Why this is an opportune moment for India to call for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir

India should immediately hold a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.

Call it a referendum or plebiscite, but India will win hands down. There will be very few takers for a merger with Pakistan or independence. The resounding verdict will put an end to the debate once and for all. So let’s just get it over and done with.

I must admit that I wasn’t aware of the win-win situation for India in Jammu and Kashmir until 10 August, when I attended the launch of former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief AS Dulat’s book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, at the Oxford bookstore in Kolkata. As a result of Dulat’s presence at the event, the strategic community – serving and retired senior RAW, IB and army officers – was also in attendance.

 Why this is an opportune moment for India to call for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir

Representational image. Reuters

The chief guest of the evening was General Shankar Roychowdhury, retired chief of army staff. After he did the honours, the audience heard with rapt attention a no-holds-barred discussion between Dulat and Sunanda K Datta-Ray, famous columnist who once edited The Statesman, about the book. .

After the tête-à-tête, the discussion was thrown open to the house. Several speakers stood up to ask questions or express an opinion. Without much ado, Lt Gen John Ranjan Mukherjee — the GOC of Srinagar-based 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir until 2001 — told the house that a plebiscite is the best solution for the festering problem because the will of the majority of people in Jammu and Kashmir is with India.

Pakistan, according to him, is living in a world of fantasy as 80 to 90 percent of the population of the state stands staunchly behind India regardless of their gripes over the quality of governance for decades.

After these stunning opening remarks, General Mukherjee provided a detailed community-wise break-up of the Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh regions in Indian-administered Kashmir and the southern and northern areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, to bolster his case for a plebiscite.

In the Jammu region, 66 percent of the population is Hindu anyway. Muslims account for 30 percent, in addition to four percent belonging to other ethnic groups. But 65 percent of Jammu’s Muslims are Shias who are bitterly anti-Pakistan because of the treatment meted out to Shias in Pakistan. Between eight and 10 percent of the Muslim population are ethnic Kashmiri Sunni Muslims — representing three to five percent of Jammu’s population. By General Mukherjee’s reckoning, at least 95 percent of Jammu’s population would vote for India in a referendum — barring Kashmiri Sunni Muslims.

In the Kashmir region, the mountain tribes like Gujjars, Bakkarwals, Paharis, Baltis and Shins comprise 20 percent of the population, and are staunchly pro-India. They regard ethnic Kashmiri Sunni Muslims — accounting for 65 to 70 percent of the population — as exploiters. Among the rest, 10 to 15 percent are Hindus and Sikhs, and five percent are Shias.

Among Kashmir’s Sunni Muslims, 20 to 25 percent are pro-India, while five percent are pro-Pakistan. Ten to 15 percent are pro-independence and 50 to 55 percent are fence-sitters, who wish to get on with their lives and are not concerned about who rules, as long as they can live in peace. But at the heart of their requirements is greater autonomy.

General Mukherjee said that if greater autonomy is ensured and if the Hindus, Sikhs, Shias and mountain tribes continue being as pro-India as they are, 70 to 80 percent of Kashmir’s population would passionately vote to remain in India.

In the Ladakh region, the entire population is pro-India, anti-Pakistan and anti-Kashmir as Buddhists and Shia Muslims account for 52 percent and 45 percent of the population respectively.

The General concluded that an objective analysis of ethnicity and religious patterns in the state left no doubt in his mind that India enjoys the backing of a formidable 80 to 90 per cent of the total population.

In Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, barely 10 percent are ‘real’ Kashmiris entitled to vote in a plebiscite. The rest are Punjabi ex-servicemen, Afghans and Mirpuris settled there by the government of Pakistan to engineer a radical change in the region’s demography.

The speech totally blew my mind. It wasn’t Tom, Dick or Harry holding forth but a straight-talking army commander with inside knowledge of what Bill Clinton once called the most dangerous place on earth, addressing a gathering of those in the know of things.

Having always been under the impression that an overwhelming majority in Jammu and Kashmir is pro-Pakistan, I decided to cross-check his assertions with my contacts in the security establishment. They told me that what the General had said was accurate and known to those who dealt with Kashmir on a regular basis, the information-cum-analysis wasn’t in the public domain for obvious reasons.

After having the privilege of listening to such an honest, powerful and logical advocacy of a referendum in the troubled state, I’m convinced that despite three full-blown wars, Kargil incursions and the unending export of terror to India by successive Pakistani regimes, we should still call Islamabad’s bluff and agree to a plebiscite.

SNM Abdi is a Firstpost columnist and former Deputy Editor of Outlook

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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2015 11:33:16 IST