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Lost in time

My Kashmir: Conflict and the Prospects of Enduring Peace by Wajahat Habibullah is a timely book on the controlled chaos that is Jammu and Kashmir from someone who knows the beleaguered state only too well. Neelesh Misra with the review.

books Updated: Aug 17, 2008 00:05 IST
Neelesh Misra

When Wajahat Habibullah once went to Kashmir as India's Chief Information Commissioner, he asked a top official for a copy of the state’s best kept secret — J&K’s own RTI-type information law that would enable citizens to find out what was hidden from then in the name of national security. The official couldn’t even find a copy of the law to give to Habibullah. It had, of course, never been implemented.

Transparency has been in severe short supply for more than 20 years in Kashmir, now hurled back in a simmering cauldron that shows no signs of cooling. So here are the people who should be reading this book this summer: the Prime Minister, the Union Home Minister, the separatist leaders who are egging on Kashmiris to confront the Indian State, the fanatics in Jammu, and the security forces.

Habibullah, who served long years in Kashmir as an administrator and negotiated the Hazratbal hostage crisis, has straddled and understands both the worlds of Srinagar and New Delhi. My Kashmir offers a sweeping chronicle of what went wrong in Kashmir — a candid look at everything from human rights violations and the Islamisation of a secular paradise to gaping holes in governance and policy misadventures — and what could fix it.

Habibullah is a soft-spoken man, but is refreshingly straightforward for an Indian official. “If Kashmir is to be treated as an ‘integral part’ of India,” he writes, “India must adhere to its Constitution, and the Kashmiris should be allowed to enjoy the freedom that is guaranteed to them by that Constitution.” Of the separatists, he writes: “True freedom in Jammu and Kashmir cannot be won by independence, which would bring even more suffering and would be unacceptable to both India and Pakistan.”

The author raises crucial issues related to governance and government conduct that often is glossed over in ‘Kashmir discussion”. He writes about, for instance, the tottering health system in the state and the massive unemployment. “Kashmir’s forests have been among the principal casualties of violence,” he writes. “People in the security forces set about felling trees to build their homes in villages across Punjab and Haryana.” He also points out how the State Accountability Commission, created to check government corruption and uphold human rights, “quickly lost steam, possibly because it put political leaders and senior bureaucrats under increased public scrutiny.”

Habibullah’s work — the result of a fellowship at the United States Institute of Peace — ran into misplaced criticism when he pointed out that the US could play a crucial role as a facilitator in the Kashmir conflict. We can grudge it or welcome it, but it is widely believed that American pressure has been one of the key factors that helped ease the situation in Kashmir until this summer. However, the US State Department interestingly told Habibullah that the country “had played no role in the decrease in violence, and the Kashmir issue figured low on the US agenda in talks with Pakistan”. Habibullah gives interesting details of his meetings with separatist leaders. In a 2003 meeting, Yasin Malik is quoted as saying that American pressure had indeed helped suspend ISI-backed infiltration — and hence put pressure on the Hurriyat Conference (from whom, the author does not say). He writes of a meeting with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: “He reflected little apprehension of the ISI, a characteristic of previous conversations.”

The issue of Kashmiri Pandits is a punctuation mark in the larger story of J&K, but a very crucial punctuation that tells the story of how the fabled ‘Kashmiriyat’ was ripped. Habibullah raises the issue of the Pandits in detail, writing that the exodus of the community was “due to a calculated and cynical effort to convert a movement fuelled by public disaffection on civil issues into a religious insurrection”. The author, who was posted in Anantnag, the hotbed of insurgency, in 1990, describes the day when hundreds of people, led by the brother of separatist leader Shabir Shah, accused the administration of encouraging Pandits to leave so that the army could freely target the remaining Muslim and Sikh citizens. Habibullah told them that it was hardly surprising that the Pandits were leaving, as prominent community leaders had been killed and mosques were being used to announce threats.

Objective, grounded in facts and peppered with interesting anecdotes, My Kashmir will teach something to all shades of opinion. As also confirming what British historian Vincent H. Smith had stated in 1928 and stands true especially today: “Few regions in the world have had worse luck than Kashmir in the matter of government.”