Matthew J Webb’s Kashmir’s Right to Secede: A Critical Examination of Contemporary Theories of Secession explores the issue of Kashmir’s right to secession within a critical evaluation of three streams of secessionist theory, broadly defined as nationalist, liberal-democratic, and ‘just cause’. In testing the strength of these theories, Webb aims as much to ascertain the satisfactoriness of these theories as to evaluate the moral justifiability of Kashmir’s secession. The book, therefore, is a work of political theory rather than history, as Webb eschews historical description and relies on existing literature for the book’s empirical base.
Since October 1947, when the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to the Government of India, there has been a gap between India’s democratic and secular ideals of and the reality of New Delhi’s relationship with Srinagar. This led to various bouts of disillusionments, the first of them as early as the 1950s, in the largely-Muslim Kashmir valley. Persistent calls for Kashmiri secession only intensified through the next three-and-a-half decades as disenchantment with assertive Indian actions mounted and finally took a violent turn in November 1989.
Since then, keeping pace with events, the literature on Kashmir has also changed to detail accumulating Kashmiri grievances. Scholarship has steadily moved away from the historical origins of the Kashmir crisis, looking instead to explain the conflict through various contemporary political theories. It has looked at the deinstitutionalisation of Kashmiri politics; the power dispute between provincial elites and New Delhi and the assertion of the periphery against a stifling centre; the nature of Kashmir’s federal autonomy; ethnic mobilisation, ethno-nationalism and separatism; and the re-definition of democracy, sovereignty, legitimacy, citizenship and rights in Kashmir and in India as a whole.
In this literary landscape, Webb’s is the latest attempt to apply a normative theoretical reasoning to Kashmir – in this case, that of secession. Webb explains his choice of Kashmir as a case-study by invoking concrete concerns about war and peace, economic development and nuclear danger involving not just India and Pakistan but also China. But his book remains firmly in the field of abstract political philosophy – with no concession to comparative politics or international relations, and certainly not history – and limits its considerations to just the Srinagar Valley within Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. To use Srinagar’s attitude towards New Delhi as a touchstone for testing three normative, principled approaches to secession is one thing, but to extrapolate from there to draw conclusions on those approaches’ applicability to the Kashmiri case as a whole is quite another.
Webb first tackles the nationalist theory, which ties the right of secession to the idea of nationhood and national self-determination. He questions attempts to provide nations – however defined – with statehood. He finds that the development of Kashmiri national identity (Kashmiriyat) is but a reflection of prevailing political, economic and social realities, and that “national identities are in large measure contingent upon institutions of right and in a constant state of flux.” To Webb, therefore, “Kashmiris may well be a nation…they may also have a right to secede. However, they do not have a right to secede because they are a nation.”
Webb next considers the liberal-democratic variant, which allows a group the right to secede provided majority sanction – a plebiscitary right that has been touted and debated since the very origins of the Kashmiri dispute. Here, Webb’s objections have more to do with the “deleterious consequences” of a plebiscite than with the varied and complex approaches and methodologies of the liberal-democratic case. Webb notes that, “putting aside conceptual objections and focusing on the case of Kashmir, it is important to note that none of the liberal-democratic theories considered here would necessarily produce a result similar to that sought by Kashmiri separatists.” In other words, Webb would not endorse a plebiscite – or any other notion of self-determination – not because there may be theoretical challenges to its validity in the Kashmiri case, but because it may produce results contradictory to the very real, complex, and at times contradictory political project of the Muslim Separatists. For instance, a plebiscite would allow non-Muslim minorities in the Kashmir valley, Jammu and Ladakh to challenge the Muslim Separatists’ own project of a unified and autonomous Kashmir. Yet here again, Webb’s abstract theoretical exercise glazes over the multi-layered political relationships that exist within Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
Finally, Webb evaluates the ‘just cause’ theory, which upholds a territory’s right to secede if it can demonstrate that it has been treated unjustly. Webb discusses three variants of this theory, only one of which finds favour with him. He rejects secession premised on either “historical injustices of the circumstances of accession,” or India’s military intervention and subsequent failure to hold a promised plebiscite, especially since the promised plebiscite never offered the option of secession. Instead, Webb pursues “a just cause right of secession premised upon the wrongs of contemporary human rights abuses.” He cites reports by Amnesty International (1998, 2008 and 2011), Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights (1993), which have detailed arbitrary arrests, beatings, electrocution, intentional destruction of property, rape, torture, execution. To further substantiate his case, Webb also discusses the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which have contributed to the detention without trial of an estimated 8000 to 20,000 Kashmiris. Webb presents the two-decades of physical, psychological and sexual abuse resulting from the heavy-handed tactics of Indian security forces and the accompanying lack of legal redress as “perhaps the most compelling just cause for Kashmir’s secession.”