Friday, February 4, 2011


Indian nationalism in Kashmir: A most unwelcome tricolour

What are the leaders of India’s main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), trying to achieve in Kashmir? Shortly before January 26th, India’s Republic
Day, a moment for military parades and celebrating the establishment of the
independent country’s constitution, some of the BJP’s leaders tried to score
political points by marching to Kashmir, the disputed territory on the northern
border with Pakistan.

For weeks the BJP had been vowing to raise the Indian tricolour in the centre of
Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite warnings
that, by doing so, they could provoke mass protests, counter-demonstrations and
possibly renewed violence, the BJP persisted, calling theirs a “nationalist”
campaign and accusing the Congress-led government in Delhi (and, by extension,
the government of Kashmir) of “appeasing” separatists and committing
“psychological surrender”.

The BJP’s leaders were stopped before they could unfurl the national flag. A few
nights before Republic Day, a trainload of 2,000 of the party’s activists, which
had been chugging north from Karnataka state towards Kashmir, was quietly
turned around by officials as it passed through Maharashtra state, and sent south
again. A clutch of BJP leaders who managed to fly to Kashmir were arrested on
arrival. A group of the party’s activists did manage to block roads and batter a
minister’s car.

The BJP claims it was attempting nothing controversial. Kashmir is a part of
India, so why not ensure that the Indian flag is raised there? The answer—as

even the most nationalist provocateur knows—is that Kashmiris, the majority of
whom are Muslim, have long disputed India’s right to rule over the territory. In
2010, stone-throwing youths launched mass protests in Srinagar, and separatist
leaders called strikes, earning a violent response from ill-trained police. Over 110
Kashmiris were killed.

Almost nobody, not even Kashmiris, sees any prospect of winning independence
from India, let alone joining their territory to Pakistan. So the real contest is over
how much autonomy Kashmir can win for itself within India, and, in the short
term, how to get Indian soldiers and police (which are too often responsible for
repression and torture) to behave better. As important, for India’s sake as a
whole, and in particular for Kashmir, is the need to discourage the rise of Islamic
extremism in the territory.

In the past few weeks India’s government has made some encouraging noises.
This month it announced its ambition to cut, by 25%, the number of soldiers
deployed in Kashmir (it is unclear how many are there in the first place, but
activists tend to put the number at 500,000). The police are being retrained.
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Kashmir, says he wants a repressive “special
powers” law lifted. In return, some Kashmiri leaders have begun to admit to past
wrongs of their own, notably conceding that some assassinations of separatist
leaders were carried out by rival factions of their fellows, and not by Indian

Just as limited progress is being made—with Mr Abdullah saying that the priority
is to avoid a repeat of the 2010 riots and bloodshed—the BJP is trying to stoke up
nationalist fervour for its own party-political ends. As a tactic to raise its profile
and popularity among (mostly Hindu) voters in other parts of India, it may
possibly work. Its leaders reckon that portraying Congress as weak on this issue
could complement a successful campaign that is currently painting Manmohan
Singh, the prime minister, as weak on corruption. But the BJP’s move looks
cynical and may make it harder to avoid another round of protests and killings in

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