Public consciousness in India received a rude shock a few weeks ago when public demonstrations erupted first in the Kashmir valley, and then in Jammu. For a public fed with accounts of a peace process with Pakistan, talks with Kashmiri separatists and a decrease in terrorism in the state, this return to a “1989-like atmosphere” was sudden enough to be incomprehensible. Coupled with a very sophisticated psychological operations from Kashmiri separatists—and one that was met with a paralytic silence from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government—this resulted in some commentators despondently suggesting that it is time to “let go” of Kashmir.
But surely, it was always unrealistic to expect that just more than five years of the Mufti-Azad government would reverse the impact of two decades of a violent proxy war that sharpened the differences between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri, on the one hand, and Muslim and non-Muslim, on the other. Since 2002, the geopolitical environment compelled Pakistan and the separatists to lie low, for their old formulations found no purchase in the wake of 9/11. The moment the geopolitical environment began to change, politics in Kashmir took a turn for the worse. Kashmir’s mainstream politicians, being bandwagoners, could always be counted on to join the side they thought was winning.
Photograph: Danish Ismail / Reuters
But how did they arrive at this conclusion? Well, because of a highly successful psychological operation that transformed concerns over a temporary transfer of uninhabitable land in remote snow-covered mountains into a narrative of a demographic invasion by “Hindu” Indians. In a single masterstroke, this achieved something that two decades of militancy had failed to: generate illwill for Kashmiris among the Indian people. Kashmiris came out not so much to protest against the land transfer but against a diabolic Hindu plan to reduce them to a minority in their own state. Non-Kashmiris saw this as a sign of Kashmiri religious intolerance. This led to, on the one hand, protests by the Hindu community in Jammu, and on the other, to suggestions that allowing Kashmir to secede would not be a bad idea at all. The UPA government in New Delhi was a feeble non-entity in the entire affair. For instance, it took more than 10 days to announce that Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz was not killed, as had been projected earlier, by Indian security forces at a protest march. By the time M.K. Narayanan announced this, more damage had been done.
But let there be no mistake: there is a great affective divide between the Kashmiri people and the rest of India. The solution, however, is not secession. Advocates of a plebiscite and secession have a duty to articulate what happens next—to Kashmir and to the rest of India. The valley’s independence or integration with Pakistan will not miraculously solve the underlying problem. It will only cause its reconfiguration: from a domestic problem to an international dispute. And can any serious advocate of a plebiscite, leave alone secession, plausibly argue that such a move will be free of the immense human tragedy that characterized the drawing of new international borders in the subcontinent in 1947 and 1971?
In fact, the idea of self-determination is a deeply illiberal one. An independent Kashmir or one that joins Pakistan will certainly have a fraction of people who are unhappy with their rulers. What of them? Will they in turn be given a right to self-determination, or forced to live in ghetto-like enclaves, or worse, subjected to ethnic cleansing?
What else would secession mean? Quite likely, Kashmir will come under the sway of a Taliban-like regime; or under a puppet regime that serves as the agent of regional and foreign powers; or under authoritarian rulers such as those in Central Asia; or all of the above. One thing it will not become is Switzerland. What this implies for India is that the costs will not go away—they will mount. As for Kashmiris, self-determination is no guarantee that they will not be ruled against their wills.
More than self-determination for the disaffected, India as a whole needs a dispensation where individual rights and freedoms are truly respected.The crisis in Kashmir is an urgent reminder of the need for a process of national reconciliation based on principles that are already enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Equality of all citizens is India’s strongest appeal. But the special circumstances of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India might well require maintaining the extraordinary constitutional arrangements that the state enjoys. While it is for the state government to realise that discriminatory property ownership laws are part of the problem, the Centre should refrain from creating quotidian inequalities—such as waiving the need for Kashmiris to have passports while travelling across the Line of Control. Apart from violating the principle of equality, these contribute to India sliding down the slippery slope of estrangement.
Could anyone have blamed the Indian state if it had stayed out of managing religious shrines and pilgrimages? Here is a secular state that concerns itself with transfer of land to a religious body which it manages. Here is a state that, among others, builds special airport terminals for Muslim pilgrims and accommodation on snow-capped mountains for Hindu ones. Getting the state out of religious affairs is generally a good idea. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir, it is one of the most credible ways to take the wind out of the separatists’ sails.
Instead of expanding economic freedom of ordinary Kashmiris, the current pattern of gigantic fiscal transfers and state-driven projects only manages to enrich the political elite. This must change. Also, India must unilaterally liberalize trade with Pakistan, including Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. (Read our 14 March 2007 Views, “No Kashmir for peace process” at www.livemint.com/kashmir.htm )
So there is much that India can do without having to engage the duplicitous Hurriyat. But how does one defuse the immediate crisis? This is a good time for the Indian government to institute a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation process in the state. This will need the Hurriyat to play ball, but New Delhi could take the first step. Done right, it will not only provide a way out of the unholy mess, but truly begin bridging the affective divide.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati— The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs and public policy. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org