WHISTLING IN THE DARK: The new groupthink in Kashmir is misconceived

Three weeks after the Americans had elected him as their next President, Barack Obama met a group of reporters and shared his thoughts on pitfalls of decision-making. In the course of that interaction, he made this point: “One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything, and there is no discussion and there are no dissenting views.” There is no American monopoly on groupthink. It is a universal weakness. Historians can tell us of numerous instances of grave mistakes and gross misjudgments that resulted from groupthink. We in India seem to be on the verge of a new groupthink of our own on Kashmir.

In this new thinking it is understood and unquestioningly accepted by all that the woolly-headedness of the past decades must be rolled back, and that it must be replaced by a new muscular approach to men and matters in Kashmir. This new mood is perhaps part of a larger rethink.

The other day we got a glimpse of the new theology from a senior military functionary, Air Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Indian Air Force. The good Air Marshal was reported to have decried that India had allowed PoK to become “a thorn in our flesh” because the post-Independence leadership allowed itself to be governed by high ideals, rather than following “a very pragmatic approach” to security needs. In the new official wisdom, which the Air Chief unwittingly voiced, there are no strategic or other advantages in taking “a high moral ground.”

In this emerging new groupthink, the ‘separatist’ has been coddled up for too long; he must now be made to feel the rough end of the Indian truncheon. A kind of easy acceptance is being sought for this tough stance, invoking strands of nationalism, patriotism and a kind of anti-Pakistanism. Tactical cleverness is being mistaken for strategic clarity and wisdom.

It is being authoritatively whispered in our ears that the separatist leaders, especially those who are associated with the Hurriyat, will no longer be allowed to enjoy the protection of the Indian security forces. Enough is enough. This kind of no-nonsense assertiveness goes down very well with the middle classes back in the ‘mainland’.

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Assuming – and this is a very crucial assumption – that we were ‘protecting’ Syed Ali Shah Geelani, we were presumably keeping him away from coming to harm at the hands of Pakistani agents and contract-killers. Somewhere, sometime there must have been a judgement – and, a mature and considered judgement at that -that it was probably worth providing protection to the Hurriyat leaders; otherwise, they would be easily eliminated and replaced by more radical, more intractable rabble-rousers. Perhaps we have concluded that we have lost control over the Hurriyat leaders, and that we are prepared to have a known devil displaced by an unknown devil.

The only flaw in this seductive groupthink is that the Hurriyat leaders by themselves do not add up to anything; what makes them toxic is their capacity to summon mobs on the streets and to have people of the Valley respond to their calls for hartal.

But a self-assured democracy should be able to ask whether by locking them up or by denying them permission to visit Delhi or Saudi Arabia, are we able to wean the crowds away from the difficult Hurriyat-wallahs?  And, while we are at it, we might as well ask ourselves why it is that suddenly the Hurriyat leaders seem to have acquired a greater traction than, say, two years ago. It is inexplicable that we deny the authenticity of the democratic energy we have witnessed on the streets in the Valley; it is inexcusable that we attribute authorship of the anger to Pakistan.

The Pakistani meddlesomeness is older than the Shankaracharya Hills. But our new rulers in New Delhi seem to be confused. It will be naive to think that just because our Prime Minister allows himself to go and attend a wedding in Nawaz Sharif’s family, the Pakistani military establishment would surrender its assets and advantages in Kashmir. Just as it was a criminal neglect on the part of our intelligence establishment not to be prepared for an explosion after “Commander” Wani’s death in an encounter. Our policy, army, political and intelligence leadership cannot go on making errors of commission and omission and then blame Pakistan for taking advantage of our mistakes.

The separatists were not born separatist. What drove very many Kashmiris over to the other side were our policies, postures and pretensions, and “our” politicians and their arrogance and aberrations. But then from time to time our democracy, too, has produced that magical illusion to induce the alienated and angry Kashmiris to come back to this side. After the Kargil War it was evident to every Kashmiri – as it was to every Pakistani – that Islamabad would never be able militarily to come to help them with the “struggle”. The so-called “struggle” project was over. All that remained was to enlarge the circle of participation and partnership between the Kashmiris and the Indian democracy, and its enormous capacity for accommodation and adjustment. We seem to have forgotten that an Indian Prime Minister had proclaimed and promised that “short of azadi, sky is the limit.”

The only redeeming feature of the new groupthink on Kashmir is that the Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti, seems to be a very, very reluctant recruit. She is the only leader who appears to have the courage to contest and challenge the separatists and their arguments. Hers is perhaps the most demanding, most exacting as also the most dangerous job in India. She can, and does, question the Hurriyat’s pretensions precisely because she derives her legitimacy from a democratic mandate. Her efficacy critically hinges on her ability to showcase herself as the voice of the Kashmiris, rather than as New Delhi’s chosen nominee in Srinagar. And, if people in New Delhi and Nagpur cannot appreciate this delicate but absolutely necessary requirement, then we are in for serious trouble.

Perhaps just to humor the high priests of the new groupthink, the Chief Minister did allow herself to suggest that if anyone can “solve” the Kashmir problem, it is Narendra Modi. We had heard the same tired mantra during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s days, as if Kashmir is the personal jagir of this or that Prime Minister.

The new groupthink notwithstanding, there is an old contradiction at work: an “imperial” Delhi has the constitutional obligation of the Centre to control, and coerce, if necessary, a recalcitrant periphery; but the “democratic” India flashes its moral badge and flaunts its openness and inclusiveness to blunt the separatist and his secessionist message. Kashmir will continue to test the relative effectiveness of the “imperial” Delhi and the “democratic” India.


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