Kashmir: The Conflict and the Questions

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With a PhD each from JNU and University of Massachusetts, Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is currently a Director at the Mahatma Gandhi Centre, in the Hindu University of America a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston. His book on Kashmir was released in 2017. In this piece, excerpted from his book’s introduction, he explains the complexities of Kashmir and how to get out of it, especially by factoring the internal dimension of the conflict

I have been working on the Kashmir conflict for over a decade. The sustained research has helped me grow personally and professionally. From a personal standpoint, I have become empathetic to the people’s everyday struggle to lead a normal life amidst violence. Professionally, I have explored various aspects of the Kashmir conflict. My initial writings attempted to understand Kashmir from a foreign policy perspective. My interactions with the Kashmiris propelled me to look at the problem from the people’s perspective. I then explored the internal dimension of the conflict. I documented how the sustained militant movement challenged efforts at managing the conflictual relationship shared by the state and the people. I explored how defective policies paved the way for the internal conflict. The humanitarian consequences of violence, traces of which I have witnessed during my residence and field surveys in the region, also strengthened my resolve to work on this particular subject – how to address the conflict.

Reality Check

Why some groups within a state feel alienated and adopt violent methods to fulfill their needs, and how a violent conflictual relationship between a state and a group can be managed?

The question arises: Can a state expect loyalty from its people when it fails them? When a state denies rights to its people, the discontented people resort to violence. When a state fails to address core needs of the people, the probability of challenge to its authority is high. The Kashmir conflict is a fit case in this context, and it raises several serious questions. Why did the people, who had initially acquiesced to India’s rule, demand independence? Despite the investment of huge resources in the form of economic packages, why does anti-India sentiment remain strong in the region? Why the Kashmiri students, studying in others states of India on government scholarships, despise India? Why does India’s defeat in a cricket match draw comfort in sections of people on the Indian side of Kashmir? Why do Kashmiri protestors raise anti-India slogans while protesting over local issues such as water or electricity? When for most of the people the concerns of “roti, kapda aur makaan” (bread, clothes and a house) remain primary, why do the people of Kashmir spend hours or days, braving harsh weather, cane blows, tear gas and even bullets, in anti-India demonstrations and mourn a slain militant, even if he was a stranger?

Kashmir problem has to be addressed at two levels, keeping in view that there are two interlinked dimensions – external and internal. It is unlikely that India will make any territorial compromise on Kashmir. The militancy is posing a challenge to the Indian state. This internal turmoil, sustained with the support from Pakistan, discourages Indian leaders from actively pursuing a sustained reconciliatory approach towards the conflict. The conflict in Kashmir could not have gained ground and been sustained without active support from major sections of Pakistan establishment. Notably, the separatist movement is confined to scattered regions of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The argument that Kashmiris are agitated or alienated, should not lead to the conclusion that the whole demography within the region is alienated. The militancy is confined to the Kashmir region in J&K and to a few pockets in the region of Jammu and, notably, there are no traces of militancy in the Ladakh region.

The question arises: if the Indian government meted out injustice, through denying meaningful political participation to the whole demography of J&K, why is the alienation confined to select parts? If all the natives of J&K were deprived of their democratic rights, why few chose to revolt and demand independence?

There are several probable answers. One among them is that the people in the Kashmir region share religious and sectarian ties with Pakistan. Hence, it was not difficult for Pakistan to exploit the persistent democratic deprivation in the region. A substantial population in Ladakh region also shares religious affiliations with Pakistan but the sectarian difference exists; which partly explains why the militancy has not taken roots in this region of J&K.

It is the time to introspect and then take concrete steps towards peacebuilding. It would be worthwhile for New Delhi to focus more on the internal situation. Pakistan played a major role in initiating and sustaining the militancy, but India has to look within to address it. If India can set its house in order, it would be possible to effectively deal with the external actors.

How to do this? The Indian state first needs to make a clear distinction between the alienated people supporting the violence and those perpetrating the violence. These are two different groups, though there are linkages. The two groups need to be dealt with differently. A distinction between the gun-wielding militants and the alienated people should be followed by charting out specific strategies. The latter group should be the focus of the policymaking. Multi-pronged policies need to be adopted to bring this alienated group to the mainstream. Mere economic packages cannot address the deep-rooted alienation. New Delhi needs to utilize its resources effectively to nurture a constituency of gainers and, eventually, a constituency of peace. Once the people are convinced, there are sincere attempts to address their major concerns and the peace initiatives are paying rich dividends, the scene is likely to change. Through a gradual but sustained process of accommodation, a path to peace will open.

Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

The time is ripe for a transformation. Occasional violent outbursts notwithstanding, the nuanced and subtle underpinnings need more attention. The people, not the separatist leadership, need more attention. The people in Kashmir continue to remain alienated, but they are also exhausted from living in a situation of protracted conflict. Most Kashmiris continue to distrust New Delhi. They have also lost faith in the separatist leadership. They also no longer trust Pakistan, which claims to be the most genuine and ardent supporter of rights of  Kashmiris on the Indian side even while denying the same to the Kashmiris residing within the part it controls, as is consistently apparent from the media reports from Gilgit and Baltistan. Umpteen times the common Kashmiris have emphasized that the separatists and their organizations, including the Hurriyat Conference, are not their true representatives. For them, all these groups are dominated by vested interests, profiting from conflict politics. “Sab apni apni rotiyan sek rahe hain (implying, “all pursue their own interests”) is a refrain that one often encounters while talking to the common people.

The failure of the Kashmiri separatist leadership to agree on the definition of Azadi has left common people perplexed. What is the meaning of Azadi? I remember an informal interaction with a Kashmiri journalist based in New Delhi. During this conversation in 2006, he presented an interesting version of Azadi. For him “Kashmir would be an independent state with an ‘extraordinary’ relationship with India. This would mean I could come to India without passport and visa and work without any hindrance. I want to work in India, but spend my vacations in an independent Kashmir.” For many, Azadi means an independent state of Kashmir. There are related questions: what would an independent Kashmir look like? What would be its geography and politics? Would it include the parts of Kashmir, which are with Pakistan and China? Would it include the parts of the J&K – particularly the regions of Jammu and Ladakh – where the majority does not support the idea of an independent Kashmir? Many such questions either remain unanswered or are too blurred to draw a clear picture. The separatist leaders lavishly use the term Azadi in anti-India speeches, invoking emotions and passions, but refrain from answering these questions.

Fatalism has apparently replaced the frenzy visible during the peak militancy; where “Azadi is around the corner” was probably the most widely spoken and heard phrase. Alongside the sustained sentiment of alienation, a sense of resentment, resignation and war weariness is pervasive. The core question of Azadi ‘for whom, from whom and at what cost’ should become part of the mainstream discourse in Kashmir. Many such ‘uncomfortable’ questions are critical, primarily for the alienated Kashmiris, who have endured the most hardship. A reality check is the need of the hour; abandoning the ostrich-like attitude. The scattered voices from the ground are worth listening to.

Kashmiris have been the worst sufferers in the Kashmir conflict- whether internal or external. Thousands have lost lives for a goal that neither is clear nor seems to be sustainable. The politics of separatism has been a pet project for many for personal gains. A plethora of narratives of pain and suffering are scattered across the conflict region. The state too is suffering from continued men and material loss. Conflict in Kashmir has reached a no-win situation. The stalemate needs to be transcended. The projection of the state and the people in rival camps cannot offer an enduring solution to the conflict. The time is ripe to explore alternatives to the conflictual state-people relationship in Kashmir.

In this book, I provide an account of the events that contributed to the internal conflict in Kashmir and suggest an alternative framework that prioritizes the non-material needs of the marginalized people. While acknowledging that, in a protracted social conflict, external and internal dimensions are linked, as they operate in the same social milieu, I also argue that the internal face of a state-people conflict is more compelling, as the roots could be traced to the deprivation of the core needs of the people. It is, hence, crucial to address the internal dimension through constructive engagement with the alienated. My aim is to explore prospects of conflict management in Kashmir and beyond by making an argument that it is essential the peace initiatives transcend symbolism and address core needs of the marginalized group. I do not aim at a threadbare historical analysis of the Kashmir conflict, as there already exists ample literature on it. Through applying the protracted social conflict framework to Kashmir, my aim is to emphasize that this protracted conflict is amenable to a solution, or at least that its management is possible, primarily through corrective policies of engagement and accommodation.

The Context    

A separatist movement gained ground in the Kashmir valley, a Muslim majority region on the Indian side of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), in the late 1980s. What prompted the Kashmiris to rise against the Indian state and how the state attempted to manage the alienation are crucial for the current exploration.?

The non-material need of political participation of Kashmiris did not factor in India’s policies. As the Indian approach to Kashmir conflict was Pakistan centric, the identity needs of the people did not factor into its policies. The denial of these needs contributed to the rise of conflict within Kashmir. Denial of political participation was fostered by state strategies, whether in the form of dilution of constitutional provisions or in the form of manipulation of elections. Decades of political deprivation resulted in the Kashmiri people losing faith in the ballot and searching for alternate means to assert their rights. Frustration and resentment piled up and took a violent turn in the late 1980s. While earlier, the people demanded fulfilment of their need for political participation through democratic means, after the 1987 elections the demand was independence.

The separatist movement in J&K was an outcome of this political deprivation. Kashmiris were neither allowed to impact policies nor were their interests taken into consideration while making policies. The people rose in revolt with support from Pakistan.

Military power may not succeed in putting an end to a conflict that arises due to the marginalization of a group. The ‘short-term palliatives’ may help contain a conflict for some time, but they fail in the long run as they lack enduring character in addressing root causes of the conflict. Notably, the role of the state is critical to initiation, continuation, and as management of a conflict.  The ‘policy capacity’ of the state in addressing these grievances is one of the major keys to conflict management.

One of the most effective ways to address a conflict is accommodating the aggrieved people in the political process. The level of acceptance accorded to each community by the ruling political elite influences access to power, and if the elite recognizes and accommodate marginalized communities, then dissent over the distribution of political power can be managed. Is it happening in Kashmir?

(Dr Mahapatra’s book Conflict Management in Kashmir: State-People Relations and Peace was published by Cambridge University Press in November 2017)

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