Sunday, December 3, 2023

Another Gory Chapter on Kashmir

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As Kashmir explodes following the killing of Burhan Wani, it’s time we look back at its history. Each Indian PM has written his own chapter of the Kashmir narrative. One can only hope Narendra Modi’s chapter will be fresh and avoids the pitfalls of his predecessors 

By Inderjit Badhwar

All of us who love India and harbor strong nationalist views that this land of our ancestors should  remain strong, united, viable, and committed to the majesty of our Constitution and the Rule of Law, believe equally that Kashmir should never be allowed to break away from the Indian union and trigger off a process of Balkanization. As a senior government official asked me recently: “Are we willing to allow a Brexit situation to take root here? It would play right into Pakistan’s hands.”

The funeral procession of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani at Tral area in Pulwama district on July 9
The funeral procession of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani at Tral area in Pulwama district on July 9. Photo: UNI

That, of course, is a frightening prospect. It would be politically suicidal for any Indian government to give Kashmir away on a silver platter. There is too much at stake—politically, militarily, the blood Indian soldiers have shed, the billions and billions of rupees New Delhi has pumped in, the changing of geographical boundaries, ethnic warfare, the provisions of the Constitution…. It would be suicidal for Pakistan to try and grab it by force. It would be hara-kiri for Kashmiris to stage an armed insurrection.

So where does that leave us? One answer is not to kick history in the face for political convenience but rather to face up to its recorded realities in search of a solution to a problem that is bleeding not only Kashmir but also India. The Modi government has been wise to reach out to opposition parties. Implicit in this gesture is the admission that Kashmir, as admitted by all parties, is a disputed issue without any real parallel to other Indian states and that it needs a solution.

(Above, R-L) Pt Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah, Sardar Patel and Baldev Singh during the proceedings of the Kashmir National Conference in Srinagar in September 1949
(Above, R-L) Pt Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah, Sardar Patel and Baldev Singh during the proceedings of the Kashmir National Conference in Srinagar in September 1949. Photo: Photo Division.

But in my view it is not so much a law-and-order issue as much as it is a problem mired in national and international legal tangles, constitutional commitments, treaties, covenants, promises, and broken promises. I also believe that Pakistan has become a stakeholder not by right but by force and some of India’s own foolish moves starting with supporting a UN brokered ceasefire in 1948. The problem was between India and Kashmir which was virtually a free country then, and not between India and Pakistan which was an armed interloper trying to grab the territory of Kashmir by force.

The latest uprising in Kashmir, sparked by the killing of militant Burhan Wani (similar rebellions occurred after the hanging of Maqbool Butt in 1984, the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah—the Lion of Kashmir—in 1953, the murder of Mirwaiz Farooq in 1990) accurately sums up the roots of the Kashmir dispute, says India’s top historian and lawyer, AG Noorani who has probably done more research on Kashmir than any other living human being.

Historically, he says in a recent essay, it also provides a clue to the ever deteriorating situation there: “Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s Kashmiri nationalism clashed with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indian nationalism. The clash was inherent in their relationship even at the best of times. Nehru arrogantly spurned conciliation and resorted to brute force, with the aid of the army, by ousting Abdullah from the office of Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir on 9 August 1953 and imprisoning him for eleven years. What is little known is that he submitted his prisoner and erstwhile friend to hardships; denying visitors access to him and foisting a conspiracy case which he knew to be false—plotting for accession to Pakistan.”

The valley has erupted each time a separatist leader or youth has been killed
The valley has erupted each time a separatist leader or youth has been killed. Photo: UNI

Misunderstanding of the sentiment of Kashmiryat—which to the Kashmiri is of deeper emotional relevance than his own religious faith—is a trap most of our leaders have fallen into. They have taken the easy way out of making Kashmir a continuous warlike Indo-Pakistan concern rather than an India-Kashmir politico-legal concern.

Whether we agree or not with the views of Noorani, we cannot ignore his scholarship and conveniently sweep him under the carpet as someone whose analysis would give comfort to Pakistan. He says, for example, that India has riveted its control over the State after the Sheikh’s ouster. “But today, more than even before, grim realities have surfaced to the shock of many to demonstrate that Kashmiri nationalism is very much alive and kicking despite New Delhi’s repressive policies… India—its government, most in its media especially TV, and academia, who have feasted themselves on the crumbs New Delhi throws at them from the high table, prefer to envelop themselves cozily in a state of denial. The reality is unbearable to witness—India governs Kashmir against the wishes of its people. They reject the very legitimacy of its rule. As Mir Qasim, installed as Chief Minister by elections which he admitted were rigged and who had supported Abdullah’s ouster in 1953 wrote: ‘They clearly say that they would not like to remain in India. They would like to go out of India. They ask for a plebiscite so that they will be allowed to answer whether they want to remain in India or go out of India. (Mir Qasim, My Life and Times, 298).’”

Reaching out to the people of Kashmir through the slogan of “Kashmiriyat and Insaniyat” was a bold step by BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was a much needed political salve. And I applaud Modi, that despite opposition from hardliners within the Sangh he made the gutsy and sagacious move in reaching out to the PDP in the same spirit. This, and the soft-lining of the Sangh’s view on Article 370, was the kind of statesmanship that negates widely-held view in the valley that the bridges between India and Kashmir “have been burnt forever”. For, the bottomline is “India does not trust Kashmiris and Kashmiris don’t trust India”. The situation deteriorated steeply since the outbreak of militancy in 1989. But its roots lay in the clash of Kashmir and Indian nationalism in 1947, Noorani says.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in April. Photo: UNI
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in April. Photo: UNI

“In a real sense,” he continues, “ there is no alienation of people from the Union; alienation implies previous affection that the people of Kashmir never had for India not even at the time of the accession as both Abdullah and Nehru knew very well. Reflecting popular opinion, the Sheikh was against Kashmir’s accession to India, though he preferred its ideology of secularism to Pakistan’s two-nation theory. Reflecting Indian opinion and his own strong preferences, Nehru would have nothing but its accession to India. Both knew what the Kashmiris thought and felt, hence India’s initial hesitation in forging the accession. The record on views of all three Abdullah, Kashmiris and Nehru speaks for itself.”

 Noorani has dug out an interview of Abdullah with Michael Davidson of The Scotsman published on 14 April 1949. He said: “Accession to either side cannot bring peace…. We want to live in friendship with both Dominions. Perhaps a middle path between them, with economic co-operation with each, will be the only way of doing it. But an independent Kashmir must be guaranteed not only by India and Pakistan but also by Britain, the United States and other members of the United Nations.”

Would an independent Kashmir, Davidson asked him, a kind of Himalayan Switzerland, be feasible and constructive? Those areas of the present State which bordered India and Pakistan and which had no affinity  with the people of the Vale could fall naturally to the Dominion with which they were related by race or religion—the Poonchis, who are Muslim Punjabis, belong obviously to Pakistan, and the Hindus of Jammu, Rajput-Dogras are surely Indians, Davidson suggested.

Abdullah replied: “Yes, independence—guaranteed by the United Nations—may be the only solution. But why do you talk of partition? Now you are introducing communalism and applying the two-nation theory to Kashmir—that communalism which we are fighting here. I believe the Poonchis would welcome inclusion in an independent Kashmir; if, however, after its establishment, they chose to secede and join Pakistan. I would raise no objection.

“I want a solution that is fair to all three parties—Pakistan, India, and the people of Kashmir. But we won’t submit to a communal solution. There has never been a religious problem in the Vale of Kashmir. Hindus and Muslems, we are of the same racial origin, we have the same customs, wear the same clothes, speak the same language. In the street, you cannot distinguish between Moslems and Brahman Pandits. Why, we even have a Mosque in the wall of which a Hindu temple has been built. In Kashmir we have Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab and Moslem refugees from East Punjab.…

“When the Kashmir Moslem Conference also turned communally-minded, most of us Kashmiris left to form a National Conference, a non-sectarian movement conforming with the secular principles of the Indian Congress. Naturally we sympathise rather with India than with Pakistan.…

“Religions have never been a cementing force,” the Sheikh declared. “Christians fight Christians in Europe; Japanese fight Chinese; Turkey wants to be Europeanised; Moslems have warred against Moslems. Socially and nationally there are more compelling interests, economic and ideological. The first task for the Kashmiris, Hindus, and Moslems is to win internal liberation from exploitation.”

Voters at a polling station in Udhampur, during the J&K Assembly election in December 2014. Photo: UNI
Voters at a polling station in Udhampur, during the J&K Assembly election in December 2014. Photo: UNI

On Nehru’s position, Noorani writes: It is important to note that Nehru tried to secure Kashmir’s accession to India while Sheikh Abdullah was still in prison, regardless of his wishes or those of the people of the State. His stand was revealingly summed up in the blunt pithy assertion to Liaquat Ali Khan “I want Kashmir” (Lionel Carter (Ed.), Weakened States Seeking Renewal: British Official Reports from South Asia, 1 January–30 April 1948, Manohar, part I, pp. 176 and 416. An invaluable collection of two volumes). Even before the Partition Plan was announced on June 3, 1947, he began his campaign with a mention of Kashmir as “a difficult problem” at a formal meeting with Mountbatten and advisers on April 22, 1947.

He followed it by a long note to Mountbatten on Kashmir dated June 17, 1947 in which he concluded: “If any attempt is made to push Kashmir into the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, there is likely to be much trouble because the National Conference is not in favour of it and the Maharaja’s position would also become very difficult. The normal and obvious course appears to be for Kashmir to join the constituent Assembly of India. This will satisfy both the popular demand and the Maharaja’s wishes. It is absurd to think that Pakistan would create trouble if this happens.” (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, vol. 3, p. 229). Pakistan did not count. He lavishly praised the Sheikh. On July 4 he wrote to the Maharaja, whom he detested, requesting a meeting and suggesting accession “I appreciate your difficulties” (ibid., p.253). No talk here of releasing Abdullah.

There is so much déjà vu in all this that I am compelled to revisit an article I wrote for India Legal in connection with our cover story based on former intelligence chief AS Dulat’s explosive book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. He was India’s top operative in Kashmir in the 1990’s and gently reminds us—as reviewer Ajith Pillai had written, and Ramesh Menon brought out in his interview with Dulat—that the Kashmir problem, India’s number one national security headache, still festers because of bungling and sins of commissions and omission that play lollypop-like into the ever-ready-to-stump-you Pakistan wicket keeper’s hands.

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I was happy Dulat had written this book because Kashmir was very much a part of my life in the late eighties until the mid-nineties, after which, for a period, I had to avoid going to the valley because I was on a militant hit list for taking a strong position against terrorist violence in my articles for India Today. I write this only to remind readers in the present context that Dulat  was correct in gauging the volatility of the Kashmiri issue—prone to sudden, mercurial shifts—and the changeability of the mindset of ordinary Kashmiris and their leaders.

Let me recap from my earlier essay, my own take on this issue. I covered Ground Zero Kashmir from 1986 to 1991, and then returned to cover the 1996 election which has been described by Dulat as a political “master-stroke.” I saw the Congress-NC alliance between Rajiv Gandhi and Farooq Abdullah emerge in 1986 and then the fatally flawed and rigged February 1987 election in which the wildly popular, youth-oriented MUF party was trounced and moderates like Abdul Ghani Lone of the Peoples Conference were hounded out of Handwara by NC goons. I wrote about that election: “Congress may have won an election but India has lost Kashmir.”

The consequent backlash within the next couple of years was the emergence of the gun, street battles, political assassinations, repression, mass marches, bombings and disappearances. India had played into Pakistan’s hands. Since the late 1940s, after Indian troops helped Kashmir trounce and repel the Pakistani invaders who had tried to take Kashmir by force, Pakistan had not succeeded in training and sending armed militants to try and destabilize Kashmir on the ideological premise of the two-nation theory. It is remarkable that while Pakistan had been able to arm Khalistani militants in Punjab it failed to achieve the same result in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

This is largely because the Kashmiris are fiercely independent. After all, in 1948, most of the innocents butchered and raped in Anantnag and Baramulla by the Pakistani invaders were themselves Muslims. Histori-cally, Kashmiris had fought the Afghans, Mughals, Dogra rulers and Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Their concept of Kashmiriyat was—and is—based on their historical fight against, and then submission to, outside rulers who treated them with disdain. That is why the concept of  azaadi is so deeply ingrained in the Kashmiri psyche.

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The various legal resolutions on the Line of Control, the Ceasefire, UN observers, plebiscite, passed in the United Nations as well as Article 370, while kept alive as debating points in Kashmir, do not really impact the internal reality of the Kashmiri psyche. The Kashmiri is taught as a child that he is the subject of the “Dilli Durbar” and anybody who makes a pact with “Dilli” is betraying Kashmir to “India.” He feels the same about Pakistan.

But he knows the real world. India, for the sake of its own ideological secular identity and unity will never cede Kashmir. The Kashmiri knows this. He may wave the Indian flag at times but, always, with two fingers crossed behind his back. India has learned to control Kashmir through a combination of politics, democracy whenever possible, force when necessary, undercover operations, money, bribes, sting operations and puppet leaders. The Kashmiris have been smart enough not to escalate violence to such an extent that it would become a full-fledged armed rebellion with frightful retribution. Both know where to draw the line. Both sides play the game. Kashmiris are rewarded handsomely from India as well as from across the border. All Kashmiri parties participate in the politics of blackmail. They use either the Pakistani or the Indian flag, whichever comes handy. Indian politicians keep Kashmir alive because it is a handy tool to whip up nationalist fervor. Pakistan does the same because without claiming Kashmir on the grounds of its Muslim majority, the underpinning of their ideological identity as an Islamic state would collapse.

And so, the game goes on. This is the game that Dulat writes about so engagingly and, in the process, fills a yawning gap about what transpired in the 1990s in the spy-versus-spy humint game—far more effective than warfare or “encounter battles” in creating and weaning leaders to the Indian side. His account of the Shabir Shah game of nerves is brilliantly reconstructed, though I wish he would talk a little more about what we journalists called “Dullat’s Boys” or the “friendly militants” like Kuka Parrey who gave Pakistani operatives the fright of their lives.

The Kashmir Dilemma is beautifully summed up by MJ Akbar in Kashmir: Behind the Vale:  “Kashmir lies at the edge of India’s borders and at the heart of India’s consciousness. It is not geography that is the issue; Kashmir also guards the frontiers of ideology. If there was a glow of hope in the deepening shadows of a bitter partition, then it was Kashmir, whose people consciously rejected the false patriotism of fundamentalism and made common cause with secular India instead of theocratic Pakistan. Kashmir was, as Sheikh Abdullah said and Jawaharlal Nehru believed, a stabilizing force for India.”

Akbar records Kashmir’s struggle in the century to first free itself from feudal oppression and then enter the world of modern India in 1947. Placing the mistakes and triumphs of those early, formative years in the perspective of history, the author goes on to explain how the 1980s have opened the way for Kashmir’s hitherto marginalised secessionists. Both victory and defeat have their lessons; to forget either is to destabilize the future. Kashmir and the mother country are inextricably linked. India cannot afford to be defeated in her Kashmir.

Where Akbar left off, Dulat pitched in to take the narrative farther. But there are other important books that fit beautifully into the puzzle. Governor Jagmohan’s book My Frozen Turbulence is a scathing indictment of Delhi’s abysmal misunderstanding of the Kashmir issue and of the Kashmiri psyche and the policy of benign neglect alternating with gratuitous political gamesmanship and interference that further fueled militancy and violence in Kashmir just when successful doses of good governance under Governor’s rule had helped to pacify much of the valley.

Brigadier Amar Cheema’s The Crimson Chinar is a brilliant perspective on how India keeps blundering in its approach to Kashmir. He relies heavily on the venerable BK Nehru, former governor of Kashmir and Indira Gandhi’s cousin, in pinpointing the roots of discontent starting with the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah, the “Lion of Kashmir” in 1953 which virtually rendered the state’s Constituent Assembly leaderless, followed by a series of rigged or uncontested elections until 1976 which rendered Indian claims of democracy in Kashmir a farce.

But Cheema is correct in pointing out that the Sheikh had himself become a corrupt and authoritarian leader and had completely rigged the election to the constituent assembly itself. History repeated itself in the 1987 election which was largely fought on the corruption issue. The Farooq Abdullah government was widely perceived as venal and rotten to the core and the Sheikh Abdullah dynasty was as unpopular as the Shah of Iran before his downfall.

For Rajiv Gandhi to have allied with this corrupt party and then look away as the election was openly rigged and brutally manipulated, was the last straw. And both Kashmir and Indian are still paying the price.

Prime Minister Modi learns quickly from history and tends to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessors. So far his Kashmir initiatives have been sensible. Each Indian PM writes his own chapter to the Kashmir story. One can only hope that Modi’s chapter will be fresh and that someone in his administration will have learned the lessons spelt out in the books written by AS Dulat, MJ Akbar, BK Nehru, Jagmohan, and Brigadier Cheema.

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