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Conflicting Narratives Make Kashmir a House Divided Against Itself

by Nyla Ali Khan, 27 April 2016

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sacw.net - 27 April 2016

J & K is a palimpsest that has been inscribed upon two or three times, yet the previous texts have been imperfectly erased and, therefore, remain partially visible. A history of unfulfilled pledges, broken promises, political deception, military oppression, illegal political detentions, a scathing human rights record, sterile political alliances, mass exodus, and New Delhi’s malignant interference have created a gangrenous body politic, which hasn’t even started to heal. The various political, religious, and cultural discourses written on the palimpsest of the state may have created alternative epistemologies but without an epicenter.

On the one hand, lavish sartorial and epicurean preparations are annually made for August 15th, the day India was declared independent, on the other hand, there is a legitimately disgruntled segment of the populace which really hasn’t experienced the trickle down effect of India’s burgeoning economy or flourishing democracy. It is my hope that political actors of various hues in the state do not inter the victims of military and police brutality to the catacombs of history in their ardent desire to ingratiate themselves with the puppeteers in New Delhi and Islamabad who are adept at manipulating marionette regional representatives. August 14th and August 15th are entrenched in world history as the days the then dominions of India and Pakistan gained independence and routed the British colonial master, but in J & K they remain days that reinforce the fragility of an ill-defined democracy.

The debate amongst political thinkers, scholars, and policy makers about finding viable ways to placate marginalized ethnic minorities in J & K has been infinite. Since the advent of Independence, New Delhi’s self-deluding and self-serving “democratic” approach has been to allow the disaffected people of J & K to voice their “seditious” opinions within the existing political framework legitimized by governmental rhetoric. The reasonableness of the autonomy solution advocated by mainstream political parties in J & K may seem axiomatic, but what is the likelihood of its being adopted in an undiluted form to metamorphose Kashmir’s political, cultural, or territorial circumstances?

Both India and Pakistan have a long history of deploying rhetorical strategies to skirt the issue of plebiscite or complete secession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. When feeling particularly belligerent Pakistan cries itself hoarse declaring the legitimacy of plebiscite held under United Nations auspices in J & K; India responds just as aggressively by demanding the complete withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the territory of pre-partition J & K; or, in a moment of neighborly solicitude, for conversion of the LOC to a permanent International border. Which of these solutions is the most viable? Currently, mainstream political parties in J & K have jumped on the autonomy bandwagon. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, the differences between them are not insignificant. New Delhi asserts, time and again, that a revitalized Indian federalism will accommodate Kashmiri demands for an autonomous existence. But, historically, federalism hasn’t always adequately redressed the grievances of disaffected ethnic minorities. Here, I concur with Robert G. Wirsing’s observation that, “while autonomy seems to imply less self-rule than does the term confederalism, for instance, it is generally understood to imply greater self-rule than federalism, which as in the American case, need not cater to ethnic group minorities at all” (2003: 199).

Given Kashmir’s treacherous political climate and the rampant political factionalism in that region, the appeal of an ambiguous “autonomy” remains intact for some groups but for others, as has been forcefully pointed out to me by a couple of political scientists, it is a wrong narrative to establish in the case of Kashmir. Sadly, the Kashmir conflict is no longer just about establishing the pristine legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the people of the J & K, the former princely state. Rather, prolonging the conflictual situation works in the interests of some of the actors, state as well as non-state, on both sides of the LOC. Some civil and military officials, Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri, have been beneficiaries of the militarization of Kashmir and the business of the “war on terror.” Also, some militants, armed and unarmed, have cashed in on the political instability in the state to establish lucrative careers. For such individuals and groups self-determination and autonomy work well as hollow slogans stripped of any substantive content. The dismal truth is that the wish to establish the legitimacy of self-determination or autonomy vis-à-vis J & K is not universal. The current political discourse in the state has strayed far from home.

(Nyla Ali Khan is a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma, and member of Scholars Strategy Network. She is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. She is editor of the Oxford Islamic Studies’ special issue on Jammu and Kashmir.)