Corruption in Kashmir: Reality beyond Rhetoric

Way back in the early 1970s, before the Indira-Abdullah accord that is, my grandfather would not tire of telling us how when Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah was dismissed as Prime Minister, his “secret fund”, an unaudited discretionary fund for use of the head of government,) was untouched. He used to work for the Customs Department (till 27th of February, 1958, Kashmir had its own customs department), and was an ardent supporter of “Sheikh sahib”. Back then, who wasn’t!

One doesn’t really know how true the secret fund story is, the important point is the premium he, like most Kashmiris, placed on integrity. Probity in public life was very highly valued in the Kashmiri society. If you notice, Kashmiris colloquially, refer to corruption as “haram khyon”, equating it with the foods prohibited in Islam thereby making it a non-negotiable. The point being that there was a social and moral sanction against corruption. That moral thread has, for long, been lost.

In contrast, there may not be a moral sanction just yet but there is no denying that there is a large degree of social acceptance of corruption. No wonder then, today, it is being pinpointed as the single biggest trait of Kashmiris. It is, as if, in the DNA of a Kashmiri to be corrupt. The Indian civil society at large has been made to believe that Kashmiris are “ungrateful” wretches who live off their grants and yet demand either autonomy or independence. The political price of corruption has been huge. The social costs, have also been no less.

Instead of talking specifically about Kashmir and risk being biased, let me just quote, in-extensio, a World Bank study, Governance Matters which deals with corruption in societies. The Report, which studied 300 indicators across 150 countries, concludes that corruption is endemic to “societies which lack civil rights, have weak democratic institutions, poor accountability, and political instability”. Can any description fit the situation in Kashmir better?

Numerous public policy studies across the globe have shown that the incidence of corruption is high in situations where “political process is questionable, political rights are curtailed, legal systems are weak, the quality of public services is poor and the civil service is marred by politicization”. This, it would appear, has been written keeping Kashmir in mind.

Now, back to where we started. Just before the “questionable political process” of dismissing the Prime Minister of J&K, even the secret fund, which is the easiest to use for personal gratification, had not been misused. Indeed, it can be argued that the questionable political process started ab initio with the 1951 elections in which 73 out of 75 candidates of the National Conference were elected unopposed. But it was put on record, rather sarcastically, by Prime Minister Nehru when he wrote to Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed after the elections of 1956 that it would have helped his credibility had he “managed to lose a few seats”. Nothing more needs to be said about how the democratic systems were nurtured in Kashmir.

In his book, Courage and Conviction, the former Army Chief, V K Singh lays bare, how till very recently people were paid to manage the show of democracy in Kashmir; or ensure that the elected representatives play a predetermined role.

The only way to make such governments at least credible, if not legitimate, was to create a system of largesse for everyone. That is exactly what was done; it all started in 1954. For instance, the procurement price of paddy was increased by 35 per cent its sale price reduced by 18 per cent and amount of ration per head increased by 25 per cent. The landed cost of rice of 89 paisa per kg was subsidised 60 per cent to be sold at 37 paisa per kg. This subsidy was later to become an albatross around the neck of the Kashmiris. Universal education throughout the state, from the primary-level up to the graduate-level, was made free. This is when the Government of India was willing to be, and be seen, as the big milch cow.

To be sure, corruption in Kashmir has evolved as an institutional system in which rights of Kashmiris are dissolved in exchange for acquiesce to constitutional changes and electoral illegitimacy of governments. To put it simply and starkly, to buy loyalties. This is the classical strategy of “corruption as mode of cohesion”. To many policy makers in the central government establishment, it was “accommodation before assimilation”; the price to be paid for keeping Kashmir. Whatever the thinking, the fall out of all the integrative and assimilative policies of the government of India right from 1953 onwards has been to foster entrenched corruption in Kashmir.

Once corruption became endemic, both politicians and bureaucrats started to redesign programs and propose public projects with few public benefits and many opportunities for private profit through bribes, payoffs and kickbacks.

This politically motivated public expenditure policy, laid the framework of poor accountability and transparency resulting in a culture of corruption within the state government. Given the pervasive presence of government, society too got into this vortex. To be honest, people too have at times sided with governmental institutions that promised/gave material benefits and personal security. Even so, the response of people, modulating between accommodation, assimilation and secession has been to protect their political and social identity; the religious identity was never under threat. Indeed, the expressions of accommodation then, seems like forms of resistance of now; so much has the pendulum swung to the other end.

In the end, it may not be very different from rest of the country. Only last week, globally recognized corruption watchdog, Transparency International, in its Global Corruption Barometer for Asia, has reported, that not only does India have the “the highest bribery rate in the region”, it “also has the highest rate of people using personal connections to access public services”. This report is based on an extensive fieldwork covering approximately 836 million citizens in 17 countries. Interestingly, neighboring Nepal is the least corrupt.

With half the population estimated to have been involved in graft, the institutional condemnation of Kashmiris, individually and collectively, from across the Banihal rings rather hallow. What it does do, though, is trample the sensibilities as Kashmiris. Not only is the entire community being castigated for a crime not committed, the entire social structure – its ethics, morality and value system – is being called into question. It escapes no one’s notice that this is being done to impinge on the moral and ethical salience of the “politically errant” people.

Yes, of course, corruption must be pro-actively investigated and the corrupt prosecuted. Don’t just weed them out. Instead, as is said in Kashmiri, “droat diyuk”, “sickle them” by taking exemplary actions against the corrupt, as distinct from political retributions. That done, the “wanton and widespread” corruption in Kashmir, or for that matter anywhere, cannot be addressed through the judicialisation of politics. If anything, in Kashmir, it is politicising, and even worse, individualising, the most benign of identity markers instead of getting incorporated into a single redefined national identity as is being envisaged.