There is celebration in heaven when a single sinner repents. In Indian Parliament, there is little freedom for back benchers to speak their own mind. Yet P Chidambaram has boldly spoken the unspeakable about Kashmir. He is the first ranking member of any of the political parties to say openly that India (that is all except J&K) has reneged on the bargain the Kashmiris were promised. He was shot down for this by Ghulam Nabi Azad as not reflecting Congress policy. That alone guarantees that he was telling an unpalatable truth to his own party.
What was the bargain?
There were two steps for princely states to join the Indian Union. First was accession and then came integration. In Junagarh and Hyderabad, a popular vote cemented integration. Kashmir was also promised such a popular vote but it never happened because of the war and the ceasefire policed by the UN. Any plebiscite became impossible as both parts of J&K could not be got together. Sheikh Abdullah was put under house arrest for 11 years without trial for arguing for plebiscite.
Elections were then rigged and a pliable leadership found to do Delhi’s bidding. The entire issue of popular consultation was forgotten. Article 370 remained in the Constitution but the state lost its autonomy as defined therein. The mantra became Kashmir is an integral part of India, proof of its secularism.
The Congress failed in the 50 years after Independence to win over the minds and hearts of the people of the Valley. The reconciliation process began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The issue involves three parties — India, Pakistan and J&K (plus PoK?). The solution has to be sought in a two-pronged fashion — India and Pakistan and India and J&K. It is when the small number of separatists try to join up the third side — Pakistan and J&K — that India sees red. The fear of the third connection has restricted and distorted India’s efforts to win the love of the Kashmiris.
Islamist terrorism began to infiltrate in the late Eighties and has been a nagging presence ever since. Each time someone falls victim to police or Army bullet, there is a funeral procession where young people shout ‘azadi’, which leads to more deaths. Azadi is a shout not for independence from India, but for autonomy, for the status quo ante, when the head of the government was called prime minister (as were all chief ministers of provinces before 1947) and the head of the state, Sadar-i-Riyasat.
Chidambaram has now broken the silence about the original bargain. Of course, he will be criticised.
But as a former home minister as well as a member of the Cabinet in several governments, he is well aware of all the issues. There is a bold way out. That is to conduct a referendum where all the citizens of J&K have a vote, as would have happened if the maharaja had acceded in good time before the invasion from Pakistan. Ask them if they want to be integrated in the Union or be autonomous. The latter is not the same as independence but what they had between 1947 and 1953, with Article 370 restored effectively.
If India is to make J&K love India, this is the only way.