite inputs from all stakeholders, including the separatists, examine all proposals for devolution, and make clear recommendations.  To dispel the notion that this would be “one more commission”, the government should state in advance its willingness to accept and implement the recommendations of this group, including those that seek to address the legitimate grievances of Jammu and Ladakh.  
Third, measures must be taken to give more concrete expression to the PM’s vision of “making international borders irrelevant”.   Sustainable economic development of the state will not come from more external economic sops, which only weaken the relationship between the people and their government:  accountability is the flip-side of taxation.  Far more meaningful would be measures that alleviate the economic isolation of the state.  The state should be able to benefit more fully from conventional economic opportunities by facilitating regional trade, as well as greater regional cooperation on water, electricity and tourism.  
Fourth, and more forward looking, would be to give the youth of Jammu and Kashmir a greater stake in the country’s booming knowledge economy. J&K has witnessed, in recent years, a massive expansion of educational infrastructure from the school to the university level. Much of this expansion, however, has not been directed to the needs of the market, leading to high levels of uneducated unemployment.   New public-private partnerships, with the involvement of companies such as Infosys, Wipro and NIIT, are needed to exploit the state’s potential comparative advantage in exporting skilled services.  Public-private partnerships are also needed to enhance international connectivity by extending broad-band access in the state — with stronger incentives provided through the existing universal access funds for telecommunications.  Given the geography of the state, and its growing endowments of skills, electronic exports of services may play a more significant role in its beneficial economic integration than the export of apples and handicrafts. 
Finally, given the regional (and religious) polarisation in the state, it is essential to establish a commission for reconciliation that will recommend measures to revive the traditional spirit of harmony within the valley, between Muslims and Pandits; and between Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh.  The commission would also work with civil society actors and other stake holders to help re-build the interdependent relationship that has traditionally existed at the inter and intra-regional level between different communities and groups. The commission would also be asked to ensure that every cultural identity in the state finds space and strength, and that the return of Kashmiri Pandits can soon become a reality. 
The PM has stated and demonstrated, repeatedly, that he considers achieving peace and stability in Jammu and Kashmir to be one of the most important tasks before his government. It would be a major legacy of this government if it could lay the foundation for a “new” Jammu and Kashmir before the next general election.
 (Source: The Indian Express, 31/12/08)

Friday, December 12, 2008


Curfewed Night By Basharat PeerRandom House
Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night is an extraordinary book of a Kashmir in extraordinary times. And Peer has, with this one book, established himself as one of the most talented voices from Kashmir. A Kashmiri, Peer went to school in the valley, then to Aligarh Muslim University, and finally to Columbia University in the City of New York. Through the years outside the valley, Peer travels back to Kashmir even as he reports for a variety of publications. Curfewed Night is, in essence, the story of the valley of the Nineties as only a Kashmiri could tell it. It is the prose equivalent of the lyrical masterpiece,Country without a Post Office, by the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali. As Ali once wrote: “The city from which no news can come/ is now so visible in its curfewed night/ that the worst is precise.// From Zero Bridge/ a shadow chased by searchlight is running/ away to find its body.// On the edge of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,/ it shrinks almost into nothing, is nothing,/ by Interrogation gates,/ so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:// Drippings from a suspended burning tyre/ are falling on the back of a prisoner/ the naked boy screaming,/ ‘I know nothing.’”
It is this sentiment that is echoed by Peer in the many stories woven together inCurfewed Night. The book works at multiple levels, and it is this mix of reportage, political analysis and personal memoir that makes it refreshingly different from other contemporary writings on Kashmir. It will, however, invite predictable controversy for the overarching political subtext (to deliberately mix metaphors). But Curfewed Night is also sure to win acclaim for the definitive “insider’s” glimpse into today’s Kashmir.
As a teenager growing up in the Kashmir of the Nineties, Peer was a witness to arguably the most troubling period in the valley’s modern history. Anecdotal and autobiographical, Curfewed Night brilliantly captures the troubled times as, I repeat, only a Kashmiri would do. The idealistic, romantic surge for aazadi of the early Nineties finds a glimpse in the following evocative passage: “The protest gathered momentum. Voices that were reluctant and low in the beginning became firm and loud… New chants were created and improvised. A young man raised an arm towards a group of women watching the procession from a communal tap and shouted, ‘Our mothers demand!’ The crowd responded: ‘Aazadi!’
“He repeated: ‘Our sisters demand!’ The crowd: ‘Aazadi!’ A rush of adrenaline shot through me and I marched ahead of my friends and joined the leaders of the procession. Somebody, who was carrying his young son on his shoulder, shouted: ‘Our children demand!’ ‘Aazadi’ resonated through the village… Throughout the winter, almost every Kashmiri man was a Farhaad, ready to dig a stream of milk from the mountains for a rendezvous with his Shireen: freedom!”
Curfewed Night is also a powerful evocation of stories and anecdotes about real individuals, groups and places that are part of everyday Kashmir. The “pro-government” militant, Kuka Parray, Parveena Ahangar of the Association of the Parents of the Disappeared, the prominent separatist leaders, militant groups and the scores of others that make and mar the political and social landscape of Kashmir.
Take Papa-2, an erstwhile guest house of Maharajah Hari Singh on the Zabarwan hills overlooking the Dal Lake. Papa-2 was a dreaded BSF interrogation centre for most of the first years of the Nineties: “The worst part was the psychological torture. They would make us say Jai Hind every morning and evening. They beat you if you refused… They took you out to the lawns outside the building. You were asked to remove all your clothes, even your underwear. They tied you to a long wooden ladder and placed it near a ditch filled with kerosene oil and red chilli powder. They raised the ladder like a seesaw and pushed your head into the ditch… At times, they would not undress you but tie you to the ladder. You almost felt relieved until they tied your pants near the ankles and put mice inside.”
In 1996, the then chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, Cambridge-educated and brilliant, called priests of all religions to pray there and exorcise what might have been the ‘ghosts’ of the people killed there during interrogation. And, thereafter, promptly occupied Papa-2. Today, Papa-2 is Fairview Guest House, one of the most well appointed residences in Kashmir. Such a metamorphosis could only take place in Kashmir.
In Peer’s many journeys to Kashmir, “two words had remained omnipresent: whether it was a feast or a funeral, a visit to a destroyed shrine or a redeemed torture chamber, a story about a stranger or about my own life, a poem or a painting, two words always made their presence felt: militants and soldiers. They had shadowed every life I wrote about including my own. Yet they remained ghost-like presences.”
By an extraordinary coincidence, a day after reading Curfewed Night, I spoke to Peer’s father, a senior civil servant. I told him that I had read the book. His response was predictably bureaucratic: “He has tried to balance everything.” I had to almost shout: “It is not balanced, it is brilliant.” And yes, Curfewed Night succeeds because it does not pretend to be objective or balanced.

(Source: The Telegraph, 12/12/08)