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By invitation: No time to lose heart on Kashmir

The costs of giving in to separatist demands are exhorbitant

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

By V Anantha Nageswaran

Pratap Bhanu Mehta has arrived at, in more elegant prose, the same conclusions that Swaminathan Aiyar advocated in the Times of India and Vir Sanghvi did in Hindustan Times.

Dr Mehta asks: Will (India) live with the permanent rebuke to its democracy that Kashmir represents, or will it risk a new paradigm that might achieve what this endless cycle of mutual suspicion has not?”

The problem with these columns is that they end with a tantalising question and with an implicit answer (explicit in Mr Aiyar’s column) that India let Kashmir go. Go where? To what state? What would be the consequences? Costs and benefits under different scenarios?

It is incumbent on those who advocate change from the status quo to spell out the rationale for change and make a case that it would improve things at the margin from their perspective. One presumes that that perspective is that of the rest of the billion-plus Indians. That the present is unsatisfactory is a necessary but hardly a sufficient condition to recommend change without even attempting to make a case for it.

[Update: Dr Mehta clarifies his position in a comment.]

Nitin Pai wrote in his response Messrs Aiyar and Sanghvi that Indians should not feel embarrassed about the realpolitik that was used to create the modern Indian state and to ensure accession of many princely states including that of Jammu & Kashmir. In fact, he lobbed the ball back in the court of the liberals by arguing that they should question not the accession but the special dispensation that was granted to Kashmir by the Indian state.

Of course, it is easy for the liberals to play the ball back to him: they would retort that the concessions stemmed from the initial illiberal’ accession. They would claim that they are right to trace the problem to its roots rather than from a convenient way-station.

So, that debate would not lead us anywhere.

We must ask ourselves why is it that only Kashmir remains a problem given that there are many other Muslim-dominated provinces and regions that were assimilated into India.

The answer to that question would point us in the direction of Pakistan. In other words, all the talk of lack of integration and assimilation of Kashmir with the rest of India would remain just talk or academic exercises if it disregards the meddling of Pakistan and its attempt to alter the ethnic composition of Kashmir to its advantage.

Parenthetically, one could and should state that the militant and the militaristic history of Islam and its conquests, particularly in India, quite clearly influenced Pakistan’s view of the right of India to exist in one piece in peace. In other words, the religious dimension to the Kashmir problem cannot be wished away and it is a problem that the rest of the world is trying to grapple with, with varying degrees of success and failure. That puts India’s plight in a different perspective and hence raises question marks over the thoroughness of the proposed solutions. Quite plainly, I raise the question if the problem of Kashmir will be solved by letting Kashmir go. I very much doubt that. In fact, I would flatly say no. But, this is another strand and another dimension to be analysed explicitly and separately. I had used it merely to highlight the lacunae that the proposed solutions have. They are incomplete and undercooked.

Let’s return to the political rather than the religious framework of analysis, for now. The question in Kashmir is not one of whether India has the right to keep it as part of the Indian state but whether India ever had a chance to keep it as part of the Indian state.

An honest answer is No”. India was never allowed’ to succeed in Kashmir by external forces, particularly Pakistan, and many Kashmiris contributed to their designs, further making it difficult for the Indian state to integrate Kashmir. In other words, the initial conditions for a genuine plebiscite simply do not exist.

If this answer is a reasonable starting point, then the decision points become clearer: does India give up on integration or try sincerely to create the conditions for integration, before giving it up? If the answer is that the failure was not in integration but in dealing with external forces that have impeded integration, then the first course of action is to set that deficiency right.

If, instead, the project of integration itself is given up as a failure, then the external forces (read, Pakistan) would be emboldened by their success and having tasted it, would press for successes elsewhere in India. In fact, one fears that that process has already begun sensing India’s vulnerability on and in Kashmir now. Ahmedabad, Surat and Bangalore (not to mention all the other places that suffered before them) are testimonials to this risk.

Therefore, to argue or even to suggest vaguely a case for Kashmir’s formal severance from India is to ignore the risk of further fragmentation or disintegration of India. Like what they say about fixed exchange rates: the time to let go is when you are able to ask if you need it, not when you are wondering if you can sustain it.

It is not Kashmir fatigue but a scared intelligentsia that now threatens to combine with petty self-interest and lack of perspective—one that fails to grasp the enormous significance of what is at stake here—from the political leadership in India that is suggesting new paradigms and independence for Kashmir. In that narrow sense, the perpetrators of recent terrorist incidents have succeeded.

To conclude, here are two ways forward:

First, India must now tell the world how it proposes to deal with Pakistan and its designs in Kashmir and proceed to demonstrate it unmindful of how the rest of the world views it. And second, it must govern India as India and not as agglomeration of millions of interest groups defined by millions of conflicting interests.

The two must happen in tandem, surely.

Without the second one, the first measure would be long and protracted. Without the first, there is not even a chance for the second. There simply won’t be an India to govern. The priorities cannot be starker.

It is indeed a moment for India to make an existential choice and it is important not to pick the one that does not exist.

Many libertarians might find the above arguments neither new nor persuasive. After all, this comment stated upfront that it was making its case from the perspective of one billion Indians and was not motivated by commitment to the abstract notion of liberalism that, unburdened by the rigour of logic, often imbues the causes of numerical minority with morality.

They must think of this angle. In economics, countries that have fixed exchange rates are often told that the time to let go off fixed exchange rates is not when they are facing the question of whether they could sustain it but when they have the luxury of asking if they needed it.

India is being asked to decide on Kashmir when the sustainability of staying the course is questioned. That is the wrong time to ask the question. Letting go now would entail much higher and years of costs as many countries found out with their exchange rate regimes.

The best time to ask this question would have been 2003 and wonder why Mufti or Mehbooba did not do so, then.

These are Dr Anantha Nageswaran’s personal views

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