No easy solution

Kashmir imbroglio

The idyllic valley of Kashmir in India is in the grip of violence for more than three months now and the Indian government has been unable to get a grip on the situation. This time it’s the new generation of young Kashmiris pelting stones at the might of the Indian State.

They are venting their anger at a government that has been unable to capitalise on the stability of recent years to provide them with economic opportunities and political reconciliation. The state government led by the much-hyped chief minister, Omar Abdullah, took around two months to reach out to the people of the state directly after more than 50 people had already died in street protests and police action.

Meanwhile, the government in New Delhi fiddled while the situation in Kashmir deteriorated. After squandering various opportunities for making real political progress over the last few years, its only substantive response was to deploy the Indian Army again after a hiatus of 15 years.

The vicious cycle of killings-protests-killings continues unabated in Kashmir with the government unable to intervene effectively. Even as the security forces have complained that their hands are tied in dealing with stone-throwing mobs, the demand to reduce the footprint of security forces in the state has come from the state government itself.

An all party delegation was sent to Kashmir to interact with Kashmiri parties, including the separatists, and report back, enabling the government to adopt various measures which would at least partially satisfy the agitators in Kashmir and initiate a dialogue under peaceful conditions.

Pakistan, meanwhile, used the present turmoil to make itself relevant, once again, to the situation in Kashmir and condemned the alleged ‘blatant’ use of force by Indian security forces against the protesters. India rejected such intervention as ‘gratuitous.’ India views some of the violence in Kashmir as orchestrated to coincide with the impending visit of US President to India in November.

A sense of fatigue in India over the issue of Kashmir in recent years has prompted suggestions that Kashmir should be allowed to secede. Some have pointed out that the costs of holding on to Kashmir are far too high even as others, including maverick author Arundhati Roy, have suggested that India should not be a coloniser, ruling people against their will.

It’s important to recognise that the Indian state, for all its many faults, is not the only guilty party in the Kashmir imbroglio. The saga of Kashmir is one of competing nationalisms and political philosophies. On one hand, the Indian government continues to champion Muslim-dominated Kashmir as a symbol of India’s secular democratic ethos and fails to acknowledge that a majority of Kashmiris have ceased to view themselves as Indians.

Separatism

On the other, the separatists who want the right of self-determination refuse to account for the aspirations of the Hindus and Ladakhis as if they’re not a part of this dispute at all. A recent Ipsos Mori poll conducted by the London School of Economics underlined the differences between various parts of Jammu and Kashmir on the issue of separatism. While the separatist sentiment is strong in the Valley, the majority of the state want to be a part of India.

Both the conservatives and the liberals in India and elsewhere fail to grasp the complexities of Indian and Pakistani interests in Kashmir and refuse to reckon with the long-term consequences of their supposed ‘solutions.’ Clearly, no Indian government is in a position to allow Kashmir’s secession from India for fear of triggering a new spate of separatist struggles in the multi-ethnic, multilingual nation.
In fact, if there’s been any success in the India-Pakistan ‘peace process’ in the last few years, it’s been the recognition on both sides that redrawing territorial borders is strictly out of bounds. Moreover, broader geopolitical ramifications of an independent, landlocked Kashmir remain dependent on the kindness of its neighbours. India, Pakistan and even China would try to enhance their own strategic interests and compete for the loyalty of Kashmir.

It’s not readily evident that an independent Kashmir would be less of a bone of contention between India and Pakistan than the present state of affairs is. Islamist extremism would get a boost worldwide even as India, already under assault from rising Islamist fundamentalism, would find it difficult to manage growing tensions between Hindu extremists and Islamist radicals.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that it would be the end of India as the world has come to know. As it is, India’s disaffected Muslim youth, possibly in league with militants in neighbouring countries, have stepped up terrorist attacks in the country’s key economic and political centres.

As a liberal democracy, India must acknowledge the aspirations of the people of Kashmir. But it’s equally true that all other stakeholders are interested in the conflict. The separatist leaders, the mainstream political parties in Kashmir and, above all, Pakistan can play the role of a spoiler the moment they see their own interests sidelined.

There’s little likelihood of this conflict getting resolved anytime soon, and the trouble for India is that its heavy-handed effort to keep the lid on Kashmiri demands will continue to besmirch its reputation as the world’s largest democracy and a claimant for global leadership, including a permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
A resolution of the problem that acknowledges aspirations of the Kashmiri people while sustaining the idea of India as a multicultural, multiethnic secular liberal democracy is vital not only for India’s global vision but also for a globalising world order in search of a ‘dialogue among civilisations’.

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