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Murphy’s Law victim

EducationWorld August 2019 | Books

Paradise at war: a political history of Kashmir, Radha Kumar, Aleph Book Company; Rs.799; 416 pp

Radha Kumar’s Paradise At War is yet another addition to the large corpus of scholarship on politics. As is par for the course with much of this literature, starting from a discussion on Kashmiri self-understanding of being unique and exceptional, stemming from the region’s geographical peripherality and its relatively unbroken tradition, history, and mythology, the book moves to post-1947 events that led to the rise of insurgency in Kashmir in the late 1980s.

Although the speed at which the pre-insurgency political history of Kashmir is traced is breakneck, it manages to encapsulate a lot: pre-Partition politics of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K); the circumstances around the controversial accession to India of Maharaja Hari Singh; the Indo-Pak conflict over J&K; the influence of Cold War politics and the role of big powers like the US, UK, Russia and China; the inter-regional politics of the state, and the politics of the region administered by Pakistan.

Indeed, Kumar is one of the rare Indian scholars to engage non-polemically with the last — the politics of Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region that constitutes what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir. Untangling the various threads that have created and fostered the conflict in Kashmir is a challenge. Commendably, Kumar has been able to throw light on many of them.

Expectedly, the most informative and interesting part of the book is where Kumar uses her own experience as a policy wonk and practitioner to focus attention on the contemporary history of the state starting from 2001. Her initial engagement with Kashmir was with Indian policy circles working on Kashmir-related peace processes underway since 2002. Over time, it led to a deeper involvement resulting in her eventual appointment to the government of India’s Group of Interlocutors for Jammu & Kashmir following resurgence of insurgency in the Kashmir Valley in 2010.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have known Kumar for nearly two decades having worked with her on a project on peace processes, and extensively interacted with all members of the group of interlocutors — the late Dileep Padgaonkar, M.M. Ansari and Kumar — during their numerous visits to the state. The networks built during their earlier work on Kashmir-related matters with policy-makers and civil society facilitated their interactions and resulted in the report they wrote up, somewhat hurriedly, in 2011.

The interlocutors’ report argued for retaining Article 370 as a guarantee to maintain the state’s autonomy within the Indian Union, and for regional autonomy to assuage the fears of Valley dominance of non-Kashmiri regions.
They suggested that Article 370 should be made permanent rather than remain ‘temporary’ as it is presently in the Indian Constitution; recommended stronger cross-border CBMs (confidence-building measures); a relook at the application of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) 1958 and its reform; and argued for a three-tiered system of devolution of powers from the Union to the state to its provinces to districts to address developmental imbalances in J&K.

The report was not put up for discussion. In fact, what followed were a series of events that resulted in extreme disenchantment of the Kashmiri population with the Indian political process, revival of street-level protests in the Valley, and a new cycle of violence. The hopes raised during the peace process starting in 2002 dissipated when the generation of conflict came of age and the government could not respond imaginatively to its demand for political space. Resorting to old techniques of counter-insurgency instead of curbing the protests led to consequences that are visible to date, especially in south Kashmir, in the form of daily reports of encounters between the security forces and militants.

This upsurge of violence, and rise in anti-India sentiment has in the recent past also been fanned by militant majoritarianism that has defined Indian mainland politics of the past five years. The Indian government’s robust militaristic response best exemplified by the incident in which an Army major tied a Kashmiri civilian to a jeep and paraded him around, reportedly to deter stone-pelters, has exacerbated the situation. Pakistan, of course, sensing opportunity has stepped up its efforts to further fuel the conflict on the ground.

Kumar’s conclusion in the face of these ever- and fast-changing circumstances is four-fold: one, that the Central government has never let go of an opportunity to “snatch defeat from jaws of victory” — whether by way of Nehru approaching the United Nations after the tribal invasion in 1947 and his arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953; government of India (GOI) dismissing and replacing elected state governments at will; Manmohan Singh shying away from taking steps for a political resolution of the problem, and incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi’s tough militarism.

Two, that narratives, symbolism and compassion matter in conflict situations. Vajpayee is still remembered fondly in the Valley for his famous invocation of insaniyat, jamhooriyat, and Kashmiriyat. Three, the learning curve when it comes to Kashmir is individual rather than institutional (both in India and Pakistan), as is evident in how a series of interlocutors have been appointed by GOI to reach similar conclusions, with no follow-up action. And four, of the different options that have been proposed over the past 70 years to resolve the J&K quagmire.

The best so far has been the framework resulting from India-Pakistan backchannel discussions between Indian representative S.K. Lambah and his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Aziz which prompted the Musharaff four-point formula asking for demilitarisation, no change of borders, free movement of people of the state across the LoC, self-governance for all parts of the state and joint supervision mechanism involving India, Pakistan and J&K.

The exact contours of this framework are still unknown, yet the fact that it was the closest the two countries came to a settlement on Kashmir taking on board both the Indian and Pakistani decision-makers and dissident and mainstream Kashmiri leadership, makes it a template that any revival of peace process will have to consult.

Most non-polemical writing by both policy makers and peace practitioners has reached similar conclusions. However, if any situation has ever exemplified Murphy’s Law, it is the conflict in J&K. Whatever could have gone wrong has gone wrong. Every new opportunity of a breakthrough has inevitably been followed by careless response by the leadership (at all levels), which lacks imagination and ability to take risks. The result has been this never-ending spiral of violence that the state and the two countries are stuck in.

This volume is a good handbook (albeit from a decidedly Indian-policy maker’s perspective) to understand the political history of Kashmir, the reasons for it being ‘at war’ and possible resolutions.

Ellora Puri (The Book Review, June)

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