For once Kashmir is in the national headlines for reasons other than the daily business of violence and killings. The manner in which the state assembly has pushed through the autonomy resolution has been dramatic. It was even more of a surprise because almost no one, particularly the so-called experts, was focussed for a long time on the political aspect of the issue. Most analysis so far was tactical and prescriptive. Some of that can change now.
It is too early to say that the resolution and the reactions it has drawn have switched the mood in the Valley from azaadi to autonomy. But as many reports, including the one from The Indian Express’s Muzamil Jaleel, who is by far the most authoritative reporter in the Valley today, indicate change is already visible. People, tired of insurgency, now know that the militants or the Pakistanis are never going to be able to win them azaadi. Yet, having come along with the rebellion so far, they cannot be expected to surrender without any gains. Can these gains be gift-wrapped in some sort of a constitutional autonomy package?
Outside of Kashmir, immediate reactions have been sharply negative. True to form, the Akali leader Gurcharan Singh Tohra has confirmed the darkest fears of those who think that autonomy in Kashmir will have a domino effect elsewhere, particularly in Punjab, Tamil Nadu and the Northeast. These fears are not entirely unfounded. Yet, they should not intimidate us so much that we lose the opportunity that the autonomy demand presents in Kashmir.
As the first responsible government spokesman to respond to the resolution,L.K. Advani handled it extremely maturely by suggesting that since it had been passed by the state assembly, the Centre would look into it. This pre-empted reactions that could have knee-jerked the Centre into taking an inflexible posture. The logic is quite simple. First we say Kashmir is a bilateral issue between us and Pakistan. Then we say we do not want to talk to Pakistan unless the insurgency ends. Then we say Kashmir is our internal problem. If that is so, how can we not talk to our own people in Kashmir? And how do our own people speak to us except through their elected assembly? Finally, isn’t it us, and not Pakistan, who believe that this is a perfectly legitimate assembly, fairly constituted through an election conducted by the Election Commission of India? If so, then the Centre has no choice but to look at the resolution seriously and to engage in discussions with the state assembly and its leaders, particularly Farooq Abdullah.
Autonomy by itself is nothing that should scare us into summoning the rest of the Army to the Valley. National Conference leaders have indicated that while they have demanded the pre-1953 status, that position is negotiable. So many years of blood-letting has convinced them that a return to that status when Sheikh Abdullah was called Prime Minister is a fantasy. Also that Farooq Abdullah is not quite the Sheikh that his father was. Between 1953 and 2000, therefore, there is a lot of room for give and take.
The Kashmir debate has unfortunately been dominated by people who never cared to understand the basic issues. If you do not know the facts, you let ideology overwhelm your judgement. You do not have to read all the complicated history of accession or lengthy correspondence between the great letter writers and gazetteers of that day. The instrument of accession, the UN resolutions and Article 370 and the Shimla Agreement add up to no more than a few typed pages. If you read them, two things become clear. One, that India has a pretty good case on Kashmir. Two, that decree of autonomy to Kashmir is our national commitment to the Kashmiris and the policy of systematically eroding and trivialising it for half a century has been entirely counter-productive.
While we have destroyed all notions of any genuine, responsible autonomy in Kashmir, we have allowed a peculiar sort of anarchy. Here politicians who are widely seen to be Indian stooges are allowed to loot the national exchequer in a cash-and-carry dispensation. The Centre pumps in money through subsidies (read bribes) which they then steal freely without any interference from the Comptroller and Auditor General and other venerable national institutions which Farooq’s autonomy demand now seeks to formally cut out of the loop. In short, you have financial and administrative anarchy in the name of a toned down autonomy. As a result, the Kashmiri people do not feel empowered, are further impoverished and continue to lose self-esteem.
If two generations of an ethnically and linguistically distinct people have been brought up to believe that they live on bribes that India throws generously at them, you do not expect them to take any great pride in the system. Even today the worst aspects of the so-called autonomy still prevail in Kashmir. The Indian taxpayer endlessly throws money into the state which is spent without any accountability. In spite of huge budgetary allocations, the state’s infrastructure in terms of roads, power, schools, healthcare is no better than Bihar’s and would have been worse if the Army did not have such a large presence, filling in wherever possible to provide the basic services. The Centre’s tax collections, if any, in the Valley have been ridiculously poor. So how else could the new autonomy package make a situation worse?
A new game plan can unfold now. There will be international support for a calibrated move towards autonomy and for the rebuilding of a credible Kashmiri democratic order. This could also nudge the separatist middle ground to the negotiating table. All this would weaken Pakistan’s international posture a great deal. It would also provide justification for at least some elements within the Hurriyat to gravitate towards the mainstream. The history of insurgencies in India shows that they follow a reasonably predictable pattern. Riding on popular alienation and the Centre’s neglect, the rebellions first become more intense. They take on the might of the entire Indian state, inflicting a large number of casualties on the armed forces. But then, in the course of time, the armed forces stabilise the situation. At one critical point then the rebels are convinced that there is no way they could defeat the rest of the nation. It is at that point they are psychologically in a mood to settle for some honourable concessions. Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam and Tripura have more or less followed the same pattern.
In Punjab the script became a bit confused as the militants themselves very early on destroyed their own middle ground. But in essence this is how the game played out. Kashmir has many similarities with these situations. But also many differences. First of all, it is the only rebellion in India with an international dimension, whether or not we acknowledge it. Second, it has a clear Pakistani connection, and third is the factor of linkages to the militant pan-Islamic movement. This makes Kashmir an enormously complicated issue.
But if India wishes to unravel this, constitutional autonomy is a pretty good starting point. After all, the Constitution was also amended to create more comfort for the autonomy-seeking Nagas. It is also useful to remember that these provisions were also inserted under the broader umbrella of Article 370. In the case of the Northeast, this hated article has come in quite handy to soothe and comfort alienated Indians. There is no reason why it cannot be employed again, in Kashmir. It might not be good enough to provide a final settlement itself, as in the case of the Northeast, but it can change the complexion of the debate there.
Farooq Abdullah is not quite the Sheikh that his father was. Between 1953 and 2000, therefore, there is a lot of room for give and take
There will be international support for a calibrated move towards autonomy and for the rebuilding of a credible Kashmiri democratic order.