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Rethinking Kashmir Politics

  by: : Yoginder Sikand

Many Kashmiri Muslims vociferously insist that the demand for independence of
Kashmir has nothing to do with religion. Instead, they argue, that the conflict
in and over of Kashmir is essentially ‘political’. What is conveniently
ignored by those who make this claim is that religion and politics, particularly
in the case of the Kashmir dispute, involving as it does the rival claims of
Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India, can hardly be separated.

As the current spate of violence in both the Hindi-dominated Jammu division and
the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, triggered off by a controversial decision of
the state government to allot a piece of land to a Hindu temple trust, so
starkly indicates, religion and communal identities defined essentially in
religious terms have everything to do with the basic issue of Jammu and Kashmir
and its still unsettled political status. Kashmiri nationalists, in contrast to
hardcore Islamists and the Hindutva brigade, quickly dismiss this point, finding
it, perhaps, too embarrassing, afraid of being labeled as religious chauvinists
or ‘communal’. But, no longer, it seems, can the crucial role of religion in
shaping the contours of the on-going conflict in and over Kashmir be denied.

That the on-going BJP-inspired agitation in Jammu has marshaled considerable
support among the Hindus of Jammu clearly indicates that the political project
of Kashmiri nationalists—of a separate, independent state of Jammu and
Kashmir—has absolutely no takers among the Hindus (and other non-Muslims) of
the state. Kashmiri nationalists insist that in the independent Jammu and
Kashmir of their dreams, religious minorities—Hindus, Sikhs and
Buddhists—who would account for almost a fourth of the population, would have
equal rights and no cause for complaint. Some even boast, without adducing any
evidence, of commanding the support of the non-Muslims of the state for their
project. At the same time as they roundly berate the Dogra Raj as a long spell
of slavery for the state’s Muslims, they insist that the boundaries of the
state of Jammu and Kashmir, as constructed by the same Dogras, against the will
of the Kashmiri Muslims, be considered as
sacrosanct, as setting the borders of the independent country that they
demand. If, as they argue, Dogra Raj was illegitimate, then surely there is
nothing holy about the state boundaries as laid down by the Dogras, bringing
Jammu and the vastly different Kashmir Valley in a forced union. If, as they
rightly insist, Kashmir was conquered against its will by the Dogras of Jammu,
there is no reason why the forced union of the two should continue in the
independent Jammu and Kashmir that the Kashmiri nationalists dream of,
particularly given the Jammu Hindus’ resentment of alleged Kashmiri hegemony,
a sentiment shared even by many Jammu Muslims.

Kashmiri nationalists, however, would refuse to recognize this basic
contradiction in their argument. The reason is obvious: To do so, to recognize
that the Jammu’s Hindus (and Leh’s Buddhists) would resist, even to the
point of violence, the agenda of an independent Jammu and Kashmir would clearly
indicate the obvious, but embarrassing fact, that this agenda represents the
aspirations and interests largely of Kashmiri Muslims, and is a means to
legitimize Kashmir Muslim control over the rest of the state.

The analogy with pre-Partition India is useful. The Muslim League insisted that
because the Hindus of India were in a numerical majority, a united, independent
India, no matter what safeguards it gave and promises of equality it made to the
Muslims, would be dominated by the Hindus, and would, for all its secular and
democratic claims, be untrammeled Hindu Raj. Hence their demand for a separate
Pakistan. The Hindus of Jammu and the Buddhists of Leh find themselves in
precisely the same position as did supporters of the Muslim League in
pre-Partition India, only now the actors have reversed their roles. Kashmiri
nationalists insist they want an independent, united Jammu and Kashmir, just as
the Congress did when it talked of a united and free India. And, like the
Congress did with the Muslims, they promise the non-Muslim minorities of Jammu
and Leh that their rights would be fully protected in this state of their
dreams. Yet, just as many Muslims refused
to accept the promises of the Congress, fearing that they would never be
honored, the non-Muslim minorities in Jammu and Kashmir refuse to buy the
arguments of the Kashmiri nationalists, which they rightly see as a
thinly-veiled guise to justify Kashmiri hegemony.

I have heard Kashmiris, including some of my closest friends, come up with the
most ingenious arguments to counter the above point. ‘Kashmiriyat, the
teachings of love and peace of our Sufis, unite us all and would ensure that
non-Muslim minorities will be safe and protected in a free Jammu and Kashmir’,
some of them say. A laughable claim, unless all Kashmiris suddenly decide to
shun the world and trod the mystical path, an unlikely prospect. Sufism is in a
rapid state of decline in Kashmir and elsewhere, as is the case with all other
forms of mysticism.

Then there is another bizarre argument, which I heard, among others, from none
less than Syed Ali Gilani, chief Islamist ideologue in Kashmir, and a fervent
backer of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan, which runs like this: Islam lays
down the rights of non-Muslims and insists that Muslims should respect them. The
Prophet Muhammad himself did so. So, if Jammu and Kashmir gets freedom and
becomes a truly Islamic state, the non-Muslim minorities will have full freedom
and equality. The late Sadullah Tantrey, once head of the Jammu branch of the
Jamaat-e Islami, even went on to insist, in all seriousness, that ‘Indeed so
happy will the non-Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir be in this independent Islamic
state that even Hindus from India would line up to settle in the state.’ I
squirmed in my seat as he went on, stunned at his evident ignorance or hypocrisy
or, as seemed more likely, both. I itched to tell him, as I sat before him in
his house in Gath, up in
the mountains of Doda, that the ‘Islamic state’ hardly outlived the
Prophet Muhammad and has been completely extinct ever since; that the fate of
minorities in scores of Muslim countries, even those like Saudi Arabia that
claim to be ‘Islamic’, was deplorable, that even Jinnah had promised full
equality to the non-Muslim citizens of Paksitan but that had not prevented them
from being reduced to virtual second-class citizens, and that, simply put, he
was lying or else living in a fool’s paradise. I kept my mouth shut, however.
After all, I was there to learn what his views were, not to convert him.

Clearly, any forced union of the disparate nationalities in Jammu and Kashmir
in the form of a separate, independent state that Kashmiri nationalists champion
(as now do even some Kashmiri Islamists, former passionate advocates for union
with Pakistan, who, flowing with the tide, have realized that their earlier
stance has increasingly few takers among Kashmiris, given their mounting
disenchantment with Pakistan) would be a sure recipe for civil war. The current
agitation in Jammu is ample evidence of that. It is time, therefore, that
pro-‘Azadi’ Kashmiri leaders admit this publicly.

This is not, however, to plead the case for the division of the state, as the
RSS has been advocating, for surely that would further harden communal
boundaries and rivalries in just the same way as would the project of an
independent Jammu and Kashmir. Rather, it is to recognize and publicly
acknowledge the very plural character of Jammu and Kashmir, and the concerns and
sensitivities of all its peoples, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others.