Sunday, December 1, 2013

Questions from Kashmir



I was in Srinagar last week to attend the release function of my recently published book, Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations: Politics of Reconciliation, organized by this newspaper, and to participate in a book discussion at the Kashmir University. I faced a number of intellectual challenges and well-thought-out questions both at the Institute of Kashmir Studies and Hotel Grand Mumtaz, where the book was released. Questions and challenges can unsettle and, sometimes, frustrate us. But they can also help us reflect and introspect. I chose to reflect and introspect, rather than be frustrated. Here’re some of the important issues/questions that came up during my interaction in Srinagar. 

Indian narrative? 
More than once was I asked whether my book was yet another ‘Indian’ narrative on the Kashmir question and if yes what would be the utility of such an exercise. A related question was about my acknowledgement in the book about my own inherent biases. It was pointed out to me that academics and analysts should be neutral and not biased. I clarified that mine is an ‘Indian narrative’ in so far I am an Indian, but it stops there. Not only that my views do not reflect the Indian state’s view on Kashmir, but more importantly, my views often present a counter-narrative to the Indian state’s traditional discourse on Kashmir. And yes, I am biased both by necessity and as a conscious choice. It’s a necessity because I don’t think biases can be done away with (we can only recognize them); it’s a conscious choice because column-writing, to my mind, involves a certain level of political activism, and discussing Kashmir from a particular political and ideological standpoint is a conscious choice I have made. Just that in this case, I have strong pro-Kashmir biases, whatever that means. 

The problem with inherent biases that we are not conscious of is that they create deeply embedded redlines in our intellectual pursuits. For instance, many Indian writers on Kashmir tend not to cross certain redlines on the Kashmir issue, redlines that are informed by the powerful pulls of the state propaganda. Hence, even those self-proclaimed liberals do not go beyond a point in critiquing the Indian state’s Kashmir policy.  This is not to negate another view that I hold about the Indian media: that the Indian media has also acted as an agent of change in so far as India’s new approach to Kashmir is concerned by virtue of promoting a certain multi-vocality on the Kashmir question. At the least, they have managed to demolish certain certitudes Indians had about Kashmir. 

The centrality of Kashmir in Indo-Pak relations
One of my fellow columnists in Greater Kashmir, Mehmood ur Rashid, reaffirmed, during the book discussion at the Kashmir University, a view that I have held for a very long time: if you ignore the centrality of Kashmir in the Indo-Pak conflict, you would be looking in the wrong place for a resolution for the India-Pakistan standoff. Kashmir is central to Indo-Pak reconciliation: there is no other way of making sustainable peace between the two nuclear-armed rivals. India and Pakistan have tried to freeze the Kashmir issue, sidestep it, ignore it, and undermine it by talking only about CBMs: nothing seems to have worked. The simple fact is that the Kashmir issue continues to create problems on the highroad to bilateral reconciliation because the demands and aspirations of the Kashmiris have been relegated to the backburner. That is simply not the way make peace between India and Pakistan. 

The ‘democracy bias’
Another question posed to me was on the elections in Kashmir. While some pointed out that most of the elections were not ‘genuine elections’, others pointed out that New Delhi seems to promote elections as a symbol of normalcy in Kashmir. I agree. Whenever Kashmiris come out to vote in great numbers, which happens especially during elections to the local bodies, Indian commentators see it as a sign of normalcy in Kashmir. This ‘democracy bias’ not only distorts serious analysis of the problem but also prevents the potential resolution of the issue. This ‘democracy bias’ also stems from a deep-seated Indian misunderstanding of the Kashmir conundrum: that the Kashmir conflict is simply about the electoral frustrations of the Kashmir people. 

The ‘governance trap’
The Indian (mis)understanding of the Kashmir problem also puts disproportionate focus  on the importance of governance in addressing the conflict, some others pointed out. Clearly, governance is important to Kashmir as it is perhaps to every other state in India. But to insist that Kashmir conflict is all about malgovernance or that good governance will do away with the Kashmir conflict are both flawed arguments. Conflict in Kashmir cannot be explained by using the ‘governance variable’. More importantly, the governance argument is a trap because once you accept that logic, the Kashmir conflict gets ‘normalised’ in the sense that it becomes just like any other conflict in the country, and there are a large number of governance-related problems in the country. 

My contradictions
Some of my discussants pointed out that there are many contradictions in the book. I agree. The contradictions in the book come from the fact that this book is a compilation of my op-ed pieces in GK and The Hindu over the past 5-6 years. Clearly, my views on Kashmir and Indo-Pak relations have changed over the last half a dozen years. I have evolved as a political commentator and I have no hesitation in saying so. Besides, I am not a great fan of the virtue called political consistency across different historical periods. When milieus change, so should our politics, because politics, at a certain level, is our response to what happens in the wider society around us. Moreover, writers and political commentators should evolve in their views of the world and how they respond to it. 

(Source: Greater Kashmir, December 1, 2013. URL:

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