Firdaus would be getting cramps in his grave if only he could see what his heaven on earth has turned into. Let’s face it, Kashmir lost its claim to heaven a long time ago but the debate today is not about ‘why’ but ‘who’ caused the paradise to fly away, leaving behind its miserable and yet romantic claimants.
Say Kashmir, and the sweet aroma of pine takes over the mind fluttering among images of valley flowers, meadows of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, Shikara on Dal lake and delectable Wazwan with its mouthwatering range of Marchwagan Korma, Gushtaba, Kabarga and Shufta.
But all that was until the peace loving and gentle people of the valley — and yes, they were friendly, warm and gentle for centuries — decided to take the path of violence. A dead Burhan Wani represents only one side of the Kashmiri conundrum, not the cause just the consequence.
That brings us to the question – who stole my valley?
The origins of the mess
Too much has been said about the much promised ‘plebiscite’ and too much is blamed on its denial. Had the Pakistani Razzakars taken over the valley in 1947-48, today, we would be seeing a lot more of the Army Public School, Peshawar kind of attacks on innocent school children that left over 150 dead in Pakistan. These were no stone-pelting, aggressive teenagers, just regular kids attending class.
Had Pakistan had a free run, our side of the valley would be another failed state sinking deeper into the fanatical, quick sand of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam. Kashmir was never either and still does not identify with that stream of Islam. Sorry Syed Geelani, but that is the truth!
So the Indian intervention should have been good news for our side of Kashmir, then why the angst and rabid hatred towards what the rest of nation stands for – tolerance, inclusiveness, secularism and democracy? Do they really hate all of that?
The problem is that there are too many stakeholders claiming Kashmir as their baby. There is the failing state of Pakistan, that is struggling to hold on to what it has and yet nurses a dream to claim Jammu and Kashmir as its own.
Then there is the Indian state with power mandarins in Delhi that keep repeating the ‘Accession to India’ as a right to claim the whole of Kashmir, or at least what it currently holds, but is totally clueless on how to enforce peace in the territory that it controls.
You also have a host of political parties in the Valley which are totally formatted on political lines seen everywhere, where personal agendas drive political objectives. They feed on the naiveté and frustration of confused people to achieve their own self-serving goals. They are the ones who actually benefit from continuing discontent, for a peaceful valley would render their very existence into oblivion.
There is the Indian Army, competent and committed but caught in the crossfire between an ambivalent and procrastinating centre, hostile and self-serving local political parties – unsure of their loyalty to the concept of India, and an increasingly violent and reactionary society that is now willing to come out of their homes in pursuit of what it calls ‘Azaadi’.
The Army and paramilitary forces have the thankless and most unenviable task of dealing with hardcore terrorism, cross border infiltration and militant civilian attacks, all with one hand tied behind by political and ethical commitments thrust on them.
Both Army along with paramilitary forces and the people of the valley, are victims of political interplay between Pakistan, India and local politicians. Yes, they are the real victims, the ones paying a heavy price while politicians on all sides continue to live within the safe confines of their homes, playing out their hand in an unending political game of chess.
The seeds of discontent lies in deep corruption and promotion of self-interest of family and cronies that juiced the valley of its natural wealth since 1947, only to further deepen the chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished rest.
They ‘rest’ looked upon the political leadership for improving lives but as in most political histories, personal and family interest almost always superseded people’s and national interest. The consequence of that makes Kashmir valley a classic example of failure of a state at the cost of its people. And today, it’s those people who are fighting to reclaim their voice and right to self-governance.
Why the stalemate?
Pakistan or rather the Pakistani Army, continues to romanticize bleeding India with a thousand cuts and refuses to learn or relent from repeated failures on the military and diplomatic front. Its obsession with India and Kashmir has only led to it hurting itself more.
Having come this far, it finds itself in a self-created political corner from where it can’t withdraw without losing face before its own people.
The Indian side has its share of blame. The Indian government since 1947 has for long driven itself deep into the Nehruvian-Congress interpretation of the relevance of Kashmir and finds itself in knots of its own creation, largely due to procrastination and lack of political will to address the problem by successive governments. It continues to sail directionless and without vision even today.
The people of the valley have long forgotten their original reason for protest. What started benignly as a fight against corruption driven by narrow political agenda, has today got lost in a political fog where they want ‘Azaadi’ but have no clue to its path or its consequences.
The problem is further compounded by a shrill and sometimes jingoistic national media that barely understands the problem of Kashmir but continues to highlight the issue for its own agenda of readership and TRPs.
Unfortunately, people living across rest of India follow the media line and respond virulently on social media that only results in further alienating an already alienated people.
Kashmir has truly become nobody’s baby but everyone’s prize. So how do we get out of this stalemate and work towards an acceptable solution?
A frank perspective on the Plebiscite
Let’s first understand the Kashmiri people – all communities included. Kashmiri culture has a historical foundation of religious tolerance, social tolerance and gender equality. People have always co-existed peacefully and any conflict arising in the family or outside of it was always resolved through mutual discussion and intervention of elders.
This is a fact and has been so for centuries. A culture so deeply ingrained in peaceful co-existence does not lose its heritage so easily in a relatively short period of violence.
The driving out of Kashmiri Pandits by the Muslim majority does not come from any historical dislike or mistrust between communities but a recent development, fueled by a hostile and belligerent neighbour.
The call for ‘Azaadi’ very often leads to a call for a Plebiscite. So it’s time to look at this option seriously and examine its potential consequence.
The original demand for Plebiscite in 1947-48 was to ask the people if they wanted to remain with India or be part of Pakistan. If that were to be the only two choices, then India today must call the secessionist’s bluff and hold a Plebiscite.
First, let it be clearly understood that regions of Jammu & Ladakh is not on offer, as its people will never accept being part of the ‘valley’, for historical and cultural reasons. So we are speaking of just the Kashmir ‘valley’ and that, by the way, is only a small geographical part of what comprises of J&K.
Now, the people of Kashmir are very proud of their history and cultural tradition and as mentioned earlier, take immense pride on their inclusiveness, religious tolerance and gender equality.
They fully understand the consequence of being part of Pakistan, where they will have to deal with hardline Islam and would struggle to maintain their cultural heritage against the Punjabi and Pashtun versions of Islamic life under Sharia Law. Both of which are far worse than the free, tolerant, secular and democratic society that mainland India offers, and the ordinary Kashmiri fully understands that.
Make no mistake, behind the frenzied calls in support of Pakistan, the average Kashmiri loathes them more that they do of the Indian state and way of life. So, if India were to give people of Kashmir valley a choice between India or Pakistan, they will, by clear majority, choose India. For the average Kashmiri is no fool.
But the call for Plebiscite today is demanding a third choice – an independent Kashmir that is neither part of Pakistan nor India. And it is this romantic call for a happy, prosperous state of ‘Azad’ Kashmir that is drawing the youth – where all citizens and genders are equal, where economic wealth is more evenly distributed, where democracy will thrive, and where people’s interest will always be first. But isn’t that what Mohammad Ali Jinnah promised to the Muslims when he called for an independent Pakistan? See where it has ended.
But for sake of argument, let’s look at the practicality of an ‘Azad’ Kashmir.
The valley is and will remain land-locked between India and Pakistan. With little natural resource to generate adequate wealth to sustain the proposed utopia called ‘Azad Kashmir’, it will be forced to keep its economic and tourism gates open to India and/or Pakistan. Which means, it will always be vulnerable to either country turning the supply tap off based on existing geo-political interests.
So how will the political leadership deliver on the promised ‘paradise’ without sustenance from India and/or Pakistan? The result will most likely be rebellion and political chaos leading up to a failed state, with deep regret subsequently over its decision to go independent. Many in Pakistan today realize the folly of 1947.
With Pakistan struggling to survive its own nightmare, it will have little time or resource to invest in Kashmir, which will bring India back into focus to ‘bailout’ Kashmir. One will have to be blind not to see the dangers of going it alone, for neither India nor Pakistan will allow it to remain free of interference and influence, and Kashmir will continue to remain the chessboard it is, between India and Pakistan. That’s the reality.
The average Kashmiri on the street doesn’t understand real politics. He is consumed by the frenzied call for ‘Azaadi’, but he is the one who will be most vulnerable under an ‘Azad Kashmir’ with nowhere to turn to.
So,when the current frenzy of violence finally settles down, it will be prudent for people of Kashmir to review calmly their predicament and be practical and pragmatic in deciding the way forward.
The people of Kashmir must learn from failures of almost all violent struggles against the state globally and draw solace from political settlements as seen in Ireland, Quebec region of Canada and the Basque region in Spain.
Glimmer of hope
A largely autonomous Kashmir, including areas held by India and Pakistan, with people moving freely within the state and where local people have a say in their choice of leadership and lifestyle, is something realistic and achievable that people of the valley can work towards.
But the first step must involve giving up the path of violence and then sit across the table with New Delhi. It will require patience and sagacity from both sides.
Once both sides are on the same page and a broad understanding reached, it will leave Pakistan isolated and without its only card on Kashmir. Pakistan will then come under international pressure to join the peace process and come to an agreement with India that will include Kashmiris living on its side of the border.
A positive step towards reaching out directly to the people of Kashmir has already begun when Parliament discussed the issue at length on 18 July and collectively endorsed its support for the government to begin engaging in talks with people of the valley.
The paradise that Firdaus spoke about is still very much there -just hidden temporarily behind the fog of dissent, which only its people can remove. Hopefully, that will happen sooner than later.
Article 370 of Indian Constitution – Historical Background and Provisions
Who was Burhan Wani? Everything you Need to Know about Burhan Wani
Government’s Outreach to Youth From Kashmir
The NIT Srinagar Issue
Militant Groups in India
Kishtwar: Another Burning Chapter in Kashmir
Can The Kashmir Issue Be Ever Resolved Through Peace Talks?