In May 1949, Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to GD Birla, then overseas, to fill him in on the news in India. ‘Here we are having a grudging time,’ wrote Patel, ‘both with the weather and the problems which are arising; Kashmir, in particular, is giving us a severe headache’.
For close to seven decades now, Kashmir has given the Indian Establishment an almost continuous headache. AS Dulat arrived in Kashmir in 1988, a time when the headache became so severe that it might have been considered a migraine. Dulat first worked in Srinagar as an officer of the Intelligence Bureau. He continued to deal with Kashmir after being posted back to Delhi, and later dealt with it as head of the Research and Analysis Wing as well. After retirement, he was appointed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO, where his chief responsibility was Kashmir.
These 25 years of experience of working in (or on) the troubled and beautiful Valley are narrated in Dulat’s Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, written in association with Aditya Sinha. Most public servants’ memoirs are either scandalous, or self-serving, or both. This one is neither. It contains many human stories, about politicians like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and Farooq Abdullah, about separatist leaders like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Shabir Shah, about terrorists captured and killed, about Kashmiri Pandits tormented and exiled, about the aam aadmi and aam aurat of the Valley caught in the conflict.
Dulat writes that ‘the fact is that anybody who is somebody or who thinks he is somebody in Kashmir has a big ego’. His own job, from the time he first went to Kashmir as a middle-level officer, to the time he was a mandarin in the Prime Minister’s Office, was to massage these egos. Through a combination of blandishment, flattery, and his own personal charm, he was able to befriend most major political actors in Kashmir, these encounters enlivening the narrative of the book.
Dulat persuasively argues that ‘the problem with Delhi has been that it sees everything in black and white, whereas Kashmir’s favourite colour is grey’. This is an allusion not merely to the weather, with skies often cloudy, or to the pheran, the grey woollen dress worn by Kashmiris to combat the cold. The complexities and ambiguities of Kashmir are also political. Kashmiri leaders may be alternately federalist or unitary, seeking more Central intervention or less. They may seek to keep their distance from Pakistan at one time, seek closer ties with Pakistan at another. Trapped between two nuclear powers that are each massively self-conscious (and highly insecure) about their nationalism, Kashmiris have to delicately negotiate their own way through life and in the world.
Dulat further writes that ‘Kashmiris are a heavily layered people, and it is not out of character for a Kashmiri [leader] to be in touch with either India or Pakistan (or even both) at some point of time. It’s not easy to decipher the Kashmiri psyche, or even to win Kashmiri confidence: centuries of foreign rule, from the Mughals to the Afghans to the Sikhs, have made them natural agents’. One should add to this list the Dogras, who ruled (and often misruled) Kashmir for much of the 19th and half of the 20th centuries, and the Indian and Pakistani nation-states, who have sought to dominate the Kashmiris ever since.
Dulat understands and empathises with the desire of Kashmiris for greater autonomy. ‘There was no panic in Delhi,’ he writes, when in November 1996 ‘Farooq’s Government set up the State Autonomy Committee because for someone like [then Prime Minister] Deve Gowda, who came from a state, and whose government was a United Front of regional parties, discussing how to expand a state’s autonomy was the most natural thing in the world’. Like Deve Gowda, Narendra Modi was himself chief minister before becoming prime minister. He should therefore have been sympathetic to the aspirations of Kashmiris. Unfortunately, he has stayed silent while his party men have sought to impose the beef ban on the Valley, raised a din about the flying of the state flag, and in other ways denied the distinctiveness of Kashmiri culture.
Dulat also has sensible things to say on the role of the Armed Forces. He writes, of the period c. 2000: ‘The army had done a damn good job of containing militancy in the early 1990s, but now it was time for the army to have pulled back and gradually withdrawn. The army could have gone back to guarding the border’. Yet the army stayed, and so did the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act. As Dulat notes: ‘AFSPA is a dirty word not just in Kashmir but in the states in the north-east as well. It is another cause of anger against India, and undermines all efforts at trying to mainstream Kashmiris or Manipuris, etc.’
While critical of our excessive reliance on the Indian Army, Dulat has no illusions about Pakistan’s role in fomenting trouble. For, even when there is a civilian government in power in Islamabad, ‘ultimately when it comes to foreign policy or national security, the army’s approval is required. Within their army, the ISI is an all-powerful institution — perhaps the most powerful spy agency in the world, as far as influence on their government is concerned’.
Sixty-seven years after Vallabhbhai Patel described it as such, Kashmir remains ‘a severe headache’ for the Indian State. Some Union ministers seem to think that arresting JNU students on the basis of fabricated evidence will make the headache go away. They would be better advised to read Dulat’s book instead.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is
Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal