Revisiting the Kasmir issue


In a just world order, rights of self-determination of people, including the right of independence, ought to be viewed as a basic and absolute value. As with most moral principles, however, the actual implementation of such demands raises difficult issues since they always arise in a historical context of unjust distribution of rights. In other words, the demand for self-determination arises precisely because it has not been met so far, rendering the context in which the demand arises an unjust one. We will briefly
examine the right of self-determination of people in Kashmir from this perspective.

 In that unjust context, dimensions of external control intervene with people’s rights for decades—sometimes, over centuries. These controls not only generate vested interests for the agencies of control, typically they curb people’s ability to voice their demand to the point that sections of people internalize the features of control and begin to demobilise on the issue of self-determination. As a result, people themselves get divided. Agencies of control are then able to use this fact to perpetuate their control in the name of people. The historical passage of time is a crucial aspect of the scenario just sketched. We will look briefly at Iraq to get a sense of the isue before we turn to Kashmir.

 In Iraq, the imposition of (current) external control is recent, brutal, and clearly linked to the vested interests of US foreign policy around control over oil. The imperialist aggression stands fully exposed; thus, the people subjected to massive violence stand united in their opposition to US occupation. Reliable polls suggest that 1% of Iraqi population welcome US presence in Iraq while over 80% demand immediate end to US occupation; the rest varying on when they want the occupying forces to withdraw. Even with the tiny minority who demand a phased withdrawal of US forces, it stands to reason that their apprehensions about the fallout of immediate withdrawal is directly linked to the chaotic state of Iraqi society caused by US aggression itself.

 For the sake of argument, imagine a grim (and hopefully false) scenario in which the US, assisted by the client Iraqi regime, is able to perpetuate its crimes in Iraq for several more years. During this period, suppose some semblance of order and stability returns in the natural course: some oil money is used to restore the food and the health systems; water and electricity return to normal flow; people are able to engage in some trade inside and outside Iraq; tourists return; some institutions, including education institutions, begin to function; violence in the streets is reduced; the resistance is partly broken; US forces mostly stay in barracks close to oil installations; increasing number of people begin to queue up in US-sponsored elections.

In this scenario, it is quite likely that the minority of currently wavering population will increase several folds. Citing favourable polls, the US will then be in a position to claim that US presence is needed to bolster stability and (democratic) order in Iraq. Nevertheless, it is clear that nothing changes in so far as the absolute value of people’s right to self-determination is concerned. Violent enforcement of external control for long periods of time to drive people to exasperation and apparent conformity is a tested strategy of occupying forces with superior gun power. For the same reason, it is of utmost importance that the current resistance in Iraq continues to grow under the common command of people; this is also a tested method of rendering unsustainable the tested strategy of occupying forces.

Two other features of current Iraq are relevant here. First, there is no doubt that Iraq is a divided society with at least three contending parties: the sunnis, the shias, and the Kurds. But the division between the people of Iraq cannot be an argument against self-determination. We may have opinions on further dismemberment of Iraq or on unsustainable alliances between the parties. But it is for the people of Iraq to choose which course they wish to adopt. Second, when the right of self-determination is viewed as an absolute value, the character of resistance to imperialism is also of no concern. Once again it is for the Iraqi people to choose what they feel is the right form of resistance. Historically, the choice could well turn out to be a mistaken one; but then it is again upto the Iraqi people to correct the course.

To sum up, the right of self-determination cannot be withheld even if (a) some sections of the population do not desire it anymore, typically out of duress, (b) the people in the relevant region are divided, and (c) the character of resistance to external rule is questionable. We recall that the British used each of these to postpone independence until the circumstances arising out of the second war and liberation of people around the globe forced the British to leave India.

In a recent article posted in Znet (‘Is independence a viable option for Jammu and Kashmir?’, 24 January), Badri Raina, as the title suggests, has raised the issues the British raised for decades before they were compelled to withdraw from India. The interest of this piece is that the author belongs to the left, and Znet is a well-known platform for left-wing opinion. The arguments therefore are more refined than a mere imperial assertion of the following kind: Kashmir belongs to us because some raja signed some piece of paper. The net effect, however, remains the same.

Raina raises versions of each of (a) to (b) above as an opposition to ‘the formulation that militancy and violence could not justly be expected to be shut down till the right to ‘self-determination’ was granted’ (note that the expression ‘self-determination’ is used with quotes by Raina). He also raises versions of (c): ‘how long can the valley then resist the push to theocratise both state and polity in that ‘independent’ situation. Surely, both Kashmiris and the Indian state have big stakes in all this.’ But since Raina produced no facts to support this view, I will ignore this part of his essay.

The Polls

Raina’s first argument, a version of (a), concerns a poll conducted by the MORI International organization that ‘covered all regions, urban and rural, of the three provinces of the Jammu & Kashmir State.’ Although Raina thinks of the MORI Foundation as ‘a reputed agency by all accounts’, he does not mention that the foundation is US-based. Raina also cites another poll subsequently conducted by Synovate India which covered just the valley.

 In what follows, I will focus on the MORI poll since, as Raina observed, it covered ‘all regions.’ Further, the focus on MORI is justified because Raina begins this part of his essay with the condition that ‘whatever resolutions are debated or found  must pertain to the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir rather than  merely any discrete part.’ I return to the implications of imposing this condition on any ‘debate’ later. For now, obeying Raina’s condition, it is obvious that the findings of the MORI poll are directly relevant. Also, I will take the validity of the findings for granted.

 The part of MORI results which has drawn world-wide attention, and flagged repeatedly by Raina, suggests that 61 per cent feel that they would be better off politically and economically as Indian citizens, and only 6 per cent feel that they would be so as Pakistani citizens. Raina comments: ‘by no stretch of the imagination then can it be argued that the overwhelming sentiment in the state of Jammu & Kashmir is for  “sovereign, secular, independence.”  ‘However much as these findings might shock some knowledgeable peddlers of the “Kashmir Question,”’ Raina continues, ‘those are the facts.’

 Praful Bidwai (‘Wanted: policy, not hubris’, Frontline, July 6, 2002) points out two related problems with the results. First, ‘the overwhelming majority of those who would prefer to be Indian citizens belong to Jammu and Ladakh, not to the Valley. The “don’t know” answers to the question are concentrated in Srinagar.’ To elaborate, whereas 99 per cent of respondents in Jammu and 100 per cent in Leh felt they would be better off as Indian citizens, 78 per cent of those in Srinagar said they did not know while 9 per cent felt they would be better off as Indian citizens and 13 per cent as Pakistani citizens.’ Bidwai explains: ‘the 78 per cent “don’t knows” clearly include a large number who subscribe to azadi or that version of it which equals autonomy or independence from India, but who reject merger with Pakistan. Given that the core Kashmir problem is about the Valley, this is a sobering thought.’

 Second, Bidwai observes that ‘the critical issue within Jammu and Kashmir is not just “free and fair” elections, but inclusive and free elections.’ In other words, ‘fairness in determining the popular will can mean very little unless the electoral process involves the broadly representative spectrum of political opinion in the State.’ As a matter of fact, several currents of opinion have just not been allowed to function in Jammu and Kashmir for decades. This fact, combined with decades of violence resulting in nearly a hundred thousand civilian casualties, untold economic misery, and the general alienation of people from articulated political process, explain the staggering figure of ‘don’t knows’, which, as Bidwai pointed out, is crucial for understanding the situation in Kashmir.

 Raina is entirely silent about this part of the MORI findings. As noted, his strategy is to build up on the fact that these findings are restricted to the valley, hence they are irrelevant in view of the ‘all regions’ condition imposed by him. Further, the ‘don’t knows’ don’t count since, according to him, ‘unarticulated private predilections of any group of people in any part of the state  cannot be authorized agenda as the problem is addressed.’ In other words, first we are advised to overlook the historical conditions which have led to ‘unarticulated’ opinion in vast sections of the people; then we are advised to ignore the opinion since it is ‘unarticulated.’
Raina has another strategy to defray this ‘sobering’ aspect of MORI findings: for the valley, instead of depending on the MORI poll, he shifts to the Synovate poll taken three years later in 2005, despite his ‘all regions’ condition, and juxtaposes these results with that of the (inconvenient) MORI poll. According to the later poll, 36.2% Kashmiris in the Valley and Rajouri (equally muslim dominated) prefer the India option. This enabled Raina to conclude from articulated opinion that ‘by no stretch of the imagination then can it be argued that the overwhelming sentiment in the state of Jammu & Kashmir is for  “sovereign, secular, independence.”’ Setting aside the algebraic issue of whether the remaining 63.8% represent ‘overwhelming sentiment’, recall the historical feature of (a) that, as time flows and the prospects of attaining basic rights recede, people are likely to resign to less desirable options in the absence of organized democratic struggle.

The period between 2002 and 2005 – the post 9/11 world – has seen a setback to people’s democratic struggles in these parts of the world. Specifically, the turn around in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy under US pressure, the continuing violence and economic misery, the sectarian character of the jehadi groups, and the opportunism of Hurriyat and other political parties, on the one hand, and the limited restoration of the electoral process and opening up of some economic activity, on the other, could have led to an increase in the resigned opinion. In other words, there is no evidence that the crucial democratic test of ‘fairness in determining the popular will’, advocated by Bidwai, has been met. By adopting the synchronic perspective, Raina has failed to appreciate the historical condition of people under duress.

Division of people?

Turning to (b) above, let us examine the validity of Raina’s ‘all regions’ condition. As noted, Raina has a two-pronged argument: (A) people in the valley do not have the ‘overwhelming sentiment’ against India; (B) taking all regions into consideration, the ‘overwhelming sentiment’ is for India. Combining the effects of (A) and (B), Raina’s ill-concealed message is that, even if (A) is false, (B) takes precedence. In other words, even if the people in the valley are overwhelmingly against India (and for independence), we should ignore their opinion since people in the region as a whole want to remain in India. Raina puts the message rhetorically as follows: ‘how is the desire for “independence” of half the valley’s population to be squared with the overwhelming opinion in the valley?’ The additional argument that (A) could well be true just bolsters Raina’s strategy. We saw that (A) is not likely to be true. This leaves the entire burden of Raina’s argument on (B) alone – the ‘all regions’ condition.

 Since the ‘all regions’ condition looks like a classic, pre-emptive, statist move to defray any demand for secession, the leftist Raina needs to find ‘democratic’ arguments in support of the condition. Alongwith much rhetoric, he weaves in two facts: (1) “people in all regions are in general agreement that ‘the unique cultural identity of Jammu and Kashmir—Kashmiriyat—should be preserved in any long-term solution. Overall, 81% agree, including 76% in Srinagar’; (2)  ‘An overwhelming 92% oppose the state of Kashmir being divided on the basis of religion or ethnicity.’ So the argument is that, since a vast majority of people wish to uphold ‘Kashmiriyat’ and are against the division of Kashmir on religious or ethnic grounds, the demand for independence by a section of the population ought to take the backseat. In fact, those who demand independence while upholding (1) and (2) – there must be some given the numbers – are plainly inconsistent, and hence, they can be ignored.

 Notice first that the charge of inconsistency assumes that if the people in the valley wish to secede from the Indian state, they would be doing so on religious or ethnic grounds. Once we decide to look at people’s movements only through communal or sectarian lenses, we lose sight of the basic historical issue that vast sections of people may simply wish to secede from a State. It is the Indian state the people in the valley are against, the state that is seen to have confiscated their own statehood first by fraudulent means by entering into an undemocratic pact with a raja, and then by half a century of accelerating repression. If religion were the issue, the valley would have preferred the Pakistan option which is overwhelmingly rejected by the people in the valley, as the MORI findings cited by Raina show.

 In fact, the charge of inconsistency – if not downright sectarianism – applies to Raina himself. Having argued in favor of the view expressed in (B), Raina also argues strongly in favour of turning the current LOC (line of control between India and Pakistan) into a state boundary since ‘Kashmiris that live in what is called the POK are not Kashmiri-speaking, barring a sprinkling, and even within the valley there never has been much love lost between Kashmiri-speaking muslim Kashmiris and those that are non-Kashmiri-speaking Mirpuris or Punjabis! If anything, it is the Pandits who tend to be missed as blood brothers!  Wheels within wheels, you might say.’ Setting aside the issue of truth-content of these remarks, Raina is now clearly advocating a division of Kashmir on ethnic lines in contradiction to the stated position in (B).

 I am not suggesting that there is no tension between the desire for unity of all Kashmir on the basis of Kashmiriyat and conflicting region-wise opinion on the issue of secession from India. But the difficult task of resolving this and other conflicts bestows on the people of Kashmir when they prepare to exercise their right of self-determination with freedom and dignity. When the conditions for exercising the will of the people occur, all parties have the right to approach the people with their opinion. But, ultimately, the people must give the verdict on how they wish the difficult issues to be resolved. The right of self-determination, in other words, is supreme and absolute.

It is interesting that Raina barely touches the fundamental issue of self-determination, and restricts his discussion only to what he considers to be hurdles in ‘granting’ independence to the people in the valley. Again, the message is ill-concealed. If independence is not admissible in the first place, people in the valley lose the right to exercise this option. Once they lose the right to exercise a specific option, the general right to exercise any option loses meaning. Hence, the people in the valley do not (really) have the right of self-determination. As a result, Raina holds that ‘the right to secession,’ which was ‘at one time a part of the theoretical repertoire of the undivided Left in India’ needs to be revised by the division of the current left to which Raina belongs. In the revised picture, basic rights of the people are viewed by Raina as ‘nothing but another form of Idealism,’ ‘a thin ground’ for ‘granting secession’. So, what was viewed as the basic right of people by the ‘undivided Left’ turns out to be dispensable rhetoric for that strand of the current left which views the stakes for the Indian state as higher than the rights of people.

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