Why giving in to Kashmir-fatigue is not a good idea

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.

No apologies expected

The discomfort with reapolitik

Gurcharan Das came back to New Delhi from a lecture tour of East Asia with some astute observations about how countries in that part of the world perceive India (via Shehjar & Pragmatic). They look forward to India playing a more assertive role in East Asia because “they fear China and desperately want a countervailing power (and) they don’t trust Japan.” Mr Das correctly points out that India does not realise that East Asian countries might actually want a stronger Indian role in the region in order to balance China.

It might be that India’s approach to East Asia suffers from a the legacy of its approach to the countries in the subcontinent, several of who resent Indian dominance.

While Mr Das caught the point made by his East Asian audiences, his own conclusions reveal that he was less comfortable with realpolitik than his interlocutors.

On my way home, I asked myself that if it is true that the Indian state is genuinely less aggressive, then that is in fact the right answer to the original question about why India’s rise does not threaten the world. I, for one, do not want an intimidating India which seeks military greatness.

He conflates the projection of geopolitical power with military greatness as an end in itself. As Mr Das heard, projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development through trade and culture. This projection of power —whether aggressive or not—is bound to threaten some countries more than others. As a corollary, it is impossible to project power without being seen as a threat by one or another country.

India’s accumulation of power and influence in Asia will be perceived as a threat by China to the extent that it relatively diminishes Beijing’s own influence. And vice versa. There’s no reason to feel apologetic about this. Aggression and intimidation, like diplomacy and negotiations are parts of a composite toolkit. An offhand rejection of one or more of them is not prudent.

Naxalites and human rights activists

Even well-intentioned people can become pawns in the Naxalites’ insidious propaganda war

Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite country is a very important book, for it offers an excellent account of the nature of the Naxalite threat. The Naxalite movement thrives on disillusionment and disaffection. It collects unaddressed grievances and unredressed complaints and channelises them into anger against the “Indian State”. It tells rape victims, dispossessed tribals and bullied villagers that the target of their ire is not the local landlord, policeman or politician but that abstraction called the “State”. Indeed, beyond seductive dogma and the logic of the inevitability of armed struggle to upturn the status quo, it offers no positive solutions. The fact both Communism and Socialism failed doesn’t matter to the Naxalite leadership, ideologues and sympathisers: people in remote, backward districts of India don’t know 20th century history.

Child soldiers
Photo: Alok Putul

If Naxalite leaders rally support for themselves through mobilising local disaffections into a movement against the State and its symbols, their ideologues and sympathisers play an important role in the broader strategic psychological warfare. By dissing India’s economic achievements, by spreading canards about the ‘failure of neoliberal reforms’, by an incessant, exclusive focus on the negative side (in the name of ‘dissent’), by playing up the myth of “the two Indias” and even championing violence, these opinion makers create a context that lulls the the average Indian citizen into thinking that there is something legitimate about the Naxalite movement. The left-leaning and left-wing commentariat has succeeded where the Islamists have failed. The average Indian believes that the Naxalites are not quite as serious a threat as the jihadis—although Naxalites hold sway over a broad swathe of territory. Little wonder then that Indian politicians feel no serious pressure to do anything about the Naxalite threat. [Related Post: The clash of convictions and the remaking of the world of war]

Even where there was significant public outcry, the UPA government decided that its perceived vote-banks were more important than national security: it is not half as serious about the jihadi threat as it should be. But where there was lesser public attention, it literally abdicated its responsibility. The presence of the incompetent Shivraj Patil at the home ministry didn’t help. So while the Naxalites consolidated into a nationwide movement years ago, the central government continues to claim that this is essentially a matter for the states, and it would only play a co-ordinating role.

In the absence of a coherent national anti-insurgency strategy states were left to their own devices. Y S R Reddy’s government in Andhra Pradesh, got into bed with the Naxalites in order to win the election. It was a mutually beneficial bargain: the Naxalites took a breather (after being pummelled by the previous government led by Chandrababu Naidu) and regrouped. It ended predictably, when the negotiations failed and the Naxalites went back to their armed struggle. Why predictably? Well, because “armed struggle” is an inseparable part of the Naxalite dogma: Prachanda, the leader of Nepal’s Maoists, is being criticised for relenting on this even after they formed the government.

If this was the situation in Andhra Pradesh, a state with relatively higher capacity, what of places like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, where state capacity is extremely weak? Faced with fighting a war with what they had, they engaged in some extremely flawed strategies. As The Acorn argued two years ago, setting up Salwa Judum, an extra-constitutional counter-insurgency force, was a big mistake. So was the draconian law which suspends the freedom of the press. The Chattisgarh authorities identified the problems correctly. But the tools they used to solve these problems were ill-considered, hamfisted and ultimately counterproductive. Chattisgarh’s government and political leaders cannot escape responsibility for these bad moves—but in the absence of cohesion, determination and resources from New Delhi, it is not surprising that they chose that course. Understandable, but still not acceptable. But it’s no use criticising the Chattisgarh authorities for their dubious strategies. The anti-insurgency war against Naxalites is a national one. The Union Home Ministry should be held to account for its sins of omission that directly caused Chattisgarh’s sins of commission. The next government has a job cut out—and parties would do well to put their anti-Naxalite war strategy in their manifestos.

If Left-leaning commentators and Naxalite sympathisers are batting for the Naxalites, what should one make of genuine liberal human rights activists? It is possible to construct a reasonable argument, like a fellow INI blogger did, that violations of human rights by the government must be criticised every time they occur. The danger with this, though, is that well-meaning individuals and groups can inadvertantly end up batting for the Naxalites. The Naxalites derive greater benefit when reputed individuals and organisations criticise the government. In the psychological war, NGOs and human rights groups end up strengthening the Naxalites to the extent they add fuel to the fire of disillusionment and disaffection. Rights activists and do-gooders would do well to heed the old injunction primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

There are bound to be some who evaluate this trade-off and argue that holding the government’s feet to the fire is important in the even larger context of democratic accountability and good governance. Well, to be taken as bona fide, such individuals and organisations must unequivocally condemn Maoism and violent armed struggle. They must also unambiguously accept that only the state has the normative legitimacy to use violence. In other words, there is no room for moral equivalence: it is fair to criticise the government and government officials for their failings. But it is necessary to make the distinction between the State’s legitimate right to the use of violence and the Naxalite’s armed struggle.

Now there has been a controversy brewing for several months over the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen (see Offstumped’s coverage). The Supreme Court has turned down his bail application, yet sections of the media have been projecting him as an innocent being victimised by the state. Innocent or guilty, only the courts can tell (and he has unfettered access to them). But the media campaign itself is playing into the hands of the Naxalites (and is an example of the Chattisgarh authorities’ unsophisticated response to the psychological war).