Recent developments in the State of Jammu and Kashmir have been a source of alarm on a variety of counts. Since the decline of militancy in the Valley in recent years, disaffection was known to have existed, but the extent of it was perhaps underestimated. A related factor of concern is that the uprising in the Valley was not Pakistan-sponsored, and yet generated pro-Pakistan sentiments. The vitiated relationship between Jammu and the Valley that could trigger such immense disruption of normal life was also unanticipated. But perhaps the most serious concern arising out of the recent episode is the revisiting of New Delhi’s relationship with the Kashmir Valley. While some writings have conceptually, and aptly, made the case for better policies to address the serious situation in the State in furtherance of the “idea of India”, yet others have advocated that India should allow Kashmir to secede, paradoxically, in the name of the “idea of India”.
An analysis of these writings reveals that they are based on three kinds of arguments. First, there is the characterization of the unrest in Kashmir as a peaceful movement for ‘Azadi’ akin to India’s Gandhian struggle for independence and therefore different from the militancy in Punjab and the North East. A corollary is that New Delhi’s relationship with Kashmir is analogous to British colonial rule over India, which rather than integrate Kashmir with India has pushed people away. By this argument, separatists in the Valley are not just a “noisy minority”, rather they are like the few million of Gandhi’s followers who stood up to the British Empire.
The second argument is the connection between this movement for Azadi and the “idea of India”. The argument here is that the right of democratic dissent and free association of people are central to the idea of India and since Kashmiris do not wish to freely associate with the rest of India, New Delhi should let go of Kashmir. More precisely, in furtherance of the true spirit of democratic principles, India should grant Kashmiris the right to self-determination. A related point questions India’s double-standards with regards to the accession of Junagarh and Kashmir on the grounds that the fact that Kashmir had a Muslim-majority population was ignored. Carrying this argument to its logical conclusion is the characterization of the protest movement as a referendum in which people are seen as representing themselves.
The third are a series of arguments consisting of practical reasons for granting independence to Kashmir: that despite massive subsidies, periodic elections and use of force, India has not been able to stem the demand for Azadi; that giving up on Kashmir will end the “painful strain” on India’s resources, lives and honour as a nation; that India should not be held hostage to a people half the size of Delhi; that losing Kashmir would not diminish India geographically since people are already accustomed to the special status of Kashmir, and fears of a domino effect will in any case only hinder adoption of other measures like soft borders or autonomy; that giving up on Kashmir will not compromise Indian secularism, since a majority of India’s Muslims do not really relate to Muslims in Kashmir and would not mind if India gave up on Kashmir. These arguments are not only insufficient, but also inappropriate to make the case for Kashmir’s secession from India.
The characterization of Kashmir’s movement as a peaceful Gandhian movement and as a movement for freedom from British rule is fraught with several problems. First, such a characterisation disregards its violent historical antecedents during the 1990s, aided and abetted by Pakistan, that distinguish it from the Gandhian freedom struggle which was peaceful all along. Second, it assumes that there is a consensus on the meaning of Azadi in Kashmir as there was for freedom from British rule. Divisions among separatists on the meaning of Azadi have long been known; there are those who want an independent Kashmir coterminous with the Dogra rulers’ state and those who aspire to accession with Pakistan. In addition, there are those for whom Azadi means respect for the basic freedoms and identity of Kashmiris, not necessarily outside India’s borders. Finally, this argument assumes that peaceful means justify any political end, and conversely that violent means detract from the morality of a movement. This is too simplistic a reason to condemn militancy in Punjab, insurgency in the North-East, and other similar movements in the world. Such movements are often a reaction to ills of governance.
The linking of the granting of Azadi to the idea of Indian is also tenuous. This is so because it is the very “idea of India” that allows for such dissent to be expressed without actually endorsing the demand for secession, in spite of a history of violent militancy and heavy military presence in the Valley. Also, it would be improper to say that India ignored the presence of a Muslim majority in the State during accession. Several recent studies of the history of accession reveal that Sheikh Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference with a substantial following in the Valley, was instrumental in Kashmir’s accession to India, in opposition to the wishes of both the Muslim Conference and Maharaja Hari Singh. Finally, a protest movement is not a referendum. However, it does convey that there are significant numbers who are unhappy with the prevailing situation, and there is no denying that that is a cause for worry.
Arguments advancing practical reasons for allowing Kashmir to secede are similarly problematic. Granted that after so many years India has not been able to stem the demand for Azadi. This is a result of faulty policies and improper governance, which could be set right. There is urgent need for this not only in Kashmir, but also in several other parts of the country. In Kashmir, New Delhi could begin by initiating less restrictive security policies, bettering human rights record of the security forces, ensuring that funds given to the state are utilised in a manner that improves the standard of living of the common people, improving the connectivity of the state with India and with Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and implementing the recommendations of various working groups set up by the Prime Minister. Is Kashmir really a strain on India’s resources, lives and honour? One would rather not expend resources in countering militancy and put public money to better use, but the fact of the matter is that India’s economic take-off went ahead in spite of the raging insurgency in J&K through the 1990s.
As for the strain on Indian lives and honour, one really needs much more than a CNN-IBN poll to know if that is how Indian people think of Kashmir. Many would perhaps want the state to be part of India like every other state, and enjoy the benefits of India’s growing economy. Also, allowing Kashmir to secede will certainly diminish India geographically and compromise its security interests, even allowing for the fact that there might not be a domino effect in terms of other parts of the periphery similarly demanding secession.
Finally, India’s secularism is not about thinking about whether India’s Muslims relate to Kashmir’s Muslims, both being heterogeneous communities. Rather, it is about giving assurance to every religious community, especially one that also perceives itself to be ethnically different, that India does respect its culture and distinctiveness. More importantly, it is also about not letting the state and the “idea of India” be hijacked by groups claiming to represent the majority.
Historical grievances and futuristic aspirations have been the bases for the Kashmiri demand for Azadi, which has tended to be articulated sometimes in religious idiom. Today, this is a sizeable voice that needs to be heard. This is precisely what democracy is all about. The decline of militancy and international condemnation of Pakistan’s role in Kashmir present an opportune moment for allowing democracy to flourish fully in this sensitive border state and provide a renewed opportunity for all sections of Kashmiris to subscribe to the idea of India as a plural political entity guided by civic nationalism. Let not the imperatives of geopolitics, which have for long guided India’s policies towards Kashmir, come in the way of operationalising the idea of India.