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.
To deconstruct this self-belief is to uncover the impulses that generate Kashmiri responses today or dictate his worldview. It is to find the key to the paradoxes of his conflict.
The Lion of Kashmir may have given back the Kashmiris their sense of identity and pride after four centuries of foreign rule and subjugation; but his message prioritised self-glorification over building bridges. The outcomes of this were severe and long lasting.
Many saw themselves in Abdullah’s fantastical Asian Switzerland, with a cherry picked ‘history’ as a genetically privileged race of Central Asian migrants and heirs of Brahminical scholars, the rulers of glorious empires; and thought themselves as entitled to independence and domination over others.
The commitment to secularism was equally capricious. Abdullah’s external packaging of secularism did lead to the consciously retitled National Conference and the inclusion of Kashmiri Pandits. Many of its old guard adherents remain touchingly faithful to its rhetoric. Yet the Azadi ideal itself essentially privileges the eternal domination of the ethnic Kashmiri Muslims as a permanent ruling elite.
Kashmir’s mystical, humanistic Islam or its Hindu and Buddhist past merits no mention in this Azadi narrative except to emphasize the superiority of its Brahminical genes. The scholarship and ideas behind this much vaunted ‘superiority’ however, were neither promoted nor reintroduced. In fact, the new understanding of Kashmiri identity took Kashmiris very far away from its real history, heroes and mystical original thought crafted by streams from all three religions.
The Kashmiri Muslim therefore never had a holistic, factual understanding of his own multi-religious past nor any intelligent understanding of modern secularism that implied equal treatment of a non Muslim ‘other’.
Neither did his single toned nationalism have any concept of diversity, constitutional rule and equality. The state was barely promoted as a whole. Platitudes paid to partnerships and the outreach to Hindus, Jammu and/or later Ladakh too remained couched in terms of junior, less privileged players, not as equals.
Consequently, Kashmiri understanding of these modern concepts was equally immature and superficial. The notion of a strong multiethnic entity whose diverse components would forge a united regional state was never even articulated far less preached or inculcated; which is why even in the current century, most schoolchildren in the Valley bear practically zero allegiance to the other two parts of the state. Many would even support an Indian cricket team over a Jammu cricket team2.
So too that Abhinavgupta, the Kashmiri colossus of aesthetics and philosophy remains unknown in the stone pelters of today, untaught and unlamented even by their parents who grew up in an earlier age. Lal Ded whose poetry extolled this very confluence of an Islam that spread gently even while adopting many of its predecessors’ influences and was fervently recited by all Kashmiris, now mostly remains the name of a dusty, overworked hospital. Her eccentricities and tolerance and humanity are lost to this present generation whose puritanical beliefs come to them not via tradition and legacy but the Internet.
In fact not a single pelter can give an accurate, fact based narrative of Kashmiri history, even one that is ideologically biased or explain the risking of his very life for a vague, nebulous goal that he cannot debate with any serious knowledge. His understanding today of his own struggle and identity is a muddled mix of Wahabi propaganda and handed down Abdullah-ist fantasy. It has nothing to do with fact.
This poor grasp of modern democracy was also at the heart of PDP’s communal 2007 campaign that torpedoed the fragile peace built at enormous sacrifice and cost to both ‘Indians’ and ‘Kashmiris’ and by the brave willingness to move forward by the leaderships of both India and Pakistan.
Mehbooba and Mufti Sayeed demanded the Pakistani rupee in a fist shaking hardline performance on TV, took credit for the Bus that Vajpayee and India’s soldiers in Kargil fought and gave their lives for; and reneged on their own commitment to respect the democratic verdict to hand over power to the Congress – until forced to, with sullen, ill grace – implying by their actions that only a Kashmiri Muslim could be the head of state.
Finally they toppled the Congress government within a year with a shockingly cynical communal campaign that pitted Hindus against Muslims and Jammu against Kashmir in a manufactured ‘crisis’ over temporary tents in a 100 acre area that somehow emerged after their spin doctoring into a sinister conspiracy to change Kashmir’s demographic balance.
It was neatly picked up by the separatists who took it away from the so called ‘mainstreamers’ and alertly used the window in raised communal feelings – to bring back back Islamism and Pakistan into play – concepts that had been sent packing in the 2002 elections and the surge of hope thereafter. Today’s mainstreaming of Islamist rhetoric, owes everything to that campaign.
Meanwhile the Indian state on the defensive after the rigging fiasco remained defensive long past the expiry date on defensiveness. It supported its mainstream players with vast monies, security and stepping back to allow their regeneration; but drew no rubicons, demanded no allegiances to its creed that placed country above region or individual and ceded space on the specious grounds that Kashmiri nationalism would not allow it. Little surprise that it’s own sponsored, supported, and projected actors felt free to give it short shrift.
Solutions, Choices for India
After 70 years of being reactive therefore, India must kickstart its own agenda and transform the conversation without waiting for Pakistan to turn reasonable or stop incursions. Negotiations with Kashmiris should commence, be serious and have goals that can be quantified. They can include all, some or none of the following prescriptions but they must include the pro-active paradigmatic shifts that underline these.
Generate and support a new leadership of exceptionalist leaders that embrace the India option openly. Simply put, the India narrative is missing in Kashmir and effective Indian policy must start with the building of this cadre. There is no one in mainstream politics today willing to bell the cat, pronounce full commitment to India and start a debate on the irrelevance of ‘autonomy’ in these days of free democratic processes and interdependent nationwide networks. Key parts of the debate must be a narrative of facts, why Kashmir cannot revert to a 19th century nation state lone star model in the 21st century and the progress it has already made as part of a diverse, stable nation.
Those who generate it, have to be exceptionalist leaders who don’t sit on the fence but openly embrace the Indian option for its key advantages of economy, diversity and global secular values. Electoral victory is not the goal here. It is the articulation of a viewpoint and the building a visible constituency. Allegiance to Delhi should not be seen as a matter of convenience or personal ambition – but of conviction – to the Constitution, the future with a diverse, secular India, liberal politics and market economics in tune with a global reality not against it.
These leaders must be Kashmiri Muslim of course but consciously different from the Muftis and Abdullahs, the so called mainstream leaders who cynically allied themselves with New Delhi while maintaining soft separatism as a viable option due to ‘electoral constraints’. They must also be consciously separate from the Hindu right wing whose severe ideological agenda will kill the process before it begins.
Enable the private to become public
The exceptionalist leaders need a following. Most Kashmiris quietly, fully understand that permanent accession to India is their best option. However Kashmiri society functions on so-called ‘acceptable’ public paradigms like Pakistan and or Islam/militant tanzeems/dead militants enforced by Islamists. It is brutally unforgiving of those who don’t vocally and loudly align themselves with them. Non-joiners risk ostracisation and quick labeling as Indian agents. Therefore no one will step up to ‘own’ India unless there is a sizeable number they can take shelter with. This silent majority needs to be assiduously built and given support to “out” itself once it feels secure to do so. The visible, vocal minority will wither steadily once this is achieved.
Separate Jammu & Ladakh administratively
Separation is no holy cow. The artificial state created by the British in 1846 is already in tatters. China has Aksai Chin, Pakistan has already separated the Northern Areas administratively and politically from Azad Kashmir. In India, an updated census needs to be done, Assembly seats need to be rejigged and Jammu and Ladakh need to be brought out of the domination of Kashmir. Ladakh’s Hill Council is a current reality but it is Jammu’s population that will make the real difference to the illusion that Kashmir is the ‘owner’ of the state and can rule as entitled over others. It must be enabled and given its just place in the state. The Kashmiri must of course, rule – but only himself.
Concentrate on the recovery of alienated or radicalized Jammu Muslims and put in infrastructure, education and development initiatives with a wow factor in the border areas that really need it. This is a population worth making the type of large investment for, that has traditionally only gone to Kashmir. It is hardier, more practical and willing to be on a team, more stable, less susceptible to ideologies and far more diverse – a population that has lived together with the ‘other’ for a very long time and knows how to do it despite periodic conflict.
De-communalising it and separating it from Kashmir keeps Kashmir’s toxicity contained in its borders as much as possible. While a decent size ethnic Kashmiri Muslim population in Jammu, especially the Poonch areas will remain the carriers of the Azadi ideology, they will have fewer opportunities to spread it if the two units are administratively contained and development becomes a factor.
Teach Kashmir, (but also Jammu and Ladakh) about their own history
Spill the facts on the past and future visioning in a well documented programme of debate, discussion and white papers. Kashmiris must know and be educated from childhood about their heroes and torchbearers in history, including the fact that the rulers who took Kashmiri rule outside Kashmir and (therefore the imagined self-perceptions as ‘rulers of empires’) were also non Kashmiris and non Muslims. If they could rule over Kashmir and take it to great heights so can others like them. The unchallenged position of the Kashmiri Sunni Muslim in the rulership of a large diverse state does not, should not have to be a given.
This broader programme of schooling and education must give equal weightage to periods of non-Muslim rule. It must also create and emphasize the civilizational link to the larger Indian subcontinent. The Kashmiri’s racial understanding of himself is based on his cultural and linguistic linkages to Central Asia and Persia, a legacy of its migrants who regard themselves as superior to the people they converted, especially the non-Brahmins.
In Kashmir’s heavily casteist, hierarchical society, where contempt and discrimination are wired in, this is a critical factor. While this may be central to the Kashmiri imagination of himself as ‘better’ than most Indians, it is important to reacquaint him with the larger part of his heritage as a Hindu and Buddhist (that he has been taught to think is the ‘lesser’ or the shameful part of his lineage) and the worldview, thought processes and startlingly vast intellectual capital he is inheritor of but is unfortunately too ashamed to claim.
Finally a considered and well-thought out offer to Kashmir for a referendum on Nuanced Autonomy Vs Full Accession can be made, keeping fully in mind Indian security needs and deployments. The Indian Constitution is flexible and vastly capable. It can throw up several solutions should this serve the Indian state well. As Kashmir’s radical young vent their ill-informed, aimless hatred on India; perhaps a nuanced autonomy is possibly a better choice.
However this nuanced autonomy must be based on reciprocity rather than giveaways (like special status) or takeaways (like an encroachment of the same).
Kashmir has never been asked to give or give up anything in return for concessions. This is essentially a Pay For What You Get approach. In return for its special status and further concessions on vital issues like abrogating the Governor’s power to dissolve the Assembly – a key demand in all autonomy documents; the Kashmiri can be offered less than a full Indian citizenship. Access to Indian markets, land and business can be harder than it currently is, Central aid can be nuanced for payback or representation in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha can be whittled down or simply done away with. Either way, the full state gets a vote on an internal referendum that could well satisfy the Kashmiri restlessness over seventy years without taking more lives.
It is these paradigmatic shifts in viewing the conflict that can possibly offer new possibilities to resolve it.
1. M.J. Akbar, Kashmir. Behind the Vale (New Delhi, Roli Books, 2002).
2. See Kishore; Nationality and Identity Shifts in Jammu & Kashmir’s Armed Conflict (New Delhi: WISCOMP Perspectives 30, 2009).