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 (Photo: PTI)
(Photo: PTI)

Opinion | Where the Irish and Kashmiri stories converge and diverge

Creating the kind of openness that Northern Ireland enjoys needs imagination and magnanimity

Sometime in mid-July, I travelled by bus from Belfast to Dublin. Belfast is in Northern Ireland; Dublin is in the Republic of Ireland, part of an island divided by faith-based nationalism. But there was no check-post, and you found out you had crossed the border when miles became kilometres on road signs, the prices on billboards turned from pounds to euros, and letters had accents. My cellphone indicated we were in another country.

The journey was barrier-free, made possible by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That accord ended a 30-year period euphemistically called “the Troubles" in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, when Irish nationalists battled the British government. Some 3,500 people died, half of them civilians, one-third British forces, the rest from Irish armed groups.

Is the Irish sectarian strife comparable to the situation in Kashmir? With the Indian government rendering Article 370 ineffective, the troubled paradise has made headlines worldwide. Foreign media refers to the state not as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), but as “Indian-occupied Kashmir", paralleling “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir", which is how India describes the parts beyond the Line of Control. Pakistan calls PoK “Azad Kashmir", even though it has unilaterally ceded some of that land to China without Kashmiri consent.

Indians don’t like J&K being called “Indian-administered Kashmir" as BBC and other Western media outlets describe it, and so some Indians call Northern Ireland “British-occupied Ireland", or, more accurately, “English-occupied Ireland". Rhetoric apart, it is useful to understand where the Kashmiri and Irish stories come together, and what sets them apart. True, religion has been a divisive force in both conflicts. In both regions, there have been cases of police brutality, abuses by armed forces, acts of terrorism against civilians, ethnic discrimination and sectarian violence, instances of rape, the uncovering of arms stashes, rumours of collaborators and their vicious deaths, and checkpoints being attacked and blown up.

But the combatants in Northern Ireland—the fierce nationalists who want a united Irish Republic and the stubborn unionists who want to remain with the United Kingdom—ultimately negotiated a deal that led to substantial autonomy for Northern Ireland and significantly reduced military presence. Northern Ireland elects its own first minister and there is significant devolution of power (not unlike the spirit of Article 370), and governments are formed based on power-sharing. (At the moment, that legislature is suspended because of the inability of parties to form a government, and not because a fax sent by a coalition to the federal government’s representative never reached and central rule had to prevail, as happened in J&K last year.)

In Northern Ireland, former first ministers are not under house arrest without being charged; the internet has not been shut down; troops are not marching and the streets not deserted; and nobody—not Catholic revellers, nor Protestants marching provocatively during the season—fear being shot at by pellet guns and getting blinded.

To be sure, Belfast is a divided city; tall walls divide communities; road signs for “Londonderry" in Northern Ireland have the word “London" whitewashed; martial murals punctuate the separation—one side extols left-leaning guerrillas, the other side salutes the Israeli armed forces.

If British Prime Minister Boris Johnson goes ahead with his spectacular stunt of taking Britain out of the European Union without a deal by 31 October, then some border checks may have to return in some form, and, if they do, mutual suspicion may recur too, possibly followed by violence. This is because the peace in Northern Ireland is the result of the Good Friday Agreement, which recognizes the border only for those who need it. A Northern Irish person can be Irish and British if he chooses, and not, if he doesn’t, without feeling guilty or anxious about either identity. The two identities are separated by faith and nationalism but united by culture. Seamus Heaney was one of the world’s greatest poets from Ireland and yet, outside Belfast there is an outstanding museum dedicated to his memory, celebrating his poetry—like Rabindranath Tagore being celebrated in both Bangladesh and India.

Indeed, far more blood has been spilt in Kashmir; far graver abuses have been committed. There is far less trust and a greater sense of betrayal. The nationalistic chorus accompanying the Indian government’s decision is threatening to shut down any dissent, even if it is peaceful—witness the propaganda machinery, including private television networks, going after Shehla Rashid. It is yet another example reinforcing the alienation that Kashmiris feel.

Comparing J&K to Northern Ireland is unjust to people in both those lands. Creating the kind of openness that Northern Ireland enjoys requires imagination and magnanimity. But maverick politicians can only overturn chessboards, regardless of the consequences—as India may have done, and as Johnson threatens to do. J&K is not yet Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland must not become like J&K.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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