Breaking the taboo, Indian op-eds suggest Kashmir plebiscite

August 17, 2008

Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar/Fayaz KabliThe last time I visited Kashmir, in November, I was struck by an apparent contradiction: it was more peaceful than it had been in years, at least in the capital Srinagar, and yet the overwhelming mood was one of gloom.  With the peace process between India and Pakistan going nowhere, there was a sense    that thousands of people had died for nothing in the violence that had convulsed the region since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. Although the soldiers had disappeared from the streets of Srinagar, and tourists were flocking back, it retained the some of the same tinderbox atmosphere that I had known at the height of the violence. One spark, people told me, could ignite it again.

When that spark came, in the form of a land dispute between Hindus and Muslims that triggered some of the biggest protests since 1989 (you can see my last posting on this here), the surprise was perhaps not so much that it happened but that so few analysts in Delhi (or Islamabad for that matter) saw it coming.

Fisherman casting a net on the Dal lake in Srinagar/Fayaz KabliThe sheer size and unexpectedness of the protests have prompted some Indian analysts to ask a question that has been anathema  in Delhi for decades: Is it time to consider giving Kashmir independence, or at least to let Kashmiris vote on their future?

“If the experience of the last two decades has taught us anything, it is that the situation never really returns to normal. Even when we see the outward symptoms of peace, we miss the alienation and resentment within.  No matter what we do, things never get better, for very long,” writes Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times.

“I reckon we should hold a referendum in the Valley. Let the Kashmiris determine their own destiny. If they want to stay in India, they are welcome. But if they don’t, then we have no moral right to force them to remain. If they vote for integration with Pakistan, all this will mean is that Azad Kashmir will gain a little more territory. If they opt for independence, they will last for about 15 minutes without the billions that India has showered on them. But it will be their decision,” he writes.

“Whatever happens, how can India lose? If you believe in democracy, then giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination is the correct thing to do. And even if you don’t, surely we will be better off being rid of this constant, painful strain on our resources, our lives, and our honour as a nation? This is India’s century. We have the world to conquer -the other- and the means to do it. Kashmir is a 20th century problem. We cannot let it drag us down and bleed us as we assume our rightful place in the world. It’s time to think the unthinkable.”

The Times of India runs an editorial along similar lines. ”I was once hopeful of Kashmir’s integration, but after six decades of effort, Kashmiri alienation looks greater than ever. India seeks to integrate with Kashmir, not rule it colonially. Yet, the parallels between British rule in India and Indian rule in Kashmir have become too close for my comfort,” writes columnist Swaminathan Aiyar.

Indian bunker near the Line of Control“We promised Kashmiris a plebiscite six decades ago. Let us hold one now, and give them three choices: independence, union with Pakistan, and union with India. Almost certainly the Valley will opt for independence. Jammu will opt to stay with India, and probably Ladakh too. Let Kashmiris decide the outcome, not the politicians and armies of India and Pakistan,” he concludes.

For two such reputable columnists to make a suggestion like this in national newspapers is extraordinary. India has long maintained that Kashmir is an integral part of the country. It has argued that giving up Kashmir would encourage secessionist movements elsewhere in the country and undermine its commitment to secularism by acknowledging that Kashmir, as a Muslim-majority region, could have special treatment. And it has traditionally blamed Pakistan for stirring up trouble in the region, convinced that if only Islamabad could be persuaded to end what it called “cross-border terrorism”, the benefits of Indian democracy and financial support would eventually win the people of Kashmir over.

Of course, a couple of op-eds calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir does not mean it is going to happen. The issue is phenomenally complicated, not least because the much-vaunted U.N. resolutions passed in 1948 calling for a referendum were meant to apply to the whole of the former kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, now divided between India, Pakistan and China. The people were to be given the choice between acceding to India or Pakistan, but not of independence; while the resolution also required that Pakistan withdraw its troops first from its side of the region, followed by the bulk of the Indian forces, before a plebiscite were held.

And any vote, even within the Indian part of the former kingdom, could stir up bitter divisions between and within the three regions that make up the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir – Hindu-dominated Jammu, Muslim-dominated Kashmir and Buddhist- dominated Ladakh — that would dwarf the recent protests. Pakistan would also be faced with tough choices over how to handle the people on its side of the former kingdom, including Azad Kashmir and the strategic Northern Areas.

However, they do suggest a new thinking in India, which, determined to win its place as a global player on the political and economic stage, no longer wants to be dragged down by the Kashmir conflict. The question is whether this new thinking — coming at a time when Pakistan is struggling to reinvent itself as a civilian democracy —  could contribute to a genuine effort towards a durable peace. Or will it simply make an intractable problem even more complicated?



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