Known in the past as the land of sapphires and saffron, Kishtwar today is a metaphor for the larger collapse of the idea of Jammu and Kashmir. Once, the state’s greatest strength was its rich cultural, linguistic, religious and geographical diversity. Today, as most of these identities have morphed into shrill, polarised and communally charged monsters, the real danger to J&K is from within. Unless the nation acts today, the state is sure to implode tomorrow. For, much of what we are witnessing is a consequence of the warped and short-sighted policies of the Centre and the state.
Kishtwar, contrary to the instant commentaries that have appeared in the press, was not always a communal cauldron. I went there first as a child, only a few months old, in 1962, and stayed on till 1964. My father was posted as a divisional forest officer and as a young married couple, some of my parents’ best memories are from their time in Kishtwar: picnics in the great meadow, the chowgan, driving along the mighty Chenab and the warmth and simplicity of the Kishtwari people. Every year, they went on horseback for the two-day yatra of Sri Sarthal Deviji, 30 kilometres from Kishtwar, and all the logistics — from the horses and the tents to the food — were arranged by the Kishtwari Muslims.
Unlike the adjoining (the more developed and literate) Bhaderwah, there was virtually no communal tension, and as the sun set, everyone would rush home, lest the mythical dayans (witches with twisted feet) of the town preyed on them. There was harmony, a gentle togetherness and a resilience that prevailed until militancy overwhelmed the state in the 1990s. Indeed, in the 1960s, Kishtwar’s greatest singer and poet, Ghulam Nabi Doolwal (Jaanbaaz) wrote what was his most popular song: “Maanun tse peyee, sahib chhu kunuyee, yaa yetti maanun yaa taetti maanun (Accept you must that the lord is the same, whether you accept it here or you accept it there).”
What we are witnessing across the state today is the ugliest form of regional and sub-regional chauvinism and sectarianism. And this is being articulated through what the Italian anthropologist Simone Mestroni describes as an assertion of “masculinity”, which seems to define the culture of protests in the state. The masked men of Kishtwar, the arsonists of Jammu and the stone pelters of the Valley are the angry young men of a lost generation.
Is there a way forward? Yes, if there is an-all party national consensus on the following minimum agenda.
First, recognise that a J&K fragmented by sharp, conflicting identities is not in anyone’s interest. There is a misperceived and dangerous idea, floating as a doctrine within the Indian establishment, that the less united the people, the easier it will be to manage them. This policy of divide and rule led to the partition of the country, and has accelerated demands for a trifurcation of the state.
Second, admit that there are deeply alienated young men across the state whose anger needs to be addressed through multiple initiatives. Jason Burke recently wrote in The Guardian of the possible emergence of a militancy led by educated young men in the Valley, and this anger is by no means restricted to Kashmir.
Third, do not reward chauvinism. Chauvinism is contagious, as we saw during the Amarnath land row controversy, and appeasement of chauvinists is a short-sighted policy fraught with dangerous consequences.
To give you a personal, anecdotal example. In 2010, Kapil Sibal, then HRD minister, asked me to be the first vice chancellor of the Central University of Jammu. I was reluctant to go in the first place, but as the news spread, there were protests in Jammu on the grounds that I was Kashmiri and pro-Kashmiri, despite having served as vice chancellor of the University of Jammu for six years. While I had no intention of going, I was still personally advised by the political leadership in the country to turn down the offer, as it could lead to instability in the state. Subsequently, a retired IAS officer from Jammu was appointed. If the republic of India is ready to compromise even on the appointment of a vice chancellor, will this not give a fillip to regional chauvinism?
Fourth, restore faith in the process of dialogue. Few people have any faith left in the dialogue after being repeatedly let down, and especially after the report of the three interlocutors was given short shrift by the home ministry. It will take time, effort and a national consensus before the people of the state regain trust in the intentions of New Delhi, but the investment is well worth it.
Finally, make the state government accountable. The impression being created is that the coalition government has been given a carte blanche; this is deeply counter-productive in a state like J&K.
In 2005, the prime minister made one of his finest speeches. He said: “Jammu and Kashmir is the finest expression of the idea of India. Diversity of faith, culture, geography and language has traditionally never been a source of conflict. In fact, the people of this state celebrated diversity and lived in harmony for most of the time. We now need to revive those bonds and that spirit of accommodation and mutual respect, even while we sit down, in good faith, to resolve many of our genuine differences. My vision, I have stated many times before, is to build a Naya Jammu and Kashmir which is symbolised by peace, prosperity and people’s power. As I have often said, real empowerment is not about slogans. Only when every man, woman and child, from Ladakh to Lakhanpur and from Kargil to Kathua through Kashmir, feels secure, in every sense of the word, can we truly say that people have been empowered.”
There is still time, even in the final months of his government, for Manmohan Singh to redeem that pledge, even if partially.
I returned to Kishtwar only in 2003, as vice chancellor of the University of Jammu, and the town had bounced back to harmony and relative prosperity due to the ongoing Dulhasti hydel project. I went for the Urs of the patron saint of the region, Hazrat Shah Asraruddin Baghdadi, and praying for peace in the state, I tied a thread at his shrine. I am looking forward to the day I can go back to untie that thread. (Indian Express)