The political temperature that is being raised over the release of Masarat Alam, a hardline Kashmiri separatist leader, xenophobe, and key organiser of stone-throwing mobs in the Muslim-dominated Valley in 2010 that left over a hundred people dead in its wake, is actually just posturing.

It was thus good to have Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi reassuring parliament today (9 March) that the centre does not agree with his release. While Singh said bail was often given when preventive detention crosses a certain length of time, he promised to make another statement once the J&K home ministry sent its report on Alam’s release. Modi intervened to make his own opposition to anti-national forces clear and told parliament that he did not need tutoring on “desh-bhakti.”

Masarat Alam. AFP/File imageMasarat Alam. AFP/File image

Masarat Alam. AFP/File image

However, both Singh and Modi know in their heart of hearts that despite the political embarrassment over Alam’s release, something like this was bound to happen if a dialogue was to begin with the extremists to normalise Jammu & Kashmir. The Congress and other opposition parties are happy to put the BJP on the backfoot over Alam’s release, having got a chance to play more-patriotic-than-thou. But that’s about it.

The BJP will have to learn to take the shellacking and move on if it is to play peace-maker in J&K. Waging peace is tougher than waging war, even if it is a war of words. If any mainstream national party can bring peace to the troubled state, it is the BJP. It is the only party with the perceived moral authority to make concessions without having to defend its patriotism, wrapped as it is in the colours of ‘Bharat mata’.

The BJP should also know that if it wants to start a dialogue in J&K, it has to let the separatists have their say and point out where they are wrong. Dialogue needs openness, and openness exposes bigots better than keeping them gagged. Keeping bigots in jail only lends them a halo – and sends the message to everyone that we are afraid of what they espouse. Look at how much egg we have on our faces by opposing the release of India’s Daughter.

Consider the case of Masarat Alam himself. If he sounds like a hero to separatists, his words carry an edge of bigotry, to say the least. We need to know this as much as we need to know about “male mindsets” that lead to rape and sexual harassment.

According to a report in The Indian Express, Alam said the following: “My principled stand is that Jammu and Kashmir is under occupation and that it should end,” he said. “There should be complete withdrawal of Indian armed forces”.

So far, so good. This kind of extreme statements are made by all separatists, including the Nagas. It was done by the Mizos too before they signed a deal with the Indian state.

But back to Alam. He said he saw no difference between the BJP, Congress, National Conference and PDP. This should be news to the parties now attacking the BJP. According to Alam, “all of then want to strengthen the Indian occupation. All of them want to persuade people to surrender… But we have apprehensions of attempts to change the demography of this state.”

Here, the cat is out of the bag. What Alam is objecting to is the very basis of common citizenship. He is attacking the constitution of India, and talking the bigoted language of a xenophobe. In his view, any Indian from outside J&K who comes to his state is attempting to change the demography.

He pointed to 2008 to make his stand clear: “They tried this (demographic change) in 2008, though there was a different government (PDP-Congress) then. People gave sacrifices and didn’t allow that… If it is tried again, we will not allow them to do.”

So what happened in 2008 that has Alam agitated? The J&K Governor had then made a proposal to set up a structure to shelter Amarnath pilgrims. The Muslims of the Valley objected, using various arguments (ecological damage was one of them), but the essential bottomline was clear to everybody: Muslim Kashmir did not want Hindu pilgrims to be benefited. There was no question of allowing any of the pilgrims to settle in J&K, but they objected nevertheless.

Consider what the Indian liberal-left would say if what Alam has now said about demographic change in Kashmir were to be said by the Assamese or by Hindus in any state in the north-east and West Bengal. Demographic change is more real here than in J&K, but we think it is bigoted to make the statement. We object to Raj Thackeray saying Biharis shouldn’t come to Mumbai, but is Alam saying anything different? The fact that there is an article 370 does not change the real intent of Alam’s statement one bit.

It should be called bigotry and xenophobia. The mere fact that Alam gets to say this and we don’t want to call it that tells us how shallow and hypocritical we are.

The fundamental issues in J&K are very simple, and all relate to basic principles – of human rights and citizenship.

First, there can be no going back on the state’s accession to the Indian Union, but this does not mean human rights in Kashmir can be treated as less important than elsewhere. We have to make the armed forces accountable for human rights violations, and, in due course, make the police the key players in maintaining day-to-day law and order. The army should move to protect the borders.

Second, J&K’s dialogue for autonomy and “azaadi” is no different from the freedoms that other Indian states seek. A solution can and must be found within the Indian Union whereby all Indian states, and not just J&K, are given significant autonomy. Only subjects like defence, foreign affairs, citizenship, macro-economy, monetary and fiscal policy are really key to an effective centre. The time has come for this federalist dialogue, and J&K is not the only state that needs this discussion.

Third, J&K cannot be a place barred for Indian citizens to travel, marry, trade and settle. The price of greater autonomy must be full integration in terms of a common citizenship. Xenophobia and bigotry cannot be part of a federal right. One nation, one citizenship has to be the norm. It is ridiculous that J&K women marrying outsiders are automatically denied some rights. Naturalised J&K citizens should have the same rights as those born and brought up there.

Fourth, Alam should know that the only attempt to change demography happened when his cohorts, aided by Islamists and Pakistan-trained terrorists, ethnically cleansed the Pandits out of the valley. He should first reverse that policy.

Fifth, Alam should also get his Hurriyat Conference to first talk secularism – which has to be the basis for any talks on autonomy. His hero Syed Geelani, part of the pro-Pakistani separatist cabal, should first abandon his bigoted call for imposing Shariat and promoting Islamisation in Kashmir.

The real issue is not whether Alam is inside jail or outside it. It is to expose the bigoted nature of the people espousing “azaadi” – it is code for bigotry and xenophobia. For this, it is better he is out than in. Now we can all know what he stands for. The last thing he needs is the halo of a  “freedom-fighter” who has been gagged by all-powerful India.

The BJP would be better off supporting freedom of expression so that the extremists fall on their own swords. The short-term embarrassment over the release of Masarat Alam is a small price to pay for its larger goal of integrating J&K with India. It is a cause worth pursuing.

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Masarat Alam out of jail: BJP need not fret over the release of a few bigots