Amidst the intolerable cacophony of communalists and hyper nationalists two recent expressions of intentions by our authorities and of one enjoying their trust attract our attention as highly welcome signs of political maturity. First is the decision of the central authorities not to prosecute S.A.S. Geelani and Arundhati Roy for their alleged seditious activities. They had recently taken part in a seminar organised by their friends and human right activists in Delhi wherein they had allegedly spoken in favour of the Kashmiris’ right to azadi. Some hyper nationalists took objection to their expressed views, and unfortunately even the Delhi Police apparently, thought of framing them on charges of sedition under Section 124 (A). This section deals with attempt to incite disaffection, haltered and contempt against the government established by law. However, one wonders how any argument in favour of the Kashmiris’ right to freedom–and that too not in any public meeting but in a seminar–can incite any thing covered by this section, except among those who are allergic to the very concept of a people’s ‘right to self-determination’. Of course, the Delhi Police could have framed them had the Home Ministry waved the green signal. But that would have only made them martyrs for a cause, added to their popularity, and given a boost to the Kashmiris’ demand for azadi. Even the most chauvinists among us should thank the centre for its mature response to what was a virtual red rag for our chauvinist bulls. The most important characteristic of a strong democracy is its capacity to live with dissent. By over-reacting to views opposed to those held and cherished by the government and the majority we would have only exposed the fragility of our democratic set-up. So, what has been done has been well done.
The second instance is the view openly expressed by Prof. Radha Kumar, one of the interlocutors sent to J&K by the centre, regarding exploring a solution to the Kashmir problem by keeping all options open. As a true academic she had only said that, if need be, even the constitution of India can be further amended, obviously for the sake of peace and justice. In essence what she has said is not much different from what the then prime minister, Narasimha Rao, had declared from distant box Burkhina Fasco in mid-nineties. Then he had declared that to find a solution to the Kashmir problem "sky is the limit". Something like this was uttered by I.K. Gujral a couple of years later from salubrious Srinagar only to recant under pressure a day later. What did they mean by those pronouncements? Evidently, they were ready go to any extent, including an amendment to our constitution, if a solution to the problem so demands. What, after all, is so very sacrosant about the constitution that people howl at any one who dares suggest its amendment in what they feel is in national interest? Has it not been amended over ninety times in less than sixty years? The constitution itself provides the necessary mechanism for its amendment. Then, why are some of us so very touchy about any suggestion for another amendment for the care of a festering sore?
True, our constitution in its present form does not contemplate any change in our national boundary. The same was true of the constitution of Canada. Still in 1992, on the eve of the plebiscite in Quebec, the supreme court of Canada opened that no law no constitutional provision can stand for long in the way of the fulfillment of the sustained urge of a people. The Quebecans rejected the option of secession by a hair-thin majority, but the option was given. Then, why do we find fault with what Prof. Radha Kumar has said in good faith?
However, the constitution may not be the only obstacle on the path to the fulfilment of what appears to be the collective urge of the Kashmiris. Some fear that if Kashmiris are allowed to secede then many other groups of people on our border lands may also for the same. This reminds me of an aged head of a joint family with his four married sons living with him under the same roof. One of the daughters-in-law working in an office chose to walk out of her marriage. Faring that the contagion might spread the old man thereafter put a ban on the other three daughters-in-law going out unescorted. Mere opportunity to walk out of marriage does not prompt one to do it. No one who considers himself an Indian will ever secede from India, come what may. Even the wide-spread poverty and social discrimination of north Bihar and eastern U.P. bordering Nepal have only spawned crime but not secession. Even the Dravida Kazagham gave up secession as their demand by the early sixties. Only those who are ethno-culturally non-Indian, or feel that way, may tilt for that option. So, there is absolutely no danger of the India of Indians losing any territory.
One may contend that if even the valley of Kashmir and its surrounding areas chose to walk out of the Indian Union our national security will be endangered. Whom do we fear from Kashmir or through that valley. First, the Kashmiris have no love lost for Pakistan or the Pakistanis, and therefore there is no danger of the former giving a free passage to the latter. And, even it they allow that what can the latter do from across the Pir Panchal range what they cannot carryout from across the long geographically undefended international border of Punjab and Rajasthan. By the way, it is presumed that the non-Muslims majority areas of the present Jammu division will remain with India as will do the district of Leh. Many so-called separatist leaders admit in private that when they ask for a plebiscite or azadi for J&K they do so as a diplomatic bargaining point, but they know that the non-Muslim majority districts are irrevocably with India, as they should be. So, I do not vislualise any additional threat to our security even if the valley with its surrounding areas opt for azadi.
Still, I know it is not that easy for India to hold a U.N.-supervised certified impartial plebiscite in J&K or to grant azadi to a part of it even if the local population overwhelmingly opt for the latter. (The latest opinion poll conducted by Chatham House in London revealed that only 2% of the Kashmiris wish to join Pakistan. So, though a party to this dispute, Pakistan can never hope to get more than what they already have in the form of the PoK and the Northern Areas. After the heavy investment we have made in the last sixty years, both financially and emotionally–even middle school children in distant eastern and South Indian claim that Kashmir is an integral part of India–it will be extremely difficult for any government to admit through their decisions and actions that all the sacrifices made since 1947 had been for a wrong cause. Who will, answer for the thousands of lives lost and billions of poor tax-payers’ money invested and wasted in a venture which we have to given up after more than sixty years? Besides, there is the danger of a bitter anti-Muslim fall out if the Muslim-majority areas of any part of India choose to walk out the union. Kashmiri Muslims may not be very concerned about the fate of their co-religionists in the rest of India, but we have to be in our common interest in India’s pluralism, peace, and democracy.
So, even if granting azadi following the unquestioned verdict of any plebiscite is considered desirable it cannot be a feasible proposition in the near future. The maximum distance that India can cover on this issue, and they should try to do so with calibrated care, is going back to the pre-1953 position. Omar Abdullah was correct when he asserted in a huff that J&K had only acceded to India but had never merged with it unlike other princely states. Even Scotland and Wales have been granted considerable autonomy; so we too can give back to the Kashmiris what have been slowly taken away from them in the last 57 years. This will not require any amendment to the constitution.
However, the interlocutors should be complemented for their courageous candour in stating that Pakistan will be a party to any meaningful discussion, and that, if necessary, an amendment to the constitution might be contemplated. The centre has so far evinced considerable maturity by neither contradicting or silencing them nor by levelling charges against S.A.S Geelani and Arundhati Roy. Tolerance is the essence of democracy.