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Towards An Uprising

Towards An Uprising

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: August 8, 2008
URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1080808/jsp/opinion/story_9663131.jsp

Introduction: In the long run, the unrest in Jammu can't be bad for India

A fortnight ago, the very personable Omar Abdullah was being fêted in the drawing rooms of metropolitan India for his brief but passionate speech on the trust vote in the Lok Sabha debate. It is understood that the prime minister had personally requested the Speaker to not guillotine the debate until Omar and Asaduddin Owaisi, the MP for the All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin, had been given an opportunity to speak. The idea was to convey the message that Muslims were with the United Progressive Alliance in endorsing the nuclear agreement and rejecting the 'communal' politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Omar's speech, particularly his robust assurance to Hindus to safeguard the Amarnath yatra at all costs but to simultaneously protect his own land from alienation, worked wonders. The liberal, middle-class Hindu, always uneasy with the god thing, saw in the National Conference leader the culmination of the long search for the Nationalist Muslim who was 'just like us'. The impressionable editorial classes elevated Omar to dizzying heights and his speech was telecast ad nauseam and painted as the best thing since Barak Obama bared his angst.

One man's nectar, or so it is said, is another man's poison. Given the initial media indifference to what is now being billed as the "Hindu Intifada", we shall never know the extent to which Omar's oratory played a role in inflaming passions in Jammu. However, if those who have travelled frequently to Jammu over the past month are to be believed, Omar's defence of the UPA was a significant factor in spurring Hindu opposition to the iniquity of the Jammu and Kashmir government. Along with the mass protests in the Kashmir Valley that led to the marginalization of the Amarnath Yatra Board and the cancellation of the 40-hectare grant to the shrine board, it confirmed the belief that Hindu-dominated Jammu could not hope to get a fair deal from Srinagar until it resorted to Direct Action. The neglect of Jammu, it was clear, was inextricably linked to the dread of separatist blackmail in the Valley.

The perception may, arguably, be flawed and could well be the outcome of political manipulation - the facile explanation for anything that reeks of a sectarian divide. However, it is undeniable that the newly-appointed governor, N.N. Vohra - a veteran player in the never-ending 'Kashmir dialogue' - seemed inclined to believe it was politically prudent to yield to the preposterous suggestion that the transfer of 40 acres would usher in a "demographic transformation" of the Valley. In the minds of the play-safe bureaucracy, it was better to give the separatists and the near-separatist People's Democratic Party of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed a short-term victory than risk another round of unrest in the Valley. The corresponding belief was that Hindu disquiet over being trampled upon yet again would be ephemeral, and not lead to a law-and-order problem. After all, or so it was felt, a community that had meekly stomached the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits from the Valley, would easily reconcile itself to an unfavourable administrative order.

For the past four decades, and particularly since the resumption of separatist violence in 1989, successive governments have taken Ladakh and Jammu for granted. The prolonged agitation in Ladakh in the Nineties against discriminatory treatment and shifting demography was never the subject of agonized seminars and international conferences. Nor for that matter did the expulsion of Pandits from the Valley lead to any soul-searching. On the contrary, this disgraceful violation of the human rights of a religious community was sought to be explained in bizarre conspiracy theories and steadfast denial.

No one, apart from the BJP, made the plight of Kashmiri Hindus an issue. When the BJP did do so, it was, predictably, greeted with the sneering condescension reserved for outlanders. The custodians of India's conscience equated Jammu and Kashmir with the majority community of the Kashmir Valley. Jammu, Ladakh, Hindus and Buddhists were the disconcerting loose ends that had either to be snipped off or put under dust covers. It didn't pay to be unwaveringly nationalist in Jammu and Kashmir - a lesson that was not lost on discerning politicians in the Valley.

The temptation to see the month-long agitation in Jammu as some sort of a cynical BJP and sangh parivar show is overwhelming. Apart from justifying the crackdown, restrictions on the media, and the peremptory ban on text messages, and stoking the subliminal Hindu-phobia of the cosmopolitan classes, it is calculated to put pressure on the BJP leadership to somehow lower the temperature of the movement.

Last week when the prime minister met L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley, he had one compelling request: allow highway traffic to and from the Valley. A prolonged blockade, it was argued, would give separatists the pretext to demand that the Kashmir Valley better consider using the Muzaffarabad route to transport perishable items. As it is, the quasi-separatists in the PDP have been demanding something called "dual sovereignty" which includes open borders and dual currency. Yet, until the BJP representative suggested it at the all-party conference last Wednesday, the government had no plans to engage the leaders of the Sangharsh Samity in any discussion.

A government that believes murderous Naxalites are "misguided" boys has no time for those registering their protest with the national tricolour. Yet, the BJP's role in taking the movement in Jammu to such a pitch has been overstated. Before the movement began, the BJP was not the pre-eminent political party in Jammu; the Congress had a majority of seats in the dissolved assembly. The BJP was no doubt the only national party to highlight the Amarnath yatra issue, but over the weeks, the movement has acquired a momentum of its own. How else is it possible to explain the mass violations of curfew by women and children chanting "Bom Bom Bhole"? To have the resilience to face up to the disruptions of this magnitude calls for phenomenal community solidarity which no political party can ensure.

The unrest in Jammu has ceased to be a movement centred on the organization of the Amarnath yatra and the land lease. It has assumed the character of a nationalist uprising - symbolized by the lavish use of the Indian tricolour in all demonstrations. The movement began as a reaction to the government's capitulation to the separatists, gathered momentum as a larger protest against the perceived discrimination of Jammu by Srinagar and has now evolved into an upsurge for political power.

The agitators may be momentarily pacified if the governor is changed, the Amarnath Yatra Board revived and some extra facilities (short of outright acquisition of the 40 acres by the board) given to pilgrims. However, its long-term impact will be felt during the assembly elections scheduled for October. Having been kept out of the power equations in Srinagar, Jammu will be seeking its place under the sun. This implies that the National Conference will perforce have to come to terms with a party that speaks for Jammu, if it wants to rule from Srinagar again.

In declaring that he would never again commit the "mistake" of allying with the BJP, Omar secured many secular brownie points. But in his grandstanding, he may have triggered a chain of events that could make such an alliance unavoidable in the future.

To some, the upsurge in Jammu looks like dangerous communal brinkmanship. It could, however, also be viewed as the re-assertion of nationalism in a state where it is both fashionable and lucrative to preach secession. In the long run, this can't be bad for India.

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