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Why Delhi should talk to all sides in Kashmir

By Sunanda K Datta Ray

The late Queen Mary reportedly said: “When I die India will be found written on my heart”. She was echoing an earlier Queen, Mary Tudor, who made the same observation about Calais when England lost that last possession in France. Almost every Hindu probably shares that sentiment in respect of Kashmir. Yet, it bears asking amid bursting grenades, flowing blood and Kashmiris being beaten up, while India and Pakistan pirouette in a dangerously glorified version of village yokels playing gillidanda on the brink of a conflict that could explode into a nuclear war, whether a reluctant and recalcitrant Kashmir is really essential to India’s survival.


England got over the loss of Calais, Ireland and India. Pakistan survived the secession — or liberation — of its eastern wing, which became Bangladesh. Portugal endured the loss of Goa. Indonesia didn’t disintegrate when Timor-Leste became independent. Many national boundaries in the Balkans have been erased and redrawn. Many new states have emerged. The “Free Republic of Liberland”, occupying an uninhabited parcel of disputed land on the western bank of the Danube, has relations only with self-proclaimed Somaliland in north-eastern Africa which, too, no established government recognises. Spain’s Basque Autonomous Community confirms there are degrees of autonomy/ independence. One of Andorra’s two rulers is the Bishop of Urgell (France’s President being the other) in Catalonia, whose own right to independence Madrid disputes. But the Kashmir quarrel is the only one that can’t be localised if it blows up. The daily bloodletting, the raids and the rhetoric recall that the United Nations’ mediator, Canada’s Gen.

A.G.L. McNaughton, had warned as long back as 1950 that the dispute would be “a serious drain on the military, economic and, above all, on the spiritual strength” of India and Pakistan.

His mention of “spiritual strength” is painfully apposite to the contradictions of the conflict. The terrorists who instigate suicide bombers to blow up convoys and whose volleys of gunfire across the Line of Control mow down women and children claim to be defending the democratic right of the seven million Muslims of the Kashmir Valley to choose their identity. The world’s largest democracy’s right to oppose them derives from an absolute monarch who ruled Kashmir because his great-grandfather paid the British 75 lakh Sikh rupees and an annual tribute of “twelve pashmina goats and three pairs of shawls” to rob Ranjit Singh’s defeated heirs of the territory and pass it on to him. Maharaja Hari Singh put his signature to “no more than a printed form, not unlike an application for a driving licence, with blank spaces left for the name of the State, the signature of the Maharaja and the date; and it also contained a printed form of acceptance which required dating and signature by Mountbatten as Governor-General” as the distinguished historian Alastair Lamb put it.

Three salient points about his accession must be stressed. First, he didn’t consult a single Kashmiri. Second, the grey eminence of the accession was his sworn enemy, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, whom Jawaharlal Nehru had forced on him. Finally, he acceded only in respect of defence, foreign relations and communications. Now, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association laments that “260 out of 395 Articles of the Indian Constitution, 94 out of 97 entries in the Union List and 26 of the 47 entries in the Concurrent List, have been extended” to Kashmir “in a brazen manner”. The most recent erosion of Kashmir’s contractual autonomy is through the extension to the state of the new 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections as well as the Central law making dalit and tribal state employees eligible for reservation in promotions. The objection is not to the substance of these measures, but that such impositions further trample on Kashmir’s already diluted rights.

There is no trace of the insaaniyat (humanity) that Prime Minister AtalBehari Vajpayee invoked in today’s ad hoc approach that P. Chidambaram describes as “muscular, militaristic and majoritarian”. It would have distressed P.V. Narasimha Rao who replied that “the sky’s the limit” when asked how much autonomy Kashmir should enjoy.

Leading the loyalist lobby, Farooq and Omar Abdullah both complain of being treated like enemies. New Delhi won’t even talk to Kashmiri leaders. Yet, as A.S. Dulat, a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, reminds us: “The reason that people in Delhi have reservations about talking to separatists and Pakistanis are the very reasons we need to talk to them for.” There is no other way. The talk instead is of further whittling down Article 370 (already “reduced to an empty shell”, says the Bar Association) and of driving coach and horses through Article 35A, which prevents outsiders from buying property. As Jawaharlal Nehru told the LokSabha when defending the clause, without it, Kashmir would be “overrun by people whose sole qualification might be the possession of too much money and nothing else, who might buy up, and get the delectable places”. This is a sensitive issue in the Northeast too; faced with an influx, Sikkim’s former chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, swore Sikkim had merged but would not be submerged.

There remains Lord Mountbatten’s letter of October 27, 1947 stipulating that Hari Singh’s accession “should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the state”. He cannot have made this commitment without both Nehru and SardarVallabbhai Patel agreeing. Even if he did, a government that boasts of heading the world’s largest democracy cannot in all conscience deny “the wishes of the people”. That would be a total betrayal of all the values that secular, liberal, democratic India stands for and which prompted Sheikh Abdullah to support Hari Singh. Rhetorical bombast and ad hoc adventurism are no substitute for a coherent policy that fulfils the promise of accession.