Civilian Protests in J&K: A Part of Protests in Rest of India?

Struggles for democracy and struggles of democracy may be different but are struggles nonetheless.

The civilian protests in the Kashmir region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir have been accompanied by a proliferation of literature on the intra-national dimension of the dispute, especially the issue of Human Rights. If you happen to read the columns by likes of Pankaj Mishra or Basharat Peer it is likely that your sympathies will lie with the people of Kashmir. Many others are of the opinion that the violent protests should stop to allow the Government to discuss the popular grievances. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has agreed that New Delhi is open to discussing the autonomy issue. Amendment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is also under consideration. For the protesters, Prime Minister Singh's assurance is another addition to similar pledges in the past. The Kashmiri youth demand 'aazadi' and refuse to be pacified by piecemeal political and economic packages. The Government fears that accepting the demands of the protesters at this juncture would legitimize violent protests as an instrument of popular pressure.

The case of Jammu and Kashmir is special. Given the disputed nature of territory and the Constitutional provisions of Article 370, J&K cannot be simplistically compared with other Indian states. This difference has masked a very important commonality that J&K shares with other regions of India. Despite the geo-strategic and politically sensitive nature of Kashmiri protests we need to be aware that the grievances against corrupt administration, poor governance and arrogance of state authorities are shared many Indians in varying degrees across the length and breath of the country.

Even though one may sympathize with the people of Kashmir for enduring decades of hardship it is important to segregate issues of state incapacity and highhandedness from the historical demand of autonomy. In a recent televised discussion among Kashmiri youth, the most common complaint was "We don't trust New Delhi." Well, there is hardly anyone in the country who trusts New Delhi. Lack of faith in the national government is not something exclusive for the region of Kashmir. Arrogance and injustice on the part of state authorities is not something solely experienced by the people of J&K. Kashmiris have every right to protest against the AFSPA and the Act is certainly draconian and requires major amendments. But it is equally important to realize that the Indian state (both central and state governments) has resorted to unreasonable use of force against its people on several occasions. In March 2007, a 5000 strong police force killed 17 and injured 71 people protesting against government decision to create a special Economic Zone in Nandigram, West Bengal. In 2006-07, the number of cases of alleged police atrocities and human rights violations in Uttar Pradesh alone was 21,899. In April this year, policemen invaded the home of Satyendra Bihari at Dharhara on the outskirts of Patna and beat up the 35-year-old NRI and his father at 10.30am. Satyendra's offence: his vehicle overtook the one in which an IPS officer was traveling. Yesterday's India news roundup covered a report on how in Mumbai, a drunken policeman was caught on tape beating a tea vendor with a leather belt but has not yet been charged. These examples are in no way intended to minimize the loss and tragedy suffered by the people of Kashmir at the hands of the armed forces. The intention is to point that irresponsible state behavior is not limited just to J&K but spans across the country.

The case of Basharat Bashir, son of an ex-militant in Kashmir, who was initially denied a passport is regretful. But at the same time there are multiple cases where authorities have rejected passports for people across the Indian state on frivolous grounds. India is a country where government officials can also raise questions about the nationality of icons like Vishwanathan Anand. The people of J&K have every right to be upset about the non-deliverance of justice, convicts in fake encounter cases should be tried by the law of the land. But this non-deliverance of justice is not confined to J&K. There are numerous high profile cases where the accused have escaped punishment despite compelling evidence. Again, I am not offering a justification for what is going wrong in J&K, but locating the grievances of the Kashmiri people in the larger context of the inability of Indian state.

Protests against dilution of Article 370 or AFSPA by the people of Kashmir are completely justified. But the impression that they alone struggle against excesses by state authorities is erroneous. People from the lower castes in regions of Bihar and Orissa are exploited by public officials from higher castes on a regular basis. There is no doubt that New Delhi needs to act more sympathetically towards J&K: governance needs to improve, and authentic devolution of power at the village and district level will have to be ensured and presence of the Army needs to be reduced. I have earlier argued for the need to build a Human Terrain System for the State. But for any solution to work the people of Kashmir will have to segregate issues of governance from their larger objective of 'azaadi'. Simply saying that the government does not respond to their 'legitimate' demands cannot be valid basis for demanding 'azaadi'. Inability of the state to govern properly gives the citizens the right to protest but this inability should not always be interpreted as a pre-conceived conspiracy against the aspirations of the Kashmiri people.