“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow

The Role of Civil Society in Kashmir

Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

30 April 2009

Civil society plays a critical role in nation building and human development. Local societal issues in Kashmir, unrelated to regional politics, cannot not be subsumed or ignored until the Kashmir problem is resolved. The civil society in Kashmir faces a challenge in reorienting its agenda to address a wide spectrum of local issues and thereby enhance its appeal and relevance to various sections of the society.

I visited the valley in January 2009 to interact with a few friends (some old, some new) and to assess the current situation in Kashmir. During the course of the visit I also met with journalists, academicians, and professionals working in the valley.

The topic of the civil society role came up in many such discussions. On the surface, the situation tends to be promising. There are more daily newspapers (both in English and Urdu) published in Kashmir than ever before. There are local television programming channels, non-existent a few years ago, which offer new programs providing local perspectives on various burning issues of the day. There are numerous non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) – locally managed and run – that have sprung up, and political debate on the campus of the University of Kashmir is matched by polemics of faculty members from various departments who seem to have unfettered access to the mass media to express their views which mostly tend to be against the policies of the establishment that is paying their salaries. In fact, the same is true for many columnists who consistently denounce the government while on its payroll and do not see any moral or ethical dilemma in their public persona, and official authorities do not seem to mind either.

Given the diversity of platforms for expression in the valley, it is rather strange that the civil society tends to be mostly one-dimensional in its focus and priorities, which is politics. Generally speaking, politics has a way to broad brush every activity under its swath, but the only politics that seems to matter in Kashmir is the geo-politics of the region and the world that reinforces Kashmir’s centrality to global peace and security. This is a compelling theme in every activity big or small conducted by Kashmir’s civil society in a relentless manner. It is stated and restated enough times to be accepted as an undeniable fact.

Indeed, if such an argument would hold then it is very clear that whatever happens in and to Kashmir is very important for the rest of the world to know, as are the voices of people who live there. There is almost a universal acceptance of this argument by the local intelligentsia that is very vocal, consistent and persistent, even though there are few, if any, indicators from the outside world that others view the importance of the Kashmir problem the same way.

A few years back, I had an opportunity to accompany visiting distinguished journalists from Jammu and Kashmir (guests of the U.S. State Department) to their meetings with a few major Think Tanks in Washington, DC. The importance of the Kashmir issue was addressed in the following manner: The President of the United States barely has the time to tackle 10 most important global issues of the day, and Kashmir is unlikely to be in the list of top 100 or even top 200 issues to deserve President’s immediate attention. So how does Kashmir get mentioned in the world news as being reported in the valley? It is either: (a) a Pakistani journalist asks a question on Kashmir at the Whitehall or the White House press briefings, (b) the United Nations, the U.S., or the U.K, reiterate their longstanding position that the Kashmir issue remains unresolved, (c) Either Pakistan or India issue statements regarding Kashmir in a global forum, or (d) conspiracy advocates in the valley “decode” statements issued by U.S. or U.K. diplomats while traveling in the region.

There are many reasons why the civil society in Kashmir needs to move away from its obsessive focus on global politics and shift to local issues across a wide spectrum, many of which currently are being ignored.

For starters, such an approach will add credibility to Kashmir’s civil society. There is practically no diversity of views debated or discussed publicly in Kashmir. The themes are universally identical: Indian Army should fade from Kashmir; human rights abuse is solely due to security forces; Kashmiri militants are heroes of the freedom struggle, all terrorists are foreigners, and civilian deaths not attributable to security forces are due to “agencies” of the government. No one is either asked or offered an opportunity to express contrary points of view, nor given space – politically or literally – to debate such matters. Last year during the mayhem surrounding the Amarnath Shrine agitation, there were claims made by the Coordination Committee spearheading the agitation that a “million people” participated in a demonstration in Srinagar. The local media was “directed” to report that figure and it was so reported in many newspapers but not all. Some journalists who questioned that figure and concluded from their personal on-the-spot reporting that the number of marchers while substantial was considerably less than a million were harassed and there was one incident of life-threatening nature with a local senior journalist to provoke the intervention of the New York City based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Kashmir’s civil society goes to great lengths in giving publicity and exposure to Indian human rights activists (who denounce government excesses in Kashmir), missing the crucial point that a society that allows the likes of Arundhati Roy or Gautam Navlakha to operate freely and openly is also a society that cherishes liberty, human rights, pluralism and independent thinking. Without probably realizing it, such actions highlight a major weakness in Kashmir’s own civil society as it has not created space for similar diversity of views as exists in the rest of India even as violence and terrorist acts have steadily abated in the valley.

It may be obvious to many that the Kashmir issue is not going to be resolved on the streets of Jammu and Kashmir; the closure is going to come about through dialogue and discussion among Indians and Pakistanis, including Kashmiris living on either side of the line of control (LOC).The Civil Society in Kashmir, it appears, has been hijacked by proponents of “street politics,” bringing nothing but violence, misery and economic upheaval to citizens while leaders bringing their flocks to the streets are enjoying free health check-ups in Indian cities far removed from the valley. Yet there is no public debate on impromptu shutdowns forced by insurgents and separatists under one pretext or the other, disrupting life and commerce in general and endangering public safety in particular.

In this regard, it is important to mention that a political dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir has been impacted by two critical drawbacks, which have been mostly ignored by the local civil society. The trust deficit that exists between India and Pakistan has been accentuated by Pakistan’s two faced approach towards India – overt expressions of friendship (composite dialogue, track-II diplomacy, people-to-people contact, cross-LOC movement of people and goods), and a covert desire to create continuing turmoil in India (attack on the Parliament, violent attacks in major commercial and technology centers, markets and luxury hotels, bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul), and Kashmir (Kargil fiasco, attack on the State Assembly, repeated border infiltration, cross-border terrorist training camps). So it is inevitable that a delay in building up trust between the two countries is going to delay any closure in regards to the Kashmir problem. Yet the civil society in Kashmir overlooks this discontinuity in approach between the two countries and nitpicks on details of implementation of some aspects of the people to people contact programs deemed inconvenient to a few. Where the civil society should be seriously contributing ideas to shore up trust between the two countries, and demanding that neither country engage in overt or covert actions that erode the mutual trust factor, it is instead mostly focused on lower-tier confidence building measures (CBMs), which are necessary but not sufficient to result in expediting the final resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Similarly, the local civil society is mostly ignoring the prevailing situation in Pakistan. There is hardly any public discussion on the deteriorating state of Pakistan (politics, economy, law and order, Talibanization), where a Kashmir-like region, namely the Swat valley, has been acceded to radical Wahabi Islamists, whose fighters are increasing their influence within Pakistan on a daily basis. The stability of Pakistan is crucial in securing a settlement to the Kashmir’s problem, and yet Kashmir’s civil society has shown little inclination to link the solution of the Kashmir problem with Pakistan’s stability. Instead of denouncing the “gun culture” that is devouring Pakistan from the inside, Kashmir’s separatists still pay homage to the gun culture and local opinion makers react more or less the same way as Mr. Zardari does about the situation in his country.

With the advent of armed insurgency in the early 1990’s resulting in virtual anarchy in some regions of Kashmir (then called “liberated zones”), it was inevitable that excesses by security forces would multiply while battling terrorists. However civilian casualties, even when part of collateral damage, can not be condoned, especially in case of unprovoked violence or disappearances involving civilians. There have been numerous incidents over the years involving civilian casualties that have led to formation of local NGO’s highlighting human rights abuses in Kashmir. But on close examination, one finds that most NGO’s are appendages of various political entitles and are regularly misused to pursue political agenda under the guise of human rights advocacy. Initially many such groups were invited to affiliate with international human rights organizations. But that enthusiasm has waned steadily as foreign human rights organizations determined that valley based groups are selective in denouncing human rights abuse attributable to security forces but are reluctant to denounce human rights abuse unleashed by militant groups. Furthermore, many so-called human rights NGO’s in Kashmir also engage in political discussions, demonstrations and denunciations unrelated to the human rights advocacy. The credibility of human rights organizations in Kashmir is so low today that it is impossible for any third-party observer based away from the State to accept on face value any statement – true or false – issued by various human rights groups in Kashmir.

Going beyond human rights abuses, one sees a myriad of problems in Kashmir, and yet it seems that civil society has no interest or inclination to address such problems. Normally, a place like Kashmir, blessed with abundant natural charms, should have strong NGO’s influencing general public, lawmakers and the executive branch of the government on protecting its fresh water lakes, pristine forests and mountain air. But that is not so in Kashmir, where lakes, forests and wildlife are dwindling, and air is getting dirtier and dirtier. There is hardly any analysis by NGO’s of the State Budget figures to determine how funds are used or misused and how funding priorities are set or met. Similarly, there has not been a consistent follow-through on ecological health of the valley. Rarely is the Chief Minister or any Cabinet Ministers questioned on ecological matters. Recent focus on the dying Dal Lake will only prolong its agony so long as the civil society does not engage in this matter with the same dedication and passion as in politics.

There are many important issues in Kashmir that need immediate attention and a sustaining interest and visibility by the civil society to achieve some degree of success. For example, issues like the domestic violence, protection of heritage and historical sites, gender equality, mental health, child labor, plight of Kashmiri Pandits and other minorities, good governance, land encroachment, etc. are begging for time and attention from the civil society which nominally recognizes such challenges on once a year basis (International Women’s Day, World Wildlife Day, etc.). Similarly, we need NGO’s to publicize contents of the annual Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report that exposes fraud and inefficiencies in the state bureaucracy and various public sector units (PSU’s). The civil society should demand that the annual CAG report, presented during the Budget Session of the J&K Assembly, must be debated rather than ignored by Assembly members as is the tradition until now.

Having dwelled at length about some inadequacies in the civil society, it must also be said that there are some NGO’s doing a reasonably good job in a societal value system that is skeptic towards volunteerism and community work without compensation. As examples, I point to Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat from Wathoora village in Budgam district, who is educating people on their legal rights through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Similarly, Mr. Javed Ahmed Tak from Bijebehara in Anantnag district has diligently fought for disability rights in the State through the Handicapped Association Srinagar. I have no doubt that there are other equally illustrious persons who are doing a yeoman’s job on many important issues and adding depth to Kashmir’s diverse society. But it is still a work in progress as far as the overall posture of the civil society in Kashmir is concerned.

A fearless but fair civil society is a pillar of strength to a nation. It is part and parcel of its democratic structure with core beliefs in freedom, justice, human rights, pluralism and the rule of law. In Kashmir, the civil society is still evolving, but the current extra-ordinary obsession on politics must give way to a broad set of initiatives that include politics, but also address other societal issues and public aspirations for a balanced and wholesome development of the society.

To read about an example of challenges faced by the civil society in Kashmir, please click here

To read about an example of how so-called human rights groups in Kashmir serve as “front shops” for militants, please click here


About Me

Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.


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