Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Omar’s Tryst with Kashmir’s Destiny

Let’s see how it’s going to prove for Kashmiris

Yet another era in the politics of Jammu and Kashmir has begun, and begun with the right dose of fanfare, symbolism, and politically correct gestures by both the winning and the losing parties. Omar Abdullah has sent out portents of hope to one and all in the troubled state of Kashmir, á la Obama. The Muftis have promised to be a responsible and constructive opposition in the State Assembly; the dissidents have been mostly silent without knowing what to do and where to go; New Delhi thinks its job in Kashmir is over with the free and fair elections that it conducted; and the people of J&K are waiting, yet again, for the blue-eyed Abdullah scion to make their lives better.

Omar Abdullah is a well-meaning person, as well as being politically mature and unafraid of some administrative experimentation, but he still needs to clarify his vision for J&K’s future. He and his party have not progressed beyond basic ‘campaign utterances’ regarding their plans for the days ahead. Newspaper reports have indicated that the NC is working on a vision document which is likely to be released shortly. Omar should not however, in his youthful enthusiasm to get life back on track in Kashmir, attempt to plan for the state’s future all on his own. Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, of whom he is the torchbearer now, ought not try to appropriate the politically significant task of designing J&K’s path all by themselves. They must entice the major actors from the other side of the political divide, namely the dissident leadership, over into the political mainstream. Now is the ideal time for doing so for a number of significant reasons. 

First of all, dissent in Kashmir is no longer considered to be the politics of the outcast – it is fast becoming the politics of the politically aware. The contours of its symbolism are evolving into a more mature, more vital form of political activity. After all, shouldn’t a space for (constructive) political dissent be provided, and indeed dissent itself be considered sacrosanct, in a vibrant democracy like our own? Secondly, the azadi politics of the Kashmir valley have calmed somewhat and moderate actors there are now more willing to negotiate. It is true that there are extremists among the dissident groups. However, extremist politics are likely to be rendered redundant sooner rather than later if the radicals do not rethink the fundamentals of their political positions and demands. Thirdly, the ball is now firmly in the court of the mainstream actors. They are fresh with a popular mandate and can therefore negotiate with the dissidents from a position of strength. Finally, failing to make political inroads into the ‘enemy’ camp now risks worsening the political discontent in the Valley and will make the future pathway more difficult to tread. Omar should therefore use this historic juncture in the annals of Kashmir’s politics to preach peace to those not ‘converted’. 
The first step in strategizing such a plan of action could be initiating one-on-one ‘low key’ parleys with the more moderate leadership of the dissident movement. Considering the fact that much of their political platform is founded on the genuine aspirations of Kashmiris, the mainstream leadership should engage in an ongoing, yet ‘offbeat’, dialogue with the dissident leadership. Omar, with his youthful and marketable political stances, must take the lead. The second and perhaps the most important step, is to adopt some of the primary demands proposed by the dissident leaders in their own documents and plans. It is acceptable for the ruling party (National Conference) to have its own vision document for the state’s future, but the Chief Minister should not be bound by the party line.

Omar Abdullah can, and therefore should, think beyond partisan politics in terms of the larger issues and problems of the state. With decades of political career ahead of him, he has the time and, almost paradoxically, the youthful ingenuousness that just might be able to bridge the huge political gaps that exist in J&K. Omar has arrived at a time when he could very well save the state from its present state of hopelessness, or at least make some serious inroads. His recent announcement about the need to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a concerted step in the right direction. However, Omar needs to recognize and appreciate the development of the idea of such a Commission; there are others, such as Sajad Lone, who have floated the concept prior to him.  Acknowledgement of the way other actors, from other sections of the political landscape of J&K, have made (and continue to make) valuable contributions to political activity within the state is imperative if the new Chief Minister is to bridge the gaps discussed above.    

What would Omar Abdullah’s comprehensive vision document look like? The document, as previously discussed, should adopt key demands from other actor’s proposals as well as ‘solutions’ suggested by the various mainstream and non-mainstream parties of J&K. It should address four key aspects: psychological, material, political and cross-LoC dynamics. The proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be the first step in addressing the psychological needs of the Kashmiri people. Lone’s Achievable Nationhood has already comprehensively discussed possible strategies for addressing the socio-psychological wounds inflicted on the citizens of J&K.  Material aspects need no elaboration: the people overwhelmingly voted for a government that can cater to their bijli, sadak, paani issues. Omar now needs to force the administration of the second-most corrupt state in the country to help him deliver what he has promised to those voted him into office. 
The political dimension is arguably the most important aspect of all, and the most difficult to negotiate. However, on the positive side, there are some well thought-out blueprints for action on it. A plethora of ideas for creating a set of broad-based political options to resolve the Kashmir issue be drawn from projects such as Lone’s Achievable Nationhood, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s United States of Kashmir, the PDP’s Self Rule Proposal and NC’s own autonomy proposal, to name but a few.  Finally, peace and stability in J&K will be the product of cross-LoC connections. More than ever before the political parties in J&K, as well as the governments in India and Pakistan, are open and positive toward creating cross-LoC links, and better: they are talking about it. Omar should make use of the widespread goodwill that currently exists for this idea and take steps to direct the idea to fruition. 

The year 2008 has been both positive and negative for J&K: the people of the state made it clear to the leadership in Srinagar and New Delhi that they are still unafraid to take the streets when they feel marginalized and ignored. They are similarly unafraid to participate politically and to use what power they have in defiance of the many obstacles that confront them; Kashmiri’s lined up in huge numbers at polling booths to hammer home the message to the dissidents that there is no space for irresponsible politics in their lives. 2009 has dawned with a new leadership, new chances for constructive action, and a new sense of hope in Jammu and Kashmir. One hopes that this encouraging start is a sign that there are only good things to come in the future of the troubled state, and it is now up to Omar Abdullah to lead the way.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, January 23, 2009. URL: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/full_story.asp?Date=21_1_2009&ItemID=21&cat=11 )

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