Ghulam Nabi Azad is from the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, and he is a Congressman to boot. His assumption of office as chief minister of the state has caused anxiety among some long-time observers of Kashmir. This can only be ascribed to innocence as regards the prevailing situation in the valley.
It is easy to see that people have loosened up considerably in Kashmir today. During a longish trip to the valley last month, before and after the terrible earthquake, journeying through towns, stopping by in rural parts, using mostly public transport, I couldn't help but feel that people crave for a normal, ordinary life, just like in any other state --away from the hothouse atmosphere into which they'd been thrust by contending forces for so long.
What better place to begin than to have normal politics for a change?
I discovered people were aware of the likelihood of a change of chief minister (yes, the Kashmiri watches politics avidly and is known to gauge the wind), but the issue did not seem to be of particular significance.
The Congress had won more seats than the PDP and had let the latter have first shot at the top job, and that was that. Mufti Sayeed hadn't at all done a bad job, though naturally there were criticisms. How they'd judge a Congress chief minister was a question for the future. But the people seemed to entertain no particular objection to the idea, nor to the thought that Azad (whose name was already doing the rounds) was from the Jammu area.
An important attendant consideration -- and this came through in several conversations -- was that for the first time in Kashmir there was now a genuine regional Opposition party in the form of the National Conference (which is said to be gaining influence) even as another regional party (PDP) ruled in coalition with a national party (Congress).
So, 'regional versus national' is not an issue to consider now. Indeed, the theory -- which had been made into a religion -- that the ruling party in Srinagar must be a local Kashmiri party, stands degraded in the light of today's evidence.
Probably the most telling sign of changing times in Kashmir is that people in the valley no longer open a conversation with outsiders with a recital of grievances against the men in uniform. Complaints against the behaviour of the security forces, which was staple fare before, has been substituted with an open acknowledgement of the brutalities committed by the armed infiltrators from Pakistan on ordinary Kashmiris over a decade. They robbed, raped and killed at will.
No wonder, those who had once been welcomed with open arms as brothers are now seen as meddling outsiders bent on vitiating the atmosphere. The successes of the terrorists no longer send a thrill through the ordinary Kashmiri. The proportion of local militants in the ranks of terrorists is now very small, people are keen to point out.
Also, locals now openly say that they can seek relief from the authorities or the courts against misdemeanours by representatives of the state, but must swallow their pain when they are hit by terrorists who are still able to infiltrate easily, given the topography of the region.
The trauma of the past hasn't entirely been left behind. After all, the entire populace has been through a wringer during much of the nineties and thousands have died, mainly at the hands of terrorists (it is being said at last).
But, on the whole, times are returning to normal. The crop has lately been good. Tourists are flocking to Kashmir in numbers not seen before, easily beating records even of years before terrorism became a fact of life.
The shops are full, of goods and shoppers; roads are choking with the newest make of cars in Srinagar; there is evidence of a construction boom across Kashmir; even village schools have computers; there are long lines outside the few ATM machines in Srinagar; credit cards are catching on; mobile phones are common; taxis do roaring business; tipplers queue up at liquor vends before opening time even during Ramzaan; and the atmosphere on the Kashmir University campus is lazy and relaxed as at any other university.
In short, there are few signs that Kashmir is still an abnormal category.
True, Kashmir has been in a pressure-cooker situation since 1947 when its erstwhile Princely ruler acceded to India and was made to capitulate to local popular forces on Delhi's insistence. Since then the state's internal politics have generally been mired in uncertainty -- the direct consequence of being subjected to war, terrorism, armed infiltration, and the stoking of fifth column activity by Pakistan in an effort to seize it.
In the circumstances, traditional wisdom was thought to lie in ensuring that a native Kashmiri headed the state administration. That seemed to Delhi the best way to win over the valley populace.
Therefore, the state has been run by regional Kashmiri politicians -- privileged by Delhi over a Jammu leader or one from the Congress, the only national party that mattered here -- for almost the entire stretch of nearly 60 years since Independence.
Indeed, this approach has been held as sacrosanct by the political class as well as analysts, though experience has shown up its severe limitations, particularly in the light of the armed militancy of the nineties.
The real issue of course has been the effective denial of democracy to J&K by the Centre, thanks to the obsession with the security paradigm in the context of Pakistan's exertions; and not what kind of politicians -- whether from the valley or outside -- should call the shots. Indeed, not until the last assembly election in 2002 did the ordinary voter really have the opportunity to decide who should rule the state.
It is in this sense that the decision to let a Jammu region Congressman take over as chief minister marks a fundamental shift of perception, and helps to remove the emergency atmosphere that Kashmir has laboured under for decades.
The decision, of course, is rooted entirely in democratic practice and seems to enjoy popular sanction, but this is generally lost sight of in analyses.
It appears more than evident that people in Kashmir are ahead of the political class as well as the tribe of observers. There was a time when they'd given the 'come-hither' to the Pakistan military establishment and entertained its armed irregulars. They've learned enough since then to turn their backs on foreign-run militancy.
They had revolted against the Indian State, which believed in democracy but in reality denied it to Kashmir. But the 'liberators' from Pakistan not only failed to make any mention of democracy, they turned on the people of Kashmir with a vengeance for not being Muslim enough.
The attempt to push Wahabi Islam which was touted as the only 'true' faith by the armies of infiltrators, and to hold in contempt the Kashmiri Muslim's indigenous faith that is a special mixture of Kashmiri Shaivism and Sufi Islam spread in the valley in the 14th century by local Muslim holy men known as 'rishis' -- was as blatant as it was vile.
Indeed, it is fair to say that such an outright assault on the Kashmiri belief system, comprising spiritual poetry, music and dance that's come down the ages, had not occurred in the Mughal, Afghan, Sikh or Dogra periods in Kashmir's history, in more than 500 years.
The most shameful episode of this assault, the worst imaginable sacrilege, was the burning down of Kashmir's patron saint Sheikh Nuruddin's or 'Nund Rishi's' beautiful shrine at Chrar-e-Sharief -- where Kashmiri Muslims as well as Hindus used to gather. The shrine was destroyed by Mast Gul, an Afghan mercenary sent in through Pakistan.
In this dark period, important 'ziarats' or shrines, from which the Kashmiri draws his spiritual sustenance and sense of grace, virtually shut down. This is why the retreat of the people of Kashmir from their erstwhile 'liberators,' who at first lured them in the guise of Islamic solidarity, may be seen as a deliberate act of seeking to reclaim their spiritual and cultural heritage.
This quest can be facilitated only under a democratic dispensation, and when the times are 'normal,' not skewed by imported political doctrines or fashions. Fundamentally, this is why there is every chance that the incoming Congress chief minister will receive a fair trial in Kashmir.
Anand K Sahay is a visiting professor at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)