“Put Autonomy on the Table”

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The government’s eight-point initiative on Kashmir is not enough. The idea of autonomy is finding resonance even at the extremes of the Indian political spectrum.

The government’s latest eight-point initiative to address the unrest in Kashmir valley is a good beginning, even if it is belated and inadequate. From what I gathered during my visit to the Valley as part of the Parliamentary delegation, I feel the Government must take some concrete steps on the question of granting autonomy to the state. 

This is because the eight-point initiative, even while fulfilling some of the demands put forth by Kashmiris during our visit, does not meet the most crucial desire for autonomy. The Government must not delay spelling out the nature of this autonomy, which may then be debated.

There has been a melting of the ice, especially after the Parliamentary delegation met separatists—apart from reaching out to various sections of Kashmiris—at their homes to send the message that we would like to talk to all. This initiative must be taken forward and supplemented with proper government action. The people of Kashmir have to be convinced that everything they want can be achieved within the framework of the Indian Constitution. 

The situation in Kashmir is very grave, far worse than I had expected. People in the rest of India generally fail to understand the depth of the crisis there. We were apprehensive at first because separatists and those who owe their allegiance [to forces] across the border were boycotting us. All of Srinagar was under curfew. We feared that people might just not come to meet us; we didn’t find people on the streets either. 

There was a general belief that those who’d come to talk to us would speak in the manner separatists do. But to my great surprise, a large number of people came out, and, in most cases did not appear to have been tutored. Some of them said they had been asked not to meet us but had still come, braving all obstacles. It shows that people still have hope, and considered this an opportunity to make us aware of their condition.

Except a few, everyone complained against the high-handedness of the security forces. They said security forces fired at locals at random. Otherwise, how could a boy of nine or a person of 85 be killed?

I remember a highly educated lady, a college professor who had come there as part of a delegation of intellectuals, saying, “I cannot believe what is happening in Kashmir. This is the fourth generation of Kashmiris facing such violence.” A doctor asked, “What was the crime of the nine-year-old boy?”

The general complaint was that no organ of the State, except the security forces, was functional in Kashmir. Education had come to a halt, supplies of essential goods and services had been disrupted, people had been forced to stay in, and there had been rampant human rights violations.

I do not find it appropriate to use the language they were using to ventilate their anger. Imagine people coming out despite the Hurriyat’s boycott call, and then speaking the same language. They did not heed the Hurriyat’s boycott call, and yet, barring the issue of Azadi, they spoke the same language. Many people who deposed before us demanded autonomy. They said a resolution had been passed by the state Assembly to this effect, but nobody had cared to look into it. They also said the terms of the agreement signed at the time of the state’s accession had not been met.

On the second day, while we spoke to hospital patients, I heard slogans of “azadi, azadi…” They said, “We want Azadi. If you want to fire on us, go ahead and fire. We want independence—from both India and Pakistan.” I said, “We have come to talk to you.” One of them cried out: “Why so late? Why after 110 people have been killed?” Even women were raising the slogan of Azadi. They wanted to know why the pelting of stones should find retaliation in the shooting of bullets. One of them asked, “When two or three people are killed by security forces in other parts of the country, you immediately hold an enquiry. Why didn’t you respond that way in Kashmir? Why did you remain so indifferent, as if Kashmir is not part of India?” Another person said, “When a man dies in police firing anywhere else, compensation is announced immediately, why didn’t it happen in Kashmir?”

I sensed deep alienation, anguish and protest in the hearts of the people we spoke to. We met separatists too. They gave us the list of people who had died. JKLF leader Yasin Malik asked what good it was to talk so late in the day. On one side, the government was killing Kashmiris, on the other, they had put leaders under house arrest. He raised many questions and said the problem of Kashmir was an international dispute, a solution to which could be found only through discussions among three countries—India, Pakistan and Kashmir.

Personally, I do not think—and this was confirmed by our visit—that only separatists can decide the fate of Kashmir. People have been judging for themselves. There are divisions. But all of them are severely hurt. That injury must be healed.

The eight-point initiative is a positive sign. But the Government must spell out more. It must promise the people of Kashmir that it is ready to discuss autonomy because this is their most important demand. Also, the Government must immediately look into human rights violations in the state. One thing they pointed out repeatedly was that there was no accountability and anybody could do anything in the name of fighting violence.

If the people of Kashmir are demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, why can’t the Government do it? Withdrawal does not mean repealing the Act altogether. If the situation worsens, the Act can be re-imposed at any point.

— As told to Dhirendra K Jha