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Same Old Issues in conflict ridden Kashmir

by Nyla Ali Khan, 9 May 2016

print version of this article print version - 9 May 2016

I was fortunate to gain access to the correspondence between Shyma Prasad Mookherjee, member of the Indian Parliament and leader of the Praja Parishad, predecessor of the RSS, and Jawarlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India as well the correspondence between Mookherjee and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Prime Minister of J & K. After Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s visit to Jammu and his attempt to rake up the issue of Article 370, Shyama Prasad Mookherji’s role in the elimination of the permit required by all non-state subjects to enter Kashmir, these letters had a new found importance for me. After 66 years of Independence, the politics of the subcontinent really hasn’t evolved, and most politicians continue to harp on the same old issues without looking for resolutions.

Some of the current problems in J & K can be traced to the surging Saffron wave in India. From the 1970s onwards, the effective generation in the Kashmir Valley came to be the new educated middle class which was witness not to the tremendous work of their predecessors toward communal amity traceable to hundreds of years of collective zeitgeist, but found themselves victims of unemployment and a decrepit infrastructure. They were witnesses to the rising Saffron wave in India. They were witnesses to an All India Party struggling to capture power at the centre and foregrounding in their election manifesto their aim of demolishing a mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Kashmiri Muslims, getting central government jobs in a ratio not in proportion to their demographic percentage, compounded this feeling. I find it pertinent to point out that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s arduous attempts to pull Kashmiri Muslims out of the morass of illiteracy and servility were misinterpreted as his communal and divisive politics. He would probably have been lauded for his efforts if he had been a revanchist member of the majority community.

From the 1970s onwards Islam became resurgent at the international level. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the secular government of the Shah of Iran was ousted and he fled the country in disgrace and ignominy. Political unrest in the Soviet Union generated a demand for independence by its Central Asian republics of Kazakhastan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan, which resisted even offers of a federal or confederate connection with the erstwhile Soviet Union, resulting in their independence in 1991 and the formation of a Commonwealth of independent states comprising different racial, linguistic, ethnic groups of people. [1] The ultimate surrender by withdrawal of the massive forces of the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, after having been an occupation force in that country for ten years with enormous fire power, instilled in the youth of Kashmir a feeling that no military might can keep a resistant people tethered to another by sheer force. But we forgot to pay attention to the damage wreaked in Afghanistan because of the proxy war between the former Soviet Union and the United States, which was fought on its soil. We also failed to take notice of the attrition and polarization caused in that society by regressive forces and patronage-based politics. The process of nation-building is messier than some of us thought it was. Sloganeering is not a sufficient condition for successful nation-building.

The Kashmir imbroglio has worsened partly out of disillusionment that was generated by perceiving the hollowness of Indian secularism, partly out of the ignominy that Kashmiris felt in being tied to a government and a polity that is getting increasingly religionized, and partly out of the shallow Pakistani propaganda of Jihad. The insurgency in Kashmir grew into a low intensity warfare made lethal by the firepower of two nation-states. The backcloth has remained the same for the past twenty-four years, which is a recipe for disaster.

The increasing communalization of Indian politics is a juggernaut that seriously questions the myth of secularism in India, and the increasing religiosity in Pakistan is just as damaging. As a poignant reminder to the student of Indian history and subcontinental politics, I would like to point out that Jawaharlal Nehru observed in the Constituent Assembly of India that the greatest danger to India will not be from Muslim communalism but from Hindutva which could potentially become expansionist and communally belligerent.

Here I make the segue into those portions of the correspondence between Mookherjee and Nehru as well as the correspondence between Mookherjee and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah that are relevant to my larger point. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru on January 9, 1953,

“The Praja Parishad rightly puts a pertinent question. If the ultimate accession of the State to India continues to be undecided and if decision will have to be based on a general plebiscite of the people, what will be the fate of Jammu in case the majority of the people, consisting of Moslems, vote against India? A general plebiscite on a highly controversial issue, which may easily give rise to communal passions, especially on account of Pakistani propaganda, is not at all a safe criterion for knowing the real will of the people. . . . The other question relates to the extent of accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir with India. No doubt Article 370 lays down that apart from defence, foreign affairs, and communications, accession with regards to other matters will be determined with the previous consent of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir. As you will remember, this is a temporary provision and Shree Gopalaswamy Iyenger who had moved the adoption of the Article had clearly indicated that this was so and that it was the hope and wish of everybody concerned that the State of Jammu and Kashmir would finally accede to India just as other States had done. . . . The provision for an elected President or a separate flag has to be looked at from the point of view of those who honestly feel that this may be destructive of the political unity of India which it must be the duty of every State and citizen to maintain at any cost.”

In his reply to Mookherjee, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote on January 10, 1953,

“Surely it does not require any proof to substantiate the fact that violence on a widespread scale has been indulged in by the Praja Parishad people. The fact that a large number of officers and policemen have been injured and damage done to public buildings, is adequate proof of violence. What happens in Jammu is not a local matter. It has the largest implications on the whole Kashmir issue, on the future of the Jammu and Kashmir State, on Pakistan, on the U. N. etc. The question has to be viewed in that larger context. To me it seems perfectly clear that the Jammu agitation, if it succeeded, would ruin our entire case relating to the State. . . . the case of Jammu and Kashmir cannot be considered in exactly the same light as other States in India. . . . it is not some kind of legal decision or change in the Constitution that will finally settle this question of the State. There are other factors that are at play, including international factors. Foreign policy does not just mirror our wishes, nor is it a mere exhibition of temper.”

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in his reply to Syama Prasad Mookerjee on February 4, 1953, says,

“You have referred to the legitimate demands of the Praja Parishad and have pleaded that they should be accepted. Before I touch this aspect we might pertinently examine the attitude of the Parishad to the question of accession itself. There is conclusive evidence to show that the Praja Parishad is determined to force a solution of the entire Kashmir issue on communal lines. Its leaders have expressed their views publicly to this effect . . . .

. . . Let me mention here that there seems to be a fundamental difference of approach to the Kashmir problem between various political parties in India. You refer to the Kashmir question being a national question. This would naturally presuppose a uniformity in the viewpoints of different parties in India. But, unfortunately, much ill-informed and contradictory comment has been offered in regard to the position of the State. Not only is there lack of unanimity in regard to the objective but also in the methods suggested for achieving it. This adds to the obscurity of the issue nationally as well as internationally.

It is the legitimate right of every Indian to understand properly the Kashmir problem. But when such understanding becomes vitiated, it naturally warps judgment. I understand that the Jan Sangh has secured the cooperation of Master Tara Singh, the Akali leader. It is interesting to know what Masterji has to say about Kashmir. In his speech at Lucknow, he is reported to have said, ‘Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. It is a Muslim State. But I claim it in lieu of the property that the refugees have left in West Pakistan.’

Once the ranks of the State’s people are divided, any solution can be foisted on them. . . . While agreeing that the balance in the State should not be disturbed, you, at the same time, plead for the acceptance of the demand of the Praja Parishad for the complete merger of Jammu irrespective of what happens to the rest of the State. You even believe that this course would compel Pakistan to give up its claim finally. . . . We cannot ignore that the activities of the Praja Parishad, which you justify, are meanwhile working as a dangerous influence against the unity and integrity of the State. . . . I do not know how the present constitutional position of the State can be adjusted with a demand for merger. Whatever has been done by the Government here is strictly in conformity with the Indian Constitution. And yet you speak about this position in a manner which suggests that we have been flouting the Constitution. It is painful for me to note that even a person of your eminence should have been carried away by an emotional slogan like ek pradhan, ek bidhan, ek nishan (February 4, 1953). By virtue of the State’s accession and its constitutional relationship with India, all these symbols are supreme as much in our State as in any other. If internally there have been some variations in the policies of the State Government, it is precisely because the right has specifically been conceded to the State by the Indian Constitution. This arrangement has not been arrived at now but as early as 1949 when you happened to be a part of the Government.

When talking about the constitutional aspect, it is sometimes conveniently forgotten that the Praja Parishad wants that Article 370 should be expunged from the Constitution. So far as we are concerned, we have maintained that the special position accorded to the State can alone be the source of a growing unity and closer association between the State and India. The Constituent Assembly of India took note of the special circumstances obtaining in the State and made provisions accordingly.

To entertain the doubt that the Muslims of Kashmir would now give up their secular ideals would be uncharitable, although the statements and the pronouncements made by the leaders of communal parties in India from time to time and the inspiration and guidance they are providing at the moment to the Praja Parishad leadership in Jammu is, no doubt, giving them a rude shock. But let me assure you and the people of India that the Muslims in Kashmir will not falter from their ideals even if they are left alone in this great battle for secularism and human brotherhood.”

After the unfortunate death of Mookherjee in Srinagar during his incarceration for which Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was blamed by the Praja Parishad and its allies, the government headed by Abdullah was ousted and he was unceremoniously arrested.

The uncertainty and unpredictability created then still exists and continues to tell on the minds of the people. It also has an adverse impact on administrative activities in every sphere. “Almost all measures for raising the economic standards of the people carry a stamp of unreality in face of the over-riding uncertainty. Efficiency in administration suffers as the civil servants get mixed in opposite groups of power and vested interest. It becomes difficult to plan and delay occurs in the implementation various nation-building schemes, which must all wait for an over-all solution” (Speech which Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was scheduled to make on Eid in August 1953, but he was arrested a few weeks before the occasion).

The prevalent uncertainty helps in the institutionalization of corruption, and opportunists make hay while the unpredictability remains unresolved. Obviously, an important challenge then and now is the restoration of a democratic process in J & K, the validation of a secularism that recognizes diverse religious identities and allows for the accommodation of those identities within a secularist framework, creating new openings for people, including the young, to discuss public issues and become active participants. The aims of that process should be repair of the frayed ethnic fabric in all parts of the State.

(Nyla Ali Khan is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma, and member of Scholars Strategy Network. She is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. She is editor of the Oxford Islamic Studies’ special issue on Jammu and Kashmir.)


[1The only bond between these diverse people was a thin veneer of Islam interpreted differently by these newly created nation-states.