The Hidden Tragedy of Kashmir

Souad Sharabani: I am ashamed to admit that even though I have been a journalist for a very long time, covered and travelled to many parts of the world including India, my knowledge of Kashmir, the extend of repression the people of Kashmir are enduring under Indian occupation was limited until recently.

I talked to Dr. Nyla Ali Khan about the hidden tragedy. But first she explained the history of Kashmir.

Nyla Ali Khan: The creation of India and Pakistan were pyrrhic victories for their denizens because the political, socioeconomic, psychological, and culture havoc wreaked by that momentous event is reflected in those pogroms, ethnic cleansing, proliferation of nuclear weapons, poverty, and riots that continue to cause seismic tremors in the Indian subcontinent. “The fundamental character of this relationship [between India and Pakistan] has been one of strategic hostility, unchanged and essentially unquestioned since the birth of the two as independent countries” (Chenoy and Vanaik 2001: 125). 

Souad Sharabani: It is not clear why India hung on to Kashmir?

Nyla Ali Khan: The Partition is a vivid manifestation of the claim that postcolonial nations are founded in a bloody severance of the umbilical cord, one that fortifies borders between nation-states with irrational and remorseless violence. The discourse of nationalism, however, affects to make sense of the absurd loss of lives that occurs.

The partition of India in 1947 legitimized the forces of masculinist nationalism and enabled hatred for the “other” to irreparably mutilate a shared anti-colonial legacy and cultural heritage so systematically that the wounds inflicted by the partition are yet to heal.

Souad Sharabani: We often hear about Kashmir when tensions between Pakistan and India are on the rise why?

Nyla Ali Khan: The role played by the nation-states of India and Pakistan in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir echoes the animosity created during the partition. The political and social upheaval that followed upon the creation of the two nation-states in 1947 has left legacies that continue to haunt the two countries. The partition enabled forces of violence and displacement to tear asunder the pre-existing cultural and social fabric so systematically that the process of repair has not even begun. I would argue that although the ‘third world’ intelligentsia unceasingly complains about the manipulations and shortsightedness of British imperial cartographers and administrators, the onus of the calamity engendered on 14 and 15 August 1947 does not lie entirely on the colonial power.

The failed negotiations between Indian and Pakistani nationalists who belonged to the Congress and the Muslim League, the blustering of those nationalists and the national jingoism it stimulated, and the unquenchable hatred on both sides contributed to the brutal events of 1947. In the words of historian Uma Kaura (1977: 170), “the mistakes made by the Congress leadership, the frustration and bitterness of the League leadership, and the defensive diplomacy of a British Viceroy cumulatively resulted in the demand for Partition.” Ever since the inception, in 1885, of pro independence political activity in pre-partition India, the Muslim leadership insisted on the necessity for a distinct Muslim identity (ibid. 164). Kaura also underlines the inability of the nationalist leadership to accommodate Muslim aspirations because its primary concern was to ingratiate itself with the militant Hindu faction, which would have created ruptures within the Congress. Gutted homes, rivulets of blood, ravaged lands and meaningless losses of lives were the costs of this nation building. The upsurge of ethnic and religious fundamentalism that led to the creation of Pakistan has been characterized by political psychologist Ashis Nandy as a nationalism that takes an enormous toll on a polyglot society such as India’s:

Souad Sharabani: What are the aspirations of the people of Kashmir? Has the Leadership followed their people’s aspirations? And have there been major revolt against the occupation?

Nyla Ali Khan: “First it comes bundled with official concepts of state, ethnicity, territoriality, security and citizenship. Once such a package captures public imagination, it is bound to trigger in the long run, in a society as diverse as ours, various forms of “sub nationalism” . . . the idea of the nation in the “official” theory of nationhood can be made available in a purer form to culturally more homogeneous communities such as the Sikhs, the Kashmiri Muslims, the Gorkhas and the Tamils. As a result, once the ideology of nationalism is internalized, no psychological barrier is left standing against the concepts of new nation states, that would be theoretically even purer, homogeneous national units – in terms of religion, language, and culture” (Nandy 1983: 5).

The borders that were brutally carved by the authorities at the time of partition have led to further brutality in the form of those riots, organized historical distortions and cultural depletions with which the histories of independent India and Pakistan are replete.

For India, Kashmir lends credibility to its secular nationalist image. For Pakistan, Kashmir represents the infeasibility of secular nationalism and underscores the need for an Islamic theocracy in the subcontinent. Once the Kashmir issue took an ideological turn, Mahatma Gandhi remarked, “Muslims all over the world are watching the experiment in Kashmir . . .. Kashmir is the real test of secularism in India.” In January 1948, India referred the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations (Hagerty 2005: 19).

Subsequent to the declaration of the ceasefire between India and Pakistan on 1 January1949, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two portions. The part of the state comprising the Punjabi-speaking areas of Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad, along with Gilgit and Baltistan, was incorporated into Pakistan, whereas the portion of the state comprising the Kashmir Valley, Ladakh and the large Jammu region was politically assimilated into India. Currently, a large part of Jammu and Kashmir is administered by India and a portion by Pakistan. China annexed a section of the land in 1962, through which it has built a road that links Tibet to Xiajiang (see Rahman 1996: 5–6). The strategic location of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J & K) underscores its importance for both India and Pakistan. The state of J & K borders on China and Afghanistan. Out of a total land area of 2, 22, 236 square kilometers, 78,114 are under Pakistani administration, 5,180 square kilometers were handed over to China by Pakistan, 37,555 square kilometers are under Chinese administration in Leh district, and the remaining area is under Indian administration (Census of India, 1981: 156).

In order to make their borders impregnable, it was essential for both India and Pakistan to control the state politically and militarily. Even as separatist movements have surfaced and resurfaced in J & K and parts of Pakistani-administered Kashmir since the accession of the state to India in 1947, the attempt to create a unitary cultural identity bolstered by nationalist politics has been subverted by regional political forces and the comprador class, backed by the governments of India and Pakistan. The culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse population of Indian and Pakistani-administered Jammu and Kashmir has been unable to reach a consensus on the future of the land and the heterogeneous peoples of the state. The revolutionary act of demanding the right of self-determination and autonomy for J & K has not been able to nurture unity amongst all socioeconomic classes.

Cultural notions of the people of Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir in image and word have been reconstructed to emphasize the bias that reinforces the propagandist agenda of the hegemonic powers involved in the Kashmir dispute: India and Pakistan. In establishment Indian and Pakistani thought, Kashmiris are defined as different from the nationals of the two countries. The various communities in J & K – Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits, Dogras and Ladakhis – have tried time and again to form a collective consciousness in order to name their cultural alterity through the nation. But due to the regional sentiments that are so entrenched in the psyche of the people, this attempt is still in a volatile stage. The symbols of nationhood in J & K, flag, anthem and constitution, have thus far been unable to forge the process of nationalist self-imagining.

The Kashmir conflict is driven by nationalistic and religious fervor, each side pointing to the violence and injustice of the other, each side pointing to its own suffering and sorrow. The distrust, paranoia, and neurosis permeating the relationship between a large number of people of J & K and the Indian Union have intensified the conflict. The guerilla war in the state has gone through a series of phases since 1990 but repressive military and political force remains the brutal reality in the State, which cannot be superseded by seemingly abstract democratic aspirations. This conscious policy of the Indian State to erode autonomy, populist measures, and democratic institutions in J & K has further alienated the people of the State from the Indian Union. The systemic erosion of political opposition in J & K has delegitimized the voice of dissent and radicalized antagonism toward state institutions and organizations. The exposure of some democratic institutions as a brutal facade has instigated unmitigated disgruntlement and antipathy toward democratic procedures and institutions in the State.

Souad Sharabani: Are Indians aware of what their government has been doing in Kashmir? Or have they been bought into the government propaganda?

Nyla Ali Khan: There is more of an awareness now about the political volatility in Kashmir as well as about the carte blanch granted to the Indian military/ paramilitary in the state, particularly the Kashmir Valley. The spate of killings and blinding of young people by pellets in order to quell dissent and control crowds have been condemned by a large section of the Indian populace. But, a lot of them are still being fed the statist version of the history of Kashmir. I have often noticed that the two nuclear powers on the Indian subcontinent, India and Pakistan, attribute to Kashmiris an inferior intellect, a lineage, and a mystique that has allowed the dominant regime to manipulate the Kashmiri “Other” as a stereotypical and predictable entity. The rebelliousness of the Kashmiri subject was to be contained by recognition of his nature, which was said to be structured by contraries: savagery and obedience, cunning and innocence, mysticism and manipulation.

In a post 9/11 world, in which the uncritical essentializing of people from the “Third-World” has been legitimized; Iraq and Afghanistan have been dehumanized in an attempt to disseminate enlightenment in those “dark” regions; the discourse of “honor killings” is prevalent in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and has carved a niche in Western academic discourse as another instance of the incorrigible bestiality of the Orient; inciters of communal riots on the Indian subcontinent enjoy the patronage of political bigwigs as evidenced by the relentless persecution of Muslims during the riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002; the rhetoric of hate and binarisms pervades the politics of the “Third-World” and of the West.

A configuration of the outer boundaries of “civilization” as chaotic and unwieldy glorified the dominance of these privileged centers of power. In order to achieve this outcome, the dominant order created structures that catered to its unquestioned authority. These privileged centers of power have always constrained reality by imposing their ideological schema on it, which underpinned their powerful positionality. Their ability to conjure images and re-etch boundaries that served their set of believes, has rendered them a force to reckon with.

Here is what I would say to my well-meaning and progressive friends in mainland India, of whom there are many:

The Constitution of India seeks to guarantee respect for the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the integrity of the electoral process. But time and again, provisions of the Constitution of India have been flagrantly violated in Kashmir, and the ideals that it enshrines have been forgotten. In Kashmir, rights relating to life, liberty, dignity of the people, and freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution, embodied in the fundamental covenants and enforceable by courts of law, have been gravely violated. The much-lauded parliamentary democracy in India has been unable to protect a genuine democratic set-up in Kashmir. The Government of India cannot continue to install Heads of State in Jammu and Kashmir, and claim that it is not plutocratic. The non-governance in Jammu and Kashmir, and the growing disconnect between the rulers and the ruled in the State seem to have lulled the Government of India into further apathy. Heads of States, particularly of trouble-torn ones cannot avoid their ethical and moral responsibilities toward peoples of the States by letting their lives be torn asunder by paramilitary forces and other “upholders” of the law.

The diversity of India cannot thrive on facile attempts to create the homogeneous category of “Indian.” Nor can it thrive on dubious attempts to gloss over xenophobic provincialism or a highly culpable state-sponsored marginalization of a minority community. The increasing communalization of Indian politics is a juggernaut that annihilates the myth of secularism in India.

Insurgency, counter insurgency, , flawed institutions, unaccountability in political and bureaucratic offices, tenuous infrastructure, rife unemployment, languishing prisoners, a bankrupt state exchequer, and a civil society that is gasping for air. Is that the Kashmir that our ancestors fought tooth and nail for? Is that the Kashmir for which our previous generations sacrificed their youths, their comforts, their lives? Will the toll that the past twenty-seven have taken on the lives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir be brushed aside in a bid to integrate the State even further into the Indian Union?

Souad Sharabani: We do not hear much about Pakistan’s role?

Nyla Ali Khan: The Indian National Congress advised the monarch of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, right up to 1947, to gauge the public mood and accordingly accede to either India or Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru’s argument that Kashmir was required to validate the secular credentials of India was a later development. Jinnah refuted the notion that Pakistan required Kashmir to vindicate its theocratic status and did not make an argument for the inclusion of Kashmir in the new nation-state of Pakistan right up to the eve of partition. As Behera (2006) writes, “If Kashmir was integral to the very idea of Pakistan, it is difficult to see why the Muslim League and the Muslim Conference did not ask the Maharaja to accede to Pakistan until as late as 25 July 1947.” The Congress’s support to and furtherance of partition, however, eroded the notion of a united India.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, arguably the most popular leader and first Muslim Prime Minister of J & K, on the contrary, was ambivalent about the partition because he did not agree with the rationale of the two-nation theory. He was equally ambivalent about acceding to India, because he felt that if that choice was made, Pakistan would always create juggernauts in the political and economic progress of Kashmir. As for the idea of declaring Kashmir an independent state, he recognized that “to keep a small state independent while it was surrounded by big powers was impossible” (Abdullah 1993: 60). Was the Sheikh willing to concede the necessity of political compromise and accommodation? Did he draw attention to the political, cultural, and territorial compromises that the autonomy model might entail? He did categorically declare that ‘Neither the friendship of Pandit Nehru or of Congress nor their support of our freedom movement would have any influence upon our decision if we felt that the interests of four million Kashmiris lay in our accession to Pakistan’ (quoted in Brecher 1953: 35). The decision to accede to either India or Pakistan placed Maharaja Hari Singh in a dilemma. On the one hand, if the state acceded to India, the maharaja would be forced to hand over the reins of political power to an organization that had vociferously opposed his regime, the Congress, and the NC. On the other hand, if the state acceded to Pakistan, the monarch’s Dogra Hindu community would find itself in a position of subservience. Consequently, the maharaja disregarded the advice of the Congress and the British about the infeasibility of independence and opted for that choice because it would allow him to maintain his political paramountcy. He was unable to recognize how independence would enhance the political and military vulnerability of the state. Hari Singh’s decision to maintain his political paramountcy was supported by Pakistan, but not by India.

On 15 August 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh’s regime ratified a standstill agreement with the government of Pakistan. This agreement stipulated that the Pakistan government assume charge of the state’s post and telegraph system and supply the state with essential commodities. Given the political and personal affiliations of the Congress with the NC and its antipathy toward monarchical rule, the maharaja and his cohort considered it worthwhile to negotiate with Pakistan’s Muslim League in order to maintain his princely status. But this already tenuous relationship was further weakened after the infiltration of armed groups from Pakistan into J & K. After Pakistani armed raiders and militia attempted to forcefully annex Kashmir on 22 October 1947, the maharaja did a political volte face by releasing NC leaders from prison, seeking Indian military help to keep the Pakistani forces at bay, and acceding to India in order to protect his own security and interests. Subsequent to his release after sixteen months of incarceration, Sheikh Abdullah delivered a speech at a public rally at the Hazratbal shrine where he declared the establishment of a popular government to be the priority and primary concern of the people of Kashmir, and relegated the accession issue to the background.

Although the insurgency in J & K, which has extracted an enormous price from the people of the state, was generated by the systemic erosion of democratic and human rights, socioeconomic marginalization, relegation of the people’s democratic aspirations to the background, we cannot indulge in lamentation for eternity.

While the rebellion may have been incited by India’s political, social, and economic tactlessness, it has been sustained by not just by the belligerence of the Indian army or by the garb of religious rhetoric donned by some separatists, but by the territorial ambitions of Pakistan and the inability of an elected government to function to its full potential in J & K.

During the ongoing insurgency, the military has been granted a carte blanche without an iota of accountability. Paramilitary forces in J & K, as witnessed over the past couple of weeks, are a loose cannon, which even those in positions of political power can question only to their detriment. Paramilitary forces in the state cannot be allowed to exercise their power with the brutality of an occupation force, at odds with the dispassionate nature of modern warfare.

In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, the politically chaotic climate of Pakistan, the belligerence of the military, and the tenacious control of fundamentalist forces basking in the glories of a misplaced religious fervor stoked by a besmirched leadership, can India and Pakistan produce visionary leaders capable of looking beyond the expediency of warfare, conventional or otherwise? Will the leadership in Pakistan seek to douse the conflagration that threatens to annihilate the entire region by flippantly shelving the issue for future generations to resolve?

While preparing to lead the new coalition government in Pakistan in 2008, co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, had condemned the distrustful atmosphere created in the Indian subcontinent by the Kashmir imbroglio. While underwriting the importance of fostering amicable relations between India and Pakistan, Zardari had said that the Kashmir conflict could be placed in a state of temporary suspension, for future generations to resolve. Successive governments of Pakistan have been just as flippant.

Both India and Pakistan have a long history of deploying rhetorical strategies to skirt the issue of plebiscite or complete secession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. When feeling particularly belligerent Pakistan cries itself hoarse declaring the legitimacy of plebiscite held under United Nations auspices in J & K; India responds just as aggressively by demanding the complete withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the territory of pre-partition J & K; or, in a moment of neighborly solicitude, for conversion of the LOC to a permanent International border. 

Souad Sharabani: Have there been any up rises in Kashmir and were they lead by the Left movements?

Nyla Ali Khan: On 13 July 1950, the new government headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah made a landmark decision:

Between 1950 and 1952, 700,000 landless peasants, mostly Muslims in the Valley but including 250,000 lower-caste Hindus in the Jammu region, became peasant-proprietors as over a million acres were directly transferred to them, while another sizeable chunk of land passed to government-run collective farms. By the early 1960s, 2.8 million acres of farmland (rice being the principal crop in the Valley) and fruit orchards were under cultivation, worked by 2.8 million smallholding peasant-proprietor households. (Bose 2003: 27–28)

This metamorphosis of the agrarian economy had groundbreaking political consequences. But displaced landlords and officials in the Dogra regime made no bones about their hatred of the political supremacy of the new class of Kashmiri Muslims. This hatred unleashed a reign of terror and brutality against the Valley’s new political class. The atrocities inflicted by the Dogra regime led to mass arrests and political repression.

For the layperson, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah embodied the “new Kashmir” in which the hitherto peripheralized Muslim population of the Valley and marginalized women would reinsert themselves into the language of belonging. My point is that at the time the Left didn’t have much of a role to play.

The stance of the former Soviet Union on the Kashmir issue was interesting to say the least: in an attempt to save face, the two sides agreed to a UN-mediated ceasefire, which took place on 23 September 1965, in Tashkent, Russia. Talks between Russian Premier Alexei Kosygin, Indian Premier Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistani President Ayub Khan led to the ratification of an agreement, the Tashkent Declaration. Alastair Lamb (1991: 269) writes about the atmosphere, characterized by tact and diplomacy, in which the talks took place:

In the era of Khruschev the Soviet Union had publicly declared itself a supporter of the Indian stand on Kashmir. In 1962 a Russian veto had defeated a Security Council resolution on the plebiscite issue. By 1965, and after the fall of the Kruschev regime, Russian attitudes were significantly modified. When President Ayub Khan visited Moscow in early April 1965, Aleksei Kosygin, the Soviet Prime Minister, showed himself far more flexible in outlook than Khruschevhad ever been. No doubt he was looking for some means to  reduce Chinese support in Rawalpindi.

It is now that the Left in India is urging the federal government to initiate unconditional talks with all stakeholders in Kashmir. Otherwise, up until now, the Left didn’t even support the autonomous status of Kashmir, and the Kashmir imbroglio is not a conflict between the forces of Marxism and capitalism.