By Swapan Dasgupta
At a time when the Kashmir Valley has reverted to its status as a persisting trouble spot, it may seem churlish to target Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Political recriminations, it is accepted by most right-thinking Indians, can await a moment when things are relatively more settled.
Unfortunately, it would seem that the third generation Abdullah — who, like his father, has a considerable fan following outside the troubled State — doesn’t see things in the same way. In a statement from Srinagar last Friday, Omar argued that “the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir cannot be assuaged only by development, good governance and economic packages but needs a political solution”. Pleading the case for more autonomy, the Chief Minister added, “But I am not averse to move beyond it, if there is a solution other than autonomy that is acceptable to both India and Pakistan and meets the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.”
Whether Omar is hinting his tacit support for the opposition PDP’s espousal of “dual sovereignty” involving India and Pakistan is unclear. What is interesting, however, that the earlier belief, mouthed by many well-meaning Indian liberals, that a long dose of purposeful, good governance can bring an alienated Kashmir Valley back to the constitutional mainstream, has been challenged by the Chief Minister. The significance of this assertion should not be under-estimated, not least because it loosely corresponds to the position taken by some of the 'moderate' sections of the Hurriyat Conference.
Omar’s assertion is calculated to inflict a great deal of collateral damage on another, well-entrenched position. Since 1948, the Nehruvian consensus has proceeded on the assumption that Jammu & Kashmir warranted exceptional treatment which would be guaranteed by the special provisions of Article 370. Although the parameters of this regional autonomy have been diluted, first in 1953 and then following the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah understanding in 1974, the special status of Kashmir was protected by the Constitution. This meant that the State could either inch towards greater integration with the rest of India or regress into greater uniqueness. Whatever the to and fro movement of regional autonomy, it was believed that Article 370 would preserve Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part of the Indian Union. Now, Omar, a loyal ally of the Congress, has struck a hammer blow at one of the load-bearing pillars of the Nehruvian consensus.
The ‘political solution’ that the Chief Minister is alluding to is an euphemism for an understanding between India and Pakistan over the status of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite the presence of Kashmir on the dhobi list of the composite dialogue, it has been apparent for long that there is absolutely no meeting ground between New Delhi and Islamabad. India has maintained that Kashmir is an internal problem while Pakistan is equally clear that there is a liberation struggle being waged in a ‘disputed’ area whose future should be settled by a referendum.
It is conceivable that the Manmohan Singh Government has modified India’s earlier refusal to talk the internal affairs of Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistan. If so, this is something that the people of India, not to speak of Parliament, are clearly unaware of. Whatever the reality, Omar’s statement is certain to set the cat among the pigeons. Pakistan and its proxies within India have now secured an extra handle to press the case for the legitimisation of Islamabad’s ‘moral and political’ support for the azadi movement in Jammu & Kashmir.
It would be prudent to recognise that in the event the civil unrest in the Kashmir Valley is not brought under control fast and effectively, the issue of ‘dual sovereignty’ will gain currency. At an international level, Pakistan has already successfully sold the West its self-serving thesis that peace in Afghanistan (at least the termination of the Al Qaeda threat) is substantially dependant on the concessions it secures in Kashmir. India has so far managed to withstand international pressure by successfully leveraging its economic clout. However, there was also the fact that Kashmir was plodding gently along the path of democracy, development and a half-decent Government. Coupled with the greater sensitivity of the Indian security forces to ‘human rights’ issues, there was a marked disinclination of the West to draw a moral equivalence between a democratic India and a dysfunctional Pakistan.
According to the logic of Western diplomacy, Pakistan received bucketfuls of aid but India was someone you could do business with. India’s implied superior status may evaporate if the country is caught in a pincer movement of Left-wing extremism and Muslim separatism. If India isn’t to go back to the days of the first Clinton Administration when the very accession of Jammu & Kashmir was sought to be questioned, the Centre must ensure that peace returns to the State. Redeploying some of the forces is a small price to pay for preventing ‘dual sovereignty’ to make its appearance on the international agenda.
For long, India’s policy-makers have proceeded on the assumption that people are prone to rational political behaviour. In other words, it has been assumed that given a choice between a economically buoyant India and an imploding Pakistan torn between feudal decadence and Islamist lunacy, the people of Jammu & Kashmir would quietly prefer the status quo. Obviously this hasn’t happened.
The implications are disturbing. Either Omar is an inept administrator who has taken to equating personal failings with systemic failure. Alternatively, the hold of religious separatism is far more deep-rooted in the Kashmir Valley than was widely believed. For India’s sake, we can only hope that the disturbances in the Valley are all the fault of Omar Abdullah.