By Balraj Puri
19 Oct 2009
A statement sometime ago by a Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson pleading for Kashmir's independence, though ignored in India, was widely commented upon in the Kashmir Valley as a climb-down from a traditional position. It appears to respond to the slogan of "we want azadi" often raised in popular demonstrations. Azadi is Urdu for independence and freedom, concepts that sometime contradict each other. The question is: do people need independence if it denies them freedom? This has never been debated in Kashmir.
When Sheikh Abdullah, the most popular leader Kashmir ever produced, assumed power after the state's accession to India and the end of Dogra rule, he hailed azadi after four centuries of slavery, Kashmir having been ruled by Mughal, Afghan, Sikh and Dogra rulers. People celebrated as well. However, neither the ruler nor the people bothered about freedom. No dissenting voice was tolerated. The system was so regimented that office-bearers of the ruling National Conference were appointed as government officers and vice versa. The Sheikh dismissed my suggestion that government officers should not hold party office by citing how successfully the system worked in the Soviet Union.
At the time I asked Nehru, then India's prime minister, "Can such a state remain a part of a democratic India?" He said India's Kashmir policy revolved around Abdullah's personality: "We cannot afford to oppose him."
Gradually, discontent started brewing in the state. As all outlets for expressing it were blocked, it sought a secessionist outlet. In sheer desperation, G M Karra a legendary leader of the Quit Kashmir movement against Dogra monarchy in 1946 who was sidelined by the new government raised the slogan in favour of Pakistan in June 1953. In Jammu, discontent took the form of an agitation sponsored by the Jana Sangh for Kashmir's "full integration". The Sheikh, to steal Karra's thunder and provoked by the Jammu agitation, started making anti-India noises.
Many international forces also played a role in aggravating differences between Nehru and Abdullah, leading to the latter's dismissal and arrest in August 1953. I was one of the first persons outside the Valley to oppose this action of the government of India. Nehru asked me, "Weren't you critic of the Sheikh?" I replied that i was a critic because he was not a democrat but was opposed to his removal in an undemocratic way. Moreover, the Sheikh had been replaced by a ruler "no less authoritarian and far more corrupt". Nehru replied, "Unfortunately, Kashmir politics revolves around personalities."
In 1954, I was able to persuade socialist leaders to set up a pro-India opposition party in the state. I argued with Nehru that if that were done, anti-government sentiments might not become anti-India. He warned that "for the sake of gaining four annas, you might lose 10 rupees". Of course, the experiment was ruthlessly crushed.
The first effective experiment of two-party system in the Kashmir Valley was made in 1977, when Abdullah again came to power and the Janata Party, then ruling at the Centre, contested the assembly election as an opposition party. The revived National Conference won handsomely. But it demonstrated for the first time that loyalty to India and loyalty to the government of India were not synonymous. Moreover, all anti-India and anti-government parties, including Karra's and Jana Sangh, had rallied round a pro-India opposition party.
This did not continue for long. In 1984, Farooq Abdullah, who had succeeded his father and won the subsequent elections, was dismissed allegedly for hobnobbing with India's opposition parties. He continued in opposition, and provided a pro-India outlet to anti-government sentiments. But by 1986, he lost patience and formed a coalition government with the Congress. Till then people opposed to the state government had supported the Congress; those opposed to the central government had supported the National Conference, leaving no room for an anti-India party. As both avenues closed, dissent eventually sought a secessionist outlet, supported by militants from Pakistan.
The lesson from Kashmir's recent history is that removal or reduction of outside authority in the state may lead to an authoritarian regime. This is a lesson also for those demanding autonomy or self-rule. If the jurisdiction of federal autonomous institutions like the Supreme Court, Comptroller and Auditor General and Election Commission is withdrawn from the state, without corresponding autonomous state institutions, it will lead to an authoritarian regime and remove checks on the Union government's interference in the state's affairs.
Moreover, Kashmiri leaders have to decide whether they are concerned with the Valley or the whole state. To ensure the state's unity, a federal decentralised system is a necessity. The decision announced by Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah in July 1952 to grant regional autonomy and a similar decision by the state People's Convention, convened by Abdullah in 1968 as leader of the Plebiscite Front, could be a basis for evolving a composite, cohesive identity for a state as diverse as J&K. A common inter-regional party can contribute to reconciling regional aspirations and prevent regional tensions.
The writer is director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs.
Source: The Times of India