Feb 25: On this day in 1975…….

By coincidence, foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan are meeting in New Delhi today, February 25, the day which has a profound historic significance for Jammu & Kashmir state and its people. It was on this day in the year 1975 that the Indian government sought to open ‘a new chapter’ in its turbulent relationship with the popular sentiment in Kashmir. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was sworn in on that fateful day as the chief minister, 22 years after he had been undemocratically overthrown and imprisoned.

35 years on, that ‘new chapter’ seems to have worn itself out. The level of Kashmir’s emotional integration with rest of the country has fallen to a new low. It is this key facet that the Sheikh symbolised in flesh and blood and which lends moral legitimacy to the constitutional, legal and technical integration. Haunted by the negative fallout of this chronic deficiency in its Kashmir case, India had no compunction in ‘turning back the hands of the clock’ (to 1953)’ for its own sake even while denying the same to the Sheikh for honouring his share of obligation. Apparently the Sheikh was compensated with reinstatement to his 1953 position of authority but actually the ornate seat he came to occupy had been rendered hollow from inside.

While the changeover from Syed Mir Qasim to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah on Feb 25, 1975 suited India’s momentary interests and served its purpose for the next about two decades or so, denial of the same to the Sheikh on the ground that the ‘hands of the clock cannot be turned back’ sowed the seeds of a great disaster that struck the state in the 1989-90 period, less than a decade after the Sheikh’s demise in September, 1982.

In retrospect it looks that if the Sheikh had shown a little more patience and had the Indian government acted with sagacity the interests of the state as well as the country would have been served far better. On the contrary, the Kashmir Accord spoiled the taste on both sides. Kashmiris felt cheated while a sizeable section of Indian public opinion resented ‘appeasement.’

Sheikh’s loss of popularity and credibility on this account, however, did not bother him in his life time (till 1982) because of his immense tall stature and unrivalled popularity. But shortly after him, the edifice began to creak until it collapsed with devastating impact. The Sheikh was able to tackle all odds because of his own moral authority that outweighed his temporal authority which he wielded between 1975 and 1982. Even so, the emotional alienation triggered off by the events preceding February 25, 1975 continued to take its subterranean toll. The fragile surface-calm vanished shortly after him, unleashing a Tsunami of accumulated anger and alienation.

Simmering alienation bared its teeth with vengeance and continues to take a heavy toll across the board. 35 years after the Sheikh was gifted with a considerably down-sized chair to rescue the Indian ’cause’ from the quagmire of alienation Kashmir, the key question of its moral legitimacy continues to loom overhead ominously.

Two conclusions are readily available: One that it does not pay, in the long run at least, to undermine the credibility of local leadership even for momentary advantage to the more powerful side; and two that in the changed scenario Pakistan has to be brought on board even in the so-called ‘internal dimension’ of the Kashmir problem. Though not on that scale or pattern, the run-up to the 1975 Kashmir Accord appears to be repeating itself in the year 2010 as if nobody had cared to learn the lesson of the history. All that the much-talked about and little-pursued ‘quiet dialogue’ has so far achieved is to damage the credibility of the separatist leaders, like that in the Sheikh’s case. As the ultimate fate of the 1975 Kashmir Accord showed, tactical advantage gained through unfair bargaining was bound to prove counterproductive.

The Kashmir Accord was concluded within less than three years of the famous Shimla Accord between India and Pakistan that bound the two countries to a bilateral approach in resolving mutual disputes including the one over Kashmir. This co-relation between the two Accords (of 1972 and 1975) underlines the inherent linkage between normalisation of Indo-Pak relationship and resolving the internal dimension of the Kashmir problem.

Whether Nirupama Rao, Indian foreign secretary, and her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, scheduled to meet in New Delhi today, hold ‘talks’ (as India would like to call it) or resume their stalled ‘dialogue’ (as Pakistan would want) Kashmir issue and Kashmir-related issues are bound to figure prominently otherwise the exercise would be without substance. The meeting between Kashmiri separatist leaders with Pakistan foreign secretary on the eve of latter’s diplomatic engagement with his Indian counterpart is how it ought to be. Leaving aside the bigger issue of a final settlement, even the process of confidence building measures in which both the countries have invested a lot in the recent past can be sustained only through mutual goodwill. Kashmir and its people have vital stakes involved in this part of the bargain.

Again, going back to the 1975 analogy, Pakistan had been sidelined while Kashmir Accord was concluded with the Sheikh. The impact of this omission was almost instant. Kashmir Valley observed total hartal called by the late ZA Bhutto to symbolise ‘rejection’ of the Kashmir Accord. To demarcate the typical nuances of their peculiar approach, the very same Kashmiris who had ‘rejected’ the Accord (on Bhutto’s call) gave a hero’s welcome to Sher-e-Kashmir as he travelled to the Valley by road from Jammu. Failure to appreciate this delicate nuance in the Kashmiri psyche lies at the heart of India’s troubles. It has by now become a blind spot.

Over-simplifying the prevailing uneasy ground situation in Kashmir by dubbing it as an act of ‘paid stone throwers’ is myopic. Emotional alienation across the Valley needs to be recognised for what it really is. Otherwise the end-result would be no different from the comparable past.

Those who were witness to the events of that historic day of Feb 25, 1975 would remember about an hour long suspense-filled delay in the Sheikh’s swearing in at Jammu Raj Bhavan by the then Governor LK Jha. While the invited gathering waited for the Sheikh to turn up, Mir Qasim and a few others were engaged in virtually rescuing the Accord itself. The Sheikh, lodged in the Canal Road state Guest House, had been badly disturbed by New Delhi’s one-sided official interpretation of the Accord through official mass media. He was having second thoughts on being sworn in. He foresaw deeper intrigue into it until Mir Qasim reassured him.

Earlier also, New Delhi had abruptly done an about-turn on another key issue. Till the time the Sheikh came to attend the special session of the Congress Legislature Party at the Banquet Hall of the chief minister’s residence on Feb 24 he was supposed to be elected as the CLP leader. But, again some mysterious eleventh hour intervention changed the agenda. The CLP was only to extend its support to the Sheikh and not elect him as its leader. The aftermath of the difference between the two propositions was to unfold soon after. Mental reservations at the top even or settled issues played havoc. Today it is degenerated into solid mental blocks on either side. Over-simplifying the problem demeans the dialogue itself and obfuscates the reality. The lessons of the February 25, 1975 are starkly evident for all concerned. Otherwise, the moral defence of India’s presence in Kashmir would continue to suffer from its inherent weakness, notwithstanding over-militarisation of the territory.