Goodbye UN, welcome Sarpanch

It has now become an established trend for the Indian political establishment to beat the drums of ‘victory’ after every electoral process in Kashmir. Almost invariably, prior to an election, this establishment maintains that the issue of resolution is not linked to elections in the disputed state. However, as soon as the electoral process is over, the same establishment is out to cash the participation in elections as an implicit approval for the status quo.

In an interview last week, senior Congress politician Mani Shanker Aiyer went as far as claiming that Azadi can be attained through Panchayat, pointing at the recent participation in Panchayat elections. These bombastic claims are now bordering on the absurd. To assume that the twenty-year resistance in Kashmir has been about devolution of power and development at grass roots, Aiyar and his colleagues within the establishment continue to live in a stereotypical mode of denial.

Aiyar suggests that local governance is Kashmir’s door to freedom. He is positioning Panchayat Raj as a mechanism to let development cascade down to grass roots, which is supposed to do the trick. So it is the same old development mantra that is supposed to work like magic for Delhi. In other words, the sentiment prevailing in Kashmir has a monetary value attached to it, which is a purchasable commodity.

All those chief ministers of the state who served during the resistance period spanning the last two decades have gone on record maintaining that the Kashmir issue is not about employment and development. I would have thought that would qualify as horse’s mouth. Even though the soft-separatist parties have agendas like autonomy and self-rule in their manifestos, they do not really possess enough leverage to negotiate political freedom with Delhi. And that is because the state government is financially dependant on Delhi for running the administration. It is naive to expect to negotiate both political freedom and finances simultaneously. It is just as naïve to expect a financially sound community to put a lid on their sentiments. Till the time Kashmir achieves self-sufficiency, it remains handicapped. However, despite that fundamental handicap, Delhi has heard it from the horse’s mouth that there needs to be a political settlement. The day Kashmir becomes self sufficient and financially independent, that horse’s mouth will become one loud nuisance for Delhi. And Iqbal will smilingly proclaim: Pasbaan Milgaye Kaabey Ko Sanamkhaney Se.
Whether it is the appointment of interlocutors or previous focus groups like Kashmir Committee, it appears counter-intuitive to observe Delhi taking all the initiatives to explore the contours of resolution. Ironically, neither NC nor PDP have not taken any such initiatives at the state level despite the pledges of such nature in their respective manifestos. The reason is simple. It comes down to that leverage I have talked about in the preceding paragraph. Nanga Nahaye Kya Aur Nichoday Kya. Development and self sufficiency will, ironically, give them that leverage.

The day Kashmir needs no NHPC to build its power projects, the day this state is able to fund its own Sadak-Bijli-Paani programs and pay its own salary bill, the day jobs are created by the local economy: that will be the day the sentiment of Azadi matures in essence because financial autonomy is a natural first step towards political autonomy. That day will bring our chief minister the necessary leverage to appoint its own interlocutors and not have to wait for Delhi to take initiatives. Therefore, development at grass roots will empower the subdued voices of the representatives that emerge through the same electoral process which Delhi has re-branded as submission. The consequences of development in Kashmir will be far reaching and shall impact not only the state but also the immediate states southward. Delhi talks of development as ‘remedy’, but it fails to contemplate the power of mass awareness about issues that stand in Kashmir’s way towards development: issues such as Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). These are issues that will crop up as inevitable and residual effect of an appetite for development within the state. A modified IWT, for instance, can substantially alter the scenario of agriculture in both east and west Punjab.

Mass awareness about issues holding back Kashmir’s economic development is effectively a pro-freedom sentiment on steroids.

No doubt, underdevelopment and disaffection are generally correlated. But when there is a sentiment involved, the rules of game change somewhat. How else would you explain an army of digitally privileged and evidently affluent Facebook warriors from Kashmir? How else would you explain pro-freedom sentiments of well-placed individuals and intellectuals like Aga Shahid Ali and Farooq Kathwari? How else would you explain relevance of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah during 1970s despite the developmental spree unleashed by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad during 1950s?

History shall repeat itself. Going forward, development in Kashmir will go hand in hand with – rather turn out to be a prelude to – sustained advocacy for resolution. That advocacy is most likely to be taken up with the educated middle class in India as Kashmir seeks a resonating voice there. We are already witnessing convergence in ideas across the divide among the civil society groups. The build up of those bridges seems irreversible as a moderate educated class emerges within Kashmir.

India’s own struggle for freedom was not led by the underprivileged. It was led by privileged, educated lot. Human development indicators – whether education, health, income per capita – are all part of a hierarchy of human needs. In the hierarchy of human needs, as you go up the scale, values like justice and liberty start to accumulate weight. Development will therefore enhance the sentiment for a lasting resolution in favour of Kashmiris, a sentiment that stands upon a strong moral basis. Development will not dilute the sentiment. The agents of resistance may mellow down. But that is not to be confused with a diluted sentiment. It will assume a more mature form. It would be naïve to presume that people will trade off their sentiment for a developed Kashmir, especially when that development is largely controlled by India.

Delhi has to understand that the escapism that has crept into the Indo-Kashmir politics is interpreted as arrogance in Kashmir. Asking Kashmiris to look towards local Sarpanch for Azadi and forget that their case was ever registered by an international body such as the UN is plain arrogance.