Reimagining Kashmir

In 25 years after flawed elections that governor Narinder Nath Vohra once called among “the most unfortunate events in Kashmir history”, the Valley has gone from sullen acceptance of India to sworn hostility, arguably at its worst after the hanging of Afzal Guru. It is now one of the world’s most militarised zones and one of its most intractable disputes.

Nothing drains India’s treasury, besmirches its democracy, knobbles its claims to equal rights for all citizens and mars its international reputation than the beautiful, bloodied valley of Kashmir. Since 1989, at least 50,000 people are dead, mostly Muslim civilians, the majority killed by security forces, many by terrorists. Thousands of Hindus — some hounded out by Muslims — fled after hundreds were killed by terrorists.

Home to 7 million people and less than half the size of Kerala, the Valley has sparked full-blown wars between India and Pakistan. It is the single-largest issue over which Pakistan foments Islamic terrorism in India and is itself consumed by jihadi groups, many originally set up to “liberate” Kashmir.

Solving the problem of Kashmir, it appears, would make the subcontinent a safer, happier, more righteous and prosperous place.

If only.

Yet, Guru’s hanging and its aftermath of anger, curfews and a deepening anti-India narrative should lead to the question: Is keeping Kashmir worth it?

Strategically, politically and egoistically, the answer is yes. Kashmir occupies a cartographic crossroads, and secession will greatly encourage dormant desires for independence elsewhere. Kashmir is also essential to the contention that a Muslim-majority region can be a part of a secular nation. 

Historically and morally, I am not so sure.

Jammu and Kashmir is an imagined place, “an artificial political entity” created by the British in 1846, argues Christopher Snedden, an Australian strategist in a new book, Kashmir: The Unwritten History. Snedden writes: “Throughout its 101-year existence, little held this diverse and disunited state together, except autocratic rule by Dogra maharajas.” It was not unexceptional that Hindu Maharajas kept their Muslim majority subjugated. The opposite was true elsewhere.

History’s fault-lines tend to endure. This is why Yugoslavia splintered into its ethnic components, 73 years after birth. This is also why Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria agree that an independent Kurdistan must never emerge, much as India and Pakistan now tacitly agree on the infeasibility of Kashmiri independence.

I use the word “Kashmir” to refer to the Valley, where the desire to separate from India is the strongest. The erstwhile princely state of J&K was almost 14 times as large and more diverse. Jammu, now Hindu-majority, will be ever Indian, as will Buddhist-majority Ladakh. Kashmir’s traditional Islamic character is itself changing, from soft, inclusive Sufism to hardline Salafism.

So what does an independent Kashmir mean? What we call Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or Azad Kashmir, is now firmly under Pakistani control, the fa?ade of independence gradually dropping. The last component of the former princely state of J&K is the remote northeastern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, whose people were once unequivocal about being Pakistani.

Using new material, Snedden refutes the widely held belief that Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession, and India’s intervention in Kashmir, was sparked by a Pakistan-backed October 1947 invasion of the state by warlike Pashtun, or Pathan, tribals. By the time this happened, he writes, three major actions had already divided J&K. The first was a Muslim uprising in Poonch, western Jammu, driven largely by former Indian army soldiers who had a host of grievances against Hari Singh’s regime, including discriminatory taxes levied only on Muslims. Examples: The Tirni Tax, on every cow (R1.4) and buffalo (R1); others on owning livestock, a hearth or even being a widow. The uprising “liberated” large parts of Jammu. The second action, overshadowed by the carnage in the Punjab, was a massacre in eastern Jammu of Muslims, perhaps 70,000, by Hindus and Sikhs — supported by Dogra soldiers. A similar massacre, of perhaps 25,000 Hindus and Sikhs, appears to have occurred in western Jammu. The third action was the creation of the provisional Azad Kashmir government in the “freed” areas of Poonch.

All these events unfolded in the 10 weeks between the creation of Pakistan on August 15, 1947, and Hari Singh’s accession to India on October 26 that same year. Thousands died, the state was divided, and an everlasting bitterness was born.

There have since been competing and compounding reasons for the Kashmir imbroglio, most of these well recorded and too many to go into here. Suffice it to say that India really lost the battle for Kashmiri Muslim hearts in 1987, two years before the start of armed rebellion, the Pandit exodus and the birth of a Muslim independence narrative, however flawed, that now harks back to 19th century. “Same old dream, passed to us at our birth,” raps Kashmiri singer MC Kash, in his latest release.

The plebiscite, promised by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, is political suicide for any Indian government. But if India and Pakistan want to plug a worsening drain of morals, money, lives and stability, they could consider something that both countries abhor: a third-party solution.

This third party, Snedden suggests, should be the people of J&K: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh, from both sides of the border. Let them pick their representatives and start talking — about their anger, sorrow, solutions — anything and everything. Groups happy with the current status quo can opt out, implying that their region will stay where it is. Possible solutions should be tested through a series of polls, he says. It could also lead, I believe, to things that people really want: open borders, trade and trust. How long might this take, I asked Snedden. “It could take 20, 30, 50 years, or more,” he said. “Time is not a factor.” Indeed. What has anyone got to lose?

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal