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The question in Kashmir

I do not know how to address Kashmiri leaders. All the appellations that would be used to establish a connection...

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
August 19, 2008 12:07:41 am

I do not know how to address Kashmiri leaders. All the appellations that would be used to establish a connection, common citizenship, shared nationhood, cultural bonds, pragmatic affiliations, appear to be little more than rhetorical pretences, hollowed out by unmeaning overuse. I also cannot address them without a guilty conscience: the Indian state has so often let Kashmiris down. I cannot imagine what it is to live like under half a million troops, a standing reminder that no matter what our politicians claim, our bonds are sustained more by force than by spontaneity. I cannot imagine what it is to raise a new generation entirely under the shadow of violence and suspicion. I cannot imagine what it is like to have one’s identity held hostage to competing nationalisms: to be mercilessly used by Pakistan to disguise its own crisis of legitimacy, and subjected to Indian anxiety that everything it stands for will come unravelled at the slightest hint of dissent in Kashmir. I can imagine what it is like to have the electoral process subverted. But I cannot imagine the depth of distrust that repeated violations have produced. I cannot imagine what conducting politics under constant threat of assassination is like, or what the disabling of all questions of justice under the garb of national security means. I cannot understand the wrenching of a cultural equilibrium destroyed, by Islamisation and ethnic cleansing of the Pandits. The chasm that divides us is perhaps that our daily lives are less marked by the distrust, betrayals, violence and suspicion than mark yours; our invocations of shared citizenship seem scarcely up to the task of overcoming them.

We had hoped that time would heal wounds; that a modicum of a political process, while not compensating for past ills, would at least hold out the possibility of a different future. But two issues reopened old wounds. Amarnath went from being a showcase of cultural harmony to a reminder that there is no such thing as an ordinary administrative transaction in Kashmir. The agitation in Jammu was a reminder that another region of the state had now successfully constructed its own narrative of victimhood, resentful of the special status it perceived the Valley to possess. But these issues, for the most part tractable by small compromises, became moot. They were surpassed by the depth of feeling in Kashmir, as if the entire weight of modern Indian history had once again chosen to explode in the Valley: the green flags of Pakistan, militant sub-nationalism, the failures of Indian democracy, the anxieties of Indian nationalism. Long unresolved questions burst to the surface, in the same entrenched categories that had made them unresolvable, in the same hardened rhetoric that sees even the slightest hint of compromise as a betrayal.

Who should one blame? The original terms on which India and Pakistan were carved out, that still haunt them? Nehru, whose own sense of legitimacy could get so overweening that he stopped listening? Hindu nationalists, who under the garb of nationalism make minorities feel insecure? The Indian state for promising a plebiscite it knew it could not deliver? The Valley politicians, who for most of history, have had a better sense of how azadi can raise the political temperature, than they have ideas about how it would work in practice? We can blame Pakistan for fomenting violence. We can blame the politicians in the Valley for behaving like most Indian politicians do: lazy when in government, ardent rabble rousers when out of power, more interested in provocation than peace.

We can blame the current government. After all, the prime minister did promise to restore Kashmir to its natural geography. All he gave Kashmir instead was a limited, measly bus service that has a long waiting list. He did not have the courage to override his national security apparatus and make good on his promises. His government chose not to provide effective means of assuaging Kashmir’s anxiety over the so called blockade. We can blame the “all party” committee that confuses being all party with all people. We can blame the general sense of anarchy being let loose across India, where even the smallest group can hold the state to ransom simply because they can block a highway. We can blame shadowy militants, for whom the cause is merely a pretext to unleash terror. We can blame the Indian security forces, and state officials, who as always, are working without political direction.

Some will blame the special status of Kashmir. Instead of bringing security, it has permanently suspended it in a nether zone: unable to integrate with India and access its power structures, unable to visualise a future of its own. On the one hand we have not got peace. On the other hand many wonder whether the special dispensations Kashmir has got — excluding outsiders from ownership, the Indian state’s unprecedented solicitousness for the Valley’s demographic composition (just contrast that with Pakistan), the high per capita flow of funds — may have served only to heighten distances, rather than create stronger bonds. There are people who understand the ways in which the Indian state has failed Kashmir. But fewer are able to fathom why, if all those special safeguards are honoured and a genuine representative process is put in place, azadi should rear its head again.

The Indian state has a legitimacy crisis in Kashmir. But so tangled are the thread of our identities that it is hard to know what warps and wrinkles pulling at one thread will produce. Every one is looking for formulas, but when trust has broken down formulas are pointless. There is also a colossal presumptuousness in doling out advice at this juncture. It is not clear by what authority anyone can give advice. The question is: who will have the political courage to overcome the past, to break this impossible equilibrium, where practical common sense is sacrificed to chimerical abstractions on all sides? But this is a moment of reckoning. Can the idea of India transcend the limitations of the Indian state? This is one question Kashmiri politicians have to answer for themselves. If the answer to this question is a resounding no, then India has to ponder its options. India has in the past sacrificed democracy in Kashmir to its own nationalism. What would it say for the idea of India, if it cannot elicit voluntary allegiance in Kashmir? Will it live with the permanent rebuke to its democracy that Kashmir represents, or will it risk a new paradigm that might achieve what this endless cycle of mutual suspicion has not?

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi express@expressindia.com

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