In this age of bloody bomb attacks on soft targets ranging from wedding parties in Turkey to tourist towns in Thailand, the turmoil in Kashmir is a ticking bomb the Indian government cannot afford to avert its gaze from, even if the international community thinks this is none of its business.
As parts of the valley remain curfew-bound more than a month after the killing of Hizbul Mujahedeen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, reports of severe pellet injuries to eyes and deaths of civilians in clashes with security personnel have been jostling for attention internationally with news from Middle East war zones.
That India has been spared an al-Qaeda or Islamic State-inspired attack so far is hardly a signal that the danger has passed, given the pervasive use of themes of Sunni Muslim suffering and victimhood in transnational terrorist propaganda.
For better or worse, the ferment in Kashmir has provided fresh proof that the desire for self-determination and sense of alienation among the valley’s Muslims greatly outweigh their periodic infatuation with the ballot box.
Under the circumstances, there are broadly two possible scenarios that do not entail moral compromises that could undermine India’s democratic reputation in the eyes of the world:
First, to win the war of ideas by promising the youth of Kashmir a bright future as fellow Indians within the current arrangement of autonomy.
Second, to initiate a civil dialogue in good faith with all the stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute.
The second scenario may seem premature and, as yet, unthinkable to a majority of Indians, who have valid reasons to worry about national security were the strategic region to be granted the freedom to turn potentially into another difficult neighbour.
But the first scenario, for its part, begs the big question as to whether our messy, secular democracy, led at present by an avowedly Hindu nationalist party, can really offer Kashmir’s Muslim population a road-map of hope so that they may be, just may be, persuaded to stay within the union in the theoretical instance of a referendum.
The answer is a heavily qualified yes. But how?
By demonstrating that India is ready to embrace all the values of modernity: respect for civil rights; free speech and regulated markets; sustainable development; equal-opportunity policies; bureaucratic efficiency and accountability; religious tolerance and secularism; civic discipline; and 21st century global social norms. Swift delivery of justice, fair enforcement of law and merit-based hiring policies should ideally complete the picture of India’s transformation.
India must embrace these values not merely to win the hearts and minds of young Kashmiris but all Indians, be they privileged caste or backward caste, young or old, male or transgender, Muslim or Zoroastrian, Malayali or Assamese.
To be sure, this would be a challenge of mind-boggling complexity.
But the stark reality is that every year tens of thousands of passport-holding Indians vote with their feet, performing their own small acts of secession in protest against everything from the dwindling odds of getting a good college education and the coils of red tape binding the government machinery to the unregulated human migration from impoverished villages to overstretched cities.
Experts can marshal as many facts and figures as they want to demonstrate that life is improving for the people of India. Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they remain the same on far too many counts.
More generally speaking, the billions of dollars of foreign investment that have poured into its economy since its liberalisation 25 years ago have failed to convert India into an easy destination to navigate for today’s global citizens, not to speak of international-driving licence holders; families with asthmatic children; beef-eating foreigners; people with disability; indeed anyone seeking just a spot of free public wifi.
There is a lot of blame to go around for the present state of affairs, and it is tempting to put all of it on our politicians in general and one man, Narendra Modi, in particular. But as the old saw goes, in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.
From the shrill TV news anchor who humiliates his guests to the drunken celebrity who runs over people sleeping on pavements, from the predatory youth who sexually harasses foreign tourists to the property developer who doesn’t care to deliver projects on time, the contemporary (male) Indian’s reputation has fallen so low in our own estimation, it’s a pity we can’t blame Pakistan for all our ills.
If the effort to win the war of ideas in Kashmir requires a change of national character to such an extent that Indians end up barely able to recognise themselves or their country, then so be it.
For, it is not just the future of troubled Kashmir that is at stake but in some sense the future of all of India.
None of this guarantees that in the end Kashmiri Muslims will give up their demand for azadi and throw in their lot with a transformed India — generous, disciplined, self-confident and sophisticated.
We can cross that bridge when we come to it. But we need to begin the long journey of self-searching and self-improvement, today.
The clock is furiously ticking.
( Arnab N. Sengupta, currently based in the Gulf, has been an editor at several leading Indian and international media organisations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])