Are hartals the way ahead

In fact, separatists have taken the hartal baiters head on by challenging them to provide a credible alternative means of protest. Their defense for hartals goes like this: Government does not let us assemble and protest peacefully, so what do we do. We cannot carry on our struggle sitting at our homes.

There is another defense – of a very recent origin – that is being offered to justify long hartal calenders. That is, if we abandon strikes midway when these have just led to a massive public mobilization, this  undoes the whole effort. As a case in point, separatists point to the aborted 2008 groundswell which fizzled out soon after hartals were withdrawn. This was followed soon after by the record participation in Assembly polls. A section of separatists argue that people blamed them for calling off shutdowns in 2008 and therefore they don’t want to repeat the same mistake.

Besides, there is a substantial number of the angry youth –  many of them in their teens – who think that a blend of hartals and protests is the best way forward. They think – with due rational value – stone throwing is singularly responsible for the resurgence of separatist sentiment in Valley and bringing Kashmir back to headlines. And to their credit, Valley’s situation has duly educed some statements from a few important nations, including USA , which is counted as some achievement in Kashmir . America , however, has termed Kashmir situation as India’s internal matter.

But does this mean we are on the right track. Has there been any serious thinking – whether short or long term – before embarking on this elaborate, ambitious program of protests. That is whether these protests are about some achievable interim goals or Azadi itself. In the absence of any short term demand, it appears the current fight wants nothing short of Azadi for it to end.

And here lies the rub. Are long hartals the right strategy for such a goal. Do separatist leaders in their knowledge and wisdom believe that a several month long strike will do it for them? In what sense will such a method persuade New Delhi to think otherwise and let Kashmir go? After all, it is not New Delhi that is hurt but Kashmir itself where business, education, transport, health services etc now stand crippled. To put it bluntly, is the separatist leadership fighting New Delhi or the people of Kashmir themselves who have become the worst victims of the extended shutdowns and confront an imminent prospect of economic collapse. Over the past more than two months, sustained shutdowns have hit hard the   ordinary people trying desperately to put together two square meals a day, auto-wallahs, passenger vehicles, vendors on the streets, daily wage labour etc. In many cases they’ve also become the target of the angry youth. What does such an approach do to the emotional stake of these poor sections of Kashmiris in the struggle. Jamaat-I-Islami in its recent statement has done well to refer to underscore this reality.

The effort here is not to run down any struggle – most of all the current one which has so far witnessed the sacrifices of 66 youth, some of them under the age of ten – but to look the facts in their face. That is, issues of as fiendish a complexity as Kashmir may draw some temporary media attention during the course of a long spontaneous unrest but that will be that. There are far bigger geo-political issues at stake to force a hurried solution of Kashmir .  In case of Kashmir , current geo-political lock-in is such that a desirable solution is likely to evade for many more years to come. So, there is a need to talk, to think, to debate, to criticize and of course to listen. But this attribute appears to be in such a short supply these days. There is a belief, a very dangerous one, among a section of leadership that one more monthful of hartals will drive India out of Kashmir .  A belief that has now rubbed off also on a section of agitating population which in turn has percolated to the poorest of poor sections who are willing to starve in the knowledge that a month later Azadi will come knocking at their door. Now what when at the end of it all Azadi is  not delivered. Who will be accountable for leading Kashmir to the brink of economic collapse, further pauperizing a vast number of poor population, denying children one full session of academic calender.

It is nobody’s case to deny the merit and inherent legitimacy of a popular struggle, but to expect New Delhi to exit Kashmir just because we can observe endless hartals is, to put it mildly, a puerile strategy.
As for the challenge of the separatist leadership that there is no better alternative to shutdowns, they need only to study other ongoing struggles around the world. Palestine , for example. Or the Northern Ireland . Just google for strikes in each case, the search will throw up a blank. But google for shutdowns in Kashmir and hundreds of stories land up on the computer screen.

And both Palestine and Northern Ireland – which have now been resolved on an interim basis to the reasonable satisfaction of the parties concerned – are any less near to solution for the lack of hartals. Similarly, there have been other struggles over the centuries – India ‘s own freedom struggle for instance – which has  never been hartal driven. This means that hartals on such an extended scale are an exclusive Kashmiri innovation which over the past two decades has had little contribution towards helping separatist leadership towards their goal. More than any actual practical utility, hartals in their most positive fallout have only a symbolic significance which might occasionally give some brief media attention but never Azadi. Issuing long hartal calenders is an easiest, convenient and trouble-free means of waging an Azadi struggle for the leaders. Long shutdowns, on the contrary,  damage and set back the Kashmir cause like no other.  

For it denies the majority of people – except of course government employees – their overriding right to earn their livelihood for a goal that needs years of struggle to realize. And people who are denied their right to earn can never be expected to be voluntary supporters to any cause that does it to them. What long hartals therefore do is to undermine the sentiment, kill off spontaneity and manufacture a calamity.

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