Across the aisle: That sinking feeling — 1 by P Chidambaram

Srinagar: Girl students pelt stones at security personnel during clashes in the vicinity of Lal Chowk in Srinagar on Monday. Colleges re-opened in Kashmir after a week’s closure but fresh clashes erupted as students staged protests against alleged high-handedness by security forces at Pulwama Degree College recently. PTI Photo by S Irfan (PTI4_24_2017_000148B)

Once in a few years, there arrives a moment when the whole nation appears to share the same mood — of celebration or anger or despair. Such a moment may have arrived in India in 2017.

You will find ample evidence of what I am saying in centre-page articles, columns, interviews, social media and even in some editorials. The narrative that seems to emerge from various strands of conversations and comments is that ‘the Centre cannot hold’ and the India that we had imagined in 2014 ‘is falling apart’. There is, of course, a determined push to sell a counter-narrative, as was done in September 2016 (surgical strike) and November 2016 (demonetisation), but the attempted counter-narrative seems rather weak against the facts.

Numbers don’t lie

Let me begin with the indisputable facts.

There is a rise in violence, be it terrorist incidents in Jammu & Kashmir or attacks by Maoists in Naxal-affected areas. The numbers of the killings tell the story:

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Maoists regaining ground?

The picture is dismal in Naxal-affected areas and the deterioration is visible. The epicentre is Chhattisgarh, where a BJP government under Mr Raman Singh has been in office for 14 years. Mr Raman Singh has perfected the art of hiding his government’s total ineptitude, and deflecting criticism to the Central government. It has also not helped that the NDA government has reversed major policy initiatives taken by the UPA government. The Backward Regions Grant Fund was scrapped. The Integrated Action Plan (IAP) that had placed funds in the hands of each collector to meet the felt needs of the people (and had won universal praise) was abruptly withdrawn. The MGNREGA was underfunded. The Forest Dwellers Rights Act was diluted. The cumulative effect of these thoughtless actions was that the district administrations had nothing at their disposal to counter the charges of the Maoists of neglect and exploitation by a ‘capitalist’ system.

Maoists thrive when there is support from the local population. The local people can be weaned away from the influence of Maoists only if the State is seen to be recognising the rights of the people, especially the tribal people, and addressing their grievances and needs. Since the State seems to have withdrawn from actively engaging with the people — and the only arm of the State that is visible is the security forces — the Maoists seem to have regained their influence and the capacity to strike.

Losing or lost the valley

The most rapid deterioration in the security situation has occurred in the Kashmir Valley. It is clearly a throwback to 2010. Mr A S Dulat has said that the situation is worse than what it was in 1990 (when a BJP-supported government was in office). He is right, the numbers do not lie. The security forces are killing more terrorists but they are also losing more of their own, and neither the success nor the sacrifice is bringing normalcy to the Kashmir Valley.

What has changed for the worse is the nature of the protest and the composition of the protesters. Never before have young girls indulged in stone-pelting, never before have mothers said that they cannot restrain their children, never before have there been such widespread protests without a visible leader, and never before have people wedged themselves between the security forces and suspected terrorists during a gunbattle. These are ominous portents.

To peddle the counter-narrative, the drum-beating has started, aided and abetted by sections of the media that want a spectacular blow-up either in the Kashmir Valley or in Pakistan. It is, once again, nationalism vs liberalism, unity vs azaadi, ostracism vs engagement, and bullets vs talks — none of which is relevant to restoring normalcy or finding a solution. Thanks to the binary rhetoric, both normalcy and solution have become more distant and unattainable.

Heed independent voices

I am a voice of the Opposition. I know such voices are brushed aside, but there are other voices. Listen to Mr M K Narayanan, a former national security adviser: ‘Peace cannot be enforced by authoritarian means or by fiat’ and ‘What is most crucial is to make an open and impassioned appeal for peace in the Valley accompanied by meetings and consultations at several levels’. Listen to Mr A S Dulat, a former director of R&AW: ‘There is a sense of hopelessness. They aren’t afraid to die. Villagers, students and even girls are coming out on the streets. This has never happened in the past’ and ‘Kashmiris are disappointed to see that nothing happened after (Mr) Modi took over. Where has (Mr) Vajpayee’s insaniyat ka daira gone?’

Now, please read my columns on Jammu & Kashmir that appeared between April and September 2016. That was the period when the government was losing control. Then, I wrote on April 16, 2017, when my private view was that the government had lost control.

Two subjects — Maoism and Kashmir — have consumed the space for this column and seem enough to explain that sinking feeling. There is more.

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