At the peak of a recent standoff, a senior Congress leader in New Delhi candidly admitted that the government cannot go too far with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), its local partner that is currently running the government in Jammu & Kashmir. His point was that the Congress could hardly go along with PDP demands such as self-rule and increased powers to the Srinagar government, nor openly highlight the human rights abuses by the security forces in Kashmir. This was because, said the Congress leader, the vast number of voters in India could not be ignored. After all, there are only six seats in the national Parliament from Jammu & Kashmir, and “we cannot sacrifice 500 seats in the rest of India for the sake of just six seats”.
In June, when the India-Pakistan peace process was yet to be derailed by the Bombay blasts, it is said that Manmohan Singh himself had raised the issue of this popular attitude towards Kashmir during one of the regular Friday meetings of the Congress party’s core governing group. He is said to have complained that Congress stalwarts had not worked hard enough to build public opinion in support of the peace process and the solutions he had envisaged.
Over the years, bald-faced lies have been told about Jammu & Kashmir, but the Indian public shows little concern over the misinformation and manipulation. While public outrage over the rigging of polls in Haryana in 1989 could force Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala to resign, the same public took the massive rigging of the 1987 assembly polls in Kashmir as a necessity born of ‘national interest’.
J & K has always been treated differently by New Delhi – not by the gifting of political concessions but by the throttling of democratic voices and the restricting of political space of Kashmiris in the name of national security. The legacy of those brave politicians and citizens who faced the 1975 Emergency head-on has been soured by the maintenance of what is nothing less than a criminal silence on the happenings in Kashmir.
Journalists and writers too have been complicit in the dissemination of misinformation about Kashmir. Since the onset of the insurgency 17 years ago, over 800 books on the state have hit the bookstands nationally and internationally. Though well researched, most of these have been written in English, thus severely limiting their reach within India.
While this reviewer has come across books related to Kashmir in Hindi, most offer no more analysis than to wonder what Kashmiris are fighting for. Many spew Hindutva arguments and call for the abrogation of the special status accorded J & K by the Indian Constitution. Some even suggest the inundation of Kashmir by Hindus from the Indian heartland so as to reduce the Muslim population to a minority. Even the most liberal of Hindi commentators tend to link Kashmiri unrest to global Islamic extremism.
Making a break?
Journalist Urmilesh has long been an iconoclast, probably the only Hindi-language media person to have reported on the Kargil War from Kargil, Drass and Batalik while the fighting was at its bloodiest. In Kashmir: Virasat aur Siyasat (Kashmir: Legacy and Politics), he accomplishes something just as important: he takes seriously the Kashmir issue by taking seriously the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. In writing this book in Hindi, he has perhaps for the first time presented to the North Indian public the Kashmir issue in its reality.
The book traces both the history of the unrest in J & K and the Kashmiri demand for autonomy, with special emphasis on pre- and post-Partition events and the slow but steady alienation of large sections of the state’s citizenry. Urmilesh reminds readers that J & K acceded to the Indian Union under conditions different from those of other states. J & K had a 780 km border with what was to be Pakistan, towards which all of its rivers and trade routes flowed. At the time of Independence, it shared a frontier of a mere 81 km with India. Perhaps more significantly, the majority of J & K’s population was Muslim. Still, the state decided to join India, hoping that its interests would be better protected by secular India than by its Muslim neighbour.
After laying out this background, Urmilesh describes a long list of betrayals and acts of deceit, duplicity and perfidy. Jawaharlal Nehru had known, he writes, that Kashmir had come to India not because of Raja Hari Singh’s accession but because of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s support. New Delhi’s Kashmir policy had thus acted to support the Sheikh until 1953, when the very person responsible for J & K’s membership in the Union was dismissed and arrested. Urmilesh reveals a long record of rigged elections, starting with that of 1952. He also mentions the erosion of the Indian Constitution’s Article 370, which not only granted J & K special status but also, until the 1960s, the right to have a separate head of state. Urmilesh also describes the role played by Indira Gandhi’s dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984 in paving the way to militancy.
J & K is perhaps the only state where candidates filing for an elected post must take an oath of allegiance to India’s integrity and Constitution. In other states, only representatives who have been elected take that oath, and that too only when the position is one in the Assembly or Parliament. The J & K chief minister may dare separatists to join the electoral fray if they want to show their strength, but in his heart he knows that – as in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, where candidates also have to take an oath of loyalty to Pakistan – candidates who refuse to take such an oath will either be rejected or not allowed to contest under a regime hostile to them. Urmilesh suggests that truly fair elections would help Kashmiri separatists to join the mainstream.
One hopes that efforts such as this book by Urmilesh – a thorough and critical account of the Kashmiri struggle, written in Hindi – will at long last help dispel dangerous misunderstandings about J & K and Kashmiris. Such works will help readers in the North Indian heartland to comprehend the Kashmir question in its social and historical context. The achievement of such an understanding will go a long way in helping politicians and activists to find an amicable settlement to the Kashmir issue.