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Kashmir: A good initiative?

Soutik Biswas | 05:13 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Anti-India protests in Kashmir

"I think it's a good first step," responded a writer friend from Srinagar after the Indian government announced moves to ease the crisis in Kashmir over the weekend.

On paper, none of the planned measures are spectacularly imaginative or pathbreaking: mediators will be appointed to hold a "sustained dialogue" with all sections of Kashmiri society; young men detained for stone pelting in the anti-India protests will be freed; security will be scaled down; and consideration will be given to whether the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act could be withdrawn from some parts of the valley.

Freeing the protestors, many of my friends in the troubled valley say, will have a positive impact. Putting together a group of mediators for a "sustained dialogue" conjures up in India images of never-ending deliberations involving crusty bureaucrats and obdurate politicians. It could also be seen as a sly game at stalling things and tiring the "opposition" out.

Many believe that if meaningful, time-bound fresh negotiations have to begin, bureaucrats and politicians with a lousy track record in the valley should be kept out - one federal minister says the government wants to "talk to anyone who wants to find a solution .. political leaders, social leaders, NGOs, even people with different ideology." Will this really happen?

Scaling down security is a welcome proposition, and will require a bold leap for the authorities. (No Kashmiri will believe it till it begins to happen.) And withdrawing the armed forces law from some areas will be welcomed as a good beginning.

All in all, the initiative looks like a decent bunch of proposals to soothe frayed tempers. It will not be easy to sell it to many Kashmiris, who have looked on hopelessly as over 100 young men and women have lost their lives in the anti-India protests that have rocked the valley in the past three months.

All the more so, because the proposals come on the back of what many have called the "farcical" visit of an all-party delegation of parliamentarians to Srinagar recently. Critics point to the fact that the politicians visited the valley in the middle of a curfew, were isolated in a posh hotel far away from Srinagar, and met only Kashmiris handpicked by the ruling - and largely discredited - National Conference party. Key people were left out. Fortunately, as critic Prem Shankar Jha says, two groups of people refused to follow the script - the media in Srinagar, and some of the parliamentarians themselves who broke away on their own and met and heard some "real Kashmiri voices", including the hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

So will Kashmiris embrace the initiative? The separatists appear to have rejected it, insisting that people seek a political solution, not an administrative one. But a lot of things are rotten with the way Kashmir is run, and an administrative fix is in order. The mediators could begin exploring a political solution, unless the 'Kashmir intifada', as many commentators call it, erupts again.

Some Kashmiri friends of mine - and they are a minority in today's surcharged atmosphere - believe that Kashmiris need to get out of what they call is their quixotic and fuzzy romanticism about freedom and independence and get boringly pragmatic. "Let us extract as much autonomy as we can from India and get real about the fact that independence is not a realistic option," they say. Others say the protests will continue till aazadi (freedom) arrives.

But most Kashmiris say they have little faith in feckless federal initiatives and their own isolated, incompetent politicians whom they describe as "puppets" of India. The initiative appears to be a good first step to reach out to people. But will the struggling Congress party-led government walk the talk without messing up further?


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