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Kashmir: Let us speak of something that joins hearts across borders

Hell Ain't Other People


26 Aug 2008

Television makes for compelling images. Shots of frenzied demonstrations by surging crowds at Pampore in Kashmir, followed by another one heading to the UN office in Srinagar, has had a mesmerising effect on many. Arundhati Roy has concluded that this is the “people... representing themselves” (or PRT, something I’ll have occasion to refer to quite a few times). Consequently “India needs azadi from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs azadi from India.” While she may represent the views of a radical-libertarian fringe members of the liberal commentariat too have expressed similar emotions, albeit in less rousing tones.

There is, however, a problem here. Kashmir hasn’t taken out a patent on PRT, it’s happening in Jammu as well. And they’re equally vociferous over there. How does one reconcile popular will in Kashmir with popular will in Jammu? Not to mention that an independent Kashmir would be utterly unviable — a tiny, landlocked state of about four million people sandwiched between two powerful giants. Since it would have turned its back on India, sooner or later it would be incorporated into Pakistan. In which case, the azadi it would garner would be that of ‘Azad Kashmir’ or PoK, which is remote-controlled by a “ministry of Kashmir affairs and Northern Areas” operating out of Islamabad.

But let’s stretch a point here and assume that Kashmiris really want to be incorporated into Pakistan. Shouldn’t one, as a liberal, back a people’s right to self-determination? But self-determination isn’t a singular right that exists in a vacuum. Minority rights have to be a critical part of any liberal credo; a liberal state without minority rights is inconceivable. And here Kashmiri separatists’ record is truly appalling. They have terrorised Kashmiri Pandits into leaving the Valley. Close to 95 per cent of this once viable community have become victims of a forced exodus. Even as part of the present PRT that Roy glibly celebrates, migrant labourers from states like UP, MP and Bihar are being asked to quit the Valley. That renders any Gandhian pretensions that Kashmiri separatists might have absurd, as it does the support coming from a neo-Gandhian intellectual such as Roy.

To be sure, New Delhi is to blame for a lot that has gone wrong in Kashmir. There have been serious violations of human rights, and election results have been consistently manipulated. But that’s changing now. The 2002 assembly elections in J&K, held in the presence of international observers, have been acknow-ledged as free and fair. Let’s keep having international observers for future elections, till no one can call into question their probity. And let Hurriyat leaders contest them. They may have problems with the Indian Constitution, but at least they would have demonstrated that they are the genuine representatives of opinion in the Valley. Human rights, too, are under greater scrutiny than before — thanks not only to the restoration of the democratic process but also more competitive television coverage.

If one concedes the right of self-determination to Kashmir, one can’t really withhold the same right from Assam, Nagaland, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu or other Indian states. Or for that matter, from Sind, Baluchistan or NWFP. Narendra Modi has proposed that the Centre shouldn’t collect taxes from Gujarat, in return for which the state will agree to forego financial assistance from New Delhi — a statement that Congress leaders have accurately characterised as seditious. If Modi organises a PRT around his demands should we grant Gujarat the right to self-determination, which would include giving Modi a licence to treat minorities as he sees fit? Self-determination might be an option in mature democracies where minority rights are taken for granted. But let’s not forget that India is a country where, only 15 years back, religious riots engulfed the country (and Pakistan) because Hindu chauvinists decided that a temple had to be built at the very spot where a mosque stood.

Examples like that can be multiplied in contemporary India. Marathi politicians want to reserve 80 per cent of jobs for locals, while chauvinists are forcing north Indians to leave. In the auto and industrial hubs of Pune and Nashik an estimated 40,000 workers have been forced to flee because of their ethnic background. The Assam agitation mounted impressive PRT shows in the 1980s urging foreigners to leave. Local chauvinists once slaughtered Bengali Muslims, now they’re attacking Bihari Hindu migrants.

And it’s all interlinked. Bangladeshi maulvis emigrated to Kashmir after Assam’s infamous Nellie massacres of 1983, giving a huge boost to the growth of madrasas there. That, in turn, has contributed to the Islamisation of discourse in Kashmir.

Let’s, by all means, declare azadi from each other, as long as we think through the implications first. According to a line in a play by French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other people. Roy herself has claimed that she constitutes a mobile republic of one. Before declaring independence, though, let’s keep in mind that this is a particularly combustible country in a generally combustible planet. India gets the most terror attacks in the world after Iraq. A Kashmiri accession to Pakistan — that’s what its independence would amount to — would revive the only partially buried ghosts of partition. That isn’t something we need, please.

Let us not, therefore, speak the language of changing borders — that’s so last century. Let us, rather, speak of something that joins hearts across borders, and eschews both Hindu and Muslim chauvinism.

Source: The Times of India, New Delhi