Speaking of Kashmir’s Right to Self-determination a Taboo in India?

Suvolaxmi Dutta Choudhury

In discussions on Kashmir among middle-class urban Indians, I have often heard how the issue evokes pictures of beauty and goriness at the same time. Perhaps like the mysterious image of an alluring yet elusive lover. Only a few from the mainland may have travelled to the land or cared to learn about its culture, people, and politics. This, however, is their story of unrequited love for Kashmir and one that has a long history of promises, betrayals, and violence. The knee-jerk reaction for a society seeped in patriarchy and militarism is to seek reciprocation by any means; use of force is only essential to tame the reluctant beauty into submission. The long and tiring saga of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the intermittent ruptures of violence and counter-violence, and loss of lives bear a mere testimony to this love.

I apologise if this figment of imagination seems to belie the gravity of the situation. The intention was the opposite, the bottom line being: what does this complex relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India reveal about the prospects of transforming this now unbearable conflict? It is unbearable not only in the periods of flare-up when all that is talked about is the violence from all sides and the loss of lives. But the loss of lives can hardly provide an accurate sense of how unbearably painful this conflict is for the people it affects. An entire generation has grown up watching violence from their very cradles.

But before addressing the conflict and finding a solution, one must take a step back today and ask: why is there a deep sense of distrust in democratic ethos in the larger Indian mindset? What is this democratic ethos that I am talking about? It is the belief that the people of a land should have the right to determine their own future. That they should have the freedom and dignity to do so. This is the core principle behind the right to self-determination. Indians have fought for and won this right for themselves and the last thing that we can lose is empathy for people who we consider our won. The Indian people and government (obviously) do not want the breakdown of the country and its holy Constitution. But there is one particular part of the country which is bleeding; where there is a sentiment of mass resentment, injustice, and violation. How can we forego their consent and force ourselves upon them?

Constitutionally, their special privileges have been eroded (read Article 370), their elected governments banished, human rights and dignity denied. There have also been systematic and continual infiltrations and orchestration of violence from a hostile neighbour. However, one wonders how congregations where about a lakh people gather to mourn the death of a slain militant could be pulled off by the neighbour with such ease. Are we not blinded by a jingoist kind of patriotism that forbids us from seeing the mass sentiment of resentment and discontent there?

This does not necessarily or automatically have to mean that a plebiscite is a perfect solution to the problem in Jammu and Kashmir or that such a plebiscite should be denied or upheld. Nevertheless, the starting point to a solution cannot eliminate particular voices (read the Hurriyat Conference) which seem unpleasant to the Indian power elite. Just as the voices of the people of Jammu and Kashmir must also include the Kashmiri Pandits in exile, the minority Hindus, Sikhs, and the people in Ladakh. But if a section of the people does not concur with you, can you silence their voices or force them into obedience with the barrel of a gun? Does not seem very democratic, to say the least.

At the same time can violence against the Indian state by the rebels be justified? The answer is a loud and resounding no, obviously. Let us briefly talk about militancy in J&K. Since the breaking out of the insurgent movement in Kashmir in the late-1980s, there have been many phases and manifestations of it. Each time, these have been met with a continued and growing presence of the security forces and have often been aided by external influences (read Pakistan). Figuratively, the baton has passed on from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) to the Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and so on. From the more secular-nationalist discourse of ‘azadi’, the narrative of terrorism and ‘jihad’ are now a staple in the valley and New Delhi alike, and one that the Indian state finds more convenient (only ideologically) to rebuke. Place this in the backdrop of the global war on terror and the associated Islamophobia, the beef-ban controversy here at home, love jihad, and so on and one shall find greater flesh to this mammoth problem of radicalisation and polarisation. Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, however, can no longer be brushed under the carpet as an import from across the Line of Control. It is undeniably home-grown.

The more urgent point: it enjoys support of the home crowd. A great number of people of Jammu and Kashmir no longer feel the need to hide behind anonymity to voice their protests against the Indian state. From the debates and discussions on social media to the protests on the streets, this is a glaring phenomenon that the power elite in India need to acknowledge. A true mass movement seems to be brewing and the challenge posed by it is not the same as that of delinquent teenagers resorting to guns (with or without external support). The issue is not just the militant leader Burhan Wani and his likes but the people gathered in his funeral prayers in thousands and lakhs. It is as though the latent and accumulated resentment surfaces at the smallest possible vent and takes the society to a breaking point.

This resentment is the key to the conflict and addressing it is of paramount need. Surprisingly, the news debates on national television channels have so far not once featured the stories of those 42 people killed in the last few days: not a word on who they were or with what aspirations and feelings had they decided to join the protests. Is it because in the minds of the larger audience in India these people are colluders in Burhan Wani’s violent path to separation? Are they seen in the same light as terrorists who ransack the state machinery and challenge India’s sovereignty?

Can India do away with such people in the interest of its territorial integrity and live happily ever after? Yet, to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity is a constitutional obligation. Thus, ostensibly there seems to be a dilemma here. The Constitution enshrines all possible freedoms but does not mention the freedom to secede. At the same time it vests sovereignty with the people (not merely the people in the mainland). Assuming the rest of India considers Kashmiris (not just Kashmir) as an integral part of India, can they deny the consistent violation of sovereignty, dignity, and basic human rights and freedoms of these people?

While the word on plebiscite (with only two options: joining India or Pakistan) was once accepted by an Indian Prime Minister of great international stature, more recent governments and people in the country have somehow managed to produce a discourse that prohibits even the mention of it in any serious form. So the question posed in the title of the article is really a rhetorical one.

Not much time has gone by since the row over JNU. Lest we forget, the charges of sedition were slapped on a few students because they wanted to discuss Kashmir’s right to self-determination in a public event and spoke against the atrocities of the Indian state. The programme was said to reek of valorisation of the notorious terrorist Afzal Guru. Surely, the government cannot have sedition charges en masse against the thousands who participated in Wani’s funeral and glorified the militant as a martyr? This brings us back to whether there is an unsaid code forbidding the mention of the right to self-determination of Jammu and Kashmir in mainland India. After all, our patriotism does not allow us to even utter the thought of breakdown of the beloved motherland.

The popular discourse that Kashmir is an integral part of India, a prized trophy that needs to be protected has become so deeply entrenched that any contrary discussion is shunned to silence. One has to only remember the Bollywood movies on Kashmir that the 90’s generation grew up watching to source such patriotic sentiments from. The blame is immediately laid on the incorrigible troubling neighbour for fuelling disharmony in a nation of perfect ‘unity in diversity’ (a hugely popular topic middle-class Indian children grow up writing essays on in English-medium schools). Please note that this piece is not about the neighbour and hence no question of holding it responsible is discussed here, in case the patriotism of readers gets offended!

Every time episodes of uncontrollable violence erupt in Jammu and Kashmir, there is enough reiteration that the problem requires a political solution and not a military one. The security forces can only do a temporary repair job. Also, too many security personnel have lost their lives in dealing with a conflict that has little political will to be resolved. Again, there has been too much excessive force applied and too many incidents of human rights violations because of the impunity and lack of accountability with which the security forces operate.

So, what could be a political solution and why is it so elusive? Could a political solution come about excluding a rising mass sentiment for the right to self-determination? Referendums for separation were held in the developed world like in cases of Quebec from Canada, Scotland from the United Kingdom, etc. and they were defeated by the people. An aggressive argument negating such parallels with Jammu and Kashmir could be that these countries did not have an evil neighbour waiting to lap at the opportunity. A more convincing argument is that a plebiscite would only mean listening to the majoritarian view, which is not necessarily democratic. I was introduced to this idea by Sumantra Bose’s book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace and have been a convert ever since.

A possible solution could lie in engaging with the aspirations and demands of all the various sections of the population in Jammu and Kashmir across religious, linguistic, ethic, and regional divides. But to reach this solution a discussion of the problem is imperative.

At the outset of the discussion could we ban a peoples’ aspiration from the agenda? From the prism of political realism of the Machiavellian kind, yes we could because it hurts our interests. But that would be no modern democracy. And even realists today talk of restraint and moderation of power.

Like the figurative expression of the romantic relationship in the beginning of this article, Jammu and Kashmir’s relationship with the rest of India too could use some trust, understanding, and space instead of an obsessive love of the militaristic kind. Hopefully, all of love’s labour’s not lost.

Suvolakshmi has recently finished an M.Phil in International Politics from the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Presently, New Delhi. She is now researching religion and the nation in Canada.