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(Mis)understanding The Kashmir Conundrum

By Dr. M Ashraf Bhat

19 September, 2012

On 11 April 1996, I boarded a bus from Srinagar bound for Anantnag (also called Islamabad ). Army personnel stopped the bus for a routine check and asked a middle-aged man: ‘where are you going?' ‘Anantnag', was the scared reply. A moment ago, however, the man had fearlessly asserted ‘Islamabad' to the bus conductor. Islamabad and Anantnag, therefore could not be merely contextually constructed alternatives, but, embedded assertion of identity statements. Paradoxically, security forces in Kashmir get angry for using the word Islamabad (probably because it is the name of the capital of the neighboring country! Or perhaps it is an assertion of the religious identity).

The dynamics of such alternatives and the dilemma it entails plays out among the main stakeholders here: the Kashmiri people, India, and Pakistan. The Kashmiri people include the common masses, the separatist camp (popularly called the Hurriyat Conference), the mainstream political parties, and the migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Within the common masses—who actually experienced the destruction, sufferings and pain—there are varying narratives and opinions. A larger section would advocate azadi (freedom) and some, Nehru's proposed ‘plebiscite'. Even among the azadi fans, the understanding varies. For some, it entails the end of the entire Indian presence while for others, it implies Kashmir minus India's army. ‘Most of the young people in Kashmir want azadi, but no two persons have the uniform opinion when asked what azadi is' asserts Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, Chairman of National Minority Commission.

In summer 2008, hundreds were injured and killed; huge rallies supported the azadi slogan. The influence of these protests across the valley persuaded Vir Sanghvi, Subramanian Swamy and Arundhati Roy to suggest a referendum in Kashmir – ‘thinking the unthinkable'. However, shortly, the people of the valley proved such presumptions false by participating in the Assembly elections with almost a 70% turnout. Mr. Arun Jaitley, in a television debate, then called the volatile incidents of 2008 and 2010 in Kashmir as temporary aberrations. However, a common genuine concern, as Mr. Habibullah articulates is that ‘most of the people opine that Indian state treats all the people of Kashmir as potential threats [… and] that India will never treat them as equal citizens.' The only shared concern, one can notice within the common mass that conjoins their voice is that they all have suffered at every front.

Similarly, among the separatists, there are at least three diverse opinions: Pakistan, azadi and plebiscite. Among the two major factions of the separatists, one is willing to participate in a dialogue with the Indian government; the other faction utterly refuses dialogue, considering it futile and without tangible outputs. However, the only unity in their tones is the perception of a common challenge: the Indian State.

The mainstream parties are no exception and are equally divided. The National Conference advocates autonomy; the People's Democratic Party campaigns for self-rule; and the Congress Party affirms the status quo. However, they have some common characteristics, which presumably unite them and distinguish them from the separatist groups. They all consent to the accession of Kashmir with India as final, blame each other for the plight of the Kashmiri people and irrespective of which party rules, the state retains its very high levels of corruption.

Similarly, there are confused theories about the migration of Kashmiri Pandits. Kashmiri Muslims presume that the Pandit community migrated purposely. The Indian government holds the militants responsible for displacing the Pandits. Two common concerns, which unite the Pandits, include the threat of losing their linguistic and cultural identity and the strong opposition to any compromise on Kashmir including the demand for referendum or azadi .

The voices from New Delhi endorse dialogue as the only solution. Nevertheless, the tones vary: some suggest a dialogue with Pakistan and some with Kashmiris alone. Occasionally, the offer for a dialogue is unconditional with any group, whether within our outside the jurisdiction of the Indian constitution. Others (specifically the right wing) strongly warn that Kashmir is an internal problem, irresolvable by dialogue, considering the accession of Kashmir unquestionable and perceiving the conflict as a proxy war by Pakistan and ‘cross-border terrorism'. They seem over-obsessed with the semantics of separatism, thereby pressing the state to be hard on separatists and anybody who seeks or supports azadi in any form. Within the stakeholders of the Indian state, this wave of bewilderment travels across the range of narratives, be it the perceptions about the disappeared persons from Kashmir, or the recent discourses concerning the handling of stone-palters, protests, revocation of AFSPA and the most recent issue of the mass graves. However, the unifying oblige for New Delhi is that Kashmir is an integral part of India; the accession of Kashmir is unquestionable.

Another concerned party is the Indian public. The majority has little or no knowledge about the Kashmir issue. ‘People actually don't know about Kashmir' points out Rukmini Bhaya Nair (professor, poet and writer) at IIT Delhi. People conceptualize Kashmir through Bollywood movies like Mission Kashmir and Roja , and the sometimes-biased local print and electronic media. The other considerably smaller group with a better understanding of Kashmir constitutes persons from the Indian intelligentsia who often criticize the Indian state responsible for holding Kashmir forcefully with the help of 700,000 troops. The right-wing has ever so often threatened them for making ‘antinational' pro-Kashmir statements.

Pakistan, once an essential stakeholder, is currently struggling with its internal troubles and the reputation of a failed state. The current situation has disheartened a handful voices from Kashmir that once favored Pakistan. It would thus be prejudice to consider Pakistan still as a stakeholder, apart from the part of Kashmir they administer, which they call ‘azad Kashmir'.

Finally, the least anxious and non-stakeholders, comprising the international community and organizations (including UN, EU, the US, OIC and the Muslim states) are again in a quandary when it comes to Kashmir. They have an ambiguous Kashmir policy. Every so often, they recommend resolving the issue affirming the right of Kashmiris to self-determination and use the phrase ‘Indian occupied Kashmir'. Occasionally, they show concern for human rights violations in Kashmir by the Indian state, and equally randomly consider it India's internal matter. Seldom, they advocate a dialogue between India and Pakistan, perceiving the Kashmir-solution essential for South Asian peace.

There seems no visionary, pragmatic and sincere policy regarding Kashmir. When a problem is offered diverse perplexing solutions from several parties, it will certainly never be resolved.

Tail piece: One of my friends from IIT Mumbai recently visited Kashmir. On reaching at the Srinagar airport when his wife wondered why her mobile wasn't working and why the weather was different in Kashmir; he replied humorously “do you think you are still in India?”

M. Ashraf Bhat, Ph.D. (IIT Kanpur) is Postdoctoral  Fellow at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi



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