How do we resolve the Kashmir problem? Ask the Kashmiri.
“…while the accession [of Jammu and Kashmir to India] was complete in law and in fact, the other fact which had nothing to do with the law remains, namely our pledge to the people of Kashmir—if you like, the people of the world—that this matter could be affirmed or cancelled by the people of Kashmir according to their wishes, We do not wish to win people against their will with the help of armed force; and if the people of Kashmir wish to part company with us, they may go their way and we shall go ours. We want no forced marriages, no forced unions.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru in August 1952
Forty-two years later, the consequences of brazen and repeated breaches of that pledge by the Government of India are starkly obvious. For the past five years, New Delhi has by and large done exactly what Nehru said it should not do: try to win the Kashmiri people over with the help of armed force. Nehru’s words constrast sharply with Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao’s speech on the occassion of India’s latest Independence Day. Making a combative reference to Pakistan, Rao said: “With you, without you, in spite of you, Kashmir will remain an integral part of India.” It is remarkable that he did not once refer to the people of Kashmir.
It is equally clear that the majority of the 3.5 million inhabitants of the Valley of Kashmir are unhappy with what they regard as a “forced marriage” and want to re-work their relationship with India, even though there are growing signs that they are fed up with Islamic-militant secessionist groups too. This explains the strength of the sentiment in favour of azadi (variously translated as autonomy, freedom, independence and sovereignty) that has marked the Valley for the past few years, and which has sustained more than 20 guerrilla groups of differing ideological hues. It also explains why the Government, which precipitated the crisis around the Hazratbal shrine in October last year, had to beat a retreat and remove the bunkers that its security forces had put up in the compound of the monument that is supposed to house the Holy Prophet’s relic.
The Hazratbal episode served to expose the grim leadership crisis and lack of coherence that wrack the Indian state. It highlighted the bankruptcy and unsustainability of India’s Kashmir policy. The Government is trying to cover its failure by deploying an altogether different tactic: of holding elections in Jammu and Kashmir, and thus hoping to gain some legitimacy for itself. It is unlikely to succeed.
Constitutionality to the Winds
What is the Kashmir crisis about? What explains the eruption of the azadi movement? What is the nature of the forces arrayed for and against? And where do the elements of a possible resolution lie?
The present Kashmir crisis, the result of growing popular alienation from the rest of India, is traceable to the failure of official policy, especially since 1983. The year marked a turning point, when Indira Gandhi effected a major change in her electoral strategy in Jammu and Kashmir. Her Congress party’s alliance with the Valley-based, broadly secular and then fairly popular National Conference broke down. Gandhi resorted to a sectarian Hindu religious appeal in the predominantly Hindu Jammu region of the state.
Bitter at her electoral loss, and paranoid about “destabilising forces” at work in India’s border states, she had the National Conference government in Srinagar dismissed in 1984 by Jagmohan, the centrally-appointed Governor of her choice in the state. That same year, a Kashmiri nationalist, Magbool Butt, retried for a 1966 political offence, was hanged and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was formed. With this, Gandhi’s approach progressively hardened. She threw legality, even constitutionality, to the winds. From 1984 onwards, Kashmir would be ruled directly from New Delhi by retired (or serving) army generals and through tough policemen.
The deterioration of the 1980s was preceded by what Kashmiris perceived as apathetic and unjust treatment at the hands of the New Delhi Government: repeated rigging of elections (except in 1987); imposition of “outsiders” as leaders; unbalanced financial devolution; repeated breach of the Constitution which grants exceptional autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and prohibits the extension of Central legislation to the state without its consent; and growing human rights abuses, and in many instances, outright butchery of innocent civilians (such as the killing of 37 people in Bijbehara in October last year, when the Border Security Force resorted to unprovoked firing.)
The Kashmir problem was aggravated by growing loss of authority of the Central Government, the political vaccuum created by the death in 1982 of the legendary independence leader (and one time Nehru ally) Sheikh Abdullah, the rise of communal politics in South Asia—first in the early 1980s in Pakistan and then with the Ayodhya agitation in India. The problem was exacerbated by deterioration in India-Pakistan relations, particularly on the nuclear arms and boundary issues. The last is gorily exemplified by Siachen in the undemarcated Himalayan boundary of Ladakh, where thousands of lives have been lost in a military confrontation at 26,600 feet. Over 250 Indian soldiers die here every year, and a similar number of Pakistanis, mostly due to altitude sickness and frostbite.
Trampling the Valley
Kashmir Valley’s experience these past decades has therefore been disastrous: popular alienation and disenchantment; administrative breakdown; suppression of legitimate protest and brutalisation of civilians; rise of guerrilla groups and violent resistance; transformation of popular Kashmiri Islam, which also drew from Hinduism and Buddhism, into a harsh, alien, militant mutant; emergence of pro-Pakistani militant groups in competition with the pro-azadi, broadly secular JKLF; Pakistan’s attempts to arm and train such groups; India’s use of the exaggerated “Pakistani hand” to justify repression and increase its military presence in the Valley, now estimated at 300,000-plus troops.
In 1989-90, the situation took a particularly ugly turn when Governor Jagmohan launched an all-out military onslaught. In a diabolical move, he proceeded to build a case for forcibly resettling the Valley by encouraging and contriving the transfer of the minority Hindu community out of it. Since then, at least 3000 people have been reportedly killed in “encounters” with the security forces. Over 15,000 suspected “militants” (many of them unknowing civilians) have been detained. This repressive policy in turn has provoked a hostile response from the militant groups: revenge killings, ambushes and mindless violence against moderate and sensible elements. Highly respected citizens who could have provided bridges between the state and the people have been eliminated.
The Indian state, unrestrained by a largely apathetic public opinion on Kashmir and encouraged by jingoists, has trampled upon the Kashmir people’s rights as inhabitants of a region enjoying a special status under the Constitution, as citizens of India, and above all, as human beings. With its long and shocking human rights record, New Delhi cannot invoke a serious moral or political right in support of its claim to Kashmir as an “inalienable” and “integral” part of India, which it says domestically, is not open to discussion, leave alone negotiation.
Internationally, where this is untenable, New Delhi says it is prepared to discuss all outstanding issues with Pakistan, including Kashmir, within the framework of the Simla agreement signed with Pakistan after the 1971 Bangladesh War, which commits both sides to mutual negotiations on all disputed issues. New Delhi still pretends, ostrich-like, that it can counter adverse international opinion by citing (authentic, but limited) evidence of Pakistan’s support to the militancy. Precisely because its own claim to democratic governance in Kashmir is weak, it cannot isolate Pakistan and effectively castigate it for its own appalling anti-democratic record in “Azad-Kashmir”. To reinforce its claim to Kashmir as an “integral part” of India, New Delhi can do little more than invoke the Instrument of Accession signed by the erstwhile Maharaja on 26 October 1947 and the early (1948-49) debates in the United Nations, in which Pakistan was branded aggressor.
The official case is ultimately reduced to a purely legal argument about accession. However, even this is problematic for reasons related to the messy nature of the transfer of power from the British. The State of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947 was not a well-integrated, organic entity with any homogeneity or common experience of governance, leave alone politics or culture. The Hindu Dogra rulers purchased the Kashmir Valley from the British only in 1846. The Jagir of Poonch (now the core of “Azad Kashmir”) came under their control as late as 1936.
The Dogra regime was narrow-based and intensely unpopular. By the mid-1940s, it faced a powerful secular opposition led by the National Conference. Maharaj Hari Singh did not accede to India before her independence on 15 August 1947. He vacillated and had a distinctly pro-Pakistani tilt till mid – October. He changed his mind when confronted with a popular uprising in the Poonch region and a tribal invasion from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province beginning 22 October.
The Radcliffe Commission which demarcated boundaries between “Muslim” Pakistan and “Hindu” India was not quite fair in awarding three Muslim-majority parts of a border district to India, involving as it did a departure from the accepted norms of the Partition. Radcliffe, a lawyer who had not previously set foot in South Asia (and who left these shores even before his award was published) was probably influenced to give Hari Singh the option to accede to India by having territory contiguous with it. It also appears that Mountbatten, who became Governor-General of India in 1947, was sympathetic to the Indian leaders’ claim at Independence that India was the sole legitimate heir to the Raj, especially as regard the defence of the Sub-continent’s Northern Frontier against alien (at that time Soviet Russian) influence.
Mountbatten accepted Hari Singh’s accession by writing to him that “the question [of a ccession)…should be settled by a referendum to the people”. This can legitimately be interpreted as the accession being conditional upon consultation with the people. This flowed from the Congress party’s — and the Nehru government’s — position that sovereignty rested not with feudal princes but in the people. This stand alone had enabled the integration of Hyderabad (one of the biggest princely states, in India’s south), and Junagadh (in the west) into India, despite their rulers’ wishes to the contrary.
Mahatma Gandhi was even more explicit on Kashmir. He declared that with the lapse of British paramountcy, the Maharaja’s claim to decide the fate of Kashmir would stand nullified. The people alone had the sovereign power to decide on accession.
Kashmir’s accession was a feather in India’s cap: a culturally unique, Muslim-majority state and its popular leadership under Sheikh Abdullah joined India because of her secular and republican credentials. Indian leaders readily offered a plebiscite to the Kashmiri people. They foresaw no problem in the nature of the plebiscite (to choose between India and Pakistan, with no independence option) or in India’s ability to win it.
This changed dramatically in 1947-48 with the first India-Pakistan war and Pakistani occupation of a part of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir. The issue went to the United Nations, which was ineffective. Divided Kashmir had to forget about independnce. The division has remained a fact, with “Azad Kashmir”, a narrow strip of territory, and Gilgit and the Northern Areas becoming a part of Pakistan. After the mess of the early 1950s, the plebiscite never took place. And now it is irrevelant.
Kashmiri to Center-stage
Today, the people of Kashmir want something else, azadi. This does not necessarily mean full independence: the content of the term still remains to be determined on the ground. There are numerous possibilities, including a return to the pre-1953 situation, when India reneged on plebiscite, an agreement on an exceptional degree of autonomy within a loose, federal structure; a Trieste-type solution to be negotiated between Kashmiris, India and Pakistan, which would allow free movement and the creation of a demilitarised zone to which people from both sides of the border would have access irrespective of their nationality (as in the case of the disputed territory between Italy and Slovania); or an altogether sui generis autonomy arrangement.
The central question is how to bring the Kashmiri people into a discussion of their own fate. It is morally and politically imperative that they are recognised as a legitimate party to the dispute and that, in the last instance, their will prevails.
Going by state positions, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad welcomes such a prospect. Each claims Kashmir to be its territory; and netiher would like to open up the whole issue. Both are sensitive to and fear external interference. The Indian Government is reluctant to concede greater autonomy to Kashmir for fear that that would trigger off similar processes in the Indian Northeast and potentially lead to India’s disintegration. Public opinion in India is extraordinarily ill-informed and insensitive on Kashmir. For instance, an opinion poll in Delhi last October showed that 70 percent believed that Pakistan masterminded the Hazratbal crisis.
The situation in Pakistan does not seem much better: the Pakistan Government’s claim to Kashmir has been based wholly on the ground that over 70 percent of Kashmiris are Muslim; its human rights record in the Poonch area is indefensible; and popular perceptions in Islamabad mirror Indian paranoia and suspicions. From the point of view of the Pakistan ideology, and the two-nation theory, it is extremely difficult for Islamabad to resist the temptation of playing the Islamic card to exploit the alienation of Kashmiris from India to its own advantage.
There is convincing evidence that Pakistan has stepped up its support to hardline Islamic secessionist groups such as Hizbul Mujaheedin and Harkatul Ansar, and is pitting them against the JKLF, the People’s League, and other secular-minded, more deeply-rooted, pro-autonomy (as opposed to pro-Pakistan) groups.
However, amidst all this there is a ray of hope, and perhaps more. Since March-April this year, when a Pakistani effort to get India reprimanded at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva was defeated, there has been growing realisation among the militants in the Valley that there can neither be a military solution to the Kashmir problem, nor a quick peaceful solution catalysed by the intervention of Islamic states, led by Pakistan. This has strengthened the hands of those who stand for a negotiated solution and unconditional talks with New Delhi and Islamabad. A certain kind of fatigue has set in among some militant groups; and there are growing signs that ordinary citizens are tired of the violence.
Secondly, pro-reconciliation tendencies within the Government of India have grown in strength in recent months. An advisory group has been set up which favours talks and elections rather than the use of force. The government still lacks direction and a coherent policy, and it can make bellicose noises as Rao did on Independence Day about regaining “Azad Kashmir”. But it has released important JKLF leaders like Yasin Malik, who stands for unconditional talks and for a non-sectarian, anti-communal approach. This has further raised the chances of conciliation.
And thirdly, a great deal of differentiation is occuring among the azadi groups.On the one hand, secular-pluralist tendencies such as the JKLF and the People’s League (whose long-incarcerated leader Shabir Shah commands great respect) are emerging stronger. On the other hand, the more communal-Islamic, pro-Pakistan forces are getting weaker and losing such limited support as they enjoyed.
If the differentiation proceeds further, and the Government does release Shabir Shah and starts negotiating with the pluralist-secular groups, it could achieve a genuine breakthrough. It will, however, have to resist the twin-temptations of reacting belligerently to Pakistani moves on Kashmir and holding elections prematurely, which it is under some pressure to do from some advisers. Even if there is a breakthrough, groups like the Hizbul Mujaheedin and Harkatul Ansar will remain active for some time. But it will become progressively easier to isolate them.
Ultimately, the key to a solution to the Kashmir problem lies in just how bold New Delhi is in offering the Kashmiris a truly generous degree of autonomy, even at the cost of losing full and total sovereignty over the Kashmir Valley, by moving to a federal arrangement. New Delhi will have to do a lot to convince Kashmiris that it is serious about autonomy and about putting its ill-conceived Kashmir policy behind itself. A history opportunity stares New Delhi in the face. It would be unwise to let it slip.