The fire this time


Small boys often dream of becoming either a fireman or a prime minister. But no child should be so precocious as to fantasise about becoming both at the same time.

The problem about becoming a heroic firefighter is that there must be a fire to fight. There is, moreover, an invisible line between the temptation to become a hero, and the immediate necessity of dousing the fire. The hero saves the child on the burning deck with a last-minute intervention. The art of public management is better judged, however, by the quality of prevention rather than the strength of a cure.

In his signature-stealth style, Dr Manmohan Singh seems to have acquired a child’s fascination for fire. He watched the flames lick the tent before intervening in the Commonwealth Games. That did not matter too much, as everyone has been playing games with the Games. Arson in Kashmir is not child’s play.

Fire has many origins in politics: historical, accidental, contemporary, deliberate, purposeless. Its motivation is covert, its behaviour surreptitious. It can emblazon the foreground and burn in perennial heat underground. It is never calm, never still; it dances in manic fury. The forest fire is lit by a spark.

Kashmir being Kashmir, every kind of incineration is at work, alternately, simultaneously: each line of fire awaits its moment and then converges into conflagration. Dr Singh, prompted surely by the thought of preserving the Rahul Gandhi generation through its mistakes, has opted for inscrutability in response to a fuse lit by Omar Abdullah’s Assembly speech, in which he proposed the provocative thesis that Kashmir had acceded to India but not merged with it.

Is there a difference?

It is always a bit dangerous to prod history; you never know when it will bite back. While exact parallels are impossible, the difference, broadly, is between what was suggested by the 1946 British formula known as the Cabinet Mission Plan and the Indian integration effort led by Sardar Patel through which princely states became part of the Union of India. The Congress accepted the British plan until Jawaharlal Nehru, who was wary of any formula that could lead to the balkanisation of India, and suspicious of British intentions, challenged its provisions. The Cabinet Mission Plan had some strange curlicues but, most significantly, it permitted members of the Indian Union to secede in certain given conditions. This was, as Jinnah explained to his party, why the Muslim League, which sought Pakistan, accepted the Plan. When Patel integrated the princely states he did not offer them the option of secession.

This is the difference between accession and merger. Abdullah has mined a dangerous seam line. His speech was not merely the fluff of political rhetoric, but part of the official government record: text reinforced by context. He formally claimed that Delhi had “demolished” the agreement through which Maharaja Hari Singh joined India. He accepted that a solution was possible within the Indian Constitution but then kicked the door of secession just a little open. He wanted a resolution acceptable not only to the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir but also “to the neighbouring country”. No prizes for guessing which neighbouring country he was referring to. I don’t think Pakistan has much respect for the framework of the Indian Constitution.

One man who certainly does not have any respect is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami. He has, within days of the speech, exacted the price of Dr Singh’s silence. Abdullah’s speech was instigated by Delhi, he said, and was an attempt to hoodwink Kashmiris.

This riposte achieves two purposes. It debunks the “concessions” made by Abdullah, but there is a clever side-swipe as well. It implies that Delhi has diluted its position on Kashmir’s relationship with the Union of India because it has lost its nerve. This may not be true, but a week ago the scope for such an accusation did not exist. This may not constitute a material change for Delhi, but it is not immaterial either. Pakistan will certainly prefer to read it through the Geelani binocular.

The fire this time could have been prevented by good governance when the first young man fell to police bullets so many weeks ago. A wall of flame has risen. When will Dr Singh be ready to fight this fire?

The columnist is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.