Hindustan Times Column – Karan Thapar
Are we responsible for the distrust, even the alienation, Kashmiris feel when they consider their 60-year association with India? Have we betrayed promises, mistreated our fellow citizens, trampled on their rights and brutally shattered their dreams? Did our behaviour make the insurgency ‘inevitable’?
It may seem odd to ask these questions when Srinagar is enjoying its best summer since 1989 but, I would argue, this is one reason why they need to be asked all the more forcefully. Just because the situation seems more normal doesn’t mean the underlying grievances have disappeared. And if we don’t look for honest answers we could slide back towards the precipice.
In a book called My Kashmir, recently published in America, Wajahat Habibullah suggests the answer is yes. And Wajahat should know. A Kashmir-cadre IAS officer, he served twice as Divisional Commissioner Kashmir. Since 1970, when he started his career as a Sub-divisional Magistrate in Sopore, he’s witnessed how Kashmiris were treated by both the state and central governments.
“The first in a series of blunders”, Wajahat writes, was the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah’s government and his subsequent arrest in 1953. The Sheikh was not just a hero to his people, he was also the main force behind the accession. He symbolised Kashmiri hopes as well as the link with India. Even a half century later, long after the Sheikh’s days of glory, Wajahat says “Kashmiris look upon his arrest as the first of many betrayals”.
However, it’s the eyewitness evidence that Wajahat presents that is the truly compelling part of his answer. During his first assignment Wajahat discovered that, unlike the rest of India, in Kashmir “the only active law was the Defence of India Rules, which allowed the police to keep their reasons for arrest and detention secret”. Though designed to tackle national security in wartime, in Kashmir they were used to enforce routine law and order. “Small wonder”, he concludes, “that a feeling of subjection had begun to permeate people’s minds”.
Whilst elsewhere in India elections provided a safety valve to ventilate anger, in Kashmir they became a means of denying freedom and subjecting the people to unrepresentative rule. Wajahat recounts the 4 steps by which elections were undermined. First, “reject the nomination of the opposition”. Second, impersonation during the voting “with the pliable presiding officer turning a blind eye to fake identification”. Third, “the ballot boxes could be stuffed with ballots”. And, fourth, “the winning and losing numbers were simply changed to favour the ‘preferred’ candidate”.
Two developments in the 1980s, Wajahat suggests, made the insurgency inevitable. The first was the midnight dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984. At the heart of the problem was the clash between Farooq and Indira Gandhi. “She considered (him) a whippersnapper who owed her his position”. He sought to assert his independence, hosting opposition conclaves in Srinagar. Wajahat concludes: “The questionable manner of the Farooq government’s ouster confirmed Kashmiri suspicions that New Delhi would only allow supplicants to rule the state”.
The other was the election of 1987, rigged by the National Conference and Congress. Wajahat confirms that the voting in Amira Kadal was blatantly manipulated to ensure Yousuf Shah’s defeat, whilst his polling agents “were imprisoned without bail for months under the state’s draconian Public Safety Act”. Today, Yousuf Shah is better known as Syed Salahuddin, the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Chief of the United Jehadi Council. Refusal to let the opposition win “drove a disaffected public into rebellion … convinced that freedom … was inaccessible”.
Twenty one years later, can harmony be restored? Wajahat suggests the happy summer of 2008 could be illusory: “It is doubtful whether harmony can ever be fully restored”. But if we want to try — and we must — Wajahat offers a small slender line of hope: “It had been clear to me from early on that resolution in Kashmir could come only with the restoration of Kashmiris’ dignity”.
With elections just three months away, isn’t it time to start? If the answer is yes, I suggest we begin with an apology. We owe them one.