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By Inderjit Badhwar

Last week’s Pulwama suicide attack on a paramilitary convoy in which 45 soldiers were killed is yet another grim reminder that Kashmir is India’s number one security headache. It continues to fester because sins of omission and commission past and present play like horror movie re-runs into the hands of Pakistan-backed terror brigades.

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. The latest terror attack demonstrates, once again, the volatility of the Kashmir issue—prone to sudden, mercurial shifts—and the changeability of the mindset of ordinary Kashmiris and their leaders. An attack of this magnitude signals the latest declaration of war.

Is there, or can there ever be, a “political” solution? Or is the Kashmir problem like diabetes about which you can do nothing except keep it under control with periodic shots of insulin?

Briefly, I covered Kashmir from 1986 to 1991, and then returned to cover the 1996 election which was described by former intelligence chief AS 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 such as Abdul Ghani Lone of the People’s Conference were hounded out of Handwara by National Conference 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 destabilise Kashmir on the ideological premise of the two-nation theory that Muslims are a separate nation and Pakistan is their natural homeland.

It is remarkable that while Pakistan was 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, innocents butchered and raped in Anantnag and Baramulla by the Pakistani invaders were themselves Muslims. Historically, 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 no matter how much Kashmir has benefited from being a part of the Indian Union.

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.

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, chicanery, jingoism and cajoling 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 inviting fearsome retribution. Both know where to draw the line. Both sides play the game.

Kashmiris are rewarded handsomely by India, as well as from across the border. In their politics of blackmail—all Kashmiri parties participate in this—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 fervour. 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.

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.”

According to the book’s summary, Kashmiriyat is the identity and culture that has blossomed within the ring of mountains for thousands of years. 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 marginalized 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 pitches in to take the narrative further. 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 fuelled 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 BK Nehru, former governor, 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 a puppet grouping followed by a series of rigged or uncontested elections until 1976 which proved 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, largely fought on the corruption issue. The Farooq Abdullah government was widely perceived as venal 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 brazenly manipulated was the last straw. And both Kashmir and India are still paying the price.

Prime Minister Narendra 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 someone in his administration will have learned the lessons spelt out in the books and deal with the fallout of the Pulwama terror attack within calibrated perspectives.

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