The problem

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Where should we go after the last frontiers,

where should the birds fly after the last sky?


Mahmoud Darwish


THIS plaintive cry of the Palestinian poet about his people could well capture the plight of the Kashmiris. Prisoners of both history and geography, the last five decades have seen their state converted into a battleground, real estate over which two warring nation states seem to have constructed their raison d’etre. The Pakistani leadership, military or civilian, may well believe that Kashmir is central to its idea of a Muslim homeland, the unfinished business of Partition. The Indian leadership too may well believe that the ‘loss’ of Kashmir may mean the end of secular India. How this justifies holding a people hostage to abstract notions about nation states remains both a mystery and a tragedy.

For more than five decades Kashmir has remained a contested terrain. Three, or is it four, wars; years of insurgency and terrorism; a proliferation of militants, both home-grown and foreign; an overwhelming presence of armed forces; thousands of civilians killed, maimed, tortured, detained, disappeared, and what have you – have done little to persuade the dramatis personae that a continuing expenditure of force may deliver the ‘peace’ of a graveyard, it cannot ensure a solution. To talk of peace in a blood-soaked land is never easy. To not talk of it, however, is only to invite disaster.

There is today a great clamour for talks. If the Irish, the Israelis and Palestinians, even the Koreans can agree to sit across a table, why can’t we? And yet, despite episodic efforts and a flurry of track II and III initiatives, substantive dialogue does seem somewhat distant. Is it that we do not know whom to talk to? Is it that too many of the ‘real’ actors have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo? Or is it that memory, history and geography have driven confidence in the ‘other’, what to speak of trust, surely a pre-condition for effective dialogue, underground? There does appear a subliminal fear that any alteration in the extant reality of Kashmir may begin the process of unravelling the fragile skein of the sub-continent.

Sri Lankan political scientist, Jayadeva Uyangoda, recently argued that war begets war, that it creates a self-perpetuating rationale. Novelist Michael Ondaatje, in what is arguably the most evocative narrative of the multiple civil wars marking the island, despaired about the inability to talk to one’s neighbour. And yet, it is a creative and courageous leadership that realises that the constituency for peace invariably outnumbers that for war.

It is not that there is a shortage of proposals doing the rounds. Even if, for a moment, we concentrate only on the Indian part of the state, there are a variety of proposals around the notions of autonomy (the State vis-a-vis the Union) and decentralisation (issues of regional and local autonomy). It is indeed disconcerting that the state government’s autonomy proposals met such a hostile reaction. This when the abrogation of Article 356, defining the terms under which the state acceded to the Union, is no longer on the formal agenda of any of the major political formations. To not discuss the nitty-gritty’s of the autonomy proposals, whether within the wider framework of recasting Indian federalism or in terms exclusive to J&K, on flimsy grounds that it involves a reversal to a pre-1953 position or that the nomenclature of the governor and chief minister would change, is only losing an opportunity for settlement.

Equally contentious are the proposals for a trifurcation of the state, foregrounding differences rather than the similarities within the three regions of Jammu, Ladakh and the Valley. Or worse, for redrawing even intra-regional internal boundary lines on essentially religious grounds. Not surprisingly, critics have seen these as exacerbating the already strained communal divisions in the state, putting paid to, once and for all, the composite notion of Kashmiriyat. This despite those not from the Valley (Jammu and Ladakh), or even the minorities within different regions having consistently complained of discrimination, politically vis-a-vis the Valley Muslim community.

There is fortunately less dissonance over improving the poor human rights situation in the state. Whether or not it is realistic to propose a reduction in the strength of the armed forces given the reality of militancy/ insurgency aided and abetted from across the border, ensuring greater accountability of the forces – army, para-military, police – has to be high on the social agenda. No democratic state, even one fighting a vicious insurgency, can hope to turn a blind eye to the escalating incidence of rights violations. Of course, this demands that those on the other side too, the militants, agree to a set of rules, and this is more difficult to enforce.

The recent report by Justice Pandian on the events following the Chitsinghpora massacre marks a rupture in the discourse on human rights in the state. For the first time, a judicial enquiry has blamed the state for unprovoked firing resulting in civilian casualties; worse, of picking up unarmed villagers, killing them in cold blood and passing the incident off as an encounter with militants responsible for Chitsinghpora. The judge has now been asked to enquire into the original incident, so far widely laid at the doorstep of the militants.

All this is clearly new. In the past, any talk of excesses and human rights violations was trapped in a discourse of patriotism, of playing into the hands of the enemy and weakening the morale of our fighting forces. The recent exchange between Prem Shankar Jha and Pankaj Mishra is a good example. Now at least there is a possibility of seriously interrogating our strategy of counter-insurgency operations, of playing off one militant group against another, of arming ‘reformed’ militants to fight against those still in the fray.

Finally, the issue of democratic, legitimate and responsible governance. The state, after all, does have an ‘elected’ government, even if the electoral participation was abysmally low. Why has it been impossible to hold local body elections for panchayats and municipalities? Or to fiscally arm these bodies and regional boards so that the everyday business of maintaining and improving development infrastructure can be taken up? How long can a government trot out the excuse of insurgency when confronted with broken down and missing schools, primary health centres, roads and bridges?

It is, at the best of times, difficult to make sense of Kashmir. Outsiders find the trauma of living in constant fear near-impossible to comprehend. Though the state, unlike the ‘troubled’ regions of the North East, has remained high in the national consciousness, the dominant feeling vis-a-vis the Valley has remained one of hurt – why is it that despite pumping in so much money we are still treated as outsiders? Equally strong is the critique of corrupt regimes – trotted out as the reason for alienation. Rarely, if ever do we, who see ourselves as Indians, recognise our complicity in permitting the political class to continually betray Kashmiri aspirations.

More intriguing are reports which suggest that the last decade, remembered more for the insurgency, violence and killing, has also seen a noticeable growth of wealth in the Valley. Investment in real estate, in the Valley, in Jammu, and elsewhere in the country by the Kashmiri Muslim community has substantially gone up. So have the numbers of Kashmiri youth, both Muslim and Pandit, enrolled in professional courses, including in capitation colleges, in different parts of the country. The artisans who earlier interacted with the market through non-Kashmiri traders are now doing so directly, in the process earning better margins. The growing prosperity, albeit of a narrow strata, and its steady incorporation into an all-India middle class too is impacting on the politics and psyche of the people in the state.

Enlarging the terrain of discussion to incorporate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Azad Kashmir undoubtedly complicates the matter. Should we work towards converting a de facto border, the Line of Control, into a de jure one? Accept the reality as it is and then move ahead? Should the border be a hard or a soft one, permitting greater interaction among Kashmiris on either side? Would this not imply a prior settlement with Pakistan?

There is, of course, the discomfiting fact that little is known, at least in India, about the conditions in Azad Kashmir, what to speak of the Northern Territories of Gilgit and Baltistan which are to all effect merged into Pakistan. Proposals for a unified Kashmir maintain a diplomatic silence on this matter. How then are we to read the prospects of these proposals? Equally, for all those suspicious of the narratives of the nation state, the nostalgic renderings of a pre-1947 unified Kashmir come through as somewhat hollow.

If the Irish accord is any indication, it is evident that any purely internalist framework is unlikely to succeed. The British government, the Irish government and the political parties in Northern Ireland all agreed that the peace talks would hinge on three strands – the first dealing with the internal political arrangements within Northern Ireland, the second dealing with North-South relations in Ireland, and the third addressing relations between London and Dublin. Equally, everyone agreed on the importance of total disarmament of all para-military organisations and armed groups and on using only democratic means. There was also appreciation of locating the arrangements within a wider framework, that of the European Union.

Ireland may turn out more of a success story. The Middle East, Oslo notwithstanding, demonstrates that the struggle for peace, just and with honour, is a long haul; that the consensus remains fragile, amenable to destabilisation at any time. And yet there is no option.

Years before the Oslo accord, Edward Said published After the Last Sky – a book on Palestinian lives without a single violent image. Many of us were intrigued at what we read as a romantic, somewhat nostalgic rendering of a troubled land and people. Only later did we realise the importance of bringing ordinary people in their everydayness into discussions of geo-politics and diplomacy. What ordinary people want most is to experience the possibility of living out banal lives, the small joys and sorrows, in peace.

This issue of Seminar explores some frameworks for peace in the context of Kashmir. There are no given answers or even paths. But if we fail to build on the few and fragile windows of opportunity or include the widest spectrum of actors, hopes for peace may remain just that, hopes.