Kashmir On My Mind

Our democracy is surely capable of generating more compassion than the current meanness of spirit we display towards Kashmir and Kashmiris.

A mother and her two sons are seen on Dal lake in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters

I have stolen this title from Salman Rushdie, who wrote an article headed ‘Kashmir on my Mind’ over a decade ago, because I believe he won’t object. Kashmir ought to be on all our minds as the seventh decade of our republic comes to a close. The state has been in conflict for half of that time, a fact that ought to concern us far more than it apparently does.

Since the 1990s, security forces have been the chief face of India in the Valley. Between 2002 and 2010, there was a concerted government effort to reverse this image, including broadening priorities from security to governance. From 2014, however, governance has been largely paralysed. Development grants have had little impact and the emphasis has been back on security, with daily shootouts between the army and police on one side, and armed Kashmiri-Pakistani militias on the other. The army’s outreach programmes, such as Sadbhavana or Jan Sunwais, have withered. The line that was earlier drawn between Kashmiri and Pakistani militants has blurred, with severe consequences. Between 2014-17, casualties have risen by close to 40%. Casualties amongst security forces have more than doubled, rising by over 70%.

In the meantime, alienation of the Valley’s population continues to grow. The funerals of militants are widely attended, and for the first time in decades civilians started to come out in 2016-7 to protect militants during security operations. Mercifully, that trend appears to have become less frequent, but still continues. Last week, two civilians were killed in army-stoner clashes in Shopian, following which a case was lodged against members of the Garhwal Rifles. A few days ago, a Pakistani militant was able to escape from police custody at a Srinagar hospital. Local militants staged his escape.

Instead of parliament discussing how to deal with the continuously worsening situation in Kashmir, we heard our present prime minister accuse our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, of losing a part of Jammu and Kashmir, saying that had Sardar Patel been in his place the whole of the former princely state would have been in India. This is an astonishing interpretation of history – Patel was as influential as Nehru in making the decision of when and where to declare a ceasefire, and both were deceived by the British commander of the Indian army, as was Jinnah by the British commander of the Pakistan army.

Historical facts apart, Modi’s statement deflects from the current situation of Jammu and Kashmir. Divided or undivided, the former princely state would have acceded to India with the same terms as are enshrined in the 1947 Instrument of Accession. Pakistan would have continued to seek to win it through direct and indirect war. And we? Would we have behaved better if the whole state was with us, or would we still have eroded Article 370 and arrived at the same sorry conflict that besets Kashmir?

Also read: Stepping Into Harm’s Way, Civilians Are the New Player in Kashmir’s Deadly Encounters

With age, they say, comes stability – or at least, greater knowledge and acceptance of who you are. But the Indian republic, at 69, appears to be in deep churn over precisely this issue. Our ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wants a republic based on Hindu principles which they determine. Our regional parties are not so sure. Some of them, especially in the east and south, want a federation of nations – Bengalis, Tamils, Malayalis, to mention but a few. The Congress, for their part, have long been unclear about what kind of federation we are or should be.

What of our people? Disturbingly, there appears to be a growing wave of support in north, west and central India for the BJP view, especially the claim that we must be one nation, dominated by a religious majority, with one set of rules that apply to all who live here. That was not how we were founded, nor how we have lived for the past 70 years.

Independent India was formed as a federation of former princely states, with their own political, economic and social practices. We were bound together by a common political and administrative structure, with common economic and social goals. But each state could and did claim exemptions based on economic or demographic criteria, as Articles 370 and 371 of the Indian constitution show. Together they apply to almost a dozen states or a third of the country. In other words, our constitution allows for different identities under one citizenship. We are an asymmetric federation, in which each state can have special relations to the federal authority.

Kashmiri schoolgirls wearing traditional dresses perform to a song during Republic Day celebrations in Srinagar in 2016. Reuters/Danish Ismail

This asymmetry has come increasingly under question since the Narendra Modi administration came to power, and nowhere more so than the conflict-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir. Since 2014, it has become received wisdom to brush Article 370 aside, as if it has no constitutional validity. The army chief’s recent comments on Jammu and Kashmir’s teaching practices are symptomatic of this attitude. He asks why valley schoolrooms show a separate state map and questions why the state has its own flag. Why should they not? Every Indian state teaches their state map as well as the country map. Moreover, Jammu and Kashmir has special status under the 1947 Instrument of Accession and Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Both of them give the state autonomy within the Indian federation and restrict the Centre’s powers to defence, external relations and currency.

General Bipin Rawat may have been ignorant of Jammu and Kashmir’s status under the constitution, or he may have been expressing his opposition to Article 370. In either case, his comments are distressing. For an army chief to be ignorant of such a critical issue in such a vulnerable state would be astounding. It would be equally astounding if a serving army chief questioned the Indian constitution. Since neither he nor the Modi administration have distanced themselves from his remarks, it appears that we have a new normal in which serving government employees can challenge the structure of our democracy as enshrined in our constitution.

Also read: Evaluation of Counter-Insurgency in Kashmir Must Go Beyond Numbers

But then, he is not the first. Ruling party MPs and MLAs, even ministers, regularly question articles of the constitution in public speeches, without any consequence to them. They even question the directive principles of the constitution, which grant every citizen equal rights and separate the church from the state. The latest salvo was fired by BJP MP Vinay Katiyar, who asserted that Indian Muslims should go to Pakistan or Bangladesh since India was divided to create these Muslim homelands. In other words, our historical foundation – as a democratic state of people who rejected the British Empire’s divide and rule and then divide and quit policies – is itself being questioned. Is our republic veering towards discarding much of what we were? If so, what will be the likely impact?

Some impact can already be seen in the Kashmir Valley. At 61, the state is not the place it was when its 1957 constitution was promulgated. Both the ruler and his opponent, the undisputed leader of Kashmiri sentiment in the 1940s, Sheikh Abdullah, chose accession to India rather than Pakistan; the latter because of the pluralist democracy that was the vision of our founding fathers, including Nehru and Patel. Today, after decades of suffering, opposition to the principles on which the state of Jammu and Kashmir was founded is even greater in the Valley than is the Indian constitution in the rest of India. Increasingly, large numbers of Kashmiris say that the promises of accession have been vitiated and that justifies calls for ‘azaadi’. More and more youth in the Valley believe that the Indian state and citizens treat them as enemies, an impression which is bolstered by our television channels, where over 90% of reporting on Jammu and Kashmir is on terrorism and cross-LoC warfare.

More and more youth in the Valley believe that the Indian state and citizens treat them as enemies. Credit: Reuters

In late 2017, home minister Rajnath Singh appeared to have won some space for a humanitarian approach. The appointment of an interlocutor, and announcement of amnesty for first and possibly second-time stone pelters, seemed to signal that the Modi administration recognised that the prevailing security policy was counterproductive. 2018, one hoped, would be a better year for Jammu and Kashmir. But the army chief’s remarks simply underline that our government will continue to pursue two policies at the same time – a war on terror that extends to a war on dissidents on the one hand, and occasional humanitarian action on the other. Since the former undermines the latter, it is difficult to imagine better outcomes than the negatives we have seen for the past three years.

Also read: A Never-Ending Nightmare in Kashmir

As other countries that have been engaged in prolonged civil conflict know well, the longer the military forces engage in counter-insurgency, the greater the risk of alienation and human rights violations – and even worse, a blowback effect on the country’s democratic polity at large. When was the last time the prime minister met with a group of Kashmiris other than the chief minister? Indeed, I cannot remember the last time I heard a minister, a civil servant or a member of the army express empathy for Kashmiris or show awareness of their needs as citizens. The silence is deafening, given that as little as five years ago we heard repeated expressions of concern. A simple review of television reporting on the state indicates how severely the conflict has impacted a key institution of democracy, the media. A Kashmiri who reminds us of Article 370 is called a traitor, and one who seeks to explain the rise of militancy is called a terrorist sympathiser. What price the neutrality of the press?

To their credit, this Republic Day anniversary, the media carried searching debates on the fissures in our democracy and the goals of the constitution. One debate that is yet to be explored is on the nature of our federation. The issue is at the crux of the Kashmir conflict and has been kept in abeyance for 65 years if we date it from 1953 when Article 370 was passed, or 61 years if we date it from the state constitution. Incidentally, while Article 370 is designated as temporary, the articles of the state constitution which re-affirm autonomy are permanent. Any attempt to tinker with the former could render the latter null and reopen the issue of accession.

To their credit too, the Modi administration appear to have recognised that their party’s loudly expressed demand to revoke Article 370 only furthers the valley’s alienation. The demand has remained a mere demand. But the administration is yet to resolve the collision between its security and reconciliation policies. This is the 30th year of insurgency in Kashmir and the 28th year of Indian counter-insurgency in the Valley. As we debate freedom of expression in the rest of India, let us not ignore Kashmir’s lack of freedom, which ranges from daily violence, insecurity and isolation to severely curtailed space for dissent. Our constitution requires better from our executive, and our democracy is surely capable of generating more compassion than the current meanness of spirit that we display towards Kashmir and Kashmiris.

Radha Kumar is a writer and analyst who was one of the government of India’s group of interlocutors in 2010-11.

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  • alok asthana

    You’ve used the right word ‘meanness’ in the sub title. Yes, Indian govt is being thoroughly mean towards a very gentle people. Even if they were not gentle ( but they are), they’re Indians. It is only this govt that can be so mean to its own citizens.