Saturday, March 5, 2011

The difficulty of being a Kashmiri separatist


Contrary to popular understanding, being a separatist in contemporary Kashmir, which I argue is a far more moderate position today in comparison to being an Independenist, is not an easy political choice to make and to sustain in the longer run. While separatism is the self-embraced political position of a number of political actors in Kashmir, ‘soft-separatism’ is the term used by many nationalist political pundits to dub those whose politics falls midway between extreme positions. Let’s do some terminological clarification first. Within Jammu and Kashmir, political stances and opinions range from ‘independinist’ or ‘extreme separatism’ to ‘extreme pro-Indian nationalism’. Between these two extremes we do have a midway approach. On one side of it lies ‘soft-separatism’ and on the other is ‘soft-nationalism’. While extreme separatism often manifests itself in ‘Independenist’, cultural-chauvinist, and anti-India positions, extreme pro-Indian nationalism, on the other hand, is characterized by exclusivist, chauvinist, pulp-patriotic jingoism. Traditionally, a separatist almost always took extreme political positions. However, I argue that not all separatists believe in exclusivist and partisan politics. Some of them, who, for the sake of terminological clarification, can be called ‘neo-separatists’, tend to make moderate political arguments even as they guard against the attempts to uniformise and standardize. In other words, the traditional political battle-lines are increasingly being redrawn in contemporary Kashmir and hence ‘separatism’ has newer meanings and implications today. While traditional separatism argued for being ‘separate’ from the mainstream, the ‘neo-separatists’ are calling for a new brand of separatist politics in the valley.

Answer to questions such as ‘who is a separatist?’ and ‘what are the various shades of separatism’ depend on one’s definition of separatism and his/her attitude towards it. Personalities ranging from Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to Academician Amitabh Mattoo have often been called a separatist. While calling Mirwaiz a separatist may not arouse anyone’s curiosity, calling Mattoo as a separatist surely has an agenda behind it. Those elements in Jammu who espouse ‘extreme pro-Indian nationalism’ dubbed Mattoo a Kashmir separatist for his liberal views on Kashmir and human rights. What they did not realize was that being ‘pro-Kashmir’ need not be in opposition to being ‘pro-India’.

People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is often accused of being a ‘soft-separatist’ party ever since the party has come out with a ‘self-rule’ formula for the resolution of the Kashmir issue which argues for the creation of cross-border institutions and eventual economic union of the two sides (Pakistani and Indian) of Jammu and Kashmir. This, the extreme pro-Indian nationalists argue, is nothing but separatism. PDP has refuted this saying that ‘Genuine Kashmiri aspirations are dismissed as separatist’. Since the PDP is dubbed as ‘soft-separatist’, the party has to often bend over backwards to explain its political positions. I do not want to call PDP a neo-separatist party but wish to merely highlight that it does share some of the characteristics of a neo-separatist political party. Similarly, People’s Conference Chief Sajad Lone is often dismissed as pro-India by the extremists in the separatist camp and he is often seen struggling to argue that “fighting elections is a change of strategy not ideology”. This is precisely my point: being a moderate in today’s Kashmir is extremely difficult because many of us have not understood the new meanings of separatism in the Valley.

The difficulty of being a (neo-)separatist
Far from being an opportunist, a Kashmiri (neo-)separatist, to my mind, is someone whose politics is to be seen as a mature and enlightened response to an ever-changing Kashmir politics. It is not an easy position to take because those who take the middle path have always been accused of being without conviction. But then what is the use of conviction in politics if the content of conviction does not keep pace with changing social and political realities? Is that not another term for obscurantism?

That said, being (neo-)separatist becomes difficult for any political actor primarily because it needs to constantly avoid the political extremes – of being an independenist or extreme (pro-Indian) nationalist. It will have to disagree both with the BJP when it wants to forcibly hoist the flag in Lal Chawk on Republic Day and with the other extreme when they justify the hoisting of the Pakistani flag there. This also makes the separatist vulnerable to continuous onslaught from the extremes. One reason, apart from all the other equally competing ones, why the Congress chose National Conference (NC) over PDP as the coalition partner after the last State Assembly elections in the state was this: sidelining of the (neo-)separatists. This can, potentially, create a situation in which the (neo-)separatist always fears being an outcast.

Separatists may also find it hard to garner enough popular legitimacy and support. The separatists will have to fiercely fight for political space and are likely to be incapable of gaining much of it because political extremes are popularly considered to be more honorable and attractive than political moderation, especially in conflict situations. J&K is no exception. The independenists perhaps are more uneasy with PDP and Sajad Lone than with the NC and the Congress since the latter do not encroach into their traditional space. The mainstreamers will try to isolate and denigrate the (neo-)separatists because that keeps their space uncontested and undivided. For me, this, at least partly, explains the defeat of Lone in the last Parliamentary elections.

Eschatologically speaking, in situations where politics of attrition rules the roost, as is the case in Kashmir, (neo-)separatists may not be the ultimate winners. Politics of attrition sees no end to uncertainty that is all around. Where everyone is fighting everyone and waiting for the end (resolution of conflicts), when the end actually arrives whosoever remains will be the winner; it may not matter what principles one stood for. Political extremes, given the extreme definitiveness of political positions inherent in them, are the likely winners of a politics of attrition.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, March 6, 2011. URL: )

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