With Narendra Modi’s first visit to Jammu & Kashmir as the PM just a day away, and with separatist fronts like All Parties Hurriyet Conference (APHC) calling for a shutdown in the Valley as a protest, a simple state visit is sure to turn into a high-voltage drama. Adding to the tension is the recent bitter row between the ruling National Conference and BJP over Article 370.
Modi’s Kashmir strategy had suffered a setback due to a junior minister’s goof-up, and subsequent over-reactions from Omar Abdullah and the RSS. But Modi has been quick to limit the damage by asking the minister to correct his statement. Now, can Modi systematically start addressing the Kashmir issue again, taking Kashmiris into confidence, using this visit?
Modi is coming on a development and security agenda, with the main events being two inaugurations - of Katra-Udhampur rail line and a 240 MW hydro power project in Uri - as well as a high-level review meeting at Srinagar on the state’s border security issues with Pakistan & China.
But the political implications of the visit is not lost on anyone, with J&K’s assembly elections expected in October-November. What makes the visit politically interesting is the fact that Omar’s NC and its coalition partner Congress had failed to get a single Lok Sabha seat recently, with the six seats being shared equally by BJP and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s JKPDP.
Interestingly, BJP and JKPDP also can’t see each other eye-to-eye, and nurse ambitions to snatch the rule from NC-Congress on their own, while Omar has been earlier a BJP ally, and even a minister in Vajpayee’s ministry.
But the most importantly awaited outcome of Modi’s visit will indeed be how India’s new charismatic PM would win the hearts of Kashmiris. It is a difficult task for any Indian PM, as the Kashmir issue is a classic almost-unsolvable challenge with its roots deep in the sub-continent's modern history. As protesters' APHC claim, the shutdown call is not against Modi as a person, but against any PM of India, who they believe has been meting out injustices to Kashmiris.
India’s political history after Independence had been consciously incorporated into the primary-level social science textbooks keeping an eye on ‘informing’ impressionable minds who would one day go on to become the future citizens of a Constitution-driven India, at least in theory. Lessons from the bloody Partition, India’s tryst with the then largest democratic exercise in the world: the 1952 General Election, and the issues with respect to the creation of linguistic states all featured in the attempt towards knowledge imposition about the newbie nation’s life-long struggle given its inherent contradictions. Meanwhile Kashmir, apart from its share in the heart-breaking sorrow relating to the consequences of the Partition, was faced with a whole lot of questions that delayed its smooth transition from a royal and feudal state to one in which the people would govern themselves through a democratic political representation.
The last ruler of the Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, agreed to sign the Instrument of Accession (1948) whereby the Muslim-dominated state would ‘legally’ join with the Indian Union. The demographic composition of the state and the tumultuous Hindu-rule that it lived through over the years provide a contradicting picture of its hasty inclusion within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. Years of repressive colonial governance culminating in a regime under a puppet ruler like Hari Singh instigated local rebellions leading to rising cases of militant activities and later on increasing pressure from newfound enemy Pakistan to win over Kashmiri sentiments provided the motivation to steer India’s national self-interests.
While the Indian Constitution had been completed and approved by the Constituent Assembly, local politics prevented Kashmir from fully acceding to India due to which a constitutionally-recognized law, popularly called ‘Article 370’ came into being. By 1957, the temporary provision that it is, Article 370 was formally agreed upon by the J&K state assembly giving the state a quasi-autonomous status with minimal interference by the Centre except in certain areas like defence, communications etc. Sheikh Abdullah’s (who was later jailed) amicable relation with Nehru, who clearly followed a policy of appeasement towards the Valley, turned the tide in India’s favour. In 1963, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of a "gradual erosion of the autonomy of Kashmir", slurring over the excesses of Indian governance, whereby the government of India slowly started to appropriate greater powers to itself than was permissible.
Over the years, J&K would come to be known as the ‘crowning glory’ of India’s cartographic guise. Thus Article 370, in the words of present-day J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, would serve as the constitutional link between Kashmir and the rest of India. Kashmir’s telling past would then inadvertently claw into the pages of history books in which it is celebrated as India’s own property. State-sponsored propaganda, public opinion and dissemination of an incomplete historical understanding (thanks to the ill-equipped education system that compromised on historicity) shaped the way the new generation came to see the hilly state, as something that India always had to begin with.
What is the lasting solution to the Kashmir issue? Dr. Karan Singh says by drawing parallels: “Hong Kong is an integral part of China, but has been given a special dispensation. Though all talk of secession is totally unacceptable and uncalled for, the steam-roller approach is also not appropriate.”
He continues: “Let us not forget that 50 per cent of the area of my father’s 84,000 sq miles State is in fact not in our possession. It has been under Pakistan control since the UN’s brokered ceasefire on January 1, 1949, and Pakistan has leased a considerable portion of this land to China. An interesting point is that in the three regions of the State that are with us – Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh – the bulk of public opinion differs sharply on this issue.”
Renowned filmmaker Lalit Vichani, who has shot documentaries on the functioning of the world’s largest non-political voluntary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak, throws light on their ‘need’ and significance of recruiting young swayamsevaks, who develop habit-formation right from the period between infancy and childhood and as the former RSS sarsanghchalak KS Sudarshan puts it, ‘whatever they are taught has a lasting impact in their minds.’ Somewhere midway through Vachani’s twenty-seven-minute film, The Boy in the Branch, Mohan Bhagwat, the current RSS supremo, explains the logic of a game called “Kashmir hamara hai,” which is played in RSS shakhas. In the game, some kids stand in the centre of a circle and try to push out others trying to occupy it. “The shakha is the life of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” Bhagwat says in the film. “Now they don’t have too much information about the Kashmir problem -Article 370, acts, etc - but at least awareness is built in them that Kashmir is ours. It belongs to Bharat”.
Right-wing influence dominated the political discourse in the early 1950’s spearheaded by Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who was to make the struggle of the Dogras of Jammu his own aiming to devaluate the clamour for a ‘separate state’. The growing conflict between the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated Jammu region was beset by uncertainty on two fronts: Firstly, the Hindus of Jammu retained a deep attachment to the ruling family, and to Maharaja Hari Singh in particular and vehemently resisted the efforts of Sheikh Abdullah to gain independence for the state (interestingly, Kashmir had once been ‘independent’ of both India and Pakistan; between 15th August and 22nd October 1947 after a tribal invasion ruined that possibility). Secondly, the state had been controlled by the Dogras of Jammu, who happened to be Hindu; now it was controlled by the Sheikh Abdullah-led National Conference, which was based in the Valley and whose leader and most of its members were Muslim. Despite the sincerity of the Sheikh’s secularist credentials, they could not nullify the legacies of history even as Nehru’s concessional attitude towards Kashmiri interests won the state a privilege not enjoyed by many at that point of time.
India’s federalism is asymmetrical and dichotomous by nature. Some states are undoubtedly more favourably treated than others. This is self-evident from provisions in Article 370 (J&K), 371A (Nagaland), 371B (Assam), 371C (Manipur) 371D, E and J (AP), 371F (Sikkim), 371G (Mizoram), 371I (Goa).There are also special provisions for the North East in the Constitution's Sixth Schedule where a strong independent local democracy exists. Tribal areas in other states are protected under the Fifth Schedule. All these provisions are sacral and any government that acts towards repelling or amending them would face rebellious elements who are always on the look-out for secession. Many Sikkimese now feel that they got a raw deal when Sikkim joined India in 1975 after much deliberation between the Union and the local leaders. Any hint of protest sniffed by the government is met with stern action and sedition charges are slapped on these ‘traitorous’ Indians.
It is precisely this nationalistic understanding that the ideology of Hindu fundamentalism ascribes to and what would be the biggest challenge that the Modi-led government should brace itself for. Sadly, Modi’s silence (not even a mere tweet) on the horrible killing of a Muslim techie from Pune by a Hindu nationalist group has come at an untimely time only a few weeks after a junior minister in the PMO issued a goof-up statement pointing at a possible revocation of the much-controversial Article 370. Though Tharoor’s ‘Modi 2.0’ showed that designer clothes and talk of economic development can fit perfectly well with hard-line Hindutva, there is an existential concern about how the Prime Minister would accommodate minority interests and view local insurgency, not as a threat but as a reason to ponder upon the ways to engage in dialogue with them, especially in a troubled state like Jammu and Kashmir.
Does Modi understand the dynamics of Kashmir and the ongoing conflict between the military forces and armed insurgents? Why did the last BJP government in power not stick to their poll promise of revoking Article 370? Is it due to the aftermath of the Kargil War that changed their stance to a completely pragmatic and principled one? Even the current manifesto vows to ‘review’ the usefulness of the Article in the larger interests of the nation. BJP’s stand on Article 370 has always featured in the election manifestos leading to polls but remains to be seen if they can actually tinker with the existing legal provisions. RSS leader Indresh Kumar has pitched for a wide debate on Article 370, that grants special status for Jammu and Kashmir. According to him, Kashmir is an integral part of India and questions why Congress governments in the past did not make it permanent. He challenges the Congress party to a debate on its relevance as it was a “temporary” arrangement initially but it is still continuing and hence it needed a proper review. He said Congress wants to avoid debate on the issue because “it has nothing to tell people about its advantages.”
In his path-breaking work on Kashmir Dispute 1947-2012, lawyer and author AG Noorani argues that the there is too much ‘legal illiteracy’ about the whole debate surrounding the pros and cons of the Article. He states that the rights of the people of Kashmir to a plebiscite is an inherent right and came even before UN resolutions. It was a pledge Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made in a telegram to Pakistan’s Liaqat Ali Khan and he strongly believes that the solution lies in dealing with Kashmir as a matter of the people’s right to make a choice and not as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. For attaining the long-desired peaceful solution, the stakeholders must include India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir, he said, adding he would not use “hideous lingo” like Indian-Occupied Kashmir or Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and would refer to both parts as East and West Kashmir.
Noorani is also equally dismissive of any Indian government, let alone Modi’s, agreeing to cessation of Kashmir and that Pakistan government won’t accept the Line of Control (LoC) without a sound hearing of its case by its counterpart. Modi’s diplomatic niceties towards Pakistan may not sustain in the long-run and going by the scale of military damage inflicted on the people of the Valley, Kashmiris will only continue to demand self-rule. Noorani, then goes on to provide a possible option, a ready-formula that Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf agreed upon on September 2006. According to Noorani, it would be a non-territorial arrangement, with neither side giving up its stand. The LoC would become lines on a map and people were free to move - there would be a lot of exchange. The self-rule would extend to the northern areas and Gilgit Baltistan, and troops would be withdrawn. The Chief Ministers from both sides would review this interim arrangement for 10 to 15 years and the greatest gainers would be the people.
In the end, the solution lies in “seeking a congruence of interests.” Modi may have to set aside his preconceived notion about nationalism as a unifying force and instead emphasize on the Kashmiri people's right to self-determination which existed before and after the obsolescence of the UN resolutions. It might be remotely far-fetched to expect a firebrand leader like Modi to execute a proposal such as this but he should show signs of interests in resolving the problems in the terror-affected regions of the Valley.
While the recent militant attack has weakened Omar Abdullah’s argument for the withdrawal of the dreaded AFSPA from the state, Modi should sincerely look into the excesses committed by the Indian Army on civilians as the government’s first step towards “reassuring the people of Kashmir about the willingness of government for delivering justice”. Spirited activist Irom Sharmila, who has fought unfailingly for repealing the AFSPA, has expressed her desire to meet Modi. It would be a promising gesture if Modi can acknowledge the seriousness of the issue as cases of home-grown insurgency reduces.
Another immediate challenge for the Modi government would be to tackle the threats of cross-border terrorism which has also severely crippled civic life in the Valley. Modi has always believed that the strategy for countering terrorism is to be designed and enforced both at the national and state levels involving a new mechanism by which IB and MHA would coordinate with the J&K state to strengthen its State Special Branch to pre-empt terrorist activities. He is expected to revamp the Multi-Agency Centre of IB for producing better actionable inputs against terror from home-grown outfits and Pakistan-based organisations.
Lt. Gen. Javed Iqbal, president, NDU feels that Kashmir remained a critical factor in the way of achieving sustainable peace and harmony in south Asia. One-fifth of humanity living in this region had long awaited a conflict-free setting and it was important that scholars and experts renewed a search for approaches to a peaceful and viable solution consistent with the Kashmir people’s aspirations with full-fledged support from the government.
Recognising the lack of any kind of cultural coherence and geographical distinctiveness between Kashmir with the rest of India, Modi should devote special attention to the economic and infrastructural development of the region. Promotion of tourism and inter-state trade with Kashmir should be listed as priority areas of the government for spurring the domestic economy.
Treatment of religious minorities like Muslims will be central to Modi’s agenda for inclusive growth and checking the influence of RSS ideology on the Kashmir question will ultimately allow the government to follow an independent and forward-looking policy on deriving a solution assimilating the concerns of all the stakeholders especially the Kashmiris who face the brunt of the region’s deep-rooted encounter with the harsh realities of modern existence.