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Kashmir Is Not Prime Real Estate, It Is Its People

Rather than treating Kashmiris as part of the problem, India must involve them in the process of resolving the Kashmir issue.

Kashmir University in autumn: watercolour from the series ‘Transparent strokes’ by Masood Hussain. Photo courtesy Masood Hussain.

Subramanian Swamy is being unnecessarily coy in his suggestion that the Kashmir “problem” may be solved by depopulating the Valley and resettling the people of Kashmir in “refugee camps”.

I have long suspected that Swamy is a sort of clown in our public space – and, like the clowns in Shakespeare, he occasionally serves a valuable function in that he is able to articulate the unstated, and often unstatable, truth in ways that are unavailable to less gifted politicians. (His latest outrage is, instantly, reminiscent of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.) After all, his suggestion points up the fatal contradiction in the official Indian position – we like the Valley, but minus the people. However, that “refugee camp” is uncharacteristically euphemistic, unless Swamy is visualising merging these refugee camps with the refugee camps of the Kashmiri Pandits – in which case we would have created a sort of non-resident Kashmir and left the Valley free for the army. But, poor paranoid me, I fear that the word that is really lurking there in Swamy’s suggestion is “concentration camp”. Obviously I must be wrong.

I recall Hindi writer Nirmal Verma describing the buyers who turned up at his doorstep when it was time for him and his brother Ram Kumar to move from their home in Karol Bagh’s Western Extension Area: with butchers’ eyes, he said, assessing the value of the flanks of the animal that they were planning to slaughter. The only thing that mattered was the realisable market value of the property – and the feelings of the people who were about to relinquish their home were merely an irrelevance. It is a moment that often comes back to me in Kashmir-related conversations. India’s Kashmir “problem” is that there are those damned Kashmiris in Kashmir – it’s as simple as that. Talking to my fellow-Indians, I often get a sense that they think of Kashmir as if it were a piece of valuable real estate, which an unfortunate history has denied them vacant possession of. Rather like builders and real estate developers, who see valuable resources – land, houses – in the possession of unworthy people, who are incapable of “unlocking the value” that is inherent in those resources.

Among the many charming slogans that have been invented by the hyper-nationalists is one that seems apt in this context; not only does it have an echo of some primitive poetic gift with its gratuitous rhyme, it also has the characteristic frisson of violence: “Doodh maangoge kheer denge. Kashmir maangoge cheer denge.” (‘Ask for milk and I will give you kheer, ask for Kashmir and I will tear you from limb to limb’) This is good enough for the poetic sloganeers to be sent to Kashmir, instead of the military. Perhaps they will be able to achieve what mere pellet guns could not. However, it still leaves an essential question hanging in the air: after all, who is the asker and who, so to speak, is the askee? Who is it, one wonders, that has both “kheer” and “Kashmir” in his gift?

One suspects that the problem with “having” runs deep in the current dispensation. Answering the charge of racism in the context of the anti-African violence in Noida, MP Tarun Vijay offered the defence that we “have” dark South Indians in the country, and “we” manage to rub along with “them”, so how could “we” be racist? I think the hapless fellow was genuinely surprised by the outrage that he provoked among “dark South Indians” who didn’t seem to know – or when they came to know, didn’t like it – that they were, so to speak, being “had” by Vijay. And if we can’t “have” those mild – if “dark” – “South Indians”, what hope do we have of “having” those recalcitrant Kashmiris? Enter Swamy with his “camps”.

In situation after situation, it is “people” that are the problem and they come in various descriptions – sometimes as bearded ruffians in pherans, but also as beardless schoolboys armed with pebbles, as unkempt “tribals” with axes and bows and arrows, as beturbaned and suicide-prone farmers, diverse recalcitrants holding up the great engine of development. That, indeed, is the irreducible core of India’s Kashmir problem. The rest of it – the UN resolutions, Pakistan, “the international community” – all this is ultimately inconsequential. And indeed, with respect to these we may be tempted to follow the example of our new-found friend Israel, to say nothing of the Biggest Brother – the US. But the people of Kashmir will not simply go away – and they will have to be part of any conceivable, viable solution. It is merely silly of the government of India to insist on talking only to the government of Pakistan and leaving it to the Pakistani state, with its well-known commitment to democracy, to insist that the people of Kashmir have to be a part of the dialogue.

What I am proposing, I suppose, is simply flipping this absurd situation around – talk to the people of Kashmir, who have a right to be heard and will find ways, pleasant and, if necessary, very unpleasant, to make themselves heard. And to the extent that we talk – honestly, sincerely – to the people of Kashmir, the Pakistani claim to be part of the process – founded as it must be on the dubious two-nation theory – will be proportionately weakened. Talk to the Kashmiri people, I say, screw Pakistan! And if indeed there are some Kashmiris who want to be a part of Pakistan at the end of that process, the government of India could set up an emigration programme to enable them.

Just as Pakistan’s “claim” to Kashmir rests on the implicit affirmation of its foundational two-nation myth, so India’s claim to Kashmir rests – must rest, beyond the fact of possession/occupation – on an implicit affirmation of its foundational promise of constitutive – and constitutional – secularism. Kashmir can be a part of India because India is a secular republic. It is crucial for India’s own survival to progressively legitimise its claim to Kashmir by affirming and consolidating its secularism. Without that, our position in Kashmir is only that of real estate sharks.

Alok Rai is a writer who taught at Delhi University and Allahabad University.