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So, is autonomy taboo too?

india Updated: Aug 22, 2008 22:32 IST
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The war cry for ‘azaadi’ in the volatile valley of Kashmir has suddenly found a chorus among some of Delhi’s sharpest thinkers. Ironically, and unnoticed in the current breathless discourse, the advocates of azaadi come from two entirely extreme positions. There is the ultra-liberal faction that has always seen India as the oppressor and the Kashmiri people as her throttled victims. While they propagate self-determination in the Valley, for many of these commentators, the citizenship of a Nation-State is at best an irrelevance and at worst a jingoistic anachronism. Arundhati Roy, for example, famously declared herself to be an “independent, mobile republic”, while protesting the nuclear tests.

The other (and opposite) lobby is batting for freedom precisely because it believes in an idea of an India that should no longer be held back by the violent and contentious history of Kashmir. These writers, (my friend and HT’s Vir Sanghvi prominent among them) make a cold cost-benefit analysis to argue that India has spent more political energy and taxpayers’ money in the Valley than in any other state, but with no results to show for it. India, they say, doesn’t need lecturing by two-bit countries on Kashmir; it’s time to leave the past behind and embrace the future.

As always, it’s a healthy democracy that can be at debate with itself. It’s also a sign of how much has changed. A few years ago, I remember doing a television report on how greater autonomy, across all its regions, may be the antidote to alienation in the state. The mere suggestion evoked general indignation. My report mentioned that the state has its own flag and constitution, to underline its unique place in the federal structure. This was not opinion; it was fact. Even so, whether from ignorance or denial, everything I said was received with outrage and resistance.

Today, as we witness both mainstream and fringe voices debating azaadi, even if for opposite reasons, perhaps we are looking at an India that is less scared of itself. Or perhaps a new generation of Indians that is not haunted by the scars of Partition and has a greater detachment on the issue.

But let me strike a note of serious hesitation. Many of us agree that the democratic process in the state has not worked as it should. It is clear that conventional approaches that have alternated between dangling carrots and brandishing sticks are ineffective, and in some cases, self-destructive. And yet, isn’t there something discomforting and horrible about middle-class ennui being the driving force for change? Should urban fatigue or textbook liberalism now set the agenda for what should happen next? More importantly, if the problem is rooted in alienation, is the solution to tell an entire people to effectively go wherever the hell they want to? In my view, bleeding heart solutions that dismiss the very notion of boundaries and maps don’t have much resonance either. Yes, successive governments have been in denial about the extent of alienation. And yes, you can’t want the land (and its three rivers that you tap for electricity) but be indifferent to its people. So, should the solution be to throw your hands up in the air and say we-just-don’t-give-a-damn?

It’s kind of boring to be a realist in these times when more provocative ideas on Kashmir have given birth to a thousand television shows. But it’s my sense that the changing rhetoric on the state will not bring it either peace or solace at this time. Jammu and Kashmir has been on the boil for two months and yet this is a government that has not even thought it necessary to call in the firefighters. It’s unlikely to engage in philosophical debates on whether India is strong enough to accommodate secession, when it hasn’t even begun talks with protestors on either side of the Pir Panjal.

So, I’m going to be old-fashioned and say, if we still care, let’s start with the basics. Our politicians need to stop treating Jammu and Kashmir like a security challenge. We need to acknowledge that a regional divide is in serious danger of growing into a religious one. Identity politics in the Valley are driven by a deep disconnect from India, and in the Jammu region, by anger at the kind of attention Kashmir gets, from both politicians and the media. The Prime Minister either needs to step in himself or appoint a peace envoy who will talk to both the Samiti in Jammu and the separatists in the Valley. Commerce may provide an unlikely clue to peace. Opening trade across the Line of Control was something New Delhi was in favour of. If Islamabad is the obstacle to cross-border business, the government needs to hard-sell that fact so that it can strengthen the moderate separatists against the rabble-rousers who are loyal to Pakistan. The time for diffident press releases from the Home Ministry is long over.

Our politicians also need to pay much closer attention to the sense of neglect perceived in Jammu. You can’t let its people feel that just because their sentiment is not separatist, it figures lower on the list of priorities. And if azaadi is now a palatable word in drawing-room debate, how about making a more realistic start with autonomy? Autonomy proposals for all three regions of the state have been gathering cobwebs for close to a decade. How about wiping the dust off those files and resurrecting their suggestions?

In the end, that old fox Pervez Musharraf may have had it right. Before you can seriously look at sub-nationalism, you have to first find a way of making borders irrelevant, or at the very least, porous. But the government has to first react like it understands the gravity of the problem. And we need to pull our political class out of its slumber instead of pushing them deeper into stupor by going on about how tired we are of a dispute called Kashmir.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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