Still waiting for deliverance in Kashmir
Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s funeral in Kashmir, July 2016 (Photo: Abid Bhat)
On November 29th, 1966, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha, puts up a question i n the House to the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Raj Bahadur. The starred question No 415 asks ‘whether it is a fact that an announcement ‘This is Radio Kashmir’ is made before broadcasting programmes from the Srinagar station of the All India Radio and if so the reason for not announcing ‘This is All India Radio’ from the station.’
In response, the minister replies that, yes, the radio stations in Srinagar and Jammu have been operating under that name for the last 18 years. “The question of changing the nomenclature is, however, under consideration,” he says.
About two years before this, a team of British geologists arrives in Delhi to take part in the World International Geological Congress. Ninety of them take a trip to Kashmir and get stranded there for two weeks due to heavy snowfall.
After their return, one of the leading geologists meets a British official and shares his experiences in Kashmir with him. Later, the official reports this meeting in detail. The geologist, he writes, told him that “an astonishing number of shopkeepers, hotelkeepers and other Muslims said quite openly that their sympathies lay with Pakistan, or in the case of a minority of them, with independence for Kashmir.” While recounting that the Hindu minority told him that “all Kashmiris” wanted to belong to India, the geologist, he says, also met a young English master at the missionary Tyndalle-Biscoe School. The official writes that the master told the geologist that “there recently had been an incident when a Muslim pupil had attempted to murder a Hindu pupil.” The official, further quoting the geologist, says that “communal feeling was running pretty high.”
The two events tell us independently of how the developments in Kashmir were being perceived in Parliament, 25 years before an armed insurgency erupted in Kashmir in 1990, and how much earlier communalism and separatist sentiment had spread in Kashmir.
It was a stark deviation from the time when Mahatma Gandhi had remarked in December 1947: “My sole hope and prayer is that Kashmir become a beacon of light in this benighted subcontinent.” He had said it because as the flames of Partition raged on elsewhere, Kashmir had largely put up a joint effort in maintaining peace even in the face of an external aggression. In October that year, as tribal raiders from Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, aided by Pakistani army regulars, attacked Kashmir, its Hindu and Sikh minority would be put through the invader’s sword. While in some cases the raiders found support among Kashmir’s Muslim majority, most Kashmiris put up a united front against the invaders.
The person responsible for this sentiment happened to be Kashmir’s tallest leader, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah.
It was a young National Conference member, Maqbool Sherwani, who misled the raiders in Baramulla in Kashmir’s north, giving them wrong information about the Indian Army’s presence on the outskirts of Baramulla. By the time the raiders saw through his bluff, the first batch of 1 Sikh of the army, put together in Gurgaon and Rewari in Haryana, was airlifted to Srinagar. The raiders were so furious with Sherwani that they nailed him to a cross and shot him.
His body lay there for days before the army captured Baramulla. The raiders were repulsed and contained just a few miles short of Srinagar.
A young Kashmiri Pandit, Somnath Bira, meanwhile, was part of a group sent as a peace brigade to areas in Jammu region where Muslims were facing the brunt of communal violence. Bira disappeared shortly afterwards, caught up in violence, and his body was never found.
As Jammu and Kashmir became a part of the Union of India, Sheikh Abdullah stood next to another Kashmiri, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the heart of Srinagar and recited a Persian couplet: “Mann tu shudi, tu mann shudi/ Ta kas na goyed, Mann degram tu degri [I became you and you became me, so nobody can think of us as separate].”
This becoming each other, however, did not last long. In less than two years after Kashmir’s accession to India, there were indications that Abdullah had begun to dither.
In May 1949, a statement of his appeared in Sunday Observer, published from London, where he was quoted as saying that accession to either side (India or Pakistan) could not bring peace. “Perhaps a middle path between them with economic cooperation with each other will be the only way to do it,” he said.
Six weeks before the Abdullah government is dismissed in 1953, Nehru reminds him that his Government had stood for secular democracy as Abdullah had done, too, in the past. But now, Nehru writes: ‘I fear the tendency in Kashmir is to keep away from it’
In May 1951, in his inaugural address to the State Constituent Assembly, he again dismissed the idea of turning Kashmir into an “eastern Switzerland.” He said: “It is not easy to protect sovereignty and independence in a small country which has not sufficient strength to defend itself on our long and difficult frontiers bordering so many countries.”
By this time, however, New Delhi has begun to be wary of him. In January 1948 itself, as declassified US State Department documents would reveal later, Abdullah has met the then US representative at the UN, Warren Austin, who later in a message to the US Secretary of State, George Marshall, writes: ‘It is possible that principal purpose of Abdullah’s visit was to make it clear to US that there is a third alternative, namely independence.’
Even as he keeps changing his message to Kashmir’s Muslim majority, Abdullah goes on to send repeated signals to the West. He meets US Ambassador Loy Henderson in Srinagar. In a report to the State Department, it is mentioned that Abdullah was in favour of Kashmir’s independence and believed that an ‘overwhelming population desired this independence.’
Abdullah keeps meeting diplomats, including Walter Cock, the Australian High Commissioner in Delhi in 1952, who later recalls Abdullah advocating independence. The same year, Abdullah meets in Kashmir the former US presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson.
By 1953, Nehru himself is under no illusion. Six weeks before the Abdullah government is dismissed, Nehru, in a letter, reminds him that his Government had stood for secular democracy as he (Abdullah) had done, too, in the past. But now, Nehru writes: ‘I fear the tendency in Kashmir is to keep away from it.’ Nehru warns: ‘Unfortunately, that will have its reactions in India as such tendencies in India have their reactions in Kashmir.’
Around this time, the Intelligence Bureau warns the Centre that arms are being smuggled into the Valley.
Soon afterwards, Nehru orders the dismissal of Abdullah’s government and he is imprisoned. In April 1964, he is released, but after Nehru’s death, put under detention again.
On May 26th, 1967, in a response to a question asked in Parliament by Mulka Govinda Reddy on how long the Government planned to keep Abdullah in detention, then Union Home Minister YB Chavan replies: “The government has not closed its mind. Government can renew this from time to time. But at the present moment there is no proposal for his release.”
In a question asked by RT Parthasarthy on whether Abdullah was kept as an ordinary political detainee or as a VIP in the Kohinoor bungalow in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, Chavan replies: “A sort of both the things.”
Abdullah is later released and becomes the Chief Minister of the state in 1975. After his death in 1982, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris attend his funeral. He is succeeded by his son Farooq Abdullah.
By this time, Kashmir’s leaders have developed a novel sense of how to keep New Delhi happy and also keep alive the separatist sentiment in Kashmir. Before his death, Abdullah makes a pact with Indira Gandhi. Afterwards, his son signs an accord with Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi.
By 1988, a year after the state elections are believed to be highly rigged in favour of Farooq, intelligence agencies are again sending reports of young Kashmiri men crossing the Line of Control to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and guns smuggled across tied to the bellies of sheep. In July that year, two bomb blasts rock Srinagar. There are several others, but they are considered a handiwork of Sikh extremists operating in Punjab.
In September 1989, the first minority killing of a prominent Kashmiri Hindu takes place in Srinagar. Twelve days later, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah is dancing along with noted dancer Yamini Krishnamurthy during a cultural festival in the famous Martand temple. He says militancy will end soon.
As history would tell us, it erupts in such a way in Kashmir that New Delhi is brought to its knees. The civil and police administration collapses. In December 1989, as five terrorists to be released in exchange for then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s kidnapped daughter are set free, the Valley breaks into joyous celebrations. In a matter of a few weeks, the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus begins. Hundreds of them are killed by Islamist extremists; only a handful of them remain behind.
Farooq Abdullah escapes to London, only to be brought back to Kashmir as its Chief Minister after the first post-militancy elections take place in the state in 1996.
From here to how we reached a phase where the terrorist commander Burhan Wani’s death triggered a bitter war in South Kashmir in 2016, plunging the Valley back to relentless violence, is more recent history and perhaps better documented. Kashmiri leaders had never even thought in their dreams that New Delhi would go ahead and remove Article 370 and with it, Kashmir’s special status.
In 2013, Farooq Abdullah said that even if Narendra Modi became Prime Minister 10 times, he would not be able to touch Article 370. In April 2019, he again reiterated it while addressing a gathering of his supporters in Central Kashmir.
Four months later, Article 370 was gone.
Now, to look at Kashmir one year after the abrogation of Article 370. Nobody in the security grid in Kashmir was naïve enough to think that the abrogation would immediately lead to the end of terrorism. And it has not. There are over 200 terrorists, including foreign terrorists, still active in Kashmir Valley. About 35 Kashmiri youth have joined terrorist organisations this year; it is a significant drop from previous years, but it is still happening. They are barely trained, making their survivability very low.
In May this year, 21-year-old Nadeem Malik, a resident of South Kashmir’s Shopian district, joined the terrorist organisation Hizbul Mujahideen and was killed in less than a month. Till July, 118 terror attacks took place. In the same period, security forces eliminated 138 terrorists, a majority of them locals.
In a new policy, the security forces no longer hand over the body of slain terrorists to their families. Earlier, terrorist funerals were a big headache for the government. It would attract thousands of people and also lead to an upsurge in the popularity of terrorists, leading to a swell in recruitment as well.
Some mainstream leaders like Farooq Abdullah and his son, put under detention after the abrogation, have been released and some are still away. But beyond symbolic statements and comments, there is hardly any political activity, let alone any vibrant opposition to the Modi Government at the Centre. It is mainly because of fear of reprisal and also because mainstream politicians are no longer sure what message to come up with.
Critics of the abrogation say that political vacuum created in the Valley is not good at all, and that in the past it has led to the rise of separatism and insurgency. But that is a selective analysis of the situation that ignores the genesis of Islamist extremism in Kashmir. The extremist element in Kashmir got emboldened only because successive governments in New Delhi encouraged soft separatism in the Valley. The Centre looked away as Valley leaders spoke one language in Delhi and another in Kashmir from Sheikh Abdullah onwards; it created a bipolarity of sorts in the minds of Kashmiris as to where they stood.
All of it was done in the name of preserving Kashmiri identity.
What is this Kashmiri identity? And why is the nature of this identity different from, say, a Malayali or a Bengali identity? And why should it be at odds with the fact that Kashmir is a part of the Union—and that academic fantasies of sub-nationalism are not going to change that geopolitical reality?
The continuation of Article 370, which was supposed to be a temporary feature, should be seen in the same light of this mindless appeasement. Now that it has finally been done, the political vacuum was bound to be created. It may not be a bad thing necessarily in the short term since it enables security forces to consolidate their gains against terrorists without fear of interference. It is this interference from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) during its unnatural alliance with the BJP that led to the mayhem in 2016 in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing.
Having said that, the challenges remain. Security operations are continuing as they should, but Kashmir cannot be forever run on the shoulders of the security grid. A political process has to start. Even as the BJP-PDP alliance was in its honeymoon period, a senior BJP-RSS leader confided in me that ultimately their goal was to look for an alternative to both the PDP and the National Conference. The new political dispensation will not come from outside. In all likelihood, it will be from among those who are now willing to play New Delhi’s tune.
Only this time, there cannot be any adhocism to it. The Modi Government needs to be careful because the same players who encouraged and became a part of separatism in Kashmir have played this game in the past. They will sing this tune temporarily and then return to the separatist rhetoric.
If the same game is repeated, it will be very difficult to salvage Kashmir. From the adversity and confusion of several decades, an everlasting peace and freedom from religious extremism and terrorism must arise.
With the abrogation, Jammu is happy, and so is Ladakh. But despite repeated promises by this Government, the minority Kashmiri Hindus are still in exile. Looking at the evidence so far, the Government seems to have no plan for them. As history would tell us, no permanent solution in Kashmir is possible as long as it remains home to only a homogenous population.
As one year of the abrogation of special status comes to an end, the Modi Government must take that into account.