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Omar Abdullah




I

The people of Jammu & Kashmir have been justly lauded for the resoluteness with which they came out to vote in the recent elections to the state Assembly.

Their General Will took all parties to the state’s and India’s political life by wholesome surprise.

Most surprised have been the separatists who had called for a boycott of the polls.

In a bitter inversion, they found the masses separating themselves from the separatist call.

To wit, the separatists are faced with a shock of recognition; they may no longer have a captive hold on the people of the valley, even when it is agreed that the remarkable turn-out—exceeding the national electoral average by some five or more percentage points—need not signify that the voters in the valley have put paid to the larger question, designated the "Kashmir Problem."

Unmistakably, nonetheless, they have suggested that they have a mind of their own, and have chosen to address their concerns massively within the available democratic framework. For now, anyway. Which is not to say that such decisions are not often imbued with a dynamic that rolls on rather than rolling back, depending ofcourse on how the totality of factors are brought into operation by sundry stake-holders within the state and polity.

In returning the National Conference as the single largest party, they have reiterated their continuing allegiance to the secular, Kashmiri sub-nationalism which, forged by the great Sheikh Abdullah in the second and third decades of the last century in opposition to Dogra Princely rule, still informs so much of Kashmiri self-awareness in the valley and substantial parts of the Jammu province.

And in rejecting the call of the separatists they have made a telling comment on how they perceive the potential of separatist politics at the current juncture of sub-continental history and within a drastically transformed global milieu.

Whether or not the separatist leaders have imbibed that larger text remains to be seen.

II

It has often been suggested to the separatists that given the failure of violent militancy to detach the valley from the Union of India, it might be a good idea for them to work their separatist agenda through the democratic process.

On my last visit to the valley in July of 2008, I recall asking a senior police officer as to why the separatists do not consider this option.

The analysis I received in response was nothing like you would read in any newspaper.

To wit, the following perceptions were voiced:

–many separatist leaders feared that were they to participate in the democratic process (something that would entail expressing allegiance to the Constitution of India and of the state), this would be seen as the final betrayal by armed militants, and threats to life would follow; a credible enough fear in the light of experience thus far;

–supposing that they did fight an election, sweep the polls, and form the government, there might be little they could infact do subsequently to implement the separatist agenda;

–that such a failure would tantamount to courting disaster at both ends, since with lost credibility they could neither hope to win again nor return to leading the separatist sentiment from outside the electoral process as they have been;

–that such an eventuality could crucially lead to a drying up of funds that remain available to them from questionable sources.

Their present placement, therefore, it was argued, suited them rather nicely, since they could hibernate comfortably or ratchet up tensions as and when it suited their mentors, alternately, both among the armed agencies of militants and agencies of the state at home.

It was also argued that, as among the country’s Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs), Kashmiri separatist leaderships fell into a differentiated spectrum of standing and credibility. Clearly, there are those who remain untainted, above-board, and wedded to principle.

III

The insistent impression, however, is that the priorities and perceptions of the burgeoning elite among a new generation of Kashmiri Muslims—IT whiz kids, management graduates, Ad techies, cultural theorists and artists, doctors and engineers, media professionals and so on—have altered with time.

Most that I spoke to seemed to regard Pakistan a "failed state" and a non-existent option. Remarkably, hardly anyone thought that religion could ever be a viable basis for nationhood. The case of Bangladesh came up frequently as an instructive example, followed recently by the events in an erstwhile Hindu-theocratic Nepal. Many expressed the view that Muslims in Baluchistan and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, not to speak of the Pakhtoon, were as disenchanted with Punjabi domination as the Bengalis in the erstwhile East Pakistan had been.

Conversely, even as these new aspiring Kashmiri elites recognize "mainland" India as a space of attractive opportunity,–increasingly so in proportion to the sweeping anti-Muslim weltanshuuang in the western world generally—they see their stakes stymied because a "Hindu-majority" India continues to see them first and foremost as untrustworthy Kashmiri Muslims.

All that, even as many concede that the number of those who make a successful career in mainland institutions, chiefly in the media and the medical world, is happily an expanding one.

Many expressed the thought that they find themselves unsafe on the Indian street owing principally also to the communal biases of the police forces, especially since "terrorism" has come to be such a central concern—something that makes normative expectations of the rule of law and due process precariously unsure.

And, remarkably, many also acknowledge that the separatists have developed a vested interest in remaining ensconced within the familiar status quo, and that most have infact done very well for themselves and their extended families. Jokes are made about how the best facilities of the Indian state—chiefly medical—are promptly made use of at state expense by leaders who spend much of their time fulminating against Indian "occupation."

When asked how they interpret now the sentiment for "azadi" (namely, freedom/independence), most codify this in terms of a desire for full democratic rights, full re-operationalisation of Article 370 of the Constitution that guarantees "special status" to Jammu & Kashmir, the abrogation of draconian laws such as the hated Armed Forces Specail Powers Act (authorizing the least security man to kill on sight with no accountability demanded), the return of security personnel from their hated and ubiquitous visibility on street and bylane to barracks or the borders, investment in quality areas that can assure employment to high-skilled youth according to the best standards of equipment and remuneration, full transparency in governance and the liquidation of the culture of graft and privilege, the freedom to travel and explore opportunities of trade and employment without fear or discrimination, ideally throughout the sub-continent.

Most wish the Kashmiri Pandits to return to the valley, chiefly as Kashmiris, but without seeking to lord it over the Muslims as their superior education enabled them to do prior to the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite efforts made since 1990 by Wahabi organizations, most Kashmiri Muslims remain as devoted to the syncretic/sufi inheritance as ever before.

IV

These then are the sorts of contexts that await the young and earnest Omar Abdullah as he takes over the reins of governance in coalition with the Congress party.

Quite rightly he has designated breaching the gulf between the two provinces, Jammu and Kashmir valley, as a chief priority.

The RSS has been at work in returning Jammu, especially the city, Kathua, Samba and Udhampur districts, to the sort of polarized ethos that obtained during the Praja Parishad Movement of 1949-50 (indeed, one of the leaders of the recent Amarnath Shrine "movement" was Tilak Raj Sharma of that bygone era), and it will want to keep things that way for as long as it can.

The main challenge to the efforts of the new young chief minister will no doubt come from this renewed politics of communalism, leading also to an answering denominational politics from the PDP in the valley.

The way to deal with this must be to strengthen the large middle ground of opinion that will be bolstered by transparency and fairness in governmental/legislative decision-making and in the implementation processes thereof. The more the earnestness of the new government extends to incorporating civil society initiatives into these procedures the greater will be its power to show up and isolate the politics of divisiveness and hate.

Wherever imbalances do exist, it will pay rich dividends in the long term to set these on even keel.

Clearly, there is a school that holds the view that the Jammu province is more populous than the valley, and is therefore entitled to a greater number of legislators. A contrary computation also exists, one that has more takers.

The new government would be well advised to engage in a fair and open dialogue on this, and to arrive at a Delimitation Commission that has eveybody’s trust. Then let the computation fall where it does. For any political dispensation that seeks to keep the composite state as one, there can be no other choice but to do this exercise fairly, and to abide by the results thereof. Always to remember the lessons of history: Bangladesh set off on its separatist course finally because the eastern wing of the then Pakistan which had won a general election was denied its right to govern.

V

On the larger question—namely, the status of Jammu & Kashmir—it is about time that all parties to the dispute began to address it with a full recognition of the concrete possibilities.

All attempts merely to use the issue as a politics-in-perpetuity must now be sternly excluded from attention and consideration.

I would think—and I have said this before—that the new regime could work towards a praxis of persuasion, aimed to obtain the involvement of all, repeat all, parties to a round table. And let the round table take as long as it takes, keeping in mind the Irish example.

In the eventuality that some/any "hardline" segments refuse this process, insisting on a priori parameters, I am of the view that in such an eventuality the new coalition government partners must first work out the agreed contours of a scheme of Autonomy, for the state per se vis a vis the Union of India, and for the separate provinces within the state, all in concrete detail, and place it in the Assembly for adoption.

Should it be the case that the Autonomy proposals already formulated some years ago by the National Conference receive endorsement by the Congress, with or without micro-management, then this set of documents can become the basis of a debate and decision within the Assembly.

The debate can be enriched by the additional concerns expressed from time to time by the PDP, so that an overwhelming consensus is built around the proposals.

Clearly, apprehensions within the Jammu province can be answered by the scheme of devolutions thus worked out—something that can go a great way in quelling patently communalist demands wherever they come from.

If the Autonomy proposals are perceived transparently to be instrumental in deepening and democratizing decision-making processes down to the district levels in all provinces, accompanied by mechanism of funding that are equitous, there is reason to believe that the problem can be resolved to the viable satisfaction of all people’s of the composite state.

As to the stakes that Pakistan may claim in this dynamic, the best that may now be possible is to open up the LOC as the effective international border to free movement and trade at designated points. Beyond this, after all that has transpired over the years, there is not a great deal more that Pakistan may be entitled to in the matter. Very few Kashmiris today have any illusions about how much Pakistan truly cares about Kashmiris, especially the Kashmir-speaking ones.

VI

Whoever you speak to in the valley agrees that the absence of the Pandits distorts the exemplary history of the region.

One of the finest ideas that Omar Abdullah has thus far voiced is in regard to establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, keeping in mind the extraordinary contribution such a procedure made in South Africa in healing wounds across estranged communities.

Indeed, such a Commission could go a long way also in scrutinizing cases of the disappeared within the valley, as well as involve the security forces in a dialogue around the happenings of the last two decades.

Caveat: inorder to have any credibility or any real chance of success, such a Commission will have to comprise Jurists, Public Eminences, other Intellectuals of proven standing, preferably from within the country and across communities.

And if it be agreed on all sides, Eminences, like Nobel Laureates, wherever they are willing to come from.

The great hope is that the Omar Abdullah-led regime will be seen earnestly to be moving on these departures, whether or not any finalities are arrived at during its tenure. And none of that will be possible until the Congress understands that it and the Indian centre overall has as much at stake here as parties that represent purely regional interests.

We wish the new regime the very best of luck—something it will need in good measure.

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