With the public tempers frayed after a fire gutted the 200-year-old Peer Dastageer Sahib shrine in Srinagar last Monday, many feared a return of trouble — akin to the summer of 2010 — to Kashmir. Fortunately, the Jammu and Kashmir government had learnt its lessons and by Saturday, life was back to normal in the Kashmir Valley. Enhanced security measures and administrative restrictions over public movement in trouble-prone areas kept the protests localised and brought the situation quickly under control. While the government deserves its share of credit, its cause was helped by the overwhelming fatigue with protests and shutdowns among the common Kashmiris.
The weariness with the separatists’ hackneyed tactics has been sharpened by the blockbuster tourist season last year. Tourism has historically been the main driver of Kashmir’s economy and it continues to remain so even today. Peace and normalcy lead to a record footfall of 13 lakh tourists last year, and 20 lakh tourists are expected to visit the Kashmir Valley this year. This is in addition to the 3.5 lakh pilgrims who will be visiting the holy shrine of Amarnath. Having borne the brunt of violence, shutdowns and protests for nearly two decades, the locals are in no mood to lose out on the momentum created last year. Such is the pressure to have a trouble-free tourist season that the state government has agreed to the request of tourist bodies to postpone the much-delayed urban body elections till the end of the tourist season.
To add to the benefits of a flourishing tourist season, the declining credibility of the separatist leadership has also allowed the government to gain an upper hand. The infighting among the Mirwaiz faction of the Hurriyat has played out publicly and sowed seeds of confusion in the minds of its supporters. Mirwaiz and his team has also been hurt by the lack of international support since the arrest of Ghulam Fai in Washington DC for being an ISI agent, while claiming to be speaking for the Kashmiris. The recent crackdown by the state government on the sources of Hawala funding for the separatists has further squeezed them dry.
The hardline Hurriyat, headed by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, may still have its core support base but it isn’t attracting many youth to its side. By accepting the Pakistani foreign secretary’s invitation to meet him in Delhi this week, the Hurriyat leadership has reinforced the impression that it holds a brief for Pakistan, and doesn’t speak for the Kashmiris. People are disillusioned with the Hurriyat to such an extent that Hurriyat leaders Shabir Ahmad Shah and Nayeem Khan were assaulted by the locals when they want to pay a visit to the burnt-down Dastageer shrine. Shabir Shah’s face was blackened. Although people were angry about the burning of the revered shrine and with the government for failing to protect it, they have not let the separatist Hurriyat hijack their anger. This marks a turnaround in the course of separatist politics in the state.
Recent events should also dispel the myth about the popularity of the separatist leadership in the state. While the high voting percentages in various elections over the last decade have rebuffed the separatists’ claim, the recent incidents again show that the writ of the separatists was based on fear perpetuated by the guns of the terrorists. As the terrorist violence has come down, so has the so-called hold of the separatists. This is not to say that separatists don’t have their strongholds — in Sopore or in areas of downtown Srinagar — but these pockets of separatist influence now stand marginalised in the context of Kashmiri politics.
Although the separatists are fighting a losing battle, their loss doesn’t automatically spell success for the state government. Lack of violence means that people will no longer be satisfied with peace and security. They will demand economic growth and faster development. With the remnants of terror still around, the state government has to simultaneously play the role of a firefighter and a builder. This is difficult in the best of times but a state machinery, battered by two decades of violent insurgency, will find it even harder. The political stakes are high. It is time for Omar Abdullah and his team to rise to this challenge.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review