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J&K: Go back to 1953, and start again

| VIVEK SENGUPTA
Published : Jul 26, 2016, 11:37 pm IST
Updated : Jul 26, 2016, 11:37 pm IST

In the wake of the recent upheaval in Kashmir, resulting in nearly 50 deaths so far, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called for a plebiscite in the troubled province.

In the wake of the recent upheaval in Kashmir, resulting in nearly 50 deaths so far, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called for a plebiscite in the troubled province. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj reacted aggressively to this, but it has been Pakistan’s refrain for decades. Similar views are also explicitly or implicitly voiced by a section of Indian commentators and public figures who feel it is the right thing to do by the hapless denizens of this heaven on earth. The sub-text is that if the people of Kashmir had the right of self-determination, during Partition or later, the Muslim majority there might have spurned union with India.

But history is far more complex than that. After Partition, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir dithered on the question of accession with one or the other of British India’s two successor states. His hand was forced when Pakistan jumped into the fray and sent tribal raiders into Kashmir. Hari Singh, the ruler, opted to go with India. His decision was backed by Sheikh Abdullah, leader of the National Conference, Kashmir’s dominant political force. For over 50 years, Sheikh Abdullah strode the political arena of Kashmir like a colossus. He was the father of former CM Farooq Abdullah and grandfather of Omar Abdullah, who was chief minister prior to current incumbent Mehbooba Mufti.

Prior to 1947, Sheikh Abdullah led a popular movement against the maharaja’s rule. But he had no love lost for either Jinnah or his two-nation theory. He was a votary of secularism and had even changed the name of his party from Muslim Conference to the National Conference in 1939 to better reflect the aspirations of all sections of Kashmiris. He was also a socialist in his views. His “Naya Kashmir” manifesto, adopted during Hari Singh’s rule, sought to turn Kashmir into a welfare state and was, in many respects, far ahead of its time.

Sheikh Abdullah’s politics resonated with the leadership of the Indian National Congress and the two parties became fraternal outfits. Sheikh Abdullah’s proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi and an alignment of political views explain why the National Conference would have no truck with Jinnah. The Sheikh wrote to Nehru in July 1951: “I have stated again and again that we have acceded to India because of the two luminous stars of our hope there — Gandhiji and yourself. That is why, despite several affinities between us and Pakistan, we did not join it, because we thought our programmes were not in conformity with their thoughts.”

Clearly, at the time of Partition, the majority of the populace in the Valley were happy to follow their leader in embracing union with India. But matters were complicated by the intervention of Pakistan, first indirectly and then directly with its own troops. The outbreak of war led to the matter going to the United Nations. Insistence by various quarters on self-determination by Kashmiris led to the Indian acquiescence in the call for a plebiscite. India agreed to a special place for the state in the Indian Union by including Article 370 in the freshly-minted Constitution. It was agreed J&K would have autonomy with only defence, communications, external affairs and currency with the Centre.

There were more complications in store for Kashmir. In 1953, Nehru removed his friend Sheikh Abdullah as “Prime Minister” of Kashmir and he was arrested on charges of conspiring against the Indian Union. Subsequent government heads in the province cooperated with the Centre in progressively diluting Kashmiri autonomy, though Article 370 was left untouched. But such has been the dilution of Kashmir’s special status over decades that champions of homogeneity now think nothing of seeking the scrapping of Article 370. This despite the fact that disaffection with the Indian Union has grown over decades, specially since 1990.

Pakistan, on its part, fished in troubled waters and tried to create trouble for India acting directly (1965, 1999) or through proxies. Mr Nawaz Sharif’s plebiscite demand is perfectly in character for Pakistani spokesmen, who conveniently forget two vital points: the demographics of both J&K and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have undergone significant changes since 1947, when the plebiscite was agreed upon. More important, a plebiscite in Kashmir was contingent on Pakistan vacating its aggression on Occupied Kashmir (a third of the state is in Pakistani hands). That has not happened.

In any case, India cannot let go of the Valley. Kashmir is central to the idea of India. A Muslim-majority state in a secular polity is proof positive that India is home to people of all faiths. It underlines India’s thesis that nationalism is unrelated to religion. Sheikh Abdullah told the J&K Constituent Assembly on October 31, 1951: “The presence of Kashmir in the Union of India has been the major factor in stabilising relations between Hindus and Muslims of India.”

And so it shall remain. Without the Valley, there will be a major threat to India’s stability and unity. But New Delhi can’t shut its eyes to disaffection in Kashmir. Its causes must be addressed — just as India has done in areas where disaffection has given rise to centrifugal forces and secession loomed. The most notable examples are Tamil Nadu, during the 1960s’ anti-Hindi stir, and the longstanding movement by Mizos in the Northeast. Both were tackled imaginatively by the Centre. The upshot: the threat to the Union disappeared from those quarters.

There are several international examples of successful resolution to threats to national unity far graver than what India faced in Kashmir. In the 19th century, Americans fought a four-year civil war, with the South seeking to secede on the question of slavery. It was Lincoln’s statesmanship that preserved the Union.

There is no reason why it should be different in India. But New Delhi must stoop to conquer. Lasting peace can come to the Valley if it returns to the pre-1953 position of near total autonomy. In 1981, Sheikh Abdullah had, in a magazine interview, said to this writer: “The National Conference had come into power with a mandate which included that post-1953 laws would be reviewed... those congenial to the state would be retained, and those which are not would be scrapped after consultation with the Centre.” This mandate must now be respected.

Lasting peace can come to J&K only if Pakistan is brought on board. This could be achieved by drawing on the Musharraf formula, that envisaged conversion of the Line of Control into an international border, free movement of peoples between the two sides, demilitarisation in both Kashmirs, and joint supervision of this exercise.

A solution with these two elements could be sold to the people of the Valley, specially after India establishes its bona fides by unilaterally lifting the hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and sending the Army back to the barracks from civilian areas. The Supreme Court’s recent tough talk should make it easier for the Centre to dispense with AFPSA.

In 1974, the Centre did the right thing by Kashmir when it made Sheikh Abdullah’s restoration possible through the historic Indira-Sheikh Accord. It is time again to do the right thing by the Valley, but without threatening the idea of India.

The author is a public affairs analyst