The paradise India is constructing in Kashmir looks a lot like a prison, seems to be a throwback to 1951
Kashmir's long and tragic history as a site for experiments in utopianism ought to inform our understanding of the bizarre spectacle of two former chief ministers being arrested under the Public Safety Act
Kashmir's long and tragic history as a site for experiments in utopianism ought to inform our understanding of the bizarre spectacle of two former CMs being arrested under the PSA
For months now, New Delhi's interlocutors have sought to persuade former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti to participate in political life on new, post-Article 370 terms
But the leaders haven't caved in
In 1951, as summer rose over Kashmir, a great hammering and sawing began across the Valley: A socialist utopia was being constructed. Perhaps some thought it odd the National Conference ended up winning all 75 seats, 73 of them uncontested — 45 out of 49 candidates of the Hindu-nationalist Praja Parishad were barred from standing, on dubious grounds — but they chose to be silent. Land reform and mass education were introduced; for these, newspaper censorship was a small price.
Each cluster of villages got a radio set, opening the Valley to the world —but, the scholar Navnita Chadha Behera has recorded, each set was "tuned to Radio Kashmir, fixed and sealed" with wire.
Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah had set out to build paradise — but this paradise looked strangely like a prison.
Kashmir's long and tragic history as a site for experiments in utopianism ought to inform our understanding of the bizarre spectacle of two former chief ministers being arrested under the Public Safety Act — one, India's former Minister of State for External Affairs, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To an entire generation of young people in Kashmir, their incarceration sends a simple message: Those who turn with India at the crossroads of politics will meet the fate of Faust.
For months now, New Delhi's interlocutors have sought to persuade former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti to participate in political life on new, post-Article 370 terms. But the leaders haven't caved in, and the government's stepping up the pressure.
Last year, after Article 370 was de-operationalised, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a Naya Kashmir — the very words used by former chief minister Sheikh Abdullah to describe the dystopia he built.
Thus far, the results aren't that different from the first time around: During recent visits, ministers have spent time inaugurating half-built projects that were already inaugurated; routinised bureaucratic corruption remains a grim fact of life; Kashmir's administrators couldn't even clear snow off streets or fix power-lines in anything resembling efficient time-frames.
From students to businesses, everyday life is choked by continuing restrictions on the internet — even in regions like Jammu, where there is no conceivable threat from violent Islamist mobs. Larger issues, like domicile laws local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have been promising to protect jobs from all India competitors, remain in limbo.
The new leadership New Delhi has dredged out to build foundations for a new National Conference-free Kashmir isn't inspiring: Among them, former People's Democratic Party minister and businessman Altaf Bukhari, whose brother Tariq Bukhari is credibly alleged to have been engaged in financing terrorism, and whose father was accused of laundering cash for jihadists.
In essence, this new Naya Kashmir looks a lot like the old Naya Kashmir: A playground for the political racketeer, the corrupt bureaucrat, for bribery and blackmail.
There have always been excellent reasons to do the wrong thing in Kashmir.
In 1977, Sheikh Abdullah produced a laboured defence of the Public Safety Ordinance — the legislation under which his grandson, Omar is now held. Kashmir, he claimed, faced a "peculiar situation", which necessitated the state having the power to incarcerate individuals for up to two years, without trial or even charge. That "peculiar situation" was, of course, the rise of a credible political Opposition.
Excellent reasons exist, of course, to continue using these laws — even when politicians who suffered incarceration under the Emergency are in power. The pro-independence activist Pervez Khurram, for example, was charged in 2016 with inciting people to violence in four separate incidents. First Information Reports filed in those four incidents, however, did not mention his name; no criminal prosecution has still been brought.
Indeed, Nehru conceded Kashmir a special status for excellent reasons. In his memoirs, spymaster BN Mullik stated the issue thus: "If India could claim Kashmir purely by virtue of the Maharaja signing the instrument of accession then she would have to concede Pakistan's claim over Junagadh for the same reason and also tolerate Hyderabad as an independent State in its very heartland".
Hyderabad and Junagadh, ruled by a Muslim monarch but home to a Hindu-majority population, were mirror images of Kashmir. If India accepted the right of Kashmir's monarch to accede to India, it would have to concede these two states to Pakistan.
For obvious reasons, Junagadh and Hyderabad were of considerably more strategic significance to India than Kashmir: Handing either to Pakistan would have involved creating dangerous enclaves inside the country. To avoid this trap, though, Nehru needed Abdullah's help — and tolerating the rise of National Conference despotism was a small price.
In 1952, for Sheikh Abdullah, there were excellent reasons to turn against accession to India. Elites and revenue officials were able to subvert the new land laws, enabling the relatively rich to take control of a large share of the fields which ought to have become available. Then, two successive crop failures in 1949-1950 and 1950-1951 caused enormous hardship. He needed, desperately, to rebuild his legitimacy — and the Praja Parishad provided the platform.
"No-one can deny that the communal spirit still exists in India," he argued. Therefore, "if there is a resurgence of communalism in India, how are we to convince the Muslims of Kashmir that India does not intend to swallow them up?" In another speech, he asserted, "It is the Muslims who have to decide accession with India and not the non-Muslims."
And, in 1953, there were excellent reasons for Nehru to send Abdullah to jail. From 1951, Pakistan’s intelligence services had begun a campaign of sabotage and terrorism inside Kashmir. Nehru was forced to order troops to prepare for offensive strikes in response to Pakistan's build-up of troops in 1951-52.
"I am afraid Kashmir is heading in an adverse direction," Nehru warned in a 28 June, 1953, letter. "Unfortunately, it is going to effect the Indian situation in the same manner as the Indian situation effects Kashmir."
There were excellent reasons to release Sheikh Abdullah from prison in 1964, and excellent reasons to send him back to jail in 1968. There were excellent reasons for former prime minister Indira Gandhi to ally with him in 1974, and to let his son, Farooq Abdullah, rig the elections in 1987. There were excellent reasons for intelligence services to bribe politicians; to tolerate élite corruption; to incarcerate opponents without trial.
Put together, these excellent reasons laid the foundations for the long jihad which erupted in 1988 — on the back of the Indian State's dismantling of its own promise as an instrument of democratic politics and the rule of law.
Last year, the ending of Kashmir's special status held out at least the prospect that the age of excellent reasons might be ending. Kashmir, some believed, would at long last be allowed to evolve into just another state of the Indian union: A state with politicians of varying degrees of competence and corruption who are punished or rewarded by electorates, not the Intelligence Bureau; with the laws, and courts and institutions that, for better or worse, govern the lives of other Indians.
The images of two chief ministers incarcerated for no crime at all; of information censorship on a scale not seen since the Emergency; of peoples governed by bureaucrats with no roadmap to democracy: these leave little doubt it isn't. Kashmir remains a stage for the pursuit of "national interests" — "national interests" that always, mysteriously, converge with the political interests of whomsoever is in power.
"He who imitates what is evil always goes beyond the example that is set," observed the great Enlightenment-era historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini, "On the contrary, he who imitates what is good always falls short."
Home Minister Amit Shah might do well to consider the aphorism.
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