To Indians celebrating the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s status, I suggest that they reflect on the word “consent”. All healthy human involvements seem to require the other person’s consent.
While recently researching South Indian history from the 17th century to our times, I was struck by a comment of the French priest Abbe Dubois (1765-1848), who lived in Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil regions from 1792 to 1823. Dubois conceded that the people “cherish” and “respect” the administrative machinery the British had built after defeating Tipu in 1799. But, said Dubois, they “hate and despise their [new] rulers from the bottom of their hearts”.
It was not for their skin colour that India’s British rulers were hated. They were despised because they took the land by force, without consent.
Let us for a moment take leave of all our senses and imagine that the removal of Article 370 turns out to be a wondrous remedy, and that in five years it does for J&K what the finest efforts of governments thus far, whether PM Narendra Modi’s or of previous PMs, had not achieved.
Let us assume that by 2024 the Valley becomes a model of harmony, prosperity and gender equality. In ease-of-doing-business, ease-of-residence, ease-of-movie-making and even, say, in employment opportunities, Kashmir is now better than Bengaluru, Pune or Jaipur! Even if all this happens, a people whose consent was never taken will “hate and despise their rulers from the bottom of their hearts”. For a hundred years, and longer.
Decades ago, after Nehru and his successors were unable to fulfil a pledge to obtain the Kashmiri people’s consent to be part of India, a sense of betrayal entered the Valley’s psyche. Now, a second betrayal stings that psyche. The BJP may have promised removal of Article 370 in successive manifestos to the Indian people, but it did say to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in 2015 that it “would not touch Article 370”.
Betrayals may be inevitable in our fallen world. Taking people for granted, however, and doing with them whatever we want without their consent, is going too far.
Given the chance to separate, Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the UK chose, in free voting, not to do so. Rightly or wrongly, New Delhi does not seem willing to offer such a chance to the Kashmir Valley.
But can you imagine the UK’s English, Welsh and Irish telling their northern neighbours, without a previous word with any of them, that henceforth they — the Scots — have the privilege to belong to a “union territory”, that Scotland’s special status and political institutions stand abolished?
Can you imagine all of Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto and the Atlantic islands, cheering a declaration, made without previous conversation with any Quebecois, that Quebec is now a “union territory”?
Some in China might indeed rejoice if, without discussion with Tibetans, the Tibet Autonomous Region is renamed the Proud Chinese Territory of Tibet. Would Tibetans celebrate?
We are told that many in Jammu and Ladakh are now celebrating, though statehood would have been preferred to a UT status. In our Northeast, however, where every region is jealous of its distinct culture, and where some states have their own versions of Article 370, people are now more anxious, suddenly, about their future.
Any message about Kashmir that India wishes to send to China or Pakistan would be stronger if Kashmiris endorse it. Conversely, images of an Indian government that acts without consent can only create nervousness or alienation in countries like Bangladesh and Nepal.
Dissenters should not expect Modi and Amit Shah to go back on their proclamation, but we can say this to them: “Ruling without consent is bad enough. Will you however make sure that the representatives, civilian and military, who govern in your name, truly serve the people of J, K & L? Kashmiris will never give up their resentment of who governs them. Still, remembering how numerous Indians responded to British administration, will you strive to make the people of Kashmir ‘cherish’ and ‘respect’ how you govern?”
Even if attempted, this won’t be easy. Kashmir’s long insurgency has made service in the Valley an unwelcome proposition. That insurgency has also made Kashmiris unpopular across India. Modi may claim that removing Article 370 will help the Kashmiri people. But much of the cheering for the removal comes from a feeling that the time has come to hurt the Kashmiris.
The rest of the cheering comes from an impression that Indians can now go to the Valley with a new equation in which humbler and quieter locals will more readily acknowledge the visitors’ dominance.
If there is any road towards better relations between Kashmiris and India — or “the rest of India” as some would prefer to say — that road must contain a few Indians, official and private, who nurse a desire to win Kashmiri minds.
Then there are the peaks, waters and trees of Kashmir, whose consent no one thinks of seeking. If Chinese enthusiasm has dealt devastation to Tibet’s ecosystem, the Vale of Kashmir and the peaks surrounding it will not be made purer by ease of access. To safeguard Kashmir’s environment, a barrier much stronger than Article 370 was needed.
This article first appeared in the August 19 print edition under the title ‘Where there is no free will’. The writer is research professor at Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign