A Pessimistic Debate on Kashmir’s Future

Renewed unrest in the Kashmir valley, followed by more trouble in the Jammu region, has stirred debate in India about the future of the much disputed-region, with a sizeable minority advocating either freedom for Kashmir or a plebiscite in the state to decide its future.

This is a view that has been anathema. The Indian government’s position has always been that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the country. But it seems a certain Kashmir fatigue is setting in. Unable to expect closer integration of Kashmir under the present government’s policies, the minority are suggesting its separation. They argue that at least it would reduce the economic burden. Kashmir, they argue, has been a big drain on Indian resources and hence holding it from taking its due place in the world.

In sharp contrast to this another faction is arguing that giving freedom to Kashmir would not solve India’s security problems and in fact would only exacerbate them in other parts of South Asia and create another Waziristan on India’s northern borders. It is also possible that the headquarters of Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba would move to Kashmir to launch a more effective Jihad against India. The increasing use of slogans in favor of Islam and Lashkar-e-Taiba by protestors has been cited as an ample proof.

The state government’s decision to temporarily transfer 100 acres of land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board has given an opportunity to galvanize some increasingly marginalized separatist leaders who portrayed it as a loss of territory to Hindu outsiders, and raised the spectre of a Hindu settlement that would erode the Muslims’ demographic majority in the state. The agitation that followed eventually forced the government to change its mind but also brought to fore the deeply Islamic fervor of the uprising. To make matters worse, separatists were this time supported by some leading mainstream political parties of the state which found it beneficial to side with the secessionists, hoping to gain at the polls even if the movement was to die down later.

Over the years, the separatist movement in Kashmir has taken on a deepening Islamic color. The first indication came when Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of the valley. Kashmiriayt, the teachings of love and peace of the Sufis, which was a uniting factor, is a thing of the past. In its place radical ideology has increased its hold among the Kashmiri Muslims. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an important separatist leader, said in a protest rally that Islam would guide the struggle and that it was a complete social and moral code that would govern the people of free Kashmir. He also talked of an Islamic state. The chief ideologue of Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir is similarly demanding Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan and the establishment of an Islamic state.

India’s Kashmir policy has been faulty, so far involving just pumping in money into the state. The central government’s assistance is 10 times that which the impoverished state of Bihar gets. Moreover, most of Bihar’s assistance is in the form of loans, most of Kashmir’s is grants. The Indian taxpayer is also fully funding Kashmir’s five-year plans. As a result only 3.56 percent of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are classified as below the poverty level despite the long-running insurgency, whereas 25 percent are classified poor in Maharashtra, India’s richest state.

The Indian policy has thus been to buy over Kashmiris and not to win over and integrate them into the mainstream. The Kashmiris have happily taken the money and often used a large chunk of it to finance the insurgency. Article 370, which granted special status to the region, has worked over the years against integration into the larger Indian polity and has only increased their segregation. Now there is a need to modify this article to suit the present needs as completely abrogating it would not be possible.

The increased participation of a new generation of Kashmiris in the agitation indicates that the old generation has successfully managed to pass on an issue kept alive by faulty government policies. Hence this will ensure that no solution is found to the Kashmir issue even in the decades to come unless the government of India reverses its Kashmir policy.

Certainly the policy has not generated the goodwill expected of it. It has not assured Kashmiris that the intentions of the rest of India towards them are benign. It has only increased the segregation of Kashmir’s Muslims and encouraged them to raise the demand for freedom, which most of us know is an alibi for merger with Pakistan. The policy has also resulted in the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits, regarded as a hindrance to the objective of Kashmir’s separation from India.

Even the recent upsurge does not seem to have awakened the Indian state. The attitude of the government is to manage the crisis rather than seek to solve it. Even to manage the crisis, New Delhi’s strategy seems hinge on passive expectation rather than active measures. It is hoping that with the start of the Ramadan holy month things would cool down in Kashmir as Ramadan has generally been a peaceful month in the valley. After this winter is likely to set in, making street protests difficult.

To weaken the protests in the Jammu region, the central government has now reached an agreement with the Shri Amarnath Sangarsh Samiti (SASS) which has been spearheading the movement. The government has agreed to allow the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board use 40 hectares (100 acres) during the pilgrimage period every year for temporary facilities including toilets and rest rooms for the pilgrims. However, the proprietary status/ownership/title of the land will not undergo any change

The decision of the government is bound to have reverberations in the valley. Although Farooq Abdullah, the patron of National Conference, has welcomed the agreement, Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the People's Democratic Party, which until recently was part of the state's ruling coalition, criticized the government for not consulting separatist leaders and other Kashmiri representatives before reaching the agreement with Hindu leaders.

Other Muslim separatists also immediately rejected the government's accord with Hindus and said their protests would continue. Masarat Aalam, chief spokesman of the Jammu-Kashmir Coordination Committee, comprised of separatist leaders and representatives of businesses, lawyers and government employees, has stated that the goal is complete independence from India.

The decision of the government will hardly change the demographic or geographic character of the Kashmir valley, but it has definitely proved an important tool in the hands of separatist elements who want to use it to revive a hibernating movement. It has also encouraged Pakistan across the border to look afresh at Kashmir, which in recent times had become second priority to Pakistani politicians, but this resurgence may prompt them revive Kashmir policy.

Ignoring India's assertions that Islamabad should not interfere in its affairs, Pakistan's parliament has already decided to set up a panel to monitor human rights in Jammu and Kashmir and to mobilize world opinion in support of the "right of self-determination" for Kashmiri people. Parties in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have urged the government to adopt an aggressive policy and raise their voices against human rights violations on the Indian side at international forums. They are also trying to propagate the idea that Pakistan's internal political instability is badly affecting the Kashmir movement.

The agitation has once again brought Kashmir to the fore as a trouble spot in South Asia. But the recent upsurge also brought to fore the retrograde nature of this movement, in which a Muslim-majority valley is demanding a merger with Pakistan or independence. After achieving this initial objective their ultimate objective is to turn Kashmir into an Islamic state. This round has also made it clear that the proposed future of Kashmir has no takers either in the Hindu majority region of Jammu or the Buddhist-dominated region of Laddakh.

Thus the insurgency in Kashmir valley does not represent the hopes and aspirations of the whole Jammu and Kashmir State. Its popularity is limited to a section of Kashmiri Muslims which have become increasingly radicalized. They see an Islamist future for Kashmir and have an ideology similar to the Taliban. But such retrograde ideas need to be discouraged in the larger interest of world community and peace. India’s policy under Article 370 has only increased the segregation of Kashmiris. Just pumping in money is also not going to help. Its time now that the government of India review its Kashmir policy and see what other things it can do to bring the Kashmiri youth into the mainstream.