In 1947 when the British left India they left behind two nation states; India and Pakistan. The founding father of Pakistan negotiated for a separate state for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, basing his demand on the principle that the Muslims community, bound by a common faith, constituted a separate nation in the traditional European sense.
However such a homogenous state had never existed before within the Indian subcontinent. From the days of the earliest days of the Mauryan Empire all the way to the Sikh kingdom in the 19th century, the native Indian political states had always existed politically as administrative units but populated by people who were intensely conscious of multiple sub identities that were based not only on the traditional sub identities of faith, language and ethnicity but also of castes, customs and sub cultures. Moreover these sub identities were hopelessly mixed together in all regions which meant that people within each political unit loosely shared some but never all the features of sub identity even as they shared other aspects of sub identity with other people outside their own particular unit.
Because of this it was impossible to fashion a nation state in traditional sense in the remaining land that was to become Independent India the Indian founding fathers wisely devised their own particular definition of a nation state; one that was bound not by a common Faith but a faith in shared ideals, that of 19th century European enlightenment; individual liberty, secularism and universal franchise; a civic state. Using this framework, they hoped to provide Indians of all regions and religions an equal stake in the new state; the Republic of India.
Today sixty years, later it is clear that faith alone was an insufficient glue to keep the disparate elements of the Pakistani state together. Twenty four years after its founding, the Eastern and Western halves of Pakistan, united only by faith but otherwise divided by history, geography, language and culture, underwent another partition. Ironically one of these, Bangladesh, made up mostly of Bengali speaking Muslims of East Bengal is the closest that any state in South Asia has come to becoming a nation state in the traditional sense.
The score card is mixed for India; while it has survived as a secular democracy barring a few unfortunate lapses it is still a place where social, economic and sometimes even political justice is denied to many. Nevertheless today most of India is ‘integrated’ into the Republic that tends to emphasize its unique ‘unity in diversity’ theme.
One notable exception has been Kashmir thanks in large part to its messy mode of accession. That its hasty accession to India would disputed by Pakistan could be anticipated; what compounded the problem was the shortsighted petty politicking by successive Indian governments that effective turned the hesitant Kashmiris of the valley into reluctant and often cantankerous citizens.
While lately many Indians in the establishment have woken up to the tragedy of the Union government’s broken promises with the people of Kashmir, Indians nevertheless insist that Kashmir’s accession to India is final. Thus India refuses to consider a plebiscite in Kashmir as called by UN resolutions by arguing that since a plebiscite was supposed to be held in the entire princely state of Kashmir which now lies partition in three parts under the control of India, Pakistan and China respectively, a plebiscite is no longer possible.
It is a legalistic argument that sounds like a fig leaf for the Indian state. However such an argument is a trap because it distracts one from a more serious moral argument against changing the status quo there for the reasons listed below:
The last time things were decided by such a method was in 946-47. Then the Muslims electorate of the united India voted overwhelmingly in favor of the All India Muslim League (AIML) thus endorsing its demand for Pakistan. Based on this plebiscite like mandate, an independent Pakistan was carved out of Muslim majority North Western and Eastern provinces of India. Ironically though, while such a division was in principal a fulfillment of the democratic wishes of the majority, in reality its effects were quite undemocratic because while the Muslims of the United Provinces, who had overwhelmingly voted for a Pakistan remained in India, those who had opposed it initially; the Muslims of the Punjab and NWFP ended up in Pakistan! Moreover the partition also divided the provinces of Punjab and Bengal which no one had wanted, complete with ruthlessly efficient ethnic cleansing and a population exchange on a scale that the world had never before seen!
A plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir is likely to result in a similar partition complete with a man-made tragedy on a similar scale while satisfying no one. The reason is that while many liberal minded non-Kashmiris may be intuitively sympathetic to the demand for ‘Azadi’ many of them may not appreciate what that may mean.
Unlike most ‘nations’ Jammu and Kashmir is not a single nation in the traditional sense and it never was. It is a historical accident; a remnant of an older Sikh Kingdom, which was actually an Empire made up of several different peoples regions and cultures. Thus the territory that makes up Jammu and Kashmir is a microcosm of India. Even if we leave out the POK itself more Punjabi than the rest, the peoples living in the three regions of J&K are quite different from each.
Take the Eastern region of Ladakh; though sparsely populated it makes up the largest part in term of territory. The Laddakhis are distinct ethnic group, closely associated with the Tibetans. Like them they follow Buddhism and are strongly pro-India. The smallest region by area is the valley proper yet it is the most populated. It’s overwhelmingly majority Sunni Muslims are the driving force behind ‘Azadi’. Till recently the valley was also the home of a small distinct Kashmiri pundit community who were all but ethnically cleansed by the Islamists who took over the recent uprising. Today they have become refugees in their own land in contravention of all human rights proposed in the UN charter. The third and final region that makes up the J and K is Jammu; second both in terms of area and population; it is more than 60 percent Hindu, and majority is again fiercely pro-India. Then there are some other ethnic groups for example the Gujjars who live in the valley yet are not considered ‘Kashmiri’ in the ethnic sense and have no geographical area of their own.
Due to this racial, cultural and religious mix in the state, if by an accident J&K were to become Azad tomorrow, it will first result in an ethnic cleansing and population exchanges like that seen in 1947. And also because of it, quite possibly one may soon witness demonstrators on the streets of Jammu and Leh asking for their own version of Azaadi from Srinagar!!
It does not mean that the only choice is a status quo; of course not. Genuine political Freedom and Peace are both quite possible in Kashmir within the framework of the Indian constitution; but to achieve it both sides will have to make pragmatic choices.
No one disagrees that the Union government must see to it that like all Indians, the Kashmiri civil society too functions free from the yoke of the Indian security forces. Local government in Kashmir too should be by the people, of the people and for the people. Yet the Kashmiri political establishment must also be pragmatic and work towards the welfare of the ordinary people. Kashmiri separatists often claim that the ‘Indians’ don’t understand them or that they are often misrepresented; I think it works both ways.
Unlike how they are characterized by the separatist propaganda, most ‘Indians’ are not all agents of ‘Brahaminvad’; most of them are not even Brahmins. They are students and teachers, reporters and academics, farmers and traders; laborers and peasants; in effect ordinary people. Most of them who are politically conscious oppose further division of India because first and foremost they are fearful of a replay of 1947; bloodshed, population exchanges and a fearful strain on India’s fragile communal amity.
Secondly most secular Indians find the demand for ‘Azaadi’ like the demand for Pakistan before, an emotionally-driven one. It is hard to reconcile such a demand with secular humanism because it cannot explain how the life of an ordinary citizen will be different if Kashmir achieves ‘Azaadi’ from the Indian Union; which is even now a democratic union of states that are equal in every way and enjoy a great degree of local autonomy.
Under the Indian constitution, even today a Kashmiri enjoys everything that all ‘other Indians’ enjoy; a representative government; one man one vote, equality for all in the eyes of the law and in public sphere regardless of religion, region or ethnicity.
If in spite of all of the above, the Kashmiri separatists insist on sticking to an uncompromising demand for an ‘Azaadi’ they run the risk of being misunderstood themselves; as closet Islamists and bigots for who the term Azaadi is but a codeword for the right to discriminate against others on the basis of religion and ethnicity; a freedom to have state sanctioned discrimination like the type one sees against the Ahmediyas and other minorities next door….
Like I said, they have to make some pragmatic choices too.