Have you been reading the news coming out of Kashmir with a mounting sense of despair? I know I have. It’s clear now that the optimism of the last few months — all those articles telling us that normalcy had returned to Kashmir — was misplaced. Nothing has really changed since the 1990s. A single spark — such as the dispute over Amarnath land — can set the whole valley on fire, so deep is the resentment, anger and the extent of secessionist feeling. Indian forces are treated as an army of occupation. New Delhi is seen as the oppressor. There is no engagement with the Indian mainstream. And even the major political parties do not hesitate to play the Pakistan card — Mehbooba Mufti is quite willing to march to the Line of Control.
At one level, the current crisis in Kashmir is a consequence of a series of actions by the Indian establishment. New Delhi let the situation fester until it was too late. The state administration veered between inaction and over-reaction. The Sangh Parivar played politics with Hindu sentiment in Jammu, raising the confrontation to a new level.
But we need to look at the Kashmir situation in a deeper way. We can no longer treat it on a case-by-case basis: solve this crisis, and then wait and see how things turn out in the future. If the experience of the last two decades has taught us anything, it is that the situation never really returns to normal. Even when we see the outward symptoms of peace, we miss the alienation and resentment within. No matter what we do, things never get better, for very long.
It’s not as though the Indian state has no experience of dealing with secessionist movements. Almost from the time we became independent 61 years ago, we have been faced with calls for secession from nearly every corner of India: from Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram, from Tamil Nadu, from Punjab etc.
In every single case, democracy has provided the solution. We have followed a three-pronged approach: strong, almost brutal, police or army action against those engaging in violence, a call to the secessionist leaders to join the democratic process and then, generous central assistance for the rebuilding of the state. It is an approach that has worked brilliantly. Even in, say, Mizoram, where alienation was at its height in the 1970s, the new generation sees itself as Indian. The Nagas now concentrate their demands on a redrawing of state boundaries (to take in part of Manipur), not on a threat to the integrity of India. In Tamil Nadu, the Hindi agitation is forgotten and in Punjab, Khalistan is a distant memory.
The exception to this trend has been Kashmir. Contrary to what many Kashmiris claim, we have tried everything. Even today, the state enjoys a special status. Under Article 370 of our Constitution, with the exception of defence, foreign policy, and communication, no law enacted by parliament has any legitimacy in Kashmir unless the state government gives its consent. The state is the only one in India to have its own Constitution and the President of India cannot issue directions to the state government in exercise of the executive power of the Union as he can in every other state. Kashmiri are Indian citizens but Indians are not necessarily Kashmiri citizens. We cannot vote for elections to their assembly or own any property in Kashmir.
Then, there is the money. Bihar gets per capita central assistance of Rs 876 per year. Kashmir gets over ten times more: Rs 9,754 per year. While in Bihar and other states, this assistance is mainly in the forms of loans to the state, in Kashmir 90 per cent is an outright grant. Kashmir’s entire Five Year Plan expenditure is met by the Indian taxpayer. In addition, New Delhi keeps throwing more and more money at the state: in 2004, the Prime Minister gave Kashmir another $ 5 billion for development.
Kashmiris are happy to take the money and the special rights but they argue that India has been unfair to them because no free political process has developed. And, it is true that we have rigged elections in Kashmir. But, it is now nearly a decade since any rigging was alleged. Nobody disputes that the last election was fair. Moreover, even though the Congress got more seats than the PDP, the Chief Ministership went to Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as a gesture.
Given that Kashmir has the best deal of any Indian state, is there anything more we can do? Kashmiris talk about more autonomy. But I don’t see a) what more we can give them and b) how much difference it will make.
If you step back and think about it, the real question is not “how do we solve this month’s crisis”? It is: what does the Centre get in return for the special favours and the billions of dollars?
The short answer is: damn all.
As the current agitation demonstrates, far from gratitude, there is active hatred of India. Pakistan, a small, second-rate country that has been left far behind by India, suddenly acts as though it is on par with us, lecturing India in human rights and threatening to further internationalise the present crisis.
The world looks at us with dismay. If we are the largest democracy on the planet then how can we hang on to a people who have no desire to be part of India?
The other cost of Kashmir is military. Many terrorist acts, from the hijacking of IC 814 to the attack on parliament have Kashmir links. Our response to the parliament attack was Operation Parakram, which cost, in ten months, Rs 6,500 crore and 800 army lives? (Kargil cost us 474 lives.) Each day, our troops and paramilitary forces are subjected to terrorists’s attacks, stress, and ridicule.
So, here’s my question: why are we still hanging on to Kashmir if the Kashmiris don’t want to have anything to do with us?
The answer is machismo. We have been conned into believing that it would diminish India if Kashmir seceded. And so, as we lose lives and billions of dollars, the Kashmiris revel in calling us names knowing that we will never have the guts to let them go.
But would India really be diminished? One argument is that offering Kashmiris the right to self-determination would encourage every other secessionist group. But would it? Isn’t there already a sense in which we treat Kashmir as a special case? No other secessionist group gets Article 370 or so much extra consideration. Besides, if you take this line, then no solution (autonomy, soft borders etc.) is possible because you could argue that everybody else would want it too.
A second objection is that Indian secularism would be damaged by the secession of Kashmir. This is clearly not true. As history has shown, Indian Muslims feel no special kinship with Kashmir. They would not feel less Indian if some Kashmiris departed.
Moreover, too much is made of the size of Kashmir. Actually secessionist feeling is concentrated in the Valley, an area with a population of 4 million that is 98 per cent Muslim. (The Hindus either left or were driven out). Neither Jammu nor Ladakh want to secede. So, is the future of India to be held hostage to a population less than half the size of the population of Delhi?
I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don’t, then we have no moral right to force them to remain. If they vote for integration with Pakistan, all this will mean is that Azad Kashmir will gain a little more territory. If they opt for independence, they will last for about 15 minutes without the billions that India has showered on them. But it will be their decision.
Whatever happens, how can India lose? If you believe in democracy, then giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination is the correct thing to do. And even if you don’t, surely we will be better off being rid of this constant, painful strain on our resources, our lives, and our honour as a nation?
This is India’s century. We have the world to conquer — and the means to do it. Kashmir is a 20th century problem. We cannot let it drag us down and bleed us as we assume our rightful place in the world.
It’s time to think the unthinkable.