Autonomy in South Asia, and Kashmir

Centralised control keeps federalism at bay in South Asia, but Art. 370 provides a formula for good governance all over because it comes closest to providing representation to group identities.

Kashmir has remained a disputed South Asian flashpoint for over half a century, a period that has seen three rounds of open war and more abiding low-intensity proxy hostilities. The human casualties of the Kashmir conflict continue to mount, even while it bleeds the economies of the two countries. Fuelled at one time by the Cold War, the dispute has long since outlived the superpower rivalry and now has all the potential of engulfing the two newest nuclear-weapon states in a devastating military confrontation.

A resolution of the problem of Kashmir, one which would allow it autonomy through full implementation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, would not only defuse this singular threat to peace and security, it would also carry with it an answer for so many problems of governance elsewhere in South Asia. Kashmir, thus, would be converted from a Subcontinental flashpoint into a model for a political re-structuring of the region that will at last deliver social and economic advantages to the people.

Peace prescription
As things stand on Kashmir, there seems to be an increasing preference for an operationally unachievable military solution. Political negotiations are being made to seem unpatriotic. Internationalisation of the dispute, originally pushed by India, which took it to the Security Council, and later by Pakistan attempting to invoke third-party mediation, has proved equally unproductive. The interests of the centralised state, rather than the concerns of Kashmiris, have dictated the policies of Islamabad and New Delhi. Now completely delinked from the zero-sum relationship of the Cold War superpowers, the Kashmir problem has turned into a zero-sum game between India and Pakistan.

No prescription for peace in Kashmir will work if seen to be inspired by one or the other state, or pushed by the international community. This is why, to begin with, a solution must be sought through non-official intellectual initiatives, ideally including individuals and institutions from all the countries of South Asia. Such an independent initiative would thus work between Pakistan's manifest attempts to internationalise the dispute and India's desire to limit it to bilateral negotiations. Such a non-official regional initiative would sanitise the prescriptions from the politically explosive stigma of 'capitulation' to the domestic adversarial traps or Western dictates.

The case for such an effort on Kashmir is both compelling and propitious, but it must be conceptually and theoretically unambiguous so as to avoid misinterpretation, and it must draw upon the historical experience of the dispute so as to avoid mistakes. As far as history is concerned, the disputed status of Kashmir is among the most critical unresolved problems of a Partition carried out on religious lines. The problem was exacerbated by the Cold War, which aborted the post-colonial nation-building agenda by promoting an alien version of national security.

However, Kashmir is only the most visible example of how the mystique of national security has obstructed the process of nation-building all over South Asia. This is not only true with the case of East Pakistan until the emergence of Bangladesh, but also with the Pathan, Baloch, Sindhi, Muhajir, Shia and Ahmediya in Pakistan; in India, the tribal areas in the Northeast and the hilly Himalayan region, along with the assertion by new ascriptive group identities elsewhere; the problem of the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka; the hill tribes and the Biharis of Bangladesh; the many hill and tarai communities of Nepal, which fall outside the dominant Bahun-Chhetri grouping; and the Lhotshampa and Sarchop of Bhutan, similarly situated outside the ruling circle.

Given such an unfinished agenda of nation-building in all or most countries of the region, therefore, Kashmir's resolution may provide answers to be adapted to situations all over. Such a solution would restore the human dimension of nation-building and provide a structure for delivering sustainable social and economic progress, to begin with within India and Pakistan.

Group identity
A resolution to the Kashmir problem, which is also to provide answers for the rest of South Asia, must necessarily be based on the articulation of group identities in the region. At a theoretical level, it is difficult to pinpoint any one group-identity that is universally applicable as an indispensable attribute of the larger national identity. All over the world, there are diverse characteristics that unify people and have them asserting the right of national self-determination and statehood. These identities can revolve around language, religion, geography, or even common enmity. Often, the group identities are simply imagined or politically engineered, hence susceptible to manipulation.

It was the consensus around a linguistic reorganisation of the federal Indian state that helped reinforce the legitimacy of the independence struggle under the Congress leadership. The Muslim League's assertion of religious identity as the basis of nationalism led to Partition, but language/culture retained its place as the primary building bloc of group-identity within independent India. The linguistic organisation of states as units of the federation has been the institutional basis for pan-Indian nationalism, even though there is unhappiness with the inadequate levels of operational autonomy. While new groups have staked claims for separate statehood within India, few have contested the legitimacy of the linguistic index in state formation.

In sharp contrast to India, Pakistan opted for religion as the basis for its national identity, showing scant sensitivity to linguistic and cultural aspirations of its people. The secession of its eastern wing, based on linguistic-cultural difference, sharply underscored the inadequacy of religion as the exclusive basis for the nation-state, and this all-inclusive definition of group-identity has remained contested from the very start. The secessionist movements in Sindh, Balochistan and among the Pathans of the Northwest underscore this. Today, Pakistan remains in disequilibrium because the underlying need for group identity—unfulfilled by religion—remains to be structurally addressed.

The cultural aspirations of the Bengali, Telugu, Oriya, Bihari, Tamil, Malayalee, as well as Sindhi, Pathan and Baloch alike, as those of the Kashmiri, are considerably shared within their respective religious divides. Language groups in the two countries, even when divided by religion, are generally found to be clustered in certain geographical regions, which makes for easier federal legislation and administration. For this reason, too, language provides the most viable taxonomy of social classification in South Asia, and any exercise in structural legislative and administrative reform must consider this fact.

Social engineering
On normative, historical, political and pragmatic grounds, therefore, the case for language as the primary basis of group-identity is clear, particularly if we seek good governance for the people. However, the task becomes suddenly complex if we try to conceptualise such group identity as 'nationality', axiomatically involving the rights of self-determination and statehood. This would surely open a host of centrifugal demands within almost every sovereign state, and not only in our region. At any rate, the political and intellectual consensus across South Asia is against allowing such an option of national hiving off.

Given this problem of equating group identity with nationality, the problem of competing group identities within India and Pakistan, including those based on religion and language, would be considerably mitigated by making a distinction between citizenship and nationality. For, as long as the fundamental rights of citizens—as citizens, irrespective of any other identity—are guaranteed by the respective sovereign states, the salience of group-identities based on other criteria could be considerably blunted, both politically and in popular imagination. And this is what Art. 370 would allow us to do in Kashmir, providing the population with an autonomy that would guarantee their right of exclusive citizenship while withholding the option of full independence.

It is this limited formula for social engineering, fully in conformity with the liberal-democratic agenda, then, which would provide space for resolution of the Kashmir dispute. For, democracy is all about providing institutional and political underpinnings so that a threshold level of rights are provided to citizens, as citizens. The resolution of the Kashmir dispute, to be politically attractive on the popular plane in Pakistan and India, including Kashmir, must reinforce this democratic agenda. A threshold level of human rights must be provided to citizens within their respective sovereign states based on their group identities, such as the Kashmiri.

South Asian future
The aspiration for regional autonomy so as to maintain cultural distinctiveness, as articulated in the Art. 370 of the Constitution for Jammu and Kashmir, is one that is shared by most Indian states and people. This same aspiration also exists within Pakistan. Ironically, rather than reading it correctly as a constitutional provision that seeks to provide for the demands of group-identity and sub-national autonomy to go with it, Art. 370 is resented by many in India for portraying the asymmetrical links of the states with the Indian federation. The assertion of regional autonomy, as envisaged in the Instrument of Accession and institutionalised through Art. 370, is perceived as a threat to national unity. Many in Pakistan, of course, continue to contest the very legitimacy of the Accession, and of Art. 370.

However, this mindset against the Article in both countries does not alter the reality that it holds out an answer not only for a Kashmiri future, but an Indian, Pakistani and South Asian future. Rather than as a roadblock, the provision must be seen as a facilitator to guide the devolution of power within the nation states of our region. Art. 370, or a politically renegotiated substitute autonomy package, should be extended to both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir, while taking proper account of the differential aspirations of the populations of Jammu and Ladakh. After this is done, and the powder keg of Kashmir finally defused, the next step would be to implement the letter and spirit of the Article all over the  constituent states of the Indian federation and the provinces of Pakistan.

All the people of South Asia would have a stake in such a resolution of the Kashmir problem, in which the people of Jammu and Kashmir would have sub-national freedom to exercise their right of group-identity for the sake of good governance and development. An autonomy agenda designed using Art. 370 would finally politically undermine the mystique of the territorial border as a metaphor for national security. In the bargain, if the popular aspirations for regional autonomy in governance and developmental options are promoted, the present flashpoint of Kashmir would be transformed into a beacon for the true emancipation of the people in each of our countries.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian