India's Kashmir Quagmire

The imposition of draconian laws in the Kashmir Valley since 1991, like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Public Security Act, has enlarged the writ of security forces at the cost of civilian administration.

Under the cover of these laws, which give security personnel wide powers to to fire indiscriminately, arrest and search on mere suspicion, they have committed murder, torture and rape. The present impasse, where women and even children chant the slogan, "Go India Go" and pelting security forces with stones, is the result of crimes committed by the Indian security establishment since their deployment in the valley. In other words, it is an outburst of long-awaited anger of an oppressed people against their oppressors.

The impasse has proved profitable for separatists and secessionists. Although leaders like Syed Ali Shah Gilani and Mirwaiz Farookh had been losing ground, the current situation has provided them much-needed oxygen to politically reactivate themselves. Syed Ali Shah Gilani has acted as a spokesman of the Kashmiri people, calling the shots and dictating every plan of action through a self-drafted "protest calendar." He has managed to internationalize the Kashmir issue through his acts.

The loser in this whole saga is the Indian government, which has failed to contain what the Kashmiris call "uprising". The government's faulty policies have resulted in the failure to psychologically integrate the Kashmiris with India. Instead of using political methods to resolve the problems, its insistence on the use of coercive power has aggravated them.

Two dominant views which persist in the valley around which the separatists and secessionists leaders plan their political activities are first, to become a sovereign country by including the Pakistani side of Kashmir and also the part which had been ceded to China by Pakistan, and second, to merge with Pakistan. But both views are wrong. It would not be possible for Kashmiris to get justice, for which they are struggling, in either circumstance.

Hypothetically, if Kashmir were to win independence and become a sovereign nation, it would become a sandwich state between India, China and Pakistan. The Kashmiris may give examples of many states which have been carved out of big countries and are doing well. But they must acknowledge the fact that those countries had not found themselves surrounded by three powerful polities, each of which seeks to exercise territorial claims over it. Two of them have an extremely tense relationship with India and vice-versa. The Kashmir valley provides a strategic edge for Pakistan and China against India and vice-versa. In such a situation it would seem impossible for them to not interfere in "sovereign" Kashmir and establish their influence. In any case, neither Pakistan nor China is willing to agree to give up their side of Kashmir to fulfill the wishes of those who want to have an independent state.

The second hypothesis is for Kashmir to become a part of Pakistan. It would also lose badly. The Pakistani side of Kashmir is the most neglected part of the country. Many sub-national movements since 1950s have fought for independence from Pakistan. People from Gilgit-Baltistan and Mirpur are fighting a silent battle against the Pakistani political and military establishments. The so called Azad (independent) Kashmir is not azad. Rather it has been the victim of deliberate negligence due to a callous attitude towards this region on the part of Islamabad. The region today is governed by a minister in charge of Kashmir affairs from Islamabad. It continues to suffer despite the fact that the Pakistani government earns considerable foreign remittances sent by Mirpuris abroad to their relatives. Their resources are being exploited and used by the Punjabi elites.

Thus the best option for the Kashmiris is to fight for their rights and justice within India. They must realize that there are many sympathetic people in India who are ready to fight for their cause. They must not support the causes of separatists, whose leadership has given them nothing except problems.

As an ostensibly modern, civilized and responsible institution, the Indian government's best course would be to try seriously to end the ongoing impasse through political means. That requires addressing the grievances of the common people and psychologically integrating them into India.

To proceed towards this, the government must call on all sections of the political and non-political leadership, including the separatists, to hold a constructive dialogue. Second, the draconian laws like the armed forces special powers and public security acts must be revoked and the security forces must be sent back to their barracks. Third, all political prisoners must be unconditionally released. Fourth, whoever has committed or indulged in crimes under the cover of the two acts must be tried and, if found guilty, severely punished. Fifth, setting up a committee to hold dialogue with every segment of the Kashmiri population would be a good move although it must be given teeth. Without the presence of a major political figure, its report is certain to be inconsequential like the many other committees set up prior to it. Finally, engaging Pakistan is a must for a permanent solution. Most important, Indian civil society, as a responsible organ of democracy, must come out in support of the Kashmiri people and pressure the government to change its coercive policies.