Just about five years ago, I was a strong believer in the authoritative proclamation: “Kashmir hamara hai.” Anyone who even wandered about other alternatives was automatically considered an anti-Indian (or pro-Pakistani, which more or less meant the same thing back then).
Thinking about that polemic and rather one-dimensional sentiment now, I think that belief originally stemmed from a strongly conceived notion that Pakistan was trying to snatch Kashmir out of our hands, and we can not let them succeed. It was by no means a wrong judgment of our neighbor’s motives. Pakistan did try (and is still trying) everything they could to make sure that Kashmir remained at the forefront of India’s major concerns for last 61 years.
Then there was another (rather indirect) justification that if we let Kashmir go then other states and regions will start (or, restart) making secessionist or irredentist demands. This was an obvious concern since India has seen many secessionist movements after its independence – Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Assam and Mizoram.
Adding legitimacy to the belief was the fact that the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Sing, signed the Instrument of Accession in 1947 and according to that, Kashmir became a part of India. [Here is the full text of that Instrument of Accession]
Thus a strong national pride challenged by the malignant neighbor, a valid concern for the integrity of the nation, and legitimacy in the form of Instrument of Accession kept alive the staunch and stout belief that Kashmir is an integral part of India and we can not let it go.
My beliefs have changed over the years and now I realize that in all those rationalizations, I forgot to consider one vital point. The will of Kashmiri people. And how we promised to respect the will of the people by conducting a plebiscite. This promise remains unfulfilled, as it was contingent on Pakistan withdrawing their military presence from the Kashmir region. This is not totally unfair claim on India’s behalf. Pakistan does occupy the so called ‘Azad Kashmir’ and also another sparsely populated region known as ‘Northern Areas’.
Since then, Pakistan kept on infiltrating the region with terrorist, and training Pakistani as well as Kashmiri people in their camps. And India kept on sustaining and increasing its military presence in the region to counter-attack the terrorism, which came with the unfortunate side-effects of subjugation of the inhabitants and in some cases rapes and extortion of innocents. In the midst of power/dominance struggle between two nations, the fate of Kashmir remains uncertain. We never actually stopped and asked the Kashmiri people what they want.
In last 61 years, India had tried everything to please the Kashmiris (in the hope that they would stay amicably as a part of India). But the situation have gotten only worse and more tenuous. What’s becoming more and more clear is that the Kashmiri people – especially in the Valley – don’t want to stay with us. They look at us as oppressors and consider Indian “occupation” of Kashmir as one form of colonialism.
Being a democratic nation, India is being unfair with a state that has no desire, and have never had any desire, to stay as a part of India. (Consider the following: Junagadh was a mirror image of Kashmir in 1947 – a Hindu majority state with a Muslim ruler. When the Nawab declared that he wanted to accede with Pakistan, India sent military to Junaghdh and the Nawab had to flee to Pakistan. Our justification for military intervention? The will of the majority is to stay with India, we said. But alas, we didn’t use the same yardstick with the situation in Kashmir. The will of the Maharaja took precedence over the will of the population.)
If we let Kashmir go, then following their streak, what if people from (let’s say) Punjab come up with the same demand, you might ask. First of all, that’s very unlikely. All secessionist movements in India had died away. And even if they get renewed, the case in point would be different and it would warrant a different solution than that of Kashmir. (Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India. The only state with majority of the population that never wanted to accede with India.)
It’s time to hear from the people of Kashmir. A plebiscite is long overdue. If Kashmir wants to stay with us (the Hindu majority Jammu and Buddhist majority Ladakh region are likely to vote in favor of India) – fine. If not, let them try independence or merge with Pakistan. (The Muslim majority Valley is likely to go either way.) This, obviously is not easy to implement overnight, and I am no political guru who can lay out the game plan for how India and Pakistan should proceed. But as a believer in liberal democracy, I feel that we should take necessary actions and move in the direction of holding a referendum in Kashmir. Let Kashmiris, not the military, not the politicians, decide the fate of Kashmir.
Vir Sanghvi argues that we should hold a referendum in Kashmir, not only because of democratic and ethical but also for economical reasons.
Swaminathan Aiyar writes about the farcical democracy of Kashmir that, according to him, started with Sheikh Abdullah in 1951. He compares Indian claim to the Valley with British claim to India before 1947. (I don’t agree with all of his point of views though.)
Pratap Mehta remarks that “The Indian state has a legitimacy crisis in Kashmir.” He also admits that “India has in the past sacrificed democracy in Kashmir to its own nationalism.”
Amit Varma believes that a plebiscite is desirable but impossible given the imperatives of Indian and Pakistani politics.
Update: More from Arundhati Roy. A shorter version of this essay is published (link) in Gurdian.
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