Roadmap for Kashmir: the path not trodden

By Navnita Chadha Behera

June 2011

The interlocutors for Kashmir are due to submit an interim report to the central government. It is too early to say if their roadmap will resolve the conflict because what it entails is unclear. If it’s expected to yield a final political settlement, then it may not succeed because that can only result from a multi-layered and inclusive political dialogue wherein J&K’s political class takes the lead in re-working the rules of power sharing. The Delhi-based , eminent albeit ‘apolitical’ interlocutors are not best suited to this monumental task.

Even so, they may make a significant contribution to the peace process. This, simply by undertaking the overdue and neglected task of mapping out the broad parameters within which the specificities of a peace proposal may be debated. Even this much calls for a fundamental shift in the basic terms of discourse because it questions the multiple fables that pass for conventional wisdom.

The original blunder was made in 1947 when the ideological prism of the two-nation theory was used to characterize Kashmir as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. This historical narrative suggested that Pakistan — the “homeland” of the subcontinent’s Muslims — was incomplete without Kashmir’s inclusion, or that India’s secular credentials depended on Kashmir’s accession. It also suggested that the dispute arose because a Muslim-majority state had its fate determined by a Hindu Maharaja. Both propositions do not stand up to historical scrutiny. In 1947, Kashmir’s fate was neither preordained nor decided on ideological grounds. The princely Dogra state of Jammu & Kashmir lay outside British India. The battle over it between the leadership of Congress and the Muslim League was fundamentally political and mainly because of the respective Dominions’ defence needs and need for geographical consolidation.

Another critical factor was the local dynamics of Kashmiri politics. Though legally, the Maharaja alone could sign the Instrument of Accession, it was the Sheikh Abdullah-led National Conference’s political backing that ultimately swung it. The Muslim League chose to blame the Hindu Maharaja because it would have been far more difficult to explain how a popular Muslim leader like Sheikh had voluntarily opted to join India.

The ‘territorilization’ of the Kashmir conflict has also detracted from the question of peoples’ ‘political’ rights and perpetuated the fallacy of viewing two parts of the divided state as homogenous entities. The political construct of a ‘Muslim-majority’ Jammu & Kashmir state pitted against a ‘majoritarian Hindu India’ or its counterpoint that Islam is sufficient to cement the relationship between ‘Azad Kashmir’ and Northern Areas with Pakistan are, at best, misleading.

Jammu & Kashmir with its extraordinary medley of races, tribal groups, languages and religions is arguably one of the most diverse regions in the subcontinent. Its majority community of ‘Kashmiri Muslims’ is not a unified, homogenous entity in terms of political beliefs , ideological leanings or political goals. Nor is the Kashmiri Muslims’ interpretation of the right to self-determination in terms of demanding a plebiscite mandated by the 1949 UN resolutions shared by other communities such as the Dogras, Kashmiri Pandits, Gujjars, Bakkarwals and Ladakhi Buddhists.

The Kashmiri leadership has consistently failed to come to terms with this reality. In the 1950s, if Sheikh Abdullah argued that self-determination was the inherent right of all peoples and demanded it for Kashmiris, he could not justify denying the same to people of Jammu and Ladakh. However, the latter’s demand for full and unconditional accession to India acted as a countervailing force to the Valley’s demand for independence. Currently too, the separatist leadership faces the same dilemma. It speaks on behalf of the ‘people of Jammu & Kashmir’ but represents the political interests of only a part of the majority community —Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley. The minorities in Jammu and Ladakh, in fact, seek autonomy from the Valley. The secessionist agenda underlying the demand for right to self-determination has thus failed because it lacks an inclusive character.

A just, viable and lasting peace in Kashmir must involve all the communities and nationalities living in the state, not Kashmiri Muslims alone who resorted to the gun and have thus been the worst affected by the political violence. This is important because if the political demands of the non-violent mobilization in Jammu, Ladakh and elsewhere are not addressed through the peace process, it will send the message that ‘violence pays’. This would defeat the very purpose of a peace process. And yet, J&K’s pluralities are an asset, not a liability when devising a strategy to resolve this conflict if they are viewed as a basis for linkages, not division.

Finally, it’s important to bring developments in ‘Azad Kashmir’ and the Northern Areas within the purview of debates on Kashmir’s political future. The people of ‘Azad Kashmir’ and the Northern Areas had to wait until 1970 and 1994 respectively to exercise their basic civil right to vote. Ambiguities about the constitutional and legal status of the latter have fostered typical colonial conditions whereby all civil and legal rights reside in the Pakistani state and none in the people. Nonetheless, Pakistan has always assumed the mantle of championing the Kashmiri cause and dictated the terms of Kashmir’s discourse at home and in the international arena. The basic rules of the game in agenda-setting must change and if the interlocutors could set this ball rolling it may well prove to be a game-changer in Kashmir.

*(The author teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)

–Source: Times of India