Fighting Winter Gloom in Kashmir

Fighting Winter Gloom in Kashmir

When it snows like it has for the last week, it is as if crimes, ours and those against us, are blanketed by nature, by innocence.

Winter days in Kashmir have not always spelt gloom for me. In childhood, it was a homecoming for winter vacations from boarding school. In late adulthood, it is a respite from traffic snarls caused by pretentious LBW (lal batti wallah) vehicles of governmentality and a natural assertion of difference and identity as the pheran is donned and the kangri clasped. Then, when it snows like it has for the last week, it is as if crimes, ours and those against us, are blanketed by nature, by innocence.

But this is 2019 and there are dreary moments, mostly political. Whenever people huddle and review events, there is a sense of near desperation. There is no dearth of examples of such events. When a young “officer” of the bureaucracy resigned, and others threatened to, there was talk of a new front, fresh hope in another variant of youthful dissent. It proved misplaced as a pattern of self-cooptation of idea and individual revealed itself to be hale and hearty. Then there is the politician governor who legislates at will, unhindered and imperial. Par for the course, yet cause for some despair. The real dread lies in our improved and now common understanding of Delhi’s state building project in Kashmir. The dispute over our state used to be a seasonal political argument in Delhi, but in the last quarter century it has steadily become the cornerstone of Indian populist religious nationalism that has taken hold, deepening its complexity.

A weakened neo-liberal India too has come to realize that the idea of a secular, unitary and non-aligned India has been an untheorized, hazy and lazy smokescreen. We often forget that these concepts were novel for mid-twentieth century South Asia. They needed to be conceptually envisioned, practically defined and logistically (all of which is to say ‘constitutionally’) enshrined. This was not done after 1947; which is why India itself is at a dangerous cross-road. This is the view from Kashmir also, but not exclusively so. There are signs that the “international community” is also understanding a potentially perilous future in the region. A brief expansion on this mouthful.

Secularism needed to be defined by what it would mean for the 20 percent that is India’s minority populations. But at most, the term “secularism” was used in recognition of the minimal fact required of civilized society, that all religions were equal; it was an expression of well-intentioned belief. However, without any structures that would create equity, which speaks to opportunity of access, that definition was at best making a virtue out of necessity. When equity was attempted, either as electoral argument or in good faith, it was characterized by majoritarian India as appeasement. There is substantial evidence to support the argument that secularism as a term was used to contrast the new state of India with the new state of Pakistan. (It also served to set India off from Nepal, then a Hindu State; Sikkim, then an independent Buddhist state; Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Burma all officially still Buddhist states; and, in 1971, the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh.) Indeed, as Saeed Naqvi in his Being the Other: the Muslim in India (2016) argues for the first time – and not unconvincingly – the 1976 insertion of the word “secular” in the Constitution of India was to bolster Delhi’s argument on Kashmir. Meanwhile, the absence of a positive definition of secularism allowed the proponents of a laboriously theorized (since 1925) Hindutva India to become ascendant.

Delhi’s pursuit of a unitary India has been more overt, albeit at the expense of its claims of its constitution having ‘federal characteristics’. Given the diversity of South Asia, a good dose of federalism would have been a logical approach. However, the partitioning of the sub-continent into (i) India and Pakistan, (ii) the idiosyncrasy of addressing the 560-odd sovereign princely states and (iii) the layered sovereignty that was operative in India’s relationship with several Himalayan states, resulted in a fear of the threat of what used to be called “fissiparous tendencies” in the minds of the inheritors, liberal and conservative, of British India. This is understandable; but in hindsight the obsession with a unitary state structure allowed India’s liberals to ignore the phenomenon of India’s religious nationalists taking ten steps forward and two steps backward since the very beginning. Each time this happened, a neo-liberal India extolled the two steps backward as proof of its democratic credentials, but ignored the eight steps forward that had been taken towards religious nationalism. Out of political convenience or willful neglect, that remained and transformed it into today’s all but Hindu nationalist state. Although this creeping stratagem has been discussed more overtly for the period between 1992 and today, the chronology of post-1947 India is replete with examples of this trend. 

A similar duplicity informed early India’s foreign policy, in league with Yugoslavia and Indonesia, of “non-alignment”. However, the policy died a quick death in practice when the Soviet Union supported India’s position on Kashmir, although it remained a part of the lexicon of the Indian ideal until the collapse of the Cold War regime. Well, perhaps not quite as there was an earlier attempt to jettison it. The 1972 Simla Agreement sought to transfigure the tripartite dispute over the State of J&K into a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan; as such, it was a move to take it out of the Cold War paradigm, which was starting to weaken the Indian argument. Ironically, it took Indira Gandhi, daughter of the Prime Minister who first forsook a foreign policy of nonalignment because of Kashmir, to attempt to extract the dispute over Kashmir from its international setting.

My aim in recounting the above three inconsistencies in the Indian state’s policies is two-fold. First, to point out that – intentionally or unintentionally – the State of J&K has impinged on Delhi’s inconsistencies in its policies of secularism, a basically unitary state and nonalignment. Second, that the first two of these, for varied reasons, are now threatened as a polarized India searches a way out of the contradictions that confront it today. The result is an India so divided that, as Prem Shankar and others have noted, it threatens the union. Together, these facts make a case for India addressing the dispute over our state honestly, transparently and comprehensively.

There is another, external, reason that is pressuring Delhi today. The conceptual vagueness that has informed India’s definitions of self and policy for seven decades now, has translated into a divided and destabilized population of 1.3 billion, which shares a long border with China’s 1.4 billion and Pakistan’s 200 million. Three restive status quo states that together make the region home to almost half the world’s population as authoritarian China, India and Pakistan compete with, confront and align each other along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal along the Himalayan massif. 

My point is that this fact is not unnoticed by an economically globalized, socially struggling and politically searching international “world order”. Whether it is the corporate sector or governmental policy, a stable South Asia is a historical need in a troubled world. In that sense, we in the State of J&K are on the right side of history in our demand that political justice for the State of Jammu and Kashmir be addressed. To understand that is to mitigate some of the gloom that the juggernaut of Hindutva politics, disappointing dissent and wintry weather bring us. Not as emotional consolation or eulogy to political inaction, but as a review of things as they are.