Friday, 13 August 2010

Sonia Gandhi scripts Kashmir policy (PO)

M D Nalapat

Far and away the most powerful person in India, Congress President and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi wields the most power within the Manmohan Singh government, and in any conflict of views between her and the PM, it is the latter who usually gives way, because of Gandhi’s total control over the legislative and organisational machinery of the Congress Party. With a preference for meeting important visitors in the book-lined study of her government-provided home at 10 Janpath in New Delhi, the “CP” is invariably gracious and warm to her V VIP guests, though she always makes her own preferences known, and expects that they will be carried out. In the matter of policy towards Kashmir, the CP’s lead advisor is regarded as being Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah,a close friend of the Peoples Democratic Party heiress Mehbooba Mufti. Very different from his father, a distinguished officer in the Indian army known for his leftist views and strong sense of secular nationalism, the suave Wajahat believes that the Government of India should walk an extra thousand miles in order to satisfy the aspiration of the Sunnis in the Kashmir Valley for “Azaadi”. He regards it as part of Indian diversity that a regime get established in Kashmir that would bring into its governance structure several of the elements of Sharia law, and where the Sunnis of the Valley would put in place policy that gives them the central place in the entire state, despite the presence within it of a majority of Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Shias, Gujjars and others.

Given the close proximity of CEC Habibullah to Gandhi, it is no surprise that this is the very policy that the Congress Prime Minister is seeking to pursue in Kashmir. Three days ago, Manmohan Singh went on national television to deliver a speech that even mentioned the word “azaadi”, although he had to suffix it with the remark that any solution had to be within the confines of the Constitution of India. It was the last remark that led to the numerous pro-Pakistan elements within the Kashmir polity rubbishing the PM’s offer, and demanding nothing less than a Kosovo-style independence from Delhi. Indeed, several within the Valley believe that it is only a matter of time before NATO forces - together with troops from the OIC countries - land in Kashmir and give them the freedom they so passionately seek. While such expectations had sharply subsided during the period when the BJP-led government was in power, the “Habibullah Line” on Kashmir that is being pursued since 2004 has led once again to a steep rise in the number of those who believe that if there is enough mayhem on the streets, international intervention will follow. Chance remarks by foreign diplomats - who seem drawn to Kashmir the way ants swarm towards honey - have only fed such expectations, thereby resulting in the present massive show of Street Power by tens of thousands of Valley Sunnis.

However, while the PM has been made to look irrelevant because of the negative reaction to his remarks from not just the pro-Pakistan elements but the BJP (who would like to see an end to the present policy of preventing citizens from the rest of India from settling down in Kashmir, and would like to see international action by India to call attention to that third of the state that remained in the control of Pakistan when Jawaharlal Nehru took the advice of Governor-General Louis Mountbatten and agreed to a cease-fire in the dying days of 1948). Barring a few individuals with close personal ties to Washington, the overwhelming majority within the Indian security establishment are opposed to the Habibullah Line on Kashmir, which they say breeds the illusion that Kashmir can become the next Kosovio, when in fact, the geopolitical situation is entirely different. India is not Serbia, a small country that was the target of NATO because of the hatred towards it of those faithful (since the 1940s) allies of Germany, the Croats. While the US and the UK forgot the immense sacrifices made by the Serbs during the 1939-45 war, the Germans did not forget the loyalty of the Croats, and this they repaid by ensuring their severance from the Serbs soon after the USSR collapsed. This columnist has visited Germany on several occasions, and can testify that they are a people slow to befriend others, but very reliable once they do, unlike some others who are superficially very friendly but inwardly insincere, especially during hard times. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a mystery about the dog that did not bark. Over the past two months, almost every day the streets of Srinagar have been choked with protestors demanding “azaadi” from India. The youthful chief minister of the state, Omar Abdullah, owes his position to his close friendship with the Congress Party’s Heir Apparent, Rahul Gandhi. Both of them are well known to each other, and it is this friendship that has ensured for Omar Abdullah the complete backing of the Manmohan Singh government, despite his numerous errors of policy. Since the son of former chief minister Farooq Abdullah pipped his father to the post a couple of years ago, there has been no change in the fact that Kashmir is one of the most corrupt states in the Indian Union. Every month, huge amounts of cash released from Delhi get swallowed up by officials and politicians, who have lifestyles that would be the envy of millionaires in the US. Each time a Kashmiri “leader” speaks of the “suffering” of the people, he or she does so from the plush opulence of their homes, with multiple limousines in the garage and every comfort that cash can deliver. While the state is a long way from “azaadi’, those speaking in the name of the Valley Sunnis have certainly gained azaadi from wanr,for the next few dozen generations of their families. Some within the security establishment would like to release lists of the properties owned by Kashmiri politicians and officials, but as such exposure would go against the Habibullah Line of working in tandem with this group, such a course has never been pursued.

To return to the “dog that did not bark”, it is noteworthy that unlike in the 1990s,when President Bill Clinton ensured that his administration rode roughshod over the then governments in India in seeking concessions for pro-Pakistan elements in Kashmir, this time around there has been silence at the eruption in the streets of the Valley. Aware that public opinion in India is hostile to the Habibullah Line, and that most voters are angry at the fact that each time there is trouble in Kashmir, this gets rewarded by bigger and bigger dollops of taxpayer money, the Manmohan Singh team has been prevented by political realities from wholesale adoption of Habibullah’s prescriptions, the effect of which would be to make Kashmir a self-governing entity with the most tenous of links with the rest of India. It needs to be kept in mind that the only group within Kashmir that is clamouring for azaadi are the Sunnis of the Valley. The Hindus in Jammu,the Buddhists in Leh, the Shias and the Gujjars all across the state, are each clear that Kashmir should remain within the Indian Union. However, the fact is that Kashmir has never had a chief minister who is not a Valley Sunni. This group, because of its superior financial and organisational muscle, and the close links that it has with two significant regional players (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) has always dominated the discourse over Kashmir, and the administration of the state.

Kashmiris expected British PM David Cameron to speak about azaadi when he came to India,but he disappointed them by talking instead of Pakistan. Now they have determined to continue the present agitation till Barack Obama comes calling in November. Because of the sympathy for their cause within the Obama administration (both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Representative Susan Rice lean towards the Pakistan view on Kashmir),those behind the large-scale protests in the Valley believe that President Obama will “force India to surrender Kashmir”, in the words of one of them to this columnist. It is very unlikely that Obama, who is coming to repair the loss in goodwill that has been caused by his protectionist measures and his reluctance to give India the same status in technology cooperation regimes as countries such as France and the UK, will damage relations still further by harping on Kashmir. Even an individual as tone-deaf to India as Barack Obama must have understood that the mood in the whole of India is very different from that of the Sunnis of the Valley. And when it is a question of a million or a billion, it is clear as to the choice. The US needs India to help craft a global architecture that can retain the primacy of the West, and serve as a market for US manufactures. These are days of economic hardship, where every billion dollars counts, and India can be relied on for more than $100 billion of investment and sales in a good year.That is too much for a President of the US to risk losing as he looks towards his re-election.

So it seems that the streets of Srinagar will continue to get blocked by tens of thousands of protestors. And, prodded by Hillary Clinton and others sympathetic to their cause, a few international news channels will give events in Kashmir coverage, although not to the extent of Al Jazeera, which makes no secret of its tilt towards those seeking freedom from India. The rest will have to wait till the Valley can generate greater financial rewards to the international community than India can. In today’s world, it is money that talks, and India has a lot to offer, much more than in the 1990s,the last time Kashmir went on the boil.

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