Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mission Kashmir


Much has been said about the Kashmir issue since protests started to rock Jammu and the Kashmir valley. Many commentators have offered ways to resolve the crisis and not all agree with the official line on Jammu and Kashmir. Such a wealth of diverse opinion is welcome and we may thank our democracy for it. However, we ought to remember that Kashmir is a complex problem that dates back to 1947 and no one has yet found a readymade solution. Yes, the temptation to get over, at any cost, a dispute that has consumed so much in time, money and lives is high in the country. But overly simple attempts to settle the Kashmir issue could create new problems without resolving old ones. Issues have gone beyond the Amarnath land controversy.

What are the proposals suggested to resolve the Kashmir issue? One, Kashmiris are alienated from the Indian state and want to join Pakistan. So let them go. Two, Kashmiris are a pampered lot and the mass protests in the Valley are a threat to the territorial integrity of India. The protests should be crushed and Article 370, which provides special status to Jammu and Kashmir, withdrawn to integrate the state with the rest of India. Third, we must recognise the Kashmiri sentiment of alienation and negotiate with all groups, including separatist ones, on a platform of autonomy to the state.

To examine the first proposal, the UN resolution calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir to decide its accession to India or Pakistan in effect rules out the option of an independent Kashmir. A plebiscite is possible only if India and Pakistan both withdraw their armies from the region. That's unlikely to happen at this point. True, separatists in Kashmir demanding freedom are supported by Pakistan. But Islamabad's vision of 'azadi' for Kashmir doesn't include an independent Kashmiri nation but mere integration of the region with the Pakistani state that is called Azad Kashmir. Various surveys, such as the one carried by Outlook magazine in 1995, suggest that a merger with Pakistan is not a preferred option in the Valley. Moreover, at the core of the pro-Pakistan argument is the view of India as a Hindu state.

It rejects the notion of a secular India and argues that religion ought to be the foundation for a nation. According to this view, Pakistan is the destined home for the subcontinent's Muslims. The Kashmir valley has a Muslim majority; ergo, give it to Pakistan. However, another partition on the basis of religion might sharpen the communal divide in this country. India is home to more than 150 million Muslims and less than five million of them live in Kashmir. The rest are not asking for a separate nation; by and large, they are as contented in India, warts and all, as the other communities of this nation are. But any further territorial realignment on the basis of religion might open old wounds.

The main target of the integrationist politics of right-wing politicians is Article 370. They want the article to be withdrawn. This is impractical. Article 370 is an article of faith born out of the terms under which Jammu and Kashmir joined the Indian Union. It is more than a legal clause that determines relations between Srinagar and New Delhi. The controversial provision is loaded with symbolism and tampering with it will only strengthen the separatist argument that Hindu India wants to dilute the unique character of Kashmir. Clearly, the Han Chinese model of national integration practised by Beijing in Tibet is not an option that can be supported, for moral as well as practical considerations, by those who want a genuine resolution of the dispute.

That leaves us with the autonomy option. This seems to be the only feasible solution at the moment. Article 370 can be the foundation to restructure autonomy for Kashmir.

Sections of the separatist leadership in Kashmir have hinted that they are willing to explore this option. New Delhi should be bold to explore innovative suggestions, including a negotiated return to something like the pre-1953 status of the Jammu and Kashmir state. The present international line of control should stay, but more transit points and trade routes could be opened along the border. Any proposal for autonomy has to be discussed in Parliament and a national consensus has to be obtained on it.

Political parties must rise above immediate electoral interests and see the long-term gains for the country if this tortuous issue is to be resolved amicably. At stake in Kashmir is not merely the might of the Indian state, but also its ability to be flexible and accommodative within a liberal and democratic framework. The world is watching us.

Bold and imaginative leadership on the part of New Delhi as well as Kashmiri leaders is necessary. The challenge is to negotiate a common ground. Alienation is as much an issue of perception as it is of ground realities. The Kashmiri's sense of fear or anger is fuelled by propaganda unleashed by Pakistan as much as it is a result of mismanagement of the problem by successive governments in Srinagar and New Delhi. A spot of skillful statesmanship is urgently required from all sides.

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