It took Prime Minister Narendra Modi 45 days to break his silence on Kashmir, but his assertion that there has to be a dialogue to find “a permanent and lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the constitution,” has rekindled the hope of peace in the Valley.
If the reactions of the Kashmiri opposition leaders who met him are a reliable yardstick, even more important than what he said, was the way he said it. It now remains for Modi to convert his spontaneous, though belated, reaction into a programme of action that will be acceptable to the Kashmiris and the rest of India, and open the gates to peace in the subcontinent.
This will, however, not be easy. The first hurdle the government will face is finding someone to hold a dialogue with. To have any hope of success, a settlement has to be between the parties that have the power and the authority to meet the commitments they make at the negotiating table. The opposition leaders with whom Modi met, and even the PDP, the BJP’s coalition partner in the state, enjoy neither. The most they can do today is articulate the grievances of the Kashmiris and suggest ways of meeting them. Their power to make the people accept these proposals – let alone implement them – is almost non-existent.
The grim truth is that Kashmir no longer has leaders with whom Delhi can enter into a meaningful dialogue because, over the years, Pakistan’s ISI and our security agencies have killed or discredited nearly all those who could have spoken with authority on behalf of their people.
To restart a dialogue, Delhi will have to first find, or create, a new leadership in Kashmir. In the joint coordination committee of the two wings of the Hurriyat and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, there are the makings of one, for this was the same formation that had worked smoothly with the state police in 2008 to keep the unrest that followed the Amarnath land scam and the Jammu blockade peaceful.
But today, its most respected leaders – Syed Ali Shah Gilani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik – are under house arrest, or in jail. Moreover, when they are released, it is by no means certain that their unity will survive the transition from protest to negotiation. The risk must nevertheless be taken, but it can be minimised if the government – of its own accord – places a proposal on the table that none of them can afford to ignore.
What might such a proposal be?
Nehru’s understanding may hold the key
A good way to begin is by asking ourselves a hypothetical question: What would the reaction in Kashmir, India and Pakistan be if Delhi were to announce that it has decided to cede independence to a freely elected government in Jammu and Kashmir.
This question is not as outrageous as it sounds, for it was first posed to Jawaharlal Nehru at the tail end of the eighth meeting of the defence committee of the Indian cabinet on October 25, 1947. Nehru’s response had been immediate and unhesitating: that he would “not mind Kashmir remaining an independent country [sic] under India’s sphere of influence”.
He said this not only because the question was hypothetical and because he knew – both as a Kashmiri and a close friend to Sheikh Abdullah – that Kashmiris wanted, above all, to preserve their syncretic identity and culture. This would automatically keep them aligned with New Delhi, which had opted from the start for a federal democratic system based upon ethnicity. Does Nehru’s intuitive understanding of Kashmiri aspirations in 1947 still hold true today? At this critical moment in India’s history, this question needs to be asked and answered once again.
Let us start with what the reaction in the Valley would be. Once the initial suspicion of this radical announcement is dispelled, popular unrest will subside. Curfew will be lifted, the police and paramilitary forces will stand down, and normal life will resume. This will not suit those who have been organising the stone pelting, either out of political and religious conviction or because they have been on the dole from the ISI. But these people will have to explain to the youth why they should continue putting their lives in danger even when India has met their fundamental demand. More importantly, the youth will themselves face the concentrated opposition of their parents, something that is conspicuously lacking today. Those who have been systematically instigating stone pelting as a form of protest will therefore find themselves without a following and will have to change their goals and strategy.
After the initial euphoria, Kashmiris will have to decide who the recipient of the power that Delhi is ready to transfer should be. Since that decision rests upon elections, political energy will get redirected towards winning them. Here, the simple majority voting system will come into play. In order to win, political groups will have to enter into coalitions. This will force them to make compromises with other parties and groups that do not share all of their goals. The compromises will inevitably weaken the political extremes and strengthen the centre. The lines between the two wings of the Hurriyat, and between them and the mainstream parties, will begin to blur. Thus, Kashmir’s lost Kashmiriyat will be reborn.
The reborn Kashmiriyat will be inherently moderate for many reasons. First, even in the stressed conditions of today, large segments of the population do not want a complete separation from India. This is because complete independence brings military, political and financial insecurity with it.
Independence will also lay bare the social, religious and ethnic fissures that are present in Kashmir. The Shias, Gujars and the Paharis will almost certainly want to retain some of the protection that national laws give them as a shield against discrimination. The Pandit community will also want the same, both inside and outside the Valley. There will also be a difference of opinion between the older Kashmiris and the ‘youth’, between the poor and the middle class, and between the urban and rural segments of both.
Finally, most Kashmiris will want their economic links with India to remain intact. Any political formation that wishes to win the election will have to take these aspirations and anxieties into account. Thus, the pressure to seek a solution, that is short of a complete separation, is likely to surface shortly after tempers begin to subside.
In Jammu and Ladakh, however, this announcement will be received with mixed feelings and in the case of the latter, with alarm. Ladakh will feel cut-off and the Shia population of Kargil, which has consistently recorded some of the highest turnouts in the state and central elections, will feel particularly threatened.
Ladakh’s fears can be resolved by giving it the full union territory status that it has been yearning for, and by building modern road and rail links between the region and Himachal Pradesh.
There will be mixed feelings in Jammu because, while many in the state want to separate themselves from Kashmir and Ladakh in order to entirely enter into the mainstream of Indian politics, the others – possibly a majority that values their historical and cultural links with Kashmir – will want the status quo to continue. Despite this, it is difficult not to conclude that both parts of the state will be better off if they break the shackles that bind them, for today, communal fervour and intolerance in each is feeding off the other. This vicious cycle needs to be broken.
This decision, however, should not be taken by Delhi, but rather, be left to the people of Jammu and Ladakh to take if they wish. This can be done by attaching a single question referendum to the election that will create the next government in Kashmir.
In Pakistan, such an announcement will be received with consternation because it will put the ghost of a plebiscite to rest and it will be left without an issue to fight India over. This will put the noses of both, the military and the mullahs, out of joint, because Kashmir is the lone common trough from which both have fed and prospered, for decades.
It will have to deal with a spate of similar demands in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir that the Indian decision will set off. To contain these, Pakistan will be forced to democratise its administration in all three, but it will try to do as little as possible. The only sure way to do that will be to ask India to limit its devolution of autonomy as well. Thus, while Pakistan will claim a victory in public, it is likely that it will ask India to limit Kashmiri independence to the proposals contained in the Delhi Agreement of 1952.
With a little deft diplomacy, Modi could therefore revive the Manmohan-Musharaf framework agreement and end the rift created in the subcontinent by the partition. It hardly needs to be added that were India to take such a bold step, its stock in the world would rise sky high and its ‘soft power’ would soar.
The limits of Indian democracy
So, if there are only positives in such an initiative and no negatives, what is it that has stood in the way of making such an offer for 25 long years? The short answer is the limitations of Indian democracy itself.
First, any change in the territorial boundaries of India will require a constitutional amendment. This will require a consensus between all the major political parties in both houses of the parliament, which does not exist today and is unlikely to be obtained in the foreseeable future.
Second, a scream will arise from a hundred million throats that this will be the second great betrayal of the idea of India, after the partition of 1947. This just might set off a communal backlash against Muslims which will destroy that idea far more comprehensively than the partition did and could just destroy India as well.
The third is the domino theory argument that this will open a pandora’s box of demands from other states that could lead to the disintegration of India. It does not matter whether these fears are well grounded, the mere fact that they exist and that there are forces in the country that will give it a communal twist, puts it out of bounds.
Fortunately, a way out of this also happens to exist in the constitution. As P. Chidambaram had proposed when he was home minister, it lies in a public commitment by the prime minister, backed by an all party resolution, to restore the full autonomy that was guaranteed to it by the Instrument of Accession and Article 370 of the constitution. It states that “the power of parliament to make laws for the said state shall be limited to those matters in the union list and the concurrent list which, in consultation with the government of the state, are declared by the president to correspond to matters specified in the Instrument of Accession governing the accession of the state to the dominion of India”.
The Instrument of Accession specified only three subjects in which a princely state had to cede its powers to the federal government. These were defence, external affairs and communications. However, between 1956 and 1994, 47 presidential orders extended 94 of the 97 subjects in the union list (the powers of the central government) to the state. These made 260 of the then extant 395 Articles of the constitution of India.
Only a limited number of these extensions were political – most had to do with industry, trade and transit, education, social welfare, labour laws, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of India, the division of tax revenues, the devolution of plan grants and other such issues and were initiated by the state government. But in their entirety, they constitute a massive erosion of the autonomy promised in the Instrument of Accession and guaranteed to Kashmir by Article 370 of the constitution.
It is this encroachment that needs to be reversed. Once they regain their autonomy, it is exceedingly unlikely that Kashmiris will want to limit their interaction with India to just the three subjects listed in the Instrument of Accession. But today, Kashmiris need to feel empowered. They need to regain and exercise the right to choose the parts of their present relationship with India that they wish to retain.
The BJP has been asking for the complete abolition of Article 370 for the past five decades. Hence, I am fully aware of how difficult it must have been for the prime minister to concede that the solution must be found within the framework of the constitution. But greatness is demonstrated most clearly by the capacity of a leader to admit his or her mistakes and change course. If Modi is able to do this, most of the shortcomings of his first two years in office will be eventually forgotten.