By Sagarika Ghose
On the face of it, there can’t be two more different personalities than former PM Manmohan Singh and PM Modi. The former is the self-effacing soft spoken technocrat, the latter a popular, swaggering, muscular nationalist. Yet in Kashmir, India’s most complex conflict zone, there are lessons that muscular nationalists can learn from the softer more nuanced approach. A careful examination of the Manmohan years shows how the softer touch is always more successful in Kashmir than a hard-fisted ideological offensive, focused on zero tolerance of stone pelters and well-publicized surgical strikes.
It must be recalled here that just two months after the surgical strikes there was a terror strike on the army base at Nagrota. In the last five years there’s been a 94% increase in number of security forces killed and a 177% increase in terrorist incidents. State violence inevitably normalizes and legitimizes extreme violence in society. Overwhelming use of force by the government tends to erode the boundaries between law and crime, thus normalizing violence in society, inevitably paving the way for the next step in unrestrained violence, namely terrorism.
Manmohan Singh’s approach to Kashmir was to soften India-Pakistan borders by opening cross-border trade and implementing the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service in 2005, a landmark move which has stood the test of time. By working closely with first Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and then Omar Abdullah, Singh ensured the political process in J&K didn’t flag. By sending a team of interlocutors headed by former editor Dileep Padgaonkar to Kashmir, Singh signaled New Delhi’s doors were open for all Kashmiris.
Yes the Amarnath land dispute spiraled out of control leading to the fall of the PDP-Congress government, but by supporting and co-operating with the subsequent Omar Abdullah government in 2009, Singh signaled his backing to Kashmir’s political process. The bloody count of terrorist killings was relatively low between 2010-2013 (471) before spiking upwards from 2014 onwards. (580 between 2015-2018).
Contrast this with the Modi-led BJP government’s volatile, inconsistent, combative and needlessly aggressive handling of Kashmir. After taking the historic step of aligning with Mufti Sayeed’s PDP, a move that could have created an unforeseen alliance between Muslim Kashmir and Hindu Jammu, the initiative ran aground after the Mufti Sayeed’s death with the BJP showing no appetite to forge policy consensus with Mehbooba Mufti. Even in Mufti Sayeed lifetime, there had been perceived humiliations on the J&K government such as the inadequate disbursal of flood relief.
On July 8 2016 with the ‘encounter killing’ of Hizbul terrorist Burhan Wani, as a mass uprising flared across the Valley, the Hindu rashtra mentality came to the fore, the barrel of New Delhi’s gun turned towards the Kashmiri people, Hindutva cries of scrapping Article 370 and 35A took hold of the narrative. Already cattle trade bans had created widespread resentment with the murder of a truck driver in Udhampur, and with its political capital quickly exhausted, New Delhi’s face turned implacably hostile towards J&K. Mob lynchings and attacks on Muslims in the rest of India always has a traumatic impact on J&K and only widens the divide; tensions exploded with the Kathua rape and murder of 2018 when a near unbridgeable abyss opened up between Jammu and Valley. Mufti Sayeed’s dream of Hindu-Muslim unity in J&K lay torn apart and buried.
In stances towards Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi are quite different too. Singh, although born in Pakistan, shunned dewy eyed nostalgia or the politics of spectacle, refusing a state visit, or the high profile summit, instead keeping up a consistent dialogue at the official level and through the back channel and encouraging civil society contacts. Modi’s Pakistan policy has veered from a high profile Saarc meet at his swearing in, to pointedly ignoring Sharif at an international summit, then a surprise birthday visit to Nawaz Sharif’s home and high visibility handholding to abruptly snapping official level talks after a routine Hurriyat visit to Delhi to the surgical strikes, followed by a lauding of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor at a rally in Punjab. Consistent? Not really.
The elephant in the room in New Delhi’s relationship with Kashmir and Pakistan, is, let’s face it, the way Indian regimes treat India’s Muslims. My starting the Sachar Committee process, declaring that Muslims must have the first right to India’s welfare measures, Singh, himself from a minority community, sent out an inclusive message.
High voltage Hindutva ideology did not let Modi make a similar gesture and by not doing enough to rein in the Hindutva hotheads, the signal given that a fervent Hindu Rashtra now sat in New Delhi. And an ideologically surcharged Hindu Rashtra can never hope to make peace in Kashmir, only a secular inclusive India, true to the Constitution of 1947, can win over J&K.
Its not just Manmohan Singh, another Sikh politician provides lessons too. After Pulwama, Punjab CM, the soldier-politician Amarinder Singh made a tough yet empathetic speech, delivering a firm message to murderers but reaching out to Kashmiri people. Amarinder Singh had the gravitas not to give in to the jhappiyan pappiyan of the Kartarpur Sahib moment, remaining distant and yet committed to peace. And that’s the biggest lesson that PM Modi can learn from the two Sikh leaders: slow, realistic, dignified incremental steps rather than loud muscular nationalism or showy sentimentalism with Pakistan, is the way forward for India in Kashmir.