The government’s peremptory actions of abrogating the special status under Article 370 and bi-furcating the state of J&K into two Union Territories, have received an enthusiastic, if conditional, welcome. This decisive step comes after 72 years of “strategic paralysis” vis a vis the J&K imbroglio. Apart from the legal wrangling that is likely to follow, the final verdict regarding the wisdom of this crucial step must await the reaction of the Valley’s people.
By themselves, these two actions symbolise, merely, the attainment of a long-cherished dream of the BJP, and unless underpinned by a well thought out and long-term strategy, may turn out to be futile and even counter-productive. A peep into Kashmir’s history is instructive.
On October 26, it will be 72 years since Maharaja Hari Singh, faced by a Pakistani tribal invasion, signed the Instrument of Accession, bringing the state of J&K into the dominion of India. The Pakistani hordes, heading for the Srinagar airfield, providentially, lingered in Baramulla, en route, to indulge in rapine and plunder, giving the Indian military time to pull off a minor miracle by airlifting enough troops to save the Valley.
Our army and air force fought gallantly for 14 months, in difficult conditions, to push back the invasion. It was a combination of our own naiveté, coupled with the duplicity of the British military rump in the subcontinent, that gave away Gilgit, Chitral and Swat, and thwarted the Indian Army’s plans for recovery of the critical Muzaffarabad-Kotli-Mirpur belt, which now constitutes the Northern Areas and PoK respectively.
Having barely reconciled himself to a “truncated and moth-eaten” Pakistan, its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was bitterly disappointed at the turn of events in Kashmir. His “two-nation theory” was debunked at the moment of Partition because there were more Muslims in India than in their putative new “homeland”. Furthermore, unlike the victimised minorities in theocratic Pakistan, these Muslims were full and equal citizens of a secular democracy. And yet, for 72 years, we have allowed Pakistan to harass, intimidate and bleed us, on the specious grounds that as a Muslim-majority state, Kashmir belongs to them.
Having grown up in small towns of the Valley during the 1950s and ’60s, this writer has idyllic memories of Kashmir. While harmony prevailed between Kashmiris of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths — they ate in each others’ homes and celebrated festivals together — it was clearly understood that Kashmir was not India. The average Kashmiri’s attitude towards India remained ambivalent. India provided huge financial assistance to J&K; food, education, clothing and medicine were either free or heavily subsidised. Kashmiris accepted the largesse, but every evening tuned in to Radio Pakistan which never failed to play on their religious sentiments, spouting propaganda about the Indian Army’s “atrocities” and harping on the Bharatiya “occupation” of Kashmir.
J&K flew its own flag and “Prime Minister” Sheikh Abdullah, the state’s tallest figure and Nehru’s friend, was Sher-e-Kashmir. In 1953, accused of conspiring with the Americans to become “King Abdullah” of independent Kashmir, he was arrested, and the Valley erupted in violence. I recall my father, then magistrate of Baramulla, coming home, bleeding from the head. There had been “patharao”, or stone-pelting, in the old town, as agitators shouted anti-India slogans. The CRPF opened fire, and many were killed, before the Valley relapsed into sullen silence. Over the decades since 1953, little seems to have changed.
Ironically, the crores that India blindly poured into Kashmir were the biggest cause for resentment amongst the common people, because up to 95 per cent of these funds went to line the pockets of politicians and compliant officials. The average Kashmiri farmer lived in abject poverty, and come winter, there would be an exodus of Kashmiri labourers all over North India. The corrupt politicians and incompetent administrators of Kashmir were perceived as Indian stooges and exploiters, and resentment mounted, as successive elections were seen to be blatantly rigged.
By simply throwing money at the problem, and backing the wrong dynasties to rule the state, New Delhi steadily alienated Kashmiris. Thus, instead of crafting a national strategy for winning over Kashmir, we created fertile ground in which Pakistan’s ISI assiduously sowed the seeds of discord and sedition, till young Kashmiris started picking up Kalashnikovs.
India’s maladroitness did not end here. A succession of Pakistani-orchestrated incidents, between 1963 and 1999, demonstrated the ineptness of our intelligence agencies and the complete strategic bankruptcy of New Delhi. This depressing sequence included: The theft of Prophet Mohammad’s sacred relic, kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, seizure of Hazaratbal Shrine, capture and burning down of the Charar-e-Sharif shrine, persecution and expulsion of Kashmiri Pundits from the Valley, the Kargil incursions and hijacking of the IC-814. Add to this the self-inflicted wound of the rigged 1987 elections, which triggered armed militancy in Kashmir.
This historical review is a blunt reminder that the Indian state has, since 1947, failed to learn anything from the past. We have refused to admit that neither money, nor the jackboot nor bullets can convince a Kashmiri that he is an Indian. If the Pulwama bomber was, indeed, a local, we desperately need to find a way to stop the radicalisation of Kashmiri youth and their alienation from India.
Once the current restrictions in J&K are lifted, we should expect violence; from internal unrest, as well as external intervention. The state, while using all means to contain violence, has two alternatives to offer its Kashmiri citizens. Either the prospect of an inclusive, open and liberal India, on the road to economic prosperity, and as different from Pakistan as possible. Or an India which will use all the force at its disposal to quell any signs of dissent.
In these troubled times, let us remember the sacrifice of 19-year-old Kashmiri hero, Maqbool Sherwani. In October 1947, Sherwani succeeded in delaying the advance of Pakistani tribals at Baramulla, giving valuable time to Indian troops landing in Srinagar. On discovering his subterfuge, the Pakistanis nailed Sherwani to a wooden cross and shot him. A grateful Indian army has erected a monument to him.