Placing people at the centre
THE crisis in Kashmir, seeming to abate with the elections of 1996 which returned the state to a popular government after a singularly dismal spell of Governor’s rule, is firmly back on the national and, unhappily, the international agenda. Many reasons are sought for this and many explanations proffered: the two South Asian neighbours going nuclear, raising the spectre of nuclear conflict; Pakistan sponsoring infiltration by terrorists into Kashmir; the alleged imposition of a ‘puppet government’ on the state by India; the international competition to dominate Central Asia with its emerging oil potential, to which Kashmir is adjacent and indeed a geographic part.
Although each case will have its supporters and its critics, the heart of the problem lies in the need for resolution of the conflict within the unhappy state. This author is convinced that if the parties involved were to agree simply to respect what the people wanted, a resolution would be readily found.
The case of Kashmir is different to many similar ethnic conflicts in other parts of today’s world. While Israel’s problems and those of Ireland have arisen from military conquest of a people and the excesses and humiliation that necessarily follow, not easily, if ever, forgotten, Kashmir had become part of India of its own volition. Subsequent and repeated blunders, fully exploited by our enemies, have brought us to the present sorry pass. Of course, the situation in both examples cited has been complicated by their perpetrators by the settlement of members of the victorious ethnic or religious group in parts of the conquered territory. This has rendered extrication anything but simple, even with every good intention. This is a problem not faced in Kashmir.
The question before us in Kashmir today therefore is whether those blunders can be undone, and will that undoing at this stage help restore the confidence so mortally wounded. Even more important, will the continued denial of liberty in part of a nation, which can with justice pride herself on being among the world’s freest, not pose a grievous threat to the survival of that liberty in other parts of the same entity.
Much has been written of Kashmir’s accession to India. India’s argument has been grounded in that accession. Similarly, the Pakistani case, our rival for hegemony, has been in questioning the legality, and now even the veracity of that accession.1 It is a fact that a Hindu maharajah of a state with a Muslim majority signed the Treaty of Accession. Pakistan has argued that the logic of Partition meant that the state had to be part of Pakistan.
Our own case has relied most heavily on its legal strength, of its having been in accordance with the India Independence Act, 1947, passed not by us but by Britain’s Parliament. Neither case is grounded on the will of the Kashmiri people though here again our case is indeed stronger. But in arguing our case we have only now come to the realisation that, while the maharajah was indeed the signatory to the Treaty of Accession, there was pressure from his opponents within the state, namely the National Conference led by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah with its strong support base within the Kashmir valley that the state opt for India. The maharajah’s own preference as advised by his prime minister on the eve of Independence, Ram Chandra Kak, was that the state take advantage of a gray area in the India Independence Act, read with existing executive instructions, to opt for independence. Sheikh Abdullah was in fact imprisoned for his pains, released only under pressure from the then prime minister of India, on 29 September 1947.
Perhaps our own negligence in pressing this point arose from the first of our series of blunders, the dismissal and arrest of the Sheikh in 1953. This naturally precluded us from presenting our case on grounds of his support. But it remains the key to the moral correctness of that accession. In fact, the portion of the state where Pakistan had its strongest support at the time of its accession, lying across the Pir Panjal and comprising Mirpur, is the portion where, by the cease-fire of August 1949, Pakistan retains control. This is what Pakistan calls ‘Azad Kashmir’ and India ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’.2
Nevertheless, whatever our legal right, the accession was more than 50 years ago. Does that right still hold through all that has happened since? Nations, much less democratic ones, may be created but not built as a result of legal decree alone. History has taught us that military strength in itself can secure only a transient unity. The will of the people, or at the very least their willing acceptance, must be the binding force of a nation, and as history again has taught us, when that will erodes, mighty empires will fall and democratic governance become but a pretense. The evolution of the Kashmiri will holds, to my mind, the key to understanding the problem of the state, and to help chart the course for the future.
India sent her troops into Kashmir because her people demanded it. After the mutiny in Poonch and rout of the state forces at Muzaffarabad by tribal invaders, it was only the volunteers of the National Conference who ‘braved death in stemming the invasion,’ giving time to the Indian forces to take positions defending Srinagar. Thereafter it was the local Forest Rangers, mostly Kashmiri Muslims, seconded by the Sheikh’s emergency government who ‘produced the most accurate information regarding enemy strengths, location and movements.’3 India then took the case to the UN, and supported the resolution asking for a plebiscite under UNCIP auspices.4
She withdrew from this commitment in 19565 after Pakistan joined SEATO, but continued to hold elections, in none of which was secession an issue. It will of course be argued that Sheikh Abdullah, the leading political leader of the state, was debarred from many an election, that the state’s Constitution had been promulgated in 1956 and remained unaccepted by his party, then the Plebiscite Front, and that therefore the Assembly was not representative of the people. However, the Sheikh-Indira Accord of 1975 restored political participation to all segments of the political spectrum in the state, which was effectively demonstrated in the Assembly elections of 1977, when the entire opposition united with India’s ruling Janata Party to discomfit the Sheikh but was roundly defeated at the polls. Again in 1983, the National Conference, now with Farooq Abdullah at the helm, won the Assembly election, defeating the Congress ruling at the centre despite a vigorous, personal campaign by Indira Gandhi.
What happened thereafter is a sad story in the history of the state. In that period, not in the earlier years, lie the roots of the current crisis. Although Indira Gandhi had a clear perception of Kashmir’s relations with India, and had said that results of any political recklessness in Kashmir would always be unpredictable, she allowed herself to be persuaded, against the advice of her uncle B.K. Nehru, Governor of the state, to concur in the sacking of Farooq’s government. Perhaps she had a game plan, but tragically did not live to play it through.
Rajiv, with every good intention, tried to remedy the situation in allying with the National Conference to strengthen the secular element of Kashmiri politics against what was perceived as a rising tide of extremism. But the Kashmiris saw the Rajiv-Farooq Accord of 1996 as a capitulation, particularly because it was not followed through with accelerated development which had been Farooq’s hope, aware of the risk he had taken in entering into the agreement. Instead it was followed by an election in 1987, which the then Governor of the state subsequently declared to have been rigged, thus providing grist to the mill of Pakistani propaganda.
With the fall of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989, the incoming government reappointed that very Governor to the position from which he had in the meantime retired. This has been the subject of curiosity since the chief minister had already declared that he would resign if that appointment were made and ministers within the cabinet had advised against it. The Union home minister at the time, himself a Kashmiri, had however always despised the Abdullah family, opposed the Sheikh-Indira Accord, and resigned from the cabinet and the Congress Party in reaction to the accord between Farooq and Rajiv. And so, once more the future of the state and her people hinged on individual predelictions.
It is true that by this time Farooq had lost much of his support base. But the problem was still between the Kashmiris and their own government. With Farooq’s resignation, Governor’s rule was imposed, focusing the entire hostility against India.
It is little known that this period had also seen the rise of radical Islam, motivating Rajiv Gandhi to seek a consolidation of secular forces under the Rajiv-Farooq Accord. The early ’80s had seen the massacres in Nellie and Tsawalkhowa in Assam. Many of the clerics fleeing Assam had sought refuge in Kashmir which, virtually since the advent of Islam in that state ,had lacked an educated clergy at the grassroots level. Recollect Abul Fazl’s comment in his Ain-i-Akbari that the flame of Islam burned but feebly in Kashmir!
These clerics were given charge of several madrasas that had proliferated across the valley. Much of their bitterness would have transmitted to the impressionable minds in their charge. Many of their wards were now fiery young men. The ’80s had indeed been an era of communal rumblings across the country. With the fall of the Farooq government it was not long before the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen edged out the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front which had initiated the insurgency, but now found itself the premier target of an organisation which had taken to the gun to press for accession to Pakistan.
The Union government under Narasimha Rao realised soon after taking office that there was little alternative to restoration of a government of the people of J&K. By the time the security and administrative environment was prepared for this however, the terrible sufferings endured by the people had made it necessary for them to be assured that those sufferings had not been in vain. It is today difficult, nay impossible, to cite a single family, which had not been forced to endure irreparable loss in those dreadful days immediately following the onset of violence. This had entirely quenched the thirst of much of Kashmir’s impatient youth, abetted by their elders, who had admired what they perceived as their fighting spirit, to seek a speedy resolution of all real or imagined grievances by violent insurgency.
Those grievances, however, remained, and were hardly addressed under Governor’s rule, preoccupied as that rule had been with quelling violence. Hence the refusal of the National Conference to participate in the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 without a watertight assurance from the Union government that it would be willing to consider ‘restoration’ of autonomy to the state. Hence also its decision to return to the electoral fold in the subsequent Assembly polls when it had received such an assurance from the then Government of India. With its resounding two-third majority in the ensuing Assembly elections, came new promise. Whatever became of that?
If the state had acceded to India of her own volition; if the years from that accession to the ’80s had indeed been years of relative peace, disturbed only occasionally like similar disturbances in other parts of India; if above all, at the time of Partition, Kashmir had been the only part of the country where Mahatma Gandhi had beheld a ray of hope in the surrounding gloom – the answer to our question is vital. It is germane to the quest for peace that must be our concern.
The disaffection that had built up in the ’80s had been based on the feeling among young Kashmiris, now widely educated and sturdy unlike their timid forebears, that there was no future for them in India. The media daily blared details of the disintegration of the Soviet empire. To Kashmiris, fed by further propaganda by interested parties within and outside the state, it was made to appear that this was but a rehearsal for what was to become of the Indian Union. But now, after years of suffering they felt betrayed by Pakistan. From that country had come offers to the JKLF of training, arms and funding in the initial stages. With the resignation of the Farooq government, enthusiastic parents, full of wishful dreams, lovingly dispatched wards decked like bridegrooms on buses claiming to be bound for POK, to pioneer the jihad.
Such was the laxity of security in a system riven with corruption in the first year of Governor’s rule, that most of these young people actually received basic training and returned to precipitate the state and India into an unprecedented crisis. The local police, marginalised and under direct threat from the militants, virtually withdrew from counter insurgency and crippled the state with repeated strikes, culminating in a month long strike by all Kashmiri government employees in August 1990. Pakistan, feeling no doubt that the war was won, reneged from its earlier stand that it would support independence for Kashmir,6 and set about weakening that oragnisation in favour of one that would demand accession to Pakistan. That was the Hizb ul Mujahideen.
Feeling betrayed by Pakistan and in retreat from India’s security forces better able to handle the militancy under the directions of the army rather than the independent bumbling of the paramilitary forces, the people looked to Farooq’s government as the best means of overcoming present traumas and working towards restoration of normal life. For India this presented an opportunity. Unfortunately, the Farooq government on its installation failed to address any of the issues that required to be addressed. New employment opportunities were indeed sought to be generated by creating 40,000 government jobs. However, in fact, these jobs were sold for a price, earning little gratitude.
The need was for the government to withdraw and create more economic activity with a self sustaining momentum. But no effort was made even to initiate a study on what needed to be done in that direction. In the meantime the bid to extirpate the remnants of militancy led to an uncontrolled increase in custodial killings. Public frustration only grew, expressed forcefully in the 1996 election by virtual public boycott. This message was sought to be brushed aside by projecting it, as has always been done so consummately in that state, as merely fear of victimisation by the militants.
To compound the distress, Pakistan’s authorities, giving up on their Kashmiri surrogates, began accelerating the intrusion of professional terrorists trained in their country or in its neighbourhood, recruited from across the globe, but primarily in their own north and northwest. But it is useless to aver that infiltration is the sole, or even its primary, cause of the disaffection. In no other part of this country can such intruders function so without let or hindrance.
The fact that we choose to blind ourselves to is that the people of Kashmir look upon this as a war between India and Pakistan for their land, on which their own right stands extinguished. They have suffered at the hands of both. They will, therefore, depending on local considerations, side with that party which they find safer and more profitable. Many are prepared to play both sides. Many others, having come over to our side, continue with their newfound talents for extortion, rape and harassment of civilians, but as storm troopers of our armed forces.
The Kashmiris are left feeling that the world cares little for them if at all. That is perhaps the case, but with both India and Pakistan having gone nuclear, the world is concerned that peace be restored in any manner, notwithstanding the people’s desires. But any such peace can only be a passing phase unless the people of Kashmir are enabled to finally find a life that they are entitled to simply by being a part of the human race. It was in response to this that the ruling party in the state finally, in early 2000, piloted through the state Assembly the State Autonomy Resolution, seeking to deliver on its basic election promise.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC in 1999 on relations between Pakistan and the USA, Benazir Bhutto, in answer to questions admitted that her Kashmir policy was the worst mistake of her premiership. The issue had paralysed relations with India and hamstrung development within Pakistan, bringing nothing but suffering to the Kashmiris. Her roadmap: that trade and commerce be opened between India and Pakistan; that on the basis of the progress in that direction trade and commerce be opened directly across the LoC in Kashmir; that in the meantime the settlement of the international disputes regarding Kashmir be put on hold; and that only once life was restored to complete normalcy in the state and its environs, a move be made in the direction of holding a plebiscite.
This statement, while not giving up on the mantra of plebiscite, marks in fact a plea to return to the framework of the Shimla Agreement of 1972 between the then President of Pakistan and the Prime Minister of India. If this is the path adopted, with enhanced trade and commerce and unimpeded movement across borders, the appeal for plebiscite will wither away.
Benazir’s views are hardly conclusive or even officially acceptable to either India or Pakistan. They do, however, highlight the readiness in that country to look afresh at an issue to which Pakistan is necessarily a party. There are two essential preconditions if this road is to be charted. Terrorism must stop in the state, and Pakistan’s commitment to contain it must precede any further move. Even those avowedly in support of involving Pakistan in the deliberations for a settlement, including Hurriyat leaders, are in mortal fear of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence. It should be clear that if terrorism persists, the Indian Army must remain in force, hardly conducive to a vibrant economy. This also feeds Kashmiri resignation to being resident in what they see as an occupied state.
If India and Pakistan can agree to this limited commitment and abide by it, a framework for peace will emerge from among the people themselves. Second, governments in both parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir must allow freedom to their people, not merely by holding elections, but by withdrawing restraints and government’s own monopolies in trade and commerce. Then a bid must be made to encourage investors the world over to seek business in forest-based industry, food processing, particularly temperate fruit, and the hotel industry, which could rival the best in the world. The effort by parties hitherto in using the economy to assert their authority in both sides of the erstwhile state has only fed the sense of separateness.
Increasingly, young persons in that state, Indian or Pakistani, have felt that that the only means of making a respectable living is by working abroad. While some of the foremost businessmen in the Middle East, UK and the US have their origins in and deep love for Kashmir, those left within the state are condemned to languish, yearning for but never reaching the fulfilment of their potential.
The question of autonomy, in any case a part of the growing need for decentralisation in the federal evolution of India, can then be considered, but should be in all parts of the state. All of India’s states went through reorganisation in the ’50s, which has strengthened India. Reorganisation of the state of J&K, which acquired its present borders to create a kingdom for the Dogras, need not now be a source of apprehension, if the people of the state so wish it. And if the parties concerned can bring themselves in due course to allow for an economic reunification of the restructured state, India and Pakistan can work together to ensure its viability.
All parties in the state’s political spectrum would need to become part of this entity. The Government of India has expressed willingness to enter into dialogue with all parties within the state irrespective of their political commitments. The issue of a passport to Hurriyat leader Abdul Ghani Lone to allow him to participate in his son’s wedding in Pakistan has been seen by him as a paradigm shift in government policy. The Hurriyat Conference has declared its willingness to be a conduit for finally working towards repair of the shattered relationship between India and Pakistan. This could be its window of opportunity.
Are these but straws in the wind? Time will of course tell. In any case the only way peace can be restored in Kashmir will be in placing its people at the centre of any agreement eventually arrived at.
1. Alastair Lamb, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy 1846-1990, Roxford Books, 1991, pp. 136-137.
2. For a detailed examination of the events leading upto the cease-fire and the reasons for the point of declaration, read Prem Shankar Jha, Kashmir 1947, Rival Versions of History, Oxford University Press, 1996.
3. Lt. Gen. L.P. Sen, Slender Was the Thread: Kashmir Confrontation 1947-48, Orient Longman,1969, pp. 36, 142.
4. UNCIP Resolution: S/1110, Para 75, 13 August 1948.
5. India, Parliamentary Debates, Lok Sabha, III, ii, Col. 3747 (29 March 1956).
6. Speech by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan in March 1990 on a visit to Azad Kashmir.