Can Kashmiris emulate farmers' agitation for restoration of special status?

By Bharat Bhushan. Dated: 2/26/2021 1:01:56 PM

“The Kashmiri protests may also find it harder to attract support across India while the farmers' movement has managed to do. Since 1989, the 'Kashmiri-as-terrorist' propaganda of successive governments in Delhi has been deeply ingrained in the public imagination. Most Indian citizens were not moved when Kashmiri children were blinded by the pellet…”

Former chief minister and Peoples' Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti has said that the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) may have to follow the example of the ongoing farmers' agitation to restore the state's special status. So far the government's heavy-handed measures have left no political space for such an agitation. But perhaps election to the local bodies and District Development Councils, as well as the restoration of 4G internet services, have emboldened Kashmiri leaders.
However, a non-violent movement for the restoration of the special status of J&K would be complicated by divisions on the issue itself. Those with separatist and pro-Pakistan sentiments will see it as compromising on 'self-determination' and independence. Further, Jammu and Ladakh may have quite different concerns.
The Kashmiri protests may also find it harder to attract support across India while the farmers' movement has managed to do. Since 1989, the 'Kashmiri-as-terrorist' propaganda of successive governments in Delhi has been deeply ingrained in the public imagination. Most Indian citizens were not moved when Kashmiri children were blinded by the pellet guns used by security forces. Nor have they reacted to barbaric preventive detention laws such as the Public Safety Act, the frequent disappearance of Kashmiri youngsters, the unmarked graves of mysterious dead bodies that dot the Valley's landscape, or the suspension of fundamental freedoms for prolonged periods of time in the Kashmir Valley.
Such a movement would also have to contend with the erosion of the broad consensus among the Indian political class for accommodating the history and local practices of different states and culturally diverse communities within them. The advent of the Modi government and its pursuit of a unitary state has undermined the long-held political mantra of "unity in diversity" as politically illiterate goons and rogue politicians embark on the disastrous road to a majoritarian Hindu India. Anyone resisting the idea of a unitary state is dubbed 'anti-national'. Peaceful protests in Kashmir will therefore have to go the extra mile to emphasise that the movement is not against the unity and integrity of India.
Accusations of being anti-national have failed to stick to the farmers because they have protested with the tricolour by their side. Only for a brief period did these charges acquire limited currency, because of the events on January 26 at the Red Fort. Otherwise, the attempts to brand them as Khalistanis, anti-national or Pakistan-sponsored have failed. How will Kashmiris be able to convince the Indian public that they do not subscribe to terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and are not anti-India?
As long as there is a demand for 'independence' or accession to Pakistan based on a Muslim identity, the rest of India is unlikely to be sympathetic. On the other hand, a demand for greater autonomy, restoration of statehood and full political and economic rights will stand a far better chance of gathering public sympathy.
This is why Delhi became nervous when this demand crystallised with the formation of Peoples Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) for restoration of the special status of J&K. It tried to criminalise the Alliance by calling it the 'Gupkar Gang'. However, the Alliance's performance in the DDC elections has become the first public verdict against the Modi government's Kashmir policy. Even today the manner in which the powers that be are trying to manipulate the people's mandate to prevent the PAGD parties from controlling the DDCs suggests that Delhi is unable to countenance the verdict. The PAGD parties now need to think of ways of pushing their demand for the restoration of autonomy effectively and democratically.
While their peaceful protests may only get limited domestic support, any such move will definitely attract international attention. The Modi government is more sensitive to international opinion in any case, more acutely on the Kashmir issue than on any other. That is why it repeatedly described the farmers' agitation as an internal affair of India when international celebrities extended support to it. On the other hand, it has eagerly organised Potemkin visits for international diplomats and European MPs to J&K.
Farmers and their supporters during their ongoing agitation against the farm reform laws, at the Ghazipur border in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)
Such sponsored and curated visits of foreign envoys to J&K were earlier organised in January and February 2020 and October 2019. The latest visit of foreign diplomats, on February 17 and 18 this year, has taken place in qualitatively different circumstances – after the inauguration of the new US President Joe Biden and his first foreign policy speech on February 4 giving a call to America's international allies to defend democracy and push back authoritarian advances. The US State Department, in response to The Wall Street Journal coverage of the Indian farmers' agitation, had also emphasised that America believed "unhindered access to information, including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and hallmark of a thriving democracy". Perhaps this statement prodded the changes that led to improved internet connectivity for the average Kashmiri.
Could it be entirely coincidental that a day after President Biden's foreign policy speech (February 5) and four days before a scheduled telephone conversation between President Biden and Prime Minister Modi on February 9, Delhi decided to restore 4G internet services in J&K? According to the US readout of President Biden's conversation with PM Modi, he also "underscored his desire to defend democratic institutions and norms around the world and noted that a shared commitment to democratic values is the bedrock for the US-India relationship". The onus was clearly on India to demonstrate its credentials.
While support for militancy or an armed struggle can only undermine support for the Kashmiri people and allow Delhi to club it with 'Islamic terrorism', peaceful protests by them will have exactly the opposite effect. The international community will have to morally and diplomatically support them. Under President Biden's administration, who knows there might even be encouragement for India to open a dialogue with Pakistan without which Kashmir would not find long-term peace. But for this, it is the inhabitants of J&K who will have to demonstrate a desire for achieving autonomy peacefully. (Business Standard)
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