Fifth column: Signs of hope in Kashmir?

Fifth column: Signs of hope in Kashmir?

The Prime Minister has a list of urgent things to do in his first hundred days. I write on Kashmir this week in the hope that he puts it on this list if it is not already there. I was in Srinagar last month after a long absence. And, was happily surprised to find that a deep fatigue has set in with the jihadists who now lead the militancy. The atmosphere reminded me of Punjab in the Nineties, when ordinary Sikhs began to hate the militants for the savage cruelty with which they had taken to killing the families of policemen. It was these acts of senseless brutality that made the Khalistanis lose their safe houses in Punjab’s villages. Something like this is beginning to happen now in the Kashmir Valley.

Since I last came to Srinagar, just before Burhan Wani was killed, there is a new rule that makes stewardesses rush about pulling down window shades as the flight is about to land. But, before they managed to do this I saw that the airport looks from the air like a military encampment. When we left the airport, I noticed that shops on the road that leads to Srinagar have been fenced off by a barrier of thick wire mesh as if to warn visitors that they have entered a war zone. For the rest, Srinagar was as beautiful as ever but desolate because it was almost empty. It was the height of the tourist season, the weather was perfect, but since the Pulwama attack, tourists have stopped coming.

Almost the first person I met was the Governor who, since he dissolved the Legislature, has been in charge of governing the state. I have known Satya Pal Malik since those long-ago days when he was a politician in Delhi, but this was my first meeting with him in more than 20 years. The impression I got from an informal and all too brief chat with him was that he is doing a better job of governing the state than Mehbooba Mufti. I am truly delighted that she lost her own election this time because as an old Kashmir hand I can report that I have rarely seen a more useless chief minister. She was administratively incompetent and politically dishonest and the BJP should not have waited so long to dump her. With her gone, it can be said that now could be a good time to find a lasting solution to our oldest political problem.

Not just because a bad chief minister has gone but because Kashmiris seem really sick of the militancy. When I was last in Srinagar, the city was full of tourists and all seemed well, but Burhan Wani was a folk hero. I found this hard to understand after watching those propaganda videos in which he made clear that he wanted to establish an Islamic state in the Kashmir Valley. But, he was a hero in the eyes of many Kashmiris. And became a legend in death.

This time nobody I met said they saw jihadi terrorists as heroes. Even those who said they hated India added quickly that this did not mean they liked Pakistan any better. The other thing nearly everyone said was that they longed for peace to return so that they could go back to living normal lives and their children could one day find decent jobs. Since it is usually violence that gets into the news, it is easy to forget that other than a handful of angry young Kashmiri men, most people long for peace. Easy to forget that these young men were not alive when the movement for ‘azadi’ began in the Eighties. This makes their reasons for becoming jihadi terrorists even less clear.

Whatever their reasons, their numbers are small. So this is as good a time as any for the Prime Minister to make a serious effort at bringing peace to the Valley. Not only because there is fatigue evident in the militancy but because Pakistan is broke. It also has too many jihadist problems of its own to sustain the Kashmir insurgency. And, there is a new government in Delhi that can start with a clean slate. For the Prime Minister may I humbly offer a small tip. Everyone I talked to spoke of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with a reverence they seem not to have for any other Indian leader. Maybe his recipe of ‘Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat,’ may no longer work. We are dealing with jihadists now and not a movement for ‘azadi’. But he is revered because he is remembered as truthful.

He was ready to talk to anyone about peace but he made it clear that there would never be ‘azadi’. Pakistan knows this and the Kashmiri people know this. So we must hope the Prime Minister can find a new way forward.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh