The visit of a team of European Union legislators to Jammu and Kashmir was predictably met with much sound and fury, as happens with any decision that is taken in these turbulent times, especially in that troubled state. It becomes all the more so when that state had been continuously in the news in the past three months with it losing its special status and with that it’s special identity.
The visit, arranged in a surprise move, had caught everyone napping, and only when the team’s reception by the Prime Minister was telecast did the public become aware that such a move has been in the offing. The opposition was, understandably, furious that while their legislators were prevented from visiting the state and even their leaders kept in protective custody this team of European legislators were, out of the blue, provided a red carpet reception. They arrived in a deserted and heavily patrolled Srinagar.
And, predictably, the visiting team supported the Centre’s move on Article 370 and took objection to the team being described as ultra rightists and even Nazis. This was a response to an MP from Hyderabad, Asaduddin Owaisi, who had commented that the Centre had sent a team of Nazi supporters to Kashmir. ‘We are not Nazi lovers. If we were we would not have been elected and we are very angry at being called Nazi lovers.’
Addressing the media after their trip one team member said terrorism was a problem for Europe also and they would stand united to fight against terrorism along with India. They also clarified they were in India not for political interference and their mission was one of fact finding. As for Article 370, they said it was an internal issue of the country and they do not plan to submit any report to the European Union about their visit.
The team of 30 comprised of far-right deputies from Poland, France, Germany and Britain met Modi and this triggered criticism that this was an attempt to blunt criticism over Delhi’s actions in that state, especially the abrogation of the special status and bifurcation into union territories. Even in the initial stages there were rumblings with one member of the Centrist Liberal Democratic party of Britain saying that they withdrew the invitation to him when he insisted on talking to the people in the state without any police escort. So it was not all smooth sailing to start with. ‘I am not prepared to take part, this a PR stunt and pretend that all is well,’ said the MP, Chris Davis. The UN High Commission for Human Rights had also expressed ‘extreme concern’ over the situation in the state had urged ‘the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied.’ It also said that amid allegations of torture and reports of civilians being killed, major political decisions have been taken without ‘participation of the affected population.’ It also qualified this by saying that it had received reports of armed groups threatening residents.
While the European MPs advocated peace between India and Pakistan and initiating the process of a dialogue to resolve contentious issues, they also said they regretted they were unable to meet a large number of people in the Valley. But even a short visit was better than no visit, said one MP laconically.
Criticism of the visit came from most opposition parties, and Owaisi’s was only one extreme form. The Congress termed it a ‘national embarrassment’ and the National Conference described it as a ‘public relations’ stunt. Priyanka Gandhi found this kind of nationalism strange where European MPs were welcomed while MPs from India were turned back at Srinagar airport itself. Anand Sharma called it an ‘ill-advised PR exercise sponsoring individuals with questionable credentials.’ The NC also called the selection of MPs of a particular ideology as clearly a ‘PR exercise’. This was ironic when the state’s own leaders, including three former chief ministers, have been incarcerated for nearly three months and hundreds of others have been put in jail across the state. The former UP chief minister, Mayawati, said the Government should have allowed opposition MPs first before despatching the EU team. If it was a diplomatic initiative, by some groups in Britain and elsewhere, to counter Pakistan’s relentless campaign against the atrocities being perpetrated against the people there, this did not seem to have achieved the desired result. Pakistan had been charging India for what it calls the violation of the human rights of the people there and inviting the EU team to ‘see things for themselves’ also did not seem to have the intended effect though the delegation did talk to some people and sought their opinion on the issue. Ahead of the visit, the team was briefed by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval about the genesis of terrorism originating from across the border and the need to revoke Article 370 and the prevailing situation in the Valley. Without naming any country Modi also said there was urgent need to rally against all those who support or sponsor terrorism and the use of terrorism as a state policy.
There has been a systematic attempt to disrupt normal life in the Valley despite all the efforts by the government to bring about normalcy and revive economic activities and reopen educational institutions that had been closed for months. Modi also hoped the visit would expose them to the diversity and of the multi-cultural and multi-religious texture of Kashmiri society. Just like the fabled Kashmiri carpet, this society has also been delicately hand-woven from the threads of diverse and subtle shades, all the influxes of religious and cultural crafts people, foot loose saints and bards.
The visit also coincided with the attacks on trucks carrying fruits from the state and migrant labourers coming from as far as Murshidabad in West Bengal and their killing by terrorists to disrupt the peace efforts. These could not have happened without the backing from sources from across the border.
Every time a genuine peace effort has been attempted such disruptions have happened and this had taken place when Atal Behari Vajpayee made a visit to the state and spoke of Kashmiriyat and when Manmohan Singh set up an interlocutor group to assess the situation in the Valley and the grievances of the people in general. But every time these efforts had not been taken to their limits or were abandoned midway in the face of the spoiler tactics the terrorists. They have a vested interest in keeping the fires burning and it is these forces that had to be handled with force, tact and subtlety.
Extraneous factors always seem to play and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and their sudden withdrawal in 1991 had its impact on Kashmir. The Mujahedeen that Pakistan had trained and sent to Kabul had to be diverted and that was how the incidents in Kashmir happened in that fateful year that led to the exodus of the minority Pundit community. Earlier, US President Clinton’s visit to India coincided with the massacre at Chittisgingpura.
What probably triggered the sudden decision to abolish the special status for the state, in the midst of the Amarnath pilgrimage this time was probably the US decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and its effect on Pakistan’s Taliban fighting there. These fighters too would, like the Mujahidden, be then diverted to another soft spot. These are conjectures and the visit of the UE team might have also been seen a step to counter that move. In the chess game that is being played in that beautiful and ethereal state, it seems a travesty that cynical manoeuvres and power politics are being tried out.
Some four decades back when a gnarled tree on the banks of the Chenab suddenly blossomed, a boatman who used to operate on the banks exclaimed that in his 70 years of life time he had never seen that tree in blossom. It so transpired that a girls’ school was then set up in the vicinity and the girls used to go across the river and play around that tree and it seemed that the tree suddenly burst into bloom, which reminds one of Sita in the epic whose touch made the Ashoka tree bloom. Myth or fairy tale such things are not beyond the realm of possibility even in these rational and cynical times and even the hardened people must have some soft spot that only need to be touched. The interlocutors who interacted with the local people and studied their problems with some amount of sympathy had come to the conclusion the past 70 years had been a tragic collusion between the aspirations for democracy and the grim realities of insurgency for a state that had emerged out of centuries of imperial rule to become a pawn in the new power politics. From 1947 onwards it had been caught in the Indo-Pakistan conflict though most parts of the state did improve economically. Roads were built and health care was available to all and trade flourished. The natural resources were shared with India and Pakistan as it was before independence. But all these were spoiled by conflicts that broke out every decade or two. And it would not be untrue to say that that the people of the Valley suffered from the effects of the poisonous politics that the leaders and parties were practising. The Valley suffered the most stifling conditions because it was caught in the violent conflict, and the grass there was the most damaged.
Just before her tragic end Indira Gandhi wanted to visit Kashmir and watch the Chinar during the fall and she did that. The Chinars would still put out their canopy of flowers and the trees along the Chenab bank would suddenly blossom. It is time that even the merchants of hate and violence pause or be seized by fatigue. After all even metals are affected by fatigue.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.