Understanding the Kashmir crisis

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SOME seminars serve a more profound purpose than educating or even clarifying issues: they bring about a change in the way a problem is perceived. This was the effect, at least on this writer, of attending the seminar on ‘Towards Understanding the Kashmir Crisis’ organised by the Academy of Third World Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia over November 13-15. What follows is based on reflections on the first day’s proceedings and on a reading of all the written papers presented at the seminar.

The hardy perennials were, of course, debated: the role (if any) of the United States in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and the role of Pakistan (if any, beyond withdrawing support to the militants) in the resolution of the insurgency in Kashmir. However, the title of the seminar, to which impatient reference was sometimes made when these issues were discussed on the first day, referred to understanding the Kashmir crisis. The crisis, in this view, had not arisen because the question of Kashmir represented the unresolved issue of the validity of the two nation theory (the Indian state vs the Pakistani). Nor was it a result of the erosion of Kashmir’s constitutional position within the Indian state system, a process that mirrored the trajectory of India’s professedly secular polity. As a young Kashmiri student studying at Jamia pointed out, these were Indian perceptions and the first day’s proceedings had only fitfully given expression to Kashmir’s views. Perhaps a happier choice of adjectives could be substituted, but the point he made was a substantial one.

The process of the resolution of the crisis represented by this view had, in fact, been well expressed in Aijaz Ahmad’s paper presented in that morning’s session:

‘The most important settlement has to be an internal one, among the Kashmiris themselves, in which the governments of India and Pakistan can play a pivotal role and the international community can help, but which will emerge out of a comprehensive and civilized dialogue among all the Kashmiris, of all regions and religious beliefs, on both sides of the LoC’ (p. 13).

It was left to a voice from Kashmir, that of Mohammed Ishaq Khan, Dean of Kashmir University, to present a truly historical view of the crisis itself, in probably the most illuminating paper of the seminar, though it was unfortunately somewhat sidelined in the formal discussion. I will return to this paper in detail, but a couple of points must first be made about the role of the international community, and that of the governments of India and Pakistan, in the resolution of the crisis.

The seminar had been inaugurated with a presentation by the former Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider. As someone associated with the Government of India’s most forcefully expressed stand yet on the CTBT, he could have been expected to show scepticism of the international community’s ability, if given the unbridled opportunity, to deal sympathetically with the Kashmir issue. This scepticism could only have been reinforced by recent political developments in West Asia. There is a widespread view that with the end of Cold War driven rivalries, the United States may be more prepared to throw its weight in resolving international conflicts, taking the actual merits of the case into due account.

However, the fate of the Palestine-Israeli negotiations provides a tragic example of the perils of an issue falling victim to the US’s domestic policy compulsions. The future role of the US in third party disputes is now even more difficult to foresee, with the prospect of a President whose legitimacy will take a long time to establish, whoever the new incumbent is. I gathered from Salman Haider’s reaction to a question, posed by this writer, that he did not think that such considerations were considered irrelevant by the Indian foreign policy establishment. So the United States must, as Aijaz Ahmad has asserted above, be kept firmly out of determining the contours of the process of resolution of the crisis, however much its help may be sought in bringing recalcitrant groups into the discussion. In this connection an additional point from the ‘Kashmiri’ angle, this by no less a person than Balraj Puri, was that in the complex problems associated with identity and national sentiments, the United States had shown a straightforward incapacity to comprehend and sympathise.

The position of Pakistan is somewhat different. This is because the reality is that groups of Kashmiris, who must be involved in the resolution of the crisis, live within that part of Kashmir that is controlled by it. More positively, half a century of dealing with Baluch, Sindhi and Pathan national sentiments (quite apart from the aftermath of failing to deal with Bengali ones) must have taught thinking elements in Pakistan at least one lesson. This is that Pakistan’s accumulation of yet more fellow-believers by incorporating Kashmir within its fold will not resolve the problem of the Kashmiri desire for self-determination. So, the governments of India and Pakistan have a role as facilitators.

But the basic point, and now I return to Mohammad Ishaq Khan’s paper, is that historically, the party political process in Kashmir has been unable to reflect the varied aspirations of the people of Jammu, Ladakh and the Valley, and to integrate them. This is the crisis of Kashmir. Significantly, though in a much more polemical and sectarian manner, this was also the thrust of Hari Om’s paper. (As an aside it may be mentioned that a young Kashmiri academic rather overstated the case in asserting that the atmosphere in Kashmir did not allow dissident opinions even in the university. In response, Ishaq Khan referred to his own dialogue with Hari Om as an example of the civilised exchanges still possible between the ‘Jammu’ and the ‘Kashmir valley’ viewpoints).

Ishaq Khan’s basic point was that the National Conference had not, by 1947, succeeded in gaining the full support of Kashmiri Pandits, let alone that of the people of the Jammu and Ladakh regions. It was not, therefore, a developed political instrument of Kashmiri nationalism. Although the accession to India temporarily forged links between the regions of Kashmir, the schisms began to surface again when the National Conference attempted to assert Kashmir’s distinct identity. This tended, inevitably, to be the identity espoused by the dominant sections in the valley, and more dangerously, of the Muslim peoples of Ladakh and Jammu.

Even when a second chance arose, after the 1975 settlement, the National Conference did not use the opportunity to widen its geographical and social base. When this was combined with both the Congress’ and the BJP’s party political expansionism, the stage was set for the growth of militancy, which began as a vehicle for the expression of Kashmiri nationalism, however distorted. It may be added here that, with Pakistani support, political militancy was easily transformed into terrorism. The basic point is that it does not help to address the crisis by identifying it as the growth of terrorism itself.

Ishaq Khan’s paper provided the background to the proposals made by Aijaz Ahmad of specific institutional structures that could be installed so that the threefold dialogue – within Kashmir, between Kashmir and India, and between India and Pakistan – could proceed. Salman Haider, at an earlier session, had made the valid point that even if it were granted that the entire crisis was of India’s making, the confession would not advance us very much towards achieving a settlement. The value of Ishaq Khan’s paper lies then in demonstrating that the political process has simply not worked in a way to solve the problems of identity for the people of Kashmir. T.K. Oommen, in a later session, identified panchayati raj institutions as a possible means to this end. In fact, another paper presented at the seminar on the role of panchayati raj, though presumably included on the basis of a similar understanding, unfortunately missed the opportunity of addressing the role of formal panchayati institutions in engendering a collective identity.

In an article that has just appeared, A.G. Noorani points to the close analogy between the situations in Kashmir and in Northern Ireland. Noorani does not (nor does Ishaq Khan) refer to the colonial legacy which has influenced the complexities of both these problems. However, one of the points to be recognised by this analogy is that it is not only poor Third World countries that require special political institutions to resolve difficult internal problems. While the demands of Scottish and Welsh nationalisms could be accommodated by the parliamentary process, Irish nationalism required special attention because of its special past.

The discussions at the seminar at Jamia showed that there can still be clear, articulate and civilised expression and exchange of hugely varying views on Kashmir. The process of dialogue within the intelligentsia is remarkably alive. However, current institutions and structures reflect an incapacity to transmit this dialogue into the portals of the political and administrative establishment. It is this imperviousness of institutions that the seminar at Jamia has helped to highlight.

Nasir Tyabji



Select papers presented to the seminar on ‘Towards Understanding the Kashmir Crisis’ at the Academy of Third World Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, November 13-15, 2000:

Aijaz Ahmad, ‘Peace Through Autonomy and Reconciliation’; Mohammad Ishaq Khan, ‘Reflections on Kashmiri Nationalism’; M.S. Bhat, ‘Democratic Decentralisation in Jammu and Kashmir – Past, Present and Future’; Hari Om, ‘Kashmiris’ Alienation?’

A. G. Noorani, ‘Questions About the Kashmir Ceasefire’, Economic and Political Weekly 35(45), 4 November 2000, 3949-3958.