Indian policy makers could do well to adopt it in their prescriptions for the perpetual hostilities at the border. Since 1947, Pakistan has almost completely occupied India’s strategic mindspace, its defence budgets, border management, diplomatic outreach, nuclear manoueuvring and internal security. In all this, an obvious truth has been repeatedly overlooked. The answer to the problem with Pakistan is not Pakistan. It’s Kashmir….
During 1992’s US presidential campaign, Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville coined the phrase “The economy, stupid!” to keep internal staffers on track with the campaign’s core message. The phrase later became its de facto slogan.
Journalists tweaked it as a signature phrase for everything from “It’s the deficit stupid!” to “It’s the corporation stupid!” etc, to call attention to obvious core issues hiding in plain sight and the urgent need to focus on them.
Indian policy makers could do well to adopt it in their prescriptions for the perpetual hostilities at the border. Since 1947, Pakistan has almost completely occupied India’s strategic mindspace, its defence budgets, border management, diplomatic outreach, nuclear manoueuvring and internal security.
In all this, an obvious truth has been repeatedly overlooked. The answer to the problem with Pakistan is not Pakistan. It’s Kashmir, stupid.
For Kashmiris, the quest to hold the moral high ground, by portraying themselves as victims of a brutal, colonising power has been achieved by inciting the high sacrifice of its own in mob attacks on armed posts.
Putting in as much shoulder to the wheel in thinking strategically on Kashmir rather than reactively, as India has done since 1948, might yield the results it has been seeking since Partition.
Till date, discussions for resolution have centred around the idea of alienation. The unfulfilled UN resolutions, 1952, Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest and the abrupt erosion of Article 370 are cited as root causes. Post 1989, the human rights led narrative has been the sole focus of the separatist campaign. The returns on this approach have been modest at best, as independence is no closer than it was pre 1989. The costs however, have been staggeringly high.
For Kashmiris, the quest to hold the moral high ground, by portraying themselves as victims of a brutal, colonising power has been achieved by inciting the high sacrifice of its own in mob attacks on armed posts. Yet ‘issues’ and ‘icons’ like Amarnath, Masrat Alam, Tufail Mattoo, Neelofar and Aasiya, etc. are generated and instantly forgotten after their fifteen minutes of fame, lost in a never ending procession of ‘martyrs’ and ‘poster boys’.
A culture of myths and deceits now sustains the industry that uses the young, vulnerable and increasingly radicalized to ensure violence and instability.
Like its global counterpart, the manufactured, radicalized Islamist hatred against India, will first sacrifice, then increasingly devour its own as it has in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. Kashmir will not be an exception to this reality – kept so far at bay only by the security forces.
India, on its part, has got stuck in a cycle of reactive, defensive firefighting that does nothing to move the issue ahead in a manner of it’s choosing. Lurching from crisis to crisis engineered by separatist/Islamist forces, India’s policy responses have shown no pro-active strategies beyond economic ‘packages’ and dialogue attempts pre-doomed to failure as those willing to talk to it are either irrelevant or under threat not to talk. Meanwhile its firefighting generates damage that gets progressively harder to bounce back from.
The key therefore, to breaking this unrewarding, useless cycle is looking at Kashmir not through the lens of its alleged causes of ‘alienation’ listed above.
Key patterns and paradoxes emerge repeatedly but are rarely engaged with. For instance, why Kashmiris will pelt rocks with uncontrollable fury yet show up at Army recruitment drives with matching enthusiasm (its not because they’re poor) and even serve loyally once they’re recruited. Or how the symbolism of empty roads during militant hartals equals that of huge turnouts at polls (its not just because they want local government).
Sheikh Abdullah agreed to accession to India on the favourable terms of Article 370 and the implementation of land reforms without compensation among others. Both would have remained impossibilities in Pakistan.
These paradoxes are tightly bound to Kashmiri identity and its state of permanent limbo, never quite belonging anywhere or to anyone. Examining these identity issues are crucial to cracking the codes that eventually lead to resolution.
It’s through understanding its damaged self-image that propels it to make destructive choices. It is through reading its exaggerated, received histories, the foundational myths of its ‘birth’ as an entity and deciphering its engineered nationalism that has shaped the dramatic self-perceptions that propel it in directions far away from reality.
It is by engaging, breaking down and realistically rebuilding these mythical self-perceptions of the past and the future, that India can possibly change South Asian realities in a way that the problem of Pakistan itself is subdued and quieted.
The myth of the ‘Choice’
What are these self perceptions and received histories?
Since January 1948 when India went to the United Nations; ethnic Kashmiri Muslims have dangled on the tip of a sword-like choice between India and Pakistan.
Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s charismatic, popular leader agreed to accession to India on the favourable terms of Article 370 and the implementation of land reforms without compensation among others. Both would have remained impossibilities in Pakistan, a fact he readily conceded.
Yet once the 1947-48 War started, the option of “Independence” was subtly added to the volatile, original choices. Painting grandiose dreams of an independent “Asian Switzerland”, he dazzled his mostly rural, mostly illiterate Kashmiri Muslim constituents. As the legatees of 400 years of subjugating, humiliating, foreign rule, most of them had never seen even the next village, let alone the state capital Srinagar. Abdullah told them they had a glorious past as “scholars” and “rulers” and imagined a fabled land for them in rousing, hyperbolic speeches; sought by suitors like India, Pakistan, China and America for its legendary beauty, strategic location and population of historically brilliant minds.
His peasant constituents received these alluring ideas and new self-perceptions in a changed world.
The Kashmiri Muslim never had a holistic, factual understanding of his own multi-religious past nor any intelligent understanding of modern secularism.
The transfer of land under the Naya Kashmir programme (mostly from Dogras and Pandits) handed the power of old elites over to them and reinforced Abdullah’s extraordinary reading of the future. So too did the final understanding of a democratic majority that meant perpetual domination over those who had subjugated them. This was made exceptionally simple now that the 1948 Line of Control kept all Punjabi speakers and rivals for majority power out of the mix while Article 370 sealed off the settling of any other outsiders.
Yet this mix of concessional advantage and extravagant ambition paradoxically encouraged Abdullah’s decision to keep his ‘options’ open even though he had got everything he wanted. Notwithstanding his deep friendship with Nehru and victory against Dogra rule, he remained deeply mistrustful of Hindu majority India even as accession gave him unchallenged power in his state.
This prevented any hope that Kashmir “will become ripe for the same sort of integration as has taken place in the case of other states”1 as Indian parliamentarians sincerely hoped in 1949 when its special status was debated in the Constituent Assembly and the question was asked why Kashmiris were given this status.
The refusal to commit fully and make efforts for his ‘Switzerland’ instead; meant keeping real consensus on hold while paying lip service to it, using Pakistan as a bargaining chip. These ambivalent assertions first reinforced commitment to India, then fiercely denied it, held Pakistan at bay, then embraced it, in alternating spins of soaring dream and paranoia.
Sheikh’s mercurial vacillations confused his own supporters on whether they should be happy to be Indians; or terrified to be so with the RSS bogeyman coming to get them. Moreover his active quest for power beyond Kashmir’s tiny remit and outreach to international powers generated long lasting consequences.
They rained down ‘options’ on Kashmir’s hapless rural masses and its small, educated elite instead of steering them to clarity and steady integration with India in return for its protection, stability and capital that could (and did) transform it. It also herded them into a chronic ‘no-choice’ state, withholding commitment , owing no allegiance, never understanding that modern statecraft is a delicate mix of choosing alliances, getting and making concessions, networking and pay-offs. Going it alone can never be the sole choice.
Most Kashmiris quietly, fully understand that permanent accession to India is their best option.
The seminal events of his arrest and the disastrous though inevitable erosion of Article 370 were the expected denouement.
The stunning fall from Abdullah’s vision of a brilliant, ‘chosen’ people to the realities of his public arrest and subsequent clampdown by India was a horrifying reality check most Kashmiris didn’t want to swallow despite the presence of pro India forces like Bakshi, Sadiqetc who stabilized the situation and indeed gave Kashmiris the education and progress they had never seen before with generous aid from Nehru’s Centre determined to do right by the Kashmiris.
These ‘options’ then remained the singular legacy that Kashmiris clung on to and kept fiercely alive five generations later, even when the space for them had drastically shrunk. It was this utopia, internalized by Kashmiri narcissism that made Kashmiris of all classes handicapped by past glory and spectacularly misinformed about realistic choices.
Various Governor’s Rules and a rampaging, destructive Centre that manipulated Kashmiri politics in the 80s would definitely serve as a fateful, ruinous reinforcement of these beliefs. However, the sentiment beneath them had never truly died or even wavered. Commitment to India was a non-starter at the best of times and Pakistan’s attentions kept the old mythology alive.
Kashmiris therefore enjoyed describing their land as a beautiful ‘bride’ ‘caught’ between two competing suitors.
While the Muslim suitor initiated several wars in her name, but promised no special concessions; the non-Muslim suitor gave her key protection to preserve her culture and land from outsiders, wealth and security. Yet both were kept dangling to optimize the real ‘choice’ in Kashmir’s imagination, namely the possibility of that great Azadi dream – the best of both and more.
In the Kashmiri worldview, the ideal Azadi would mean being an independent country dealing on an equal footing with world powers; Kashmiris ruling over regional subordinates of their artificially constructed state (cobbled together by the British in 1846) like Jammu, Gilgit, Ladakh etc, the wealth, stability and armed might of India to guarantee its economy/safety along with the armed might of Pakistan and free movement/rights inside both markets without inwards migration from them. A benevolent China would invest/protect yet not pose any geographical threat.
To clarify – this involved foreign guarantees externally and democratic subversion internally; with little or no commitment flowing in the opposite direction. Yet, as bizarrely unrealistic as it sounds, this exaggerated self-belief has held obsessive sway for an older generation.