Even today, perhaps the best of us do not quite realise the depths of Kashmir’s alienation and are unready to ponder ways and means of overcoming it.
- Professor Hiren Mukherji, February 25, 1994.
NOT long ago, people went on the rampage in Kathmandu over a Hrithik Roshan film. Since June 10, Seoul has been rocked by protests over beef imports from the United States. In truth, Nepalese ire was directed at India, while fears of the mad cow disease were overladen with resentment at South Korea’s surrender to the U.S.’ diktat on the imports.
In their intensity of feeling and sheer range, the recent protests in Kashmir have been compared with those in 1963 over the Prophet’s relic, found missing at Hazratbal, and the outbreak of militancy in 1990. But these are far worse. Unlike in the past, they have assumed a communal colour, and the one person who imparted those revolting hues was the State’s Governor, S.K. Sinha. He was long at the game. His patrons in the bureaucracy and sections of the Congress in New Delhi had prevented his recall much earlier. Just 39.88 hectares of forest land cannot inflame a populace. Insult alone can, especially if the people are subjected to indignities daily and suffer from a deep pain frozen over the decades with bitter memories of rigged elections and denial of civil liberties. As The Hindu remarked (June 25), “The Governor and his Principal Secretary let loose a barrage of inflammatory polemics.” Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad had a whole week’s warning, time enough to nip the trouble in the bud. He arrogantly refused.
The Governor is the Chairman of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). His Principal Secretary, Arun Kumar, is also its Chief Executive Officer. Ever since he became Governor in June 2003, S.K. Sinha locked horns with the government on the extension of the Amarnath Yatra from a month to two and on other issues. Matters had reached the court. In March 2005, Sonali Kumar, Forest Secretary and wife of Arun Kumar, issued orders for the transfer of forest land around the cave to the custody of the SASB. This was on a request from Arun Kumar. He went to court when the government nullified the order.
Eventually, on June 2, 2008, the government passed the fateful order diverting the lands at Baltal to the SASB on specified conditions.
In this charged atmosphere, Arun Kumar held a press conference on June 17, at which he made brazenly communal remarks and cocked a snook at the legislature – it had no authority over the Board, though it was set up by an Act of 2000. Politicians were playing “communal politics” and “these were the people when the Shrine Board was approved and land was transferred to the Board by the government” (Greater Kashmir; June 19; emphasis added, throughout). The local people created more pollution than yatris. “Nobody interferes” in the affairs of the Waqf Board headed by the Chief Minister. He mentioned the Haj pilgrimage, the Dal Lake, and so on, and declared angrily: “Muslim pollution is acceptable to you but not the Hindu pollution.” Who were the “you” he was addressing?
On June 28, he was simply transferred to the General Administration Department and not suspended, though a committee found him prima facie in breach of the All India Services (Conduct) Rules. As Isaac said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis; 27.22).
That he spoke for Governor S.K. Sinha became clear when the Raj Bhavan issued a statement the very next day, backing him fully: “Statements issued by us are twisted.” On a crucial point, it gave the game away. It admitted that “when he was asked about the duration for which the land at Baltal had been diverted to [the] SASB he specified that no time limit had been given in the Government Order”. Why did this trained official not say that the order was for two months, the duration of the yatra? For an obvious reason. “Since the Forest Department cannot sell the land to us, the government has permanently diverted the 800 kanals land at Baltal to SASB. We have to pay Rs.2.5 crore to the Forest Department once the demarcation of the land completes. We do not have to give it back to the Forest Department after the yatra ends,” Arun Kumar told Rising Kashmir on the sidelines of the press conference on the Raj Bhavan lawns. On that very day, June 17, a spokesman for Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said: “Geelani Saheb announced an agitation on June 23 in a meeting.”
In which other State could an official have dared to speak as Arun Kumar did? On June 20, on the campus of Kashmir University, hundreds of students staged massive protests “raising pro-freedom and pro-Pakistan slogans” (Rising Kashmir; June 21). Fortunately, S.K. Sinha was succeeded by a civil servant with a reputation for integrity and moderation. Governor N.N. Vohra defused the crisis skilfully on June 29 by asking the government to take over the yatra arrangements.
Meanwhile, precious time had been wasted because Ghulam Nabi Azad did nothing. The three decades of his political career, begun as a protege of Sanjay Gandhi, were spent outside the State. He fought his first election to the Assembly only after he became Chief Minister in 2005. His sights were always set on returning to New Delhi. For the first time, Kashmir had a Chief Minister who had no presence in Kashmir’s politics and no empathy for its aspiration. Asked in November 2001 why he was not in Kashmir, he replied, “I want to be in the mainstream.”
Kashmir Times, founded by the veteran socialist Ved Bhasin, remarked (June 28) that S.K. Sinha’s conduct was “malignant for both the interests of the State as well as the Union… a timely check by the Chief Minister on the predatory ambition of an arrogant Governor” would have averted the crisis. It was the deadly combination of a malignant Governor and an inept Chief Minister that was responsible for the upheaval. S.K. Sinha came out in his true colours by denouncing Azad’s predecessor Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as “anti-national” a week after he quit as Governor (The Times of India; July 4). Only in Kashmir was this possible. The Mufti has served in the Cabinet of three Prime Ministers. Indira Gandhi superseded S.K. Sinha in the appointment of the Chief of the Army Staff; in retrospect, wisely.
Nothing has changed since Hiren Mukherji’s memorable lament in 1994 – neither the lack of understanding of the alienation nor the lack of any effort “to ponder ways and means of overcoming it”. The truth is a great liberating force and the truth is that there is no “alienation” at all, for alienation implies earlier affection and most Kashmiris were, and still are, against the State’s accession to India. Hence Indira Gandhi’s candid letter to Jawaharlal Nehru from Srinagar on May 14, 1948: “They say only Sheikh Saheb [Sheikh Abdullah] is confident of winning the plebiscite.”
Evidently, he soon developed second thoughts though Pakistan’s tribal raid had initially secured his support for the accession. A file in the British library reveals that very clearly (L/P&S/13/1341). It contains a telegram from the British High Commissioner in India to London (February 21, 1948) conveying details of the talks Patrick Gordon-Walker, Under Secretary of State in the Commonwealth Relations Office, had had with Nehru the day before. Nehru invited Sheikh Abdullah to join them and left. “Just before Nehru left, Sheikh Abdullah said he thought the solution was that Kashmir should accede to both Dominions. He said Kashmir’s trade was with India, that India was progressive and that Nehru was an Indian. On the other hand, Kashmir’s trade passed through Pakistan and a hostile Pakistan would be a constant danger. The solution, therefore, was that Kashmir should have its autonomy jointly guaranteed by India and Pakistan and it would delegate its foreign policy and defence to them both jointly but would look after its own internal affairs…. I asked whether Nehru would agree to this solution and he said he thought so. He had discussed it with him.” Nehru himself told Gordon-Walker later that “he would be prepared to accept a solution broadly on the lines of that proposed by Sheikh Abdullah” (paragraphs 7 and 10).
In September 1950, U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson “had two secret discussions” with Sheikh Abdullah in Srinagar at his request. He “was vigorous in restating that in his opinion it [Kashmir] should be independent”.
That is impossible, so is Kashmir’s secession from India. Both truths are part of the same grim reality – the people never wanted accession to India and reject it to this day. Only last year, Sumeet Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit, reported: “I had read somewhere that your preconceived notions of nationalism, of Indian nationalism, are severely tested in the Valley. They were. And that, perhaps, was more difficult to come to terms with than even the guns. Wherever we went, we were almost invariably referred to as the ‘guests from India’, not with malice, but casually, incidentally”. (Hindustan Times; September 4, 2007).
The other harsh truth is for Kashmiris to grasp. A Pakistan which tried to grab Kashmir by recourse to war in 1965 has no right to secure it by plebiscite. Long before Pervez Musharraf, indeed since 1958, when Firoz Khan Noon was its Prime Minister, Pakistan had given up plebiscite. Musharraf has been more honest, daring and creative. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he have arrived at a solid consensus on the broad outlines of a settlement that reckons with both the truths. It awaits Kashmiri inputs before it is given final shape as an accord (see the writer’s article “A step closer to consensus”, Frontline, December 15, 2006).
That accord will work only if public opinion is educated. The documents in Sardar Patel’s Correspondence (Volume 1) alone suffice to bring home those harsh truths. We find both Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah pleading with the Maharaja, on December 1, 1947, and August 5, 1948, respectively, that Muslims in the Valley needed to be won over (pages 103 and 215). “If the average Muslim feels that he has no safe or secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere,” Nehru wrote, referring politely to events in Jammu. The Maharaja, however, enjoyed full support from Vallabhbhai Patel. Nehru wrote to Patel pointing out bluntly how the arms meant for the government were “distributed to [the] RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh”. Sheikh Saheb also wrote to Patel on October 7, 1948, describing how the Maharaja had presided over “the killing of Muslims all over the province” of Jammu.
The great historian E.H. Carr aptly said that “the function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present”. We need to reconcile the two truths – the people’s rejection of accession and the impossibility of accepting this demand. Nationalists deny the first truth; idealists, the second. They are, however, reconcilable and only such a reconciliation will make an accord possible and viable.
These books help us enormously to understand the not-so-distant as well as the recent past and to reflect on how best to resolve the problem. Wajahat Habibullah, IAS, served in the State from 1969 to 1982, when he moved to the Centre. In 1990 he returned as Special Commissioner, Anantnag. In 2000 he was head of the Lake and Waterways Development Authority. As the son of the famous Major General E. Habibullah, who set up the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, he acquired an understanding of the Army’s ethos. No civil servant enjoyed so universal a respect as he did among all sections of the people. He has won high credibility as the Chief Information Commissioner. His reportage and insights are unique. He exposes many a myth and lie.
Integrity is also the hallmark of Andrew Whitehead’s work. He was the BBC’s correspondent in India. He pursued people in the know, far and wide, and consulted the archives extensively. “A necessary step to resolving any crisis, however, is gaining an understanding of how it started. Not to indulge in recriminations, but to appreciate the sequence of actions, and the jumble of claims and grievances, that tangle and snag moves towards compromise. If ever there could be an agreed narrative of Kashmir’s modern history, other forms of accord should not be far away.
“The main purpose of this study has been to illuminate the origins of the Kashmir crisis by retrieving the personal stories of those who lived through the events of October and November 1947. The facts and perspectives unravelled through this research challenge the official narratives of both India and Pakistan about the genesis of the Kashmir conflict. In particular, they question Pakistan’s often-stated denial of instigating or organising the Lashkar’s invasion of the Kashmir Valley, and they cast doubt on the Indian account of Kashmir’s accession.”
Pakistan’s devotees in Kashmir should read his definitive account of the ruin its tribesmen wrought in Baramula. Indians should read his account of Kashmir’s accession to India, on which a lot yet remains to be told. He has unearthed an important letter by the Maharaja written three days before he signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26. “The unevenly typed letter, on headed paper is dated 23 October 1947: ‘I hereby my Deputy Prime Minister, R.B. Ram Lal Batra to sign the document of accession of the State with the Indian Union on my behalf, subject to the condition that the terms of accession will be the same as would be settled with H.E.H. the Nizam of Hyderabad.’ The letter is signed by Hari Singh in his own hand and underneath is typed MAHARAJA OF JAMMU & KASHMIR.”
Whitehead holds that “the most obvious lasting answer to the Kashmir dispute is to heed the voice of the people of Kashmir, and to allow them to decide their own destiny. The national interests of India and Pakistan – and particularly of India, the nation in power in the Kashmir Valley – will determine whether, when and how this is done.” And, realistically, how far it can be done. Given goodwill, that is possible.
Habibullah also relates the past to the present and makes useful suggestions on approaches to an accord. But the greatest value of his work is the shocks it administers to the very many in India who revel in a state of denial. The attitudes of the bureaucracy, the Army, and their mentors in Delhi and the deep injuries inflicted on the people of Kashmir are laid bare in a matter-of-fact manner.
There was Brigadier General Randhawa, Deputy Inspector General of the Border Security Force, who declared to the people of a town in his presence that “there were traitors among the people and that to protect citizens, the BSF would start patrolling nearby villages. At any time of day or night, the BSF might enter people’s homes and shoot anyone they suspected of intending mischief. He emphasised that this was not his voice but God’s speaking through him, because he was protecting the right and combating the wrong.
“I was chilled. I stepped forward to reason with him. I pleaded that his soldiers not bear arms, even though under the law I was within my rights to order that they not do so – or even that they not patrol without the orders of the civilian authority. But the Brigadier would brook no argument.” That was in 1970. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same).
Truth about an encounter
In April 1993, Dr. Abdul Ahad Guru was kidnapped and murdered by a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Zulqarnain. Guru commanded wide respect as a reasonable face of separation. He was therefore an inconvenience. “The police made an arrangement with the terrorist Zulqarnain, then in custody, who agreed to kill Guru in exchange for his release. But to ensure that this collusion remained secret, Zulqarnain was killed shortly thereafter, and the Director General of Police, B.S. Bedi, trumpeted his death as a triumph for the security forces, who had killed a dangerous terrorist in an armed encounter. But the truth was somewhat different. Instead of killing Zulqarnain in an armed encounter, the police stormed the home where, under the mistaken presumption that he was safe after having fulfilled his end of the bargain, he was consorting with a lady friend.”
Even in 2002, “Citizens, few if any of whom belonged to the security forces, felt as if they were living in an occupied territory, living with doubts, suspicions, and [the] fear of settlement of scores between organisations and individuals using ‘security interest’ as an excuse.”
Exposing a whitewash
Habibullah renders a service by exposing the whitewash that was B.G. Verghese’s report on the rapes in Kunan Poshpura on February 23-24, 1991. “I had found the complaint exaggerated, although not necessarily unfounded, and called for further inquiry. I mentioned in my report that the village headman, or lumbardar, had given a certificate of good behaviour to the troops departing from Kunan Poshpura, though the lumbardar told me that he had not known of the alleged crimes against the women. My report concluded: ‘While the veracity of the complaint is highly doubtful, it still needs to be determined why such complaint was made at all. The people of the village are simple folk and by the Army’s own admission have been generally helpful and even careful of security of the Army’s officers… Unlike Brig. Sharma I found many of the village women genuinely angry … It is recommended that the level of investigation be upgraded to that of a gazetted police officer.’
“Because of the widespread media attention that resulted from the report and protests by Justice Bahauddin (a Kashmiri and former Judge of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir), the report was investigated in July 1991 by the Press Council of India, led by the eminent journalist B.G. Verghese. The Verghese Committee, appointed in an effort at damage control rather than because of any sincere interest in reaching the truth, concluded that the complaint was ‘invented’. This ended any further pursuit of the investigation and led to an abiding resentment among villagers in the area, particularly women. The lack of an effective way to redress their grievances had continued to blight the lives of the women of Kunan Poshpura.” The shameful exercise was conducted ostensibly as a Press Council inquiry. I write ostensibly advisedly (see the writer’s article “Exceeding the brief: The tragedy of the Verghese report”; Frontline; October 12, 1991).
In our society victims of rape are stigmatised. The tragic aftermath was reported in Greater Kashmir and Hindustan Times of February 23, 2007, and Rising Kashmir of March 13, 2008. Village elders had to arrange the marriages of the victims, but only for some.
If the people are resentful and continue to be treated as they have been, elections have to be rigged, lest they return an Assembly that demands secession. The legal efficacy of such an Assembly might be nil. Its moral force would be deadly. The Chief Election Commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, “admitted to me…. [that] the Commission has remained constrained regarding Jammu and Kashmir by the need to avoid compromising national security” – an exquisite phrase. After 1953, “all potential successor candidates were subjected to the Indian government’s fine-tooth comb of security concerning adherence to India’s national security interests. Individual competence, integrity and even the measure of public support commanded were secondary considerations.”
Habibullah describes how crowds are arranged on Independence and Republic Days. Pliable officers or those with “skills” were selected to manage elections. If all else failed, “the ballot boxes could be stuffed with ballots”. It passed muster because Kashmir has a “special status”. “For years, India has tolerated the undemocratic governance of the State by a favoured elite that skilfully played on fears that full democracy in the State would lead the people to gravitate towards Pakistan. This tragically unfounded suspicion lies at the root of what went so wrong in the 1980s.” No, since 1947. The polls held by Sheikh Abdullah in 1951 were also rigged.
A request to the Sheikh
The writer would break a rule and mention a personal experience. It was in April 1970, at the end of a seminar at the India International Centre in New Delhi on National Integration, organised by its Director, Romesh Thapar. An official attached to the Home Ministry came over to see me at his request and asked me to advise Sheikh Saheb, whom I was to meet an hour later at 3 Kotla Lane, to accept the Indian Constitution. Else, he would be prevented from contesting elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly.
By rejecting the nomination papers, as in 1967? I asked. The answer was chilling in its clarity. That was a technique of the 1960s. Now, the Plebiscite Front’s workers would be put in prison in such large numbers as to incapacitate the party. Sheikh Saheb would not be arrested. His colleague Mirza Mohammed Afzal Beg might be; or perhaps not. Why was it necessary since we had the Army there and the Governor? I asked. The answer was crisp. If the Assembly led by the Sheikh were to pronounce on independence, where would India’s case rest, morally?
The message was instantly conveyed. Sheikh Saheb agreed to issue an appropriately worded statement, to be drafted by me. Its aim was to keep each side’s stand open for resolution politically after the polls. Plebiscite was dead in 1970, but acceptance of the Constitution could not affect his stand because Article 370 permitted secession. It was a political matter to be resolved politically. “Do not hurry,” he counselled, since I was due to visit him in Srinagar shortly. “It must be a chiselled document.”
That document was shown to Beg Saheb when we met on the lawns of the Oberoi Palace Hotel in Srinagar on May 8, 1970. He shot it down saying sternly, “You will ruin us.” He was right. Lawyers tend to miss political realities. The mere announcement of acceptance of the Constitution then would have finished the Plebiscite Front.
In June 1970, the Unlawful Activities Act, 1967, was extended to the State. A few months later, the scheme, as unfolded by the official, was implemented to perfection. Both leaders were interned at 3 Kotla Lane on January 9, 1971. The Front was banned. The law was amended to bar members of banned bodies. There were massive arrests in the Valley.
Will New Delhi take any risk now while it advises the separatists to contest the polls? Habibullah writes: “To be seen as entirely ‘free and fair’, elections cannot be conducted in a charged atmosphere with heavy security deployment. Such deployment and its consequences have given Kashmiris the feeling that if they vote, they are not exercising choice. This point weighed heavily with dissidents who refused to participate in the 2002 elections. During discussions with political representatives in Srinagar, Lyngdoh found an overwhelming fear of organisations such as the police task force and the Special Operations Group, which had already begun bullying, intimidating and harassing potential voters. Transparency was not forthcoming.”
New Delhi refuses to allow foreign monitoring of elections though Indians have served as election observers in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere.
Habibullah realistically remarks: “Until each citizen can live free from fear, democracy can only be notional, no matter how elections are conducted or who participates.” Does such a situation exist now, in 2008? He is not without hope.
“I believe, based on my experience working in the State and with its people, that a remedy for the Kashmir situation need not be elusive, provided that all the stakeholders are sincere in their endeavour to restore peace and that respect for the dignity of the Kashmiri people is at the core of any resolution. Ignoring the self-respect of Kashmiris – believing that they as a people could be bought – brought on and fuelled the cycle of ruin.”
For aught we know, truly free elections will be possible only as part of a Kashmir accord – whether to facilitate or ratify it. Perhaps only then will the tragedy end. Eighty years ago the historian Vincent H. Smith wrote: “Few regions in the world can have had worse luck than Kashmir in the name of government.”