Kashmir: A View from India

Tavleen Singh



here was a sideshow at the Agra Summit that told its own story about Kashmir.  In the lobby of the Moghul Sheraton Hotel journalists from both countries gathered from dawn to dusk awaiting news from the summiteers who met not just in another hotel but behind doors so completely closed that even titbits of news were hard to come by.  With so much time on our hands us waiting hacks devised ways to entertain ourselves.   Some invented gossip, others sought solace in chilled beer while still others made efforts to befriend the Pakistani journalists among us.  Talking to Pakistani journalists became the most popular activity and there was bonhomie, friendship and (with the help of chilled beer)general agreement that peace between India and Pakistan was an idea whose time had come.  If the Berlin wall could come down, if Israelis could talk to Palestinians, why should there not be peace between our two countries so linked by ties of culture, language and history. This was the mood on day one of the summit when things seemed to be going well between the summiteers.

Then, came day two and General Pervez Musharraf’s unforeseen decision to allow his breakfast with Indian editors to be televised worldwide and suddenly it was not just ennui that was dispelled in the Moghul Hotel’s lobby but bonhomie as well.  Pakistanis coalesced into tight huddles and the Indians into theirs.  Mistrust replaced bonhomie. ‘Isn’t that the woman who was on Star TV yesterday being really hawkish about Kashmir?’
‘Yes, and that’s that columnist from Karachi who was invited because he sounded so reasonable in his columns but on television he turned out to be just another hawkish Paki’.

As if some evil creature had cast a powerful spell an ugliness suddenly manifested itself.  An us versus them thing that bred suspicion and misgivings.  When Pakistani journalists were – or seemed to be – the recipients of privileged leaks from inside the Summit the Indian journalists whispered about how strangely journalists behaved in countries without a free press.

When the Indian media seemed to have access to privileged information from our Foreign Ministry spokesman Pakistani journalists nearly attacked the poor lady physically and by the end of the day the atmosphere in the lobby of the Moghul was as fraught as among the summiteers.  We knew by then that Musharraf’s breakfast show had put the Indian Prime Minister into a furious and unforgiving mood.

Even without this information, though, you could have told that the summit had failed from the atmosphere in the Moghul Hotel’s self-consciously Moghul lobby.  If you were in a Pakistani huddle you would be blaming India for the failed summit.  How can there be progress as long as India refuses to discuss Kashmir?  If you were in an Indian huddle you would be blaming the failure on General Musharraf’s obsession with what he called the core issue and his puzzling decision to make his thoughts on the subject public mid-summit.  Even those who thought he won the propaganda war by doing precisely this were unimpressed with his views.  All he had done was restate the Pakistani position in clear, plain-speaking terms but no Indian journalist I talked to saw it this way.  The journalists in Agra were some of the finest in the sub-continent but were, inadvertently, taking exactly the positions their governments had.

It is, alas, always this way.  Whether in Lahore’s elegant drawing rooms or in Karachi’s crowded streets I have found all talk of friendship and common culture, all bonhomie, disappear the minute the K-word creeps into a conversation.  As an Indian journalist who has spent many years covering Kashmir what also never ceases to amaze me is the confused impressions of history on which many Pakistanis – especially ordinary people – base their passions.  Over and over, when I have talked to the man in the street I have been told that Kashmir was part of Pakistan when India was partitioned and was taken by force. 

If I have tried to explain that Indian troops only went into the Kashmir Valley after the Maharajah acceded to India I have – at least in the streets of Lahore and Karachi - come close to causing a riot.  How dared I tell such lies, it must be because I was Indian that I talked like this and more along the same lines.  The question of conversation, leave alone debate, never begins.

The truth is – as seen from India – that for a couple of months between August 14, 1947 and the end of October that year Kashmir was de facto an independent country.  Its Hindu prince disliked the idea of allowing his beautiful kingdom to be absorbed into the vast amorphousness of India and liked the idea of Pakistan even less.  The biggest political party in his kingdom, Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference, was totally against the Maharajah but shared some of his ambiguity about where to be.  Sheikh Abdullah was happier with the idea of a secular, democratic India than an Islamic, Punjabi-dominated Pakistan but was unsure of whether the autonomy he believed was vital to Kashmir would be allowed to remain.

So, Kashmir went to neither India nor Pakistan until the so-called ‘tribals’ invaded from Pakistan.  Indians believe that the Pathan tribesmen included Pakistani troops and had the full backing of the Pakistani government.  The average Pakistani sees what happened as some sort of early version of the intifada, a spontaneous uprising.

Unluckily, for Pakistan the Kashmiris did not see it that way.  The men who came from Pakistan looted, raped and pillaged their way to Baramulla causing hatred and revulsion among the local population.  The Maharajah remained immobile and dithering until he heard that they were less than two hours from Srinagar.  Indians believe that it was at this point that he asked the Indian government for military support.

The Indian government pointed out that any military support would be seen as an invasion unless the Maharajah signed a document of accession.  This he did on October 27 (CHECK) before fleeing with his jewels and minions to the safety of Jammu leaving his people to face an uncertain future.

This is the first event in Kashmir’s post-Partition history and it is right from here that the problem begins.  It is hard to find Pakistanis, even the most moderate, who believe that Maharajah Hari Singh signed a document of accession before Indian troops moved into the state.  Those who concede that some kind of document was signed believe that it was signed under Indian pressure and therefore invalid.  There is also a peculiar pride in the UN resolutions that came soon after as if it were somehow Pakistan who had taken the matter to the United Nations.

The truth, as most Indians know, is that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who foolishly decided to take the matter to the UN thereby unintentionally internationalising the Kashmir problem.  He went with the idea of having Pakistan punished for what he believed everyone would see as its attempt to take Kashmir by force.  With the hindsight of history most Indians believe Nehru made a mistake by going to the UN and also believe that he would have held the promised plebiscite if Pakistani troops had withdrawn from what Pakistanis like to call azaad Kashmir.  I have never met a Pakistani who believes that India was ever serious about holding a plebiscite, nor one who believed that Nehru was sincere in his offer to hold one.

Kashmiris believed him, though, and when it did not happen and the political problems began they rallied around the fact that he had offered them a plebiscite that was never held.  Indian officials when asked about why it was never held point out that it could only have taken place if Pakistani troops had withdrawn from the territories they occupied in Kashmir but, again, to the average Pakistani this is just another Indian excuse.

The irony is that if Nehru had been courageous enough to order the plebiscite immediately after Independence Kashmir would almost certainly have voted for India and there would have probably been no Kashmir problem. Again, though, nobody is sure that there would have been peace between India and Pakistan if there had been no Kashmir problem and the reason is that the average Indian totally mistrusts Pakistan and believes that it is a country whose main objective is to break India up and if it were not the Kashmir problem it would have been some other excuse that would have been used. 

Unfortunately, the average Indian also believes that the Kashmiri cannot be trusted.  Indian government propaganda with the national press being the willing vehicle of it are the reason.  In 1981 when I first went up to do a political story on Kashmir – Farooq Abdullah’s installation as the Sheikh’s heir – I was shocked to find that there was not a single Muslim journalist employed by the national press.  If Kashmiris were employed as correspondents of national newspapers they were invariably Kashmiri Pandits.  But, since Srinagar was a beautiful, relatively comfortable posting senior journalists from Delhi were eager to go and usually ended up treating the political sentiments of the average Kashmiri with total disdain.  So, most Indians to this day remain only vaguely aware that Kashmir was denied fair elections between 1953 and 1977, when under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, a truly fair election was held.  Journalists from Delhi, who liked to joke about the fact that they were India’s ‘viceroys’, also went out of their way to increase the average Indian’s dislike and distrust of the Kashmiri Muslim and of all Kashmiri politicians.

In 1983 I was sent up by The Telegraph newspaper, of which M.J. Akbar was Editor, to cover elections to the state legislature.  It was the first election after Sheikh Abdullah’s death and within days of arriving in Srinagar it became evident to me that his National Conference party had no chance of losing it because ordinary Kashmiris felt they owed this one election to the memory of the old Sheikh.

What also became evident, equally quickly, was that this was not how the election was going to be reported in the national press.  I drove up from Jammu in the company of an old Kashmir hand who told me that he had spent many years in Srinagar as a Viceroy.  We had spent some time in Jammu covering Indira Gandhi’s campaign whose main characteristic had been to play what we liked in those days to call the Hindu card.  She manipulated the sentiments of Jammu’s large Hindu population by making campaign speeches that hinted darkly at the dangers of Muslims ‘from across the border’ being allowed in by the hoard if Farooq Abdullah came to power.   It was the sort of patently communal campaign that should have drawn the attention of the national press and it surprised me that it had not found its way onto front pages.  My travelling companion explained that this was because ‘us Viceroys like to highlight the communalism of the other side’.

In the next three weeks that I spent in the Kashmir Valley I understood exactly what he meant.  Delhi newspapers were filled with stories of Farooq Abdullah’s ‘communal campaign’.  As one of the few journalists who accompanied him on his travels – most others preferred to drink chilled beer provided by the Congress Party in Srinagar’s Nedou’s Hotel – I asked colleagues when they had heard him make ‘communal’ remarks.  They said that he usually made these remarks only in Kashmiri so I would naturally have missed them.  Farooq Abdullah was painted throughout the election as an unashamed secessionist.  The national press also went out of its way to create the completely untrue impression that the Congress Party was in a neck-and-neck fight with the National Conference.  So successful were they in perpetrating this lie that it was believed enough by Indira Gandhi for her to be furious with Farooq’s landslide victory, so furious that the Congress Party immediately after the election set about trying to topple Farooq’s government.  Baseless charges of ‘massive rigging’ were made, ironically, by the only party that had ever till then rigged elections in Kashmir.

These charges were reported as credible by the national newspapers so there was hardly any criticism of Indira Gandhi when, barely a year after the assembly election, she brought down Farooq Abdullah’s government.  This, in my view, was the beginning of the current Kashmir problem.  The historic problem died in the seventies when the Bangladesh war and the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made the average Kashmiri suddenly see Pakistan through new eyes.  During the 1983 assembly election I visited every constituency in the Valley – other than Uri – and everywhere I went I asked if plebiscite was still an issue and everywhere the answer  was, ‘No, this election is one in which we are participating as Indians’.

If Indira Gandhi’s hubris had not got the better of her we would probably never had the uprising of 1989 that began the violence that has now resulted in a death toll of more than 50,000.  Till 1986, despite the toppling of Farooq Abdullah’s government, the situation in Kashmir was retrievable.  All that Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister by then with the largest mandate in Indian history, needed to have done was order fresh elections.  Farooq, still hugely popular, would have won and the Congress Party which managed to get nearly 25% of the vote in 1983 could have built itself up to take on the National Conference at the next election.  Rajiv, sadly, made the most crucial mistake of all: he insisted that the National Conference fight the 1987 assembly election in alliance with his Congress Party thereby causing both Kashmir’s centrist parties to commit political suicide.

Farooq Abdullah’s kowtowing to Rajiv after having been called a terrorist by the Congress Party and after the public humiliation of his government being dismissed for no reason was seen by the average Kashmir as yet another attempt to rub Kashmir’s nose in the dirt.  Yet another reminder that India’s only Muslim-majority province would never be trusted.  Inevitably, memories of Kashmir’s historical problem with India came back to the surface and the old, secessionist forces –dormant since Sheikh Abdullah’s return as chief minister – came back to haunt his son.

In a fair election these forces, which united to form the Muslim United Front (MUF), would probably have won no more than fifteen seats in the Kashmir Assembly.  But, Farooq panicked and although he continues to deny that the 1987 assembly election was rigged the charges have managed to stick and are ironically still made by political leaders including Atal Behari Vajpayee.  Farooq, in his second term as chief minister was too discredited to be able to hold Kashmir together and within months of his taking over – although the tourists still continued to come and Hindi movies continued to be made – there were rumours of young men having gone across the border to train as terrorists.

The Pakistan government was barely involved at this stage, the violent uprising that began after the Indian Home Minister’s daughter was kidnapped in December 1989 took Pakistan by surprise.  But, the average Indian does not see it this way.  The Indian press and most Indian politicians have encouraged the belief that the Kashmir problem is entirely a creation of Pakistan.  After the violence began Farooq Abdullah tried to prevent Jagmohan – hated for his role in conniving to bring Farooq’s earlier government down – being sent up once more as Governor.  When Delhi, now ruled by a weak, amateurish government under Vishwanath Pratap Singh, refused to listen Farooq resigned.  Kashmiri anger exploded into the streets in the form of massive protests and these may have died their own death –when Kashmiris realized that azaadi was not going to come so easily – but Jagmohan, a municipal official from Delhi with no political sensitivity – decided to use the jackboot.  Peaceful, unarmed protesters were fired upon and so began a process of alienation from India that had never existed in the past.

Till the nineties if the Kashmiris had complaints about India they were mainly to do with the denial of basic political rights and the denial of the special status Kashmir was promised in 1947.

There were, till the nineties, no ‘martyrs graveyards’ filled with the graves of innocent men, women and children killed in ‘crossfire’.  Ironically, in one of them is buried Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, traditionally one of Kashmir’s most important religious leaders, who was killed by a militant group but whose death is blamed on the Indian government by most Kashmiris.  So discredited did the Indian government become in the six months that Jagmohan was Governor in 1990 that it was unable to convince ordinary Kashmiris of the truth even when it was the truth. 

It was in early 1990 that Pakistan began to involve itself in fomenting violence in the Valley.  As almost its first move it set up a militant group called the Hizb ul Mujahideen (HUM) to take on the JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) which had started the violence by kidnapping Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Syed’s daughter in December 1989.  The JKLF was inconvenient for Pakistan because of its determined stand that the only solution to the Kashmir problem was to give the state independence.  The HUM was more cooperative because, like the Jamaat-e-Islami whose militant wing it is believed to be, it takes the view that Kashmir should be merged with Pakistan.

Nearly all the militant groups that have come up since have been creations of Pakistan with the clear objective of establishing Pakistan’s right over Kashmir.  And, since Pakistan is one of the only two countries in the world – Israel being the other – which was created in the name of religion it was important to make Kashmiris aware that they were Muslims and so should recognize their natural affinity with Pakistan’s Islamic republic.

In order to do this the nature of the militancy had to be changed and by the mid-nineties the beginnings of the change were became obvious.  The militant groups, increasingly filled with foreign recruits from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim countries, began to enforce their version of Islam.  Bars, cinemas, video libraries and beauty salons were forcibly closed as being un-Islamic.

Liquor bottles were smashed in the streets, women ordered to wear the burqa or risk having acid thrown in their faces and in the mosques –where Kashmiri women had always been allowed to worship – there were now more rigid Islamic rules applied so that women could no longer go.  Shrines and dargahs at which both Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris worshipped like Hazratbal and Charar-e-Sharif also came under attack.  Charar-e-Sharif was burned down in a battle with the Indian army and Hazratbal witnessed a siege for several days when militants opened fire on Indian troops from inside.  Do the Kashmiris like this new version of Islam? Groups like the JKLF and Kashmiri leaders like Shabir Shah have tried to maintain the secular character of their struggle for freedom but have failed.  They have spoken often about the tragedy of Kashmiri Hindus being forced out of the state but their appeals lack popular support. Ordinary Kashmiris are so bitter about Indian repression that Islamist militants –called guest mujahideen – are given support that they would not normally have had.  Since the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11 there appears to be less support for the idea of drawing Kashmir’s freedom movement into some kind of jehad for Islam but with the government of Atal Behari Vajpayee seen as a Hindu government the choice comes across as being between Hinduism and Islam.

So, will Kashmir be allowed one day to make the choice between India and Pakistan? Unlikely.  No Indian government could survive a single day if it even considered the possibilities of a plebiscite under the UN resolutions.  Kashmir has never been an election issue in India and south of Delhi there is little interest in Kashmir – unless there is a war – but most Indians are convinced that giving Kashmir up would be a threat to India’s security.  Between keeping Kashmir under control and fighting to keep the Siachen Glacier the Indian government is believed to be spending more than Rs 7 crores a day but nobody seems to mind because this is seen as vital investment in the country’s security.

The average Indian does not trust Pakistan.  After the Kargil episode this mistrust has assumed huge proportions.  Indians believe that Atal Behari Vajpayee made a genuine attempt at friendship by going to Lahore on a bus in February 1999 and Pakistan’s response in Kargil, two months later, is widely seen as evidence that Pakistan wants not peace with India but its total destruction.  Pakistanis I have met in positions of high office – both Generals and politicians – admit that they believe that if India loses Kashmir it will be the beginning of some kind of domino effect and that other states will also demand secession.  This is very far from being true because the one thing that India has succeeded in achieving in the past fifty years is a sense of national identity.  Pakistanis also seem to believe that it is the ‘myth’ of Indian secularism that India seeks to protect by hanging on to Kashmir but, again, this is not true because secularism is no longer considered as important to the average Indian as economic growth and improved standards of living. 

But, even Indian liberals admit that if India’s borders are redrawn once more in the name of Islam or the ‘unfinished agenda of Partition’ it will become extremely difficult for Indian Muslims outside the Kashmir Valley. Unfortunately, since September 11, the belief that all Muslims are basically fanatics has increased among ordinary Hindus so there is little or no sympathy for the Kashmiris.  This makes it harder for a government in Delhi to solve the domestic aspects of the problem although it needs to be said that the Vajpayee government has failed singularly to even come up with a policy for Kashmir. 

Changed international realities have made it easier for them to evade the domestic side of the problem and to blame the whole thing on cross-border terrorism.  Sadly, the government has the support of Indian public opinion where this is concerned so there is insufficient pressure on it to evolve a policy that would seek to make internal peace in Kashmir. 

Which brings us to the question of whether the international aspects of the Kashmir problem would once more fade into the background – as happened between 1971 (Simla Agreement) and 1989 – if the Kashmir Valley became once more a peaceful place where tourists could flock and Hindi movies could once more be made.

This is possible but what then would happen to Pakistan’s ‘core issue’ case? How can Pakistan now withdraw from its position that the only solution to the Kashmir problem is an international one that involves redrawing boundaries? How can it sustain its argument that the only thing preventing peace on the sub-continent is the absence of a solution in Kashmir?  Through the nineties Pakistani leaders have used Kashmir to whip up political support for themselves.  I saw how well they had succeeded during a trip to Pakistan in the summer of 2001.  Among the people I interviewed in the streets of Lahore and Karachi were unemployed workers who complained bitterly about General Pervez Musharraf’s economic policies.  Workers were being laid off, they said, and factories closed to meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund.  The general economic malaise in the country bothered them, they said, because things seemed to be getting worse by the day. They wanted friendship with India because they felt that if there was peace between the two countries they could cross the border and find work in India if they could not find it in Pakistan.

But, they added, they were prepared to die in the fight for Kashmir.  First, Kashmir has to be given to Pakistan, they said, only then could there be peace.  When I pointed out that this might never happen they were adamant that it would happen because they were all prepared to join the jehad.  Shopkeepers, small businessmen and even villagers all said the same thing.  So, we have a situation in which public opinion in India is almost unanimous that there can be no more redrawing of our borders and public opinion in Pakistan is almost unanimous that Kashmir has to come to Pakistan.

This leaves the sub-continent’s leaders very little room for manoeuvre.  No Indian leader can even consider giving Kashmir away and no Pakistani leader can give up the ‘core issue’.  Meanwhile, the people of Kashmir continue to be caught between the guns of India’s security forces on one side and the guns of the militants on the other.  Their faith in azaadi has waned as the years of violence have gone relentlessly by as has their faith in the militant groups who began the struggle for it. A whole generation of young Kashmiris has grown up without remembering a time when their lives were normal.  Kashmir’s political leaders, whether Farooq Abdullah or those that constitute the All Party Hurriyat Conference, seem unable to do much in the face of the governments of India and Pakistan taking it upon themselves to solve – or prevent solution – of the problem.

So, where do we go from here?  There appear to be two roads to peace.  The one favoured by India is peace without redrawing borders.  This is based on the belief that if Pakistan stops cross-border terrorism the movement for azaadi will die a natural death because the average Kashmiri is weary of violence.  When the next election is held – and these days they tend to be proper elections – then former militant leaders like Yasin Malik of the JKLF and Shabir Shah could contest and possibly defeat Farooq’s National Conference.  We could then go back to politics as usual as happened in Punjab and in Northeastern states like Assam and Nagaland.  This can only happen, though, if Pakistan in view of its decision since September 11 to joint the coalition against terrorism decides to let Kashmir alone.

If it does not and the violence in the Valley continues to remain beyond the control of the Indian government then an international solution will have to, at some point, be sought.  There is a growing view in India, though not in the government, that perhaps international mediation could be the way forward since Pakistan and India seem incapable of even speaking the same language any more.  Even if this happens there is little likelihood of India agreeing to redraw its borders.

The very most it could agree to would be a softer border that would allow movement between the two halves of Kashmir and, perhaps, greater autonomy to the state in keeping with the original promise to give it a special status.  Even to give this much, though, would require a strong government in Delhi and this seems unlikely in the near future.  If the coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party is defeated in the general election due in 2003 it will, in all likelihood, be replaced by a coalition led by the Congress Party.  Since the Congress is currently led by a leader of Italian birth this government would have even less wiggle room than the present one because it would have to prove its nationalistic credentials at every step with Hindu nationalists breathing down its neck.

Besides, since Agra, the general view in India is that there can never be peace with Pakistan because Pakistani leaders – whether in uniform or civvies – cannot deliver it.  Since the hunt for Osama bin Laden began and the United States chose to forget its earlier aversion to military dictators and take General Musharraf on board as a valued ally there is a certain loss of trust in the Americans as well.  How can you fight terrorism if you take the support of countries that support terrorism is a question that is widely asked with many Indians, even in positions of power, concluding that the Americans are only interested in fighting their own war against terrorism not in the one India believes it is fighting in Kashmir.

The militancy in Kashmir has of late taken a very ugly turn with Hindu villagers and even priests being targeted in Jammu.  The attempt to blow up the legislative assembly in Srinagar with a car bomb, shortly after September 11, has added to the impression that what India faces in the Kashmir Valley is not a cry for azaadi based on genuine grievances but an Islamic fundamentalist jehad.  So,  Osama bin Laden’s war on the West has added an unexpected new dimension to the Kashmir problem.

There may, one day, be a solution in Kashmir that satisfies India, Pakistan and ordinary Kashmiris but right now not even the faintest glimmer of it is visible on the horizon.  We should not conclude from this that we should just let things fester until there is a glimmer of hope.  It is vital that India and Pakistan continue talking to each other, vital that we start some kind of peace process if only because two nuclear powers cannot afford to remain in a state of permanent hostility, vital that the process that began in Agra go forward even if we do not really even speak the same language any more.


This article, published by permission of Ushba International Publishers was selected from the forthcoming volume The Agra Summit and Beyond.