Recent events in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have forced us all to revisit the tenets of national or sub-national self-determination. In 1919, American President Woodrow Wilson articulated the rosy liberal vision of self-determination for national, sub-national, ethnic, linguistic, religious and racial groups. Conservatives, who were concerned with empirical, on-ground realities, rather than with statements of abstract idealism, were quite sceptical about Wilson’s ideas. It was supposedly a good idea to separate Czechoslovakia from the ‘reactionary’ and ‘oppressive’ Austro-Hungarian empire and encourage self-determination. The only problem was that this resulted in Slovaks and Sudeten Germans complaining that they any day preferred imperialist Austrian oppression to being dominated by the Czechs.
Kashmir has witnessed something similar. There has always been a level of discontent and anger among many of us with the fact that while Kashmiris were merrily buying up real estate in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Goa and Bengaluru, Indians from other states could not buy that cottage in Gulmarg or that tiny apple orchard in the Valley. Nevertheless, for some 40 years, Kashmiri privileges were tolerated in a typically lackadaisical desi way.
This changed when the Czech analogy turned up in Kashmir in spades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the oppressive Czech element gained ground among the Sunni Muslims of the Kashmir Valley and among large sections of their leadership. This may have been a consequence of increased Pakistani activity following the end of the war in Afghanistan. This may have been the result of the breakneck growth of Wahhabi ideology in different parts of the world. Whatever the reasons, the focus shifted from any residual discrimination that the Indian state may have been practising against Kashmiris to the active and malevolent persecution of sections of Kashmiris by the majority and majoritarian Sunni Muslims of the Kashmir Valley, whose obsession with their own right to self-determination started resulting in the active oppression of minorities within Kashmir.
The Hindus of Jammu and the Buddhists of Ladakh, who all along had grievances of their own, started getting restless. The treasured ‘autonomy’ of the whole state was increasingly seen as an instrument to oppress Jammu and Ladakh. But all this might have carried on in the typical low-level grievance-mongering so characteristic of many groups and indeed associated with so many issues, in modern India.
The persecution of minorities
The case of the Kashmiri Pandits was different. These were by many accounts the rightful ancient aboriginal Adivasis of Kashmir. Just because they were a hapless and helpless minority, they became fair game. They were ruthlessly attacked. Their Islamist opponents even insisted on many occasions that the bodies of those Pandits who had been killed in public should remain as it is in a macabre ritual of public humiliation. Pandit homes were targeted. Elderly Pandits were forced to come out of their homes and shout anti-India and pro-Pakistan slogans. The Kashmiri Sunni Muslim leadership was simply unable to prevent these ghastly excesses. My own suspicion is that in the 1990s, the Kashmiri Sunni Muslim leadership was caught between a rock and a hard place.
If they defended the Pandits or disowned the extremists among the Sunni Muslims, then they would have lost all credibility and been displaced as leaders. It was a case of the mobs leading the leaders. There might also have been a lingering feeling that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a break-up of the Indian union was a distinct possibility. The leaders doubtless wanted to be on the right side of history as they saw it. Many of my Kashmiri Pandit friends, who in the 1970s had supported ‘autonomy’ and restriction on Kashmiri lands being bought by ‘outsiders’, now became aggressive opponents of autonomy. After all, they found Jammu, Delhi and Pune less restrictive than Srinagar, for themselves.
Over the next three decades, Kashmiri Sunni Muslim extremists and their leaders of the extreme, moderate and quasi-moderate varieties simply lost their way. Not just beer bars, but beauty parlours and cinema halls were shut down as a result of Islamist excesses. Sufi shrines were deliberately targeted and set on fire. The Hindus of Jammu who had tolerated limited voting rights for themselves started getting more restless and noisier. The Ladakhis started making their case with greater levels of articulation. But things did not end there.
The tiny Ahmadiyya community in Kashmir was petrified. The Shias started growing restless. Groups like the Gujjars, who had ‘self-determination’ anxieties of their own, started getting media coverage.
The denouement occurred when there seemed like a great surge of support across the Valley in 2016 for a self-proclaimed Hizbul Muhajideen terrorist who was suddenly eulogised as a hero —Burhan Wani. If autonomy meant that ISIS and others would find acceptance if not sanctuary in the Valley, then it was going to be difficult and well nigh impossible to hang on to the residual political support for Kashmir’s quaint ‘autonomy’ in other parts of India.
Self-determination, but for whom?
The roots of the problem go back to the ill-conceived and sanctimonious Wilsonian idea of self-determination, not for individuals, but for groups who are largely put together on the basis of ethnicity, religion, race and linguistic affiliation.
Sub-nationalist causes, in particular, result in greater persecution of tinier and tinier minorities. We see evidence of this when arrogant Naga sub-nationalists demonstrate a complete indifference, even a hostility towards Meiteis who may be present in large numbers in what the Naga hegemonists consider ‘sacred’ Naga lands. In fact, larger nationalist canvases, like that of the Indian state and need I add, like that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are more tolerant and supportive of smaller groups and of individuals, who after all must count for something.
In the 1860s, the majority of the people in the Carolinas, in Virginia, in Alabama, in Georgia and in Mississippi wanted to exercise their right to self-determination. If they had been allowed to do so, the sufferers would have been the Black minority. The insistence of the larger American nation-state that the southern Whites would not be allowed to exercise their right to self-determination, resulted in the emancipation of the Blacks. In the early 20th century, during the Boer War, the Afrikaners wanted to exercise their right of self-determination, along with which went their right to oppress Black Africans. The BBC and CNN may not choose to talk about it, but the fact of the matter is that today, on the West Bank, most Christians admit, if only in whispers, that direct Israeli rule was better for them, than the current sham Palestinian autonomy, which has resulted in them being marginalised and even being driven away.
The insistence of the Indian state that untrammelled autonomy is not possible for Kashmir, means that minorities in Kashmir, and for that matter moderate and even non-believing Muslims in Kashmir, can expect protection from the state.
Autonomy as oppressive
Even today, I would suggest that the Kashmiri case for autonomy would have been stronger if they could have paraded a few Pandit ‘intellectuals’ in front of the eager BBC and CNN cameras. The fact is that the case for Kashmir’s so-called autonomy has degenerated into a case for Kashmiri Sunni Muslim extremist autocracy. Pandits, even of the Leftist hue, have no place there.
If Kashmiri Muslim groups position themselves as an ISIS extension, the rest of the world has no choice but to conclude that the Pandits are the Yazidis of Kashmir. The Dukhtaran women who seem to wear stiff metallic burqas are not a very credible or sympathetic set of spokespersons to talk about freedom or its absence.
The rest of India, and increasingly the rest of the world, knows that the demands for autonomy and self-determination on the part of the leaders as well as the rank and file Sunni Muslims of the Kashmir Valley represents an immediate danger to the freedoms of not only smaller minorities, but also to Kashmiri Muslim women who may not want to cover their heads or to the LGBTQ community among Kashmiri Muslims. It is the larger, more capacious kind of nationalism, Indian nationalism, if you will, which does not require the active persecution of tiny minorities and which, in fact, supports them.
The author is an entrepreneur and writer. Views are personal.