Saturday, June 8, 2013

On the Importance of Definitions



Research students at Universities are often reminded about the importance of asking the right questions as well asaccurately defining the problem/research puzzle even before they begin their research. Of course, defining a problem is done after having undertaken an initial study of the many variables that can have an impact on the issue at hand. The reason for this insistence is that uninformed, incomplete and underdeveloped definitions of a problem/situation can lead a researcher to wrong conclusions and disastrous policy prescriptions thereafter. More importantly, researchers are also often encouraged to reevaluate their definitions from time to time to weed out avoidable biases and make it more contemporary. While a research student’s conclusions may not have much policy implication, the definitions and the conclusions arrived at by politicians and officials can have serious implications for a lot of people. True, politicians and Babus may not be trained in such research methodologies, but one expects them to have learned such skills from their experiences of handling day-to-day political problems. But they often disappoint us. 

Sometimes our definition of a situation can affect the future trajectories of that situation. Let me give you an example. New Delhi’s definition of the contemporary nature of the Kashmir conflict does have a definitive impact on the manner in which the conflict evolves there. In New Delhi’s definition of the Kashmir conflict, the India-Pakistan dimension of the conflict looms large. It is worried that the Pakistan army might, after the current lull, revive militancy in the Kashmir valley. The alienation and the sufferings of the Kashmiri people are not central to its definition of the Kashmir conflict.  Nor has its definition of the Kashmir conflict improvisedbased on the changes in the external environment. New Delhi’s contemporary definition of the Kashmiri conflict is does not appreciate the fact that the most significant aspect of the Kashmir conflict today is the internal conflict between New Delhi and Kashmir. Refusing to accept this fundamental change, New Delhi continues to control Kashmir using its outdated definition of the situation. 

One of the many ways in which New Delhi’s – and Srinagar’s - outdated definition of the Kashmir conflict persuades it to exercise control in Kashmir is the way in which it denies democratic rights to the non-mainstream leadership in Kashmir. Syed Ali Shah Geelani has been under house arrest for such a long time and he is not even permitted to offer Friday prayers at the Mosque; indeed, he is not even allowed to come out of his house. Why is the world’s biggest democracy so scared about an 83 year old man who it believes does not even have much support in the valley? Leader of the other faction of the Hurriyat, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, is also often put under house arrest. His passport is expired for the last six months and the government is not in a mood to give him a new one because it is concerned that he will create problems for India internationally! The government also often uses the threat of not renewing the visa of Mirwaiz’s US-born wife.

Yasin Malik is yet another leader who finds himself locked up whenever things go wrong in Kashmir. Recently he, along with some of his party workers, had gone to the Doda district to distribute relief among the earthquake victims but was arrested and sent back to his home. His passport has not yet been renewed and there are rumors that it may not be renewed for a few years so as to teach him a lesson in patriotism! 

Sajad Lone is no more a separatist politician. He is the Chairman of a mainstream Kashmiri political party – the People’s Conference. But even he has not been lucky to get his passport renewed for the last six months. He often finds it difficult to get visas for his wife, a Pakistani citizen, and his children to visit him in Kashmir.  If this is what the government does to Kashmir’s mainstream political leaders who swear by parliamentary democracy, what might be the plight of the separatist politicians? 

For none of this, of course, can the Indian armed forces be blamed for this is clearly the doing of the J&K police and/or the Union Home Ministry. Sometime the local courts pass orders to release these leaders from house arrest but the local police often find ingenious ways to keep them confined. 
I often wonder why a robustly democratic state like India ends up violating the democratic and fundamental rights of sections of its citizens in a systematic manner. The argument seems to be that of making democracy safe. That is, the situation in Kashmir is not safe for proper democracy to function there and hence there is a need to ‘clean up’ the place before democracy can be properly established there, indeed forgetting that denial of democracy is one of the major causes for the conflict in Kashmir in the first place.

The other reason for this seems to be the existence of an unintelligent sort of policy conservatism thatdissuades governments from reevaluating their policies from time to time. Official assessments of anything is painfully difficult to change and it is notoriously so in India. Kashmir clearly needs some out of the box thinking, it needs to be continuously assessed by New Delhi to realize that the changed nature of the conflict in Kashmir requires newer ways of dealing with it. 

Why doesn’t the government have any incentive to change their assessment? I imagine that there is an ‘imagined consensus’ in India about Kashmir that it is a serious national security issue and therefore it needs to be contained at any cost. I say ‘imagined’ because even this so-called consensus in India on Kashmir seems to be undergoing a great deal of change in the recent years. 

Be that as it may, the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar should realize that the implications and results of depriving people of their democratic and fundamental rights could be dangerous and counterproductive.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, June 9, 2013. URL: )

No comments: