There are no easy solutions to the problems in Kashmir. Not least self-determination.
Last week, two leading op-ed columnists argued that current crisis in Kashmir calls for India to yield to the demands of the separatists, hold a plebiscite and accept the verdict of the Kashmiri people, even if that means secession.
Swaminathan Aiyar comes from a liberal perspective: he dislikes “ruling people against their will” and that “India has sought integration with Kashmir, not colonial rule. But Kashmiris nevertheless demand azaadi. And ruling over those who resent it so strongly for so long is quasi-colonialism, regardless of our intentions.” Vir Sanghvi, on the other hand, takes a cost-benefit approach. He argues that the costs of holding on to Kashmir—in economic and political terms—outweigh the benefits.
Both are wrong. Mr Aiyar, who is perhaps India’s best newspaper columnist, misses the nuances of the undeniably complex political-legal history of Partition. But he makes a good point—for all the moralising that the Indian state indulged in, and the legal arguments it used to defend Jammu & Kashmir’s accession, the fact remains that the integration of Indian princely states was a feat of realpolitik. And it was the same on the part of Pakistan. Just as Goa, Junagadh and Hyderabad were made part of the Indian Union by force, so was Kalat (part of modern Balochistan) secured by Pakistan. And Jammu & Kashmir came to be divided along the lines of the balance-of-power then obtaining between the two states.
There’s no need for believers in democracy and liberalism to feel apologetic about the fact that force played a role in forging the Indian Union. On the contrary, democrats and liberals must ask themselves why—for sixty years—they tolerated the fundamental principle of equality of all citizens to be undermined by granting a special status to people of Jammu & Kashmir. The same goes—albeit to a much lesser extent—for the people of the North Eastern states. The constitutional provisions only aggravated the geographical seclusion and the different religious composition to continue, preventing the real integration of Jammu & Kashmir into the national mainstream. Little wonder then, that the Kashmiri people should feel estranged.
Be that as it may, isn’t there a case for giving the Kashmiri people the right to self-determination, through a plebiscite? Here, Mr Sanghvi’s argument suggest that he considers that the problem can be got rid off by allowing Kashmiris to secede. Advocates of a plebiscite and secession though have a duty to articulate what happens next—to Kashmir and to India. Will the Valley’s independence or integration with Pakistan miraculously solve the fundamental problem, or will it merely lead to its reconfiguration? And can any serious advocate of a plebiscite, leave alone secession, plausibly argue that such a move will be free of the immense human tragedy that characterised drawing of new international borders in the subcontinent in 1947 and 1971?
And what next? Kashmir coming under the sway of the Taliban-like forces that hold sway in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas; or under a puppet regime that becomes the agent of regional and foreign powers; or under authoritarian rulers like those in Central Asia; or all of the above [See Offstumped]. One thing it will not become is Switzerland. What this implies for India is that the costs will not go away—they will mount. Kashmir is, as Mr Sanghvi puts it, a 20th century problem. But a 20th century solution—for that’s what self-determination is—won’t prevent it from disrupting India’s 21st century future. As for Kashmiris, self-determination is no guarantee that they will not be ruled against their will.
This is not to argue that holding on to Kashmir and its alienated population won’t be costly. It always was, and those costs will inflate. But it is foolhardy to believe that plebiscite and secession will lead to savings. In any case, neither Mr Aiyar nor Mr Sanghvi have even attempted to show why all those affected will be better off if Kashmir were to secede. Mr Aiyar would probably counter by saying that self-determination is an end in itself, and the consequences are immaterial. But Mr Sanghvi can’t take that position.
The reality is this: To ensure the well-being of people in the region, including those of its neighbours, India as a whole, and not just Jammu & Kashmir, needs to place a premium on individual freedoms on the one hand, and on tolerance on the other. Kashmir-fatigue, predictable political opportunism among state and national politicians, Pakistan’s continuing policies of destabilisation, and the failure of the India-Pakistan ‘peace process’ must not distract attention from this. But to move in this direction, India has to climb out of the hole it has dug itself into. That requires a process of national reconciliation.