Kuldip Nayar considers the discord that exists between India and Kashmir, and how it might be remedied
Kashmir could be seen as ‘normal’ these days, in the sense that there are no stone-throwing incidents in the region. Militancy, too, is on the wane.
Yet the Valley is still seething with discontent. You can almost taste it as soon as you arrive there, though it is difficult to ascribe a single reason for this; there are many contributing factors. The most important is the general feeling that India wields too much power in the region, even though Kashmir granted it control over only three areas: defence, foreign affairs and communications.
The complaint is justified because it is surely up to any region to decide how much of its sovereignty it wants to surrender. The federation cannot simply decide to assume more control. Yet New Delhi has done precisely that.
This is the issue that, in the 1950s, caused a rift between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah, who were once close friends. As a result, the Sheikh spent 12 years in confinement before Nehru finally realised his mistake, and invited Abdullah to stay at the Prime Minister’s residence to make amends.
A similar problem plagues relations between New Delhi and Srinagar today. How does a chief minister stay on good terms with the centre while at the same time giving the Valley a sense of independent identity? This constantly preoccupies Kashmir’s political parties.
Those who consider Kashmir an inalienable part of India and want to undo Article 370, which gives special status to Kashmir, are betraying the constitution on the one hand and the confidence of Kashmiris on the other. It has stoked fears in the Valley that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will erode Kashmir’s autonomy, even though he has not done anything to justify such speculation.
This is the main reason why accession to India has come to be questioned so seriously. Those who seldom received any response to their past calls for an independent Kashmir have many ears listening to them today. And, not surprisingly, their number is increasing all the time.
New Delhi will not fulfil the Kashmiris’ desire to distance themselves from India by granting any meaningful transfer of power to Srinagar. Yet the impression that the Kashmiris rule themselves has to be sustained. The National Conference waged a long war to get rid of Maharaja Hari Singh, and had an icon like Sheikh Abdullah to provide secular and democratic rule for the state, but it has always had to walk a tightrope in its relations with the centre, and suffered defeat in the last assembly polls.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won because its founder, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who died in January, kept his distance from New Delhi without alienating it. The Kashmiris voted for him because he gave them a feeling of defying the Indian authorities. Kashmir’s links with India are too close to allow the state to challenge the nation beyond a certain point, but Omar Farooq Abdullah – Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson and the 11th chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir – paid the price for the National Conference being seen as pro-Delhi.
Lord Cyril Radcliffe did not attach any importance to Kashmir. He was a judge in London who drew the line between India and Pakistan to establish two separate countries. He told me many years later during an interview that he had never imagined Kashmir would assume so much importance. I recalled this when I was in Srinagar recently to preside over the first anniversary of an Urdu magazine. Urdu has been unceremoniously ousted from all the Indian states, including Punjab, where it was the main language until some years ago. In fact, Urdu lost its importance in India soon after Pakistan adopted it as its national language.
Kashmir feels strongly about the stepmotherly treatment meted out to its language by New Delhi. It is generally believed that Urdu is neglected because it is considered the language of Muslims. If New Delhi were to own and encourage the use of Urdu, the Kashmiris would at least have one less reason to feel aggrieved.
As in the rest of India, people in Kashmir are generally poor. They want jobs, which they realise will come only through development, including tourism. But they are not
willing to achieve this by driving out the militants, whether by arms or any other means. While they might be afraid of the militants, Kashmiris also feel that the armed groups are at least trying to give them an identity. Critics elsewhere in India, who complain that there is no resistance to the militants from within the Valley, should understand that it is all part of the feeling of alienation.
It is unfortunate that New Delhi did not deliver its promised aid package following the devastation caused by floods in Kashmir. This failure, which did not even cause any criticism in the media, has been interpreted in Kashmir as a sign of India’s casual attitude towards the region.
I still believe that the 1953 agreement, which limited India’s control in Kashmir to defence, foreign affairs and communications, can partly improve the situation in the state. The Kashmiri youth, who are angry over the region’s status, could be won over by the assurance that the entire Indian market is available to them for business or service.
But this alone may not be enough. New Delhi will have to withdraw all acts relating to spheres other than defence, foreign affairs and communications. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, enforced some 25 years ago to meet the extraordinary situation in the state, is still in operation. Were the government to withdraw this act, it would both placate the Kashmiris and make the security forces more accountable.
Normality is a state of mind. The people of Kashmir must feel that their identity is not under attack and that New Delhi understands the importance of their desires. The restoration of the 1953 agreement might yet salvage a situation which, if left unattended, could well deteriorate.