By now, most Indians know the separatist position by heart: the accession of Kashmir in 1947 was dubious, for many years Kashmiri elections were rigged, Kashmir is a Muslim majority state in Hindu India, the army subjects the Valley to a reign of terror etc.
Integral to this position is a caricature of how Indians feel about Kashmir. We are, apparently, a Hindu-majority State that is determined to hang on by force to Kashmir.
Over the last few years, this frequently articulated position has begun to annoy me not just because it’s untrue but because it describes an India that I do not recognise and ascribe views to Indians that I know we do not hold.
In my experience, the attitude of Indians towards Kashmir is not guided by Hindu chauvinism or Indian imperialism. In fact, the overwhelming emotion when it comes to our understanding of Kashmir is one of bewilderment. The vast majority of Indians are bewildered by the Kashmir problem and the demands of Kashmiri militants. Why do the Kashmiris hate us so much? And what is it that they actually want?
There is one part of the separatist position that we understand. We recognise that it must be hell to live with a constant military presence in a state where citizens are subject to random police checks and where curfew is a regular occurrence. Most of us are intensely embarrassed by the stories of human rights abuses — some of which must surely be true.
But equally, most of us would argue that the military presence is a response to a violent insurrection against the Indian State. Till 1989, Kashmir did not have such a strong military presence. The army went in only after the violence increased, after key leaders were assassinated, after kidnappings became a regular occurrence, and after jihadis thronged to Kashmir from across the border.
Violence begets violence. If you declare war on the Indian State, the State is not going to roll over and let you tickle its stomach. It is obliged to fight back and to assert both its authority and the rule of law.
Most Indians would love to see the army withdrawn from Kashmir. Indian soldiers have no particular desire to risk their lives in Kashmir. But each time we talk of reducing the army presence or of amending the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the violence actually seems to increase. There is no evidence that a reduction in the military presence will be greeted by a similar reduction in the level of militant violence.
Besides, even if the army were withdrawn and there was no state violence in Kashmir, would the separatists change their stance? Would they say that they now accepted Indian sovereignty? I don’t think so. The army presence is unfortunate. But it is not the core issue.
From our perspective, the secessionist sentiment in Kashmir is bewildering because (except for the army presence) the average Kashmiri has the same deal as every other Indian except perhaps that the Indian State spends more money on him. Per capita expenditure on each Kashmiri is vastly greater than Delhi’s per capita expenditure on, say, the average Bihari.
Further, Kashmiris have the same democratic rights as other Indians. Even if you accept that elections were rigged in the past, that has not been true for several years. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-government was legitimately elected and so is the current National Conference regime. Moreover, Kashmiris have many rights (through Article 370) that Indians who reside in other parts of the country do not have.
We accept that because of the circumstances of Kashmir’s accession, there may have been separatist sentiment in the years following 1947. Certainly, we have faced secessionist movements in many parts of India — Tamil Nadu, Nagaland, Punjab, etc — but in every case we have managed to fulfil the aspirations of the people and quell the separatist sentiment. But what is it about Kashmir that despite our best efforts, this generation of Kashmiris, born many years after 1947, continues to demand secession?
More mystifying for us is that we don’t know what the Kashmiris want. Who in his right mind would want union with today’s troubled Pakistan? Who wouldn’t prefer India’s success story to the Pakistani saga of national collapse?
Nor does Pakistan have any record of treating its non-Punjabi minorities well. Bangladesh seceded after the Pakistani army launched a genocide. The Baluchs were massacred by the same army. And PoK is hardly a shining advertisement for the virtues of Pakistani citizenship.
Some Kashmiris say they want independence from both India and Pakistan. But it is staggeringly obvious that an independent state of Kashmir, with no industry to speak of, would last for 15 minutes without subsidies from India or Pakistan. Worse still, such a state would probably be run according to strict Shariat law, denying rights to women and offering safe haven to the world’s jihadis. You would have to be very naive to believe that America or any great power would support the creation of such a state.
So, why then are Kashmiris destroying their future in a mad and pointless insurrection? I don’t think most Indians know the answer but we suspect that it might have to do with religion. In today’s secular India, religion is no longer a crucial determinant of political behaviour. We find the notion of a state founded only on religious identity old-fashioned and bizarre.
But clearly, religion matters more to the separatists than anything else. The state has three parts, all of which get the same deal from the Centre. But it is only in the Valley, which is nearly all Muslim (after the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits) that secession finds many takers. This single-minded pursuit of an Islamic future sets Kashmiri separatists apart from Indian Muslims who have accepted a secular polity and feel no kinship with their Kashmiri brethren’s political demands.
But because Kashmiri secessionism flows from an Islamist ideology, it poses special problems for India. I suspect that many of us are now so fed up that we would be relieved to be rid of the Valley but for our fears for the future of Indian secularism. At some level, we wonder if this would not be a second Partition and we are afraid of what Kashmir’s secession would mean for India’s thriving Muslim minority.
Ironically, it is this sentiment based on nothing more than a desire to protect Indian secularism that allows the separatists to tell the world that India is full of chauvinist Hindus who send their armies to attack Kashmiri Muslims. It is an old lie. It is a variation of the same untruth that the Muslim League spread in the run-up to Partition. Indian secularism survived that lie. And no matter how much the Kashmiri separatists may misrepresent our position now, both India and its secularism will triumph again.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)