Friday, October 31, 2008

J&K Confronts New Delhi’s Electoral Delusions


One is not sure if India and Pakistan have a grand strategy to resolve the Kashmir issue as they are too preoccupied with more pressing concerns - electoral and others. The recent start in cross-LoC trade cannot, therefore, be seen as a calculated strategy of conflict resolution, but rather an act under immense political pressure, at best. However, sometimes certain acts have positive unintended consequences, and so will this one.

Kashmir has been rife with both ideas and activities in the past week: the hustle and bustle of electoral politics, symbolism of cross-LoC trade, and the PDP’s attempt to fire the Kashmiri political imagination with its self-rule proposal. Despite arriving from three separate political vantage points, and compromising three unique combinations of political, economic and social calculations, they seem to have one thing in common: the potential to address the many complex political, economic and emotional demands of Kashmiris. 

Trade and democracy appear to have the inherent capability to bring an end to militarized clashes between countries embroiled in protracted conflicts. Will this widely acclaimed wisdom of the liberal peace thesis, when combined with contemporary out-of-the-box grand ideas, prove the key to unlocking India-Pakistan relations and, as well, the tangle of Kashmir?

Elections and More
The forthcoming Assembly elections in J&K should not be seen as a conclusion in and of themselves, but instead as a means to a much higher end: addressing the core question of J&K in a more substantively responsible political manner. National Conference President, Omar Abdullah, has said unequivocally that this election will only be useful in forming a government equipped to deal with the day-to-day issues of the people of the state. Larger political issues, he clarified, need to be dealt with separately, at a different level. 

In other words, Omar’s argument goes against the long-held wisdom in New Delhi’s corridors of power that elections, ipso facto, are a solution to the problem in J&K. Today there are both dissident and mainstream parties articulating this new political argument: that the elections to the Assembly will provide for state administration only, yet fail to address deeper problems. The PDP has embraced this new line of thinking and will take into these elections a blueprint for the political resolution of the Kashmir issue. 

The Symbolism and Substance of Cross-LoC Trade
Thirteen decorated trucks plying the Jhelum Valley Road after a gap of sixty one years crossed over into Pakistan Administered Kashmir through the Kaman Post Bridge on the Line of Control. This image, one hopes, is indicative of improved times to come, even as it is at best symbolic and not yet substantive. Such limited, controlled, barter trade of select items between the two sides of the former Princely State does not make great economic sense at present. However, it represents the correct symbolic environment for deepening and reinforcing the liberal peace thesis: peace cannot lag far behind trade and the opening of borders. 

More importantly, despite the recent anti-India protests on the streets of Srinagar, the initiative taken by Governor N N Vohra has been received well by the people of the state. All sections of Kashmir opinion seem to have endorsed it, whether implicitly or explicitly. The militants have not directly opposed it, nor have dissident factions appeared uneasy about taking the credit for forcing the government to begin the trade.  In the end, cross-LoC trade should be seen as a litmus test for New Delhi’s sincerity towards the people of J&K. One genuinely hopes that the trade does not meet with the same fate as that of the Srinagar-Mzazaffarabad road, upon which traveling has become too cumbersome for the locals, thanks to a stubborn and unimaginative bureaucracy. 

PDP’s Self-Rule Proposal 
The recently unveiled self-rule proposal by the PDP is a compelling experiment by a mainstream political party in the state to think innovatively about Jammu and Kashmir. The document has worked usefully and creatively to reinterpret traditional conceptions of sovereignty. This document ought correctly to be seen as a significant addition to the equally important proposals put forth by various other J&K political parties: Sajad Lone’s Achievable Nationhood and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s ‘United States of Kashmir’ proposal. The importance of the PDP suggestion lies in the fact that this is perhaps the first time that a mainstream political party has dared to extend the meaning of sovereignty, and has demanded the restoration of the historical linkages with the Pakistani side of the State. Until now New Delhi had rejected and/or ignored similar proposals, including even Sajad Lone’s, citing the excuse that they had come from dissidents, who it does not recognize as legitimate representatives of the people. But circumstances have changed. How can New Delhi dismiss a proposal that has come from a political party, which has already ruled the state once, and is firmly mainstream?

Ideas and proposals such as dual currency, the roll-back of Central laws, an elected Governor, a Free Economic Zone, renaming of the titles of Governor and Chief minister as Sadar-i-Riyasat (President) and Prime Minister respectively, should not be considered as mere election gimmicks to gain more votes, but rather as the beginning of a new era of politics in the state: one that will revolve around significant issues of this kind. More importantly, there needs to be an in-depth comparative analysis of the various proposals, such as these, to delineate the common arguments they are making.

The political opponents of these proposals will raise the predictable and familiar objection of ‘erosion of sovereignty’. They need to understand that they are simply an initial attempt to re-imagine the concept of sovereignty, and that sovereignty should be creatively extended and, if necessary, redefined in order to meet the particular demands of the people and the unique needs of the time. In other words, make peace with sovereignty, not war. More importantly, if Manmohan Singh was serious when he said that while he is not ready to alter the borders between India and Pakistan, he is ready to help make them irrelevant, here is an opportunity for him to seriously engage Kashmiris on the basis of these ideas.

Ultimately, unhindered trade and other forms of connectivity between the two sides of the State, free and fair elections to the State Assembly, and grand new ideas such as the ones presented by the various parties to the people of J&K, have the potential to transform the political discourse in the State for the better.  The parties of J&K have initiated a tryst with liberal peace thesis, and for the good of the people of J&K, New Delhi had best accept it.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, October 29, 2008. URL:

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