Among the numerous episodes of violence in modern India, quite a few could be said to have displayed signs of ethnic cleansing — for instance, the Gujarat pogrom (2002) Kandhamal violence (2008) and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley (in the early 1990s). For human rights activists, it has not been easy to strike a balance between protesting the massive human rights violations of Kashmiri Muslims and acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Pandits. As a consequence, objectivity has suffered in any analysis of the Kashmir conundrum. It has been shaped mostly by the dominant principle that an interpretation of politics has to be dictated by the politics of interpretation, characterised by selective facts, often driven by pre-determined conclusions.
Much of the scholarship on Kashmir has failed to demolish this trend of taking sides, looking at the issues in terms of ‘for or against the Indian state' or ‘for or against azadi.' The vital question to ask is whether there is a political truth beyond the binary choice and beneath the multi-polarity of conflicting narratives.
The task here, however, is not to address such big questions to create a public sphere for open discussion on peace and reconciliation, or the bestial nature of state, or the ambitions of the ruling elites to which every society seeking freedom finally falls victim, as it happened to the dreams of Pakistan or ‘Sonar Bangla' or free India for that matter. The major strength of this book is that it offers some invaluable insights that could well pave the way for an exploratory intellectual exercise aimed at synthesising the conflicting narratives and helping to restore the logic of human bond over faith and nationalism.
An accomplished bureaucrat whose engagement with Kashmir affairs started as early as 1969, Wajahat Habibullah, emerged as a major actor during the time militancy dictated life in the Valley. Moreover, he is credited with a balanced perspective and sensitivity of the kind that many of his colleagues in civil service, not just in Jammu and Kashmir but elsewhere too, lack.
The book under review is an updated version of what was published in 2008 and, in this, Habibullah has covered the more recent developments. The direct access he has had with many of the key players in the Valley's politics and the way he has used his interactions and conversations with them have added an extra value to the narrative.
‘Whither Kashmir?', the chapter that stands out, discusses the role of Pakistan and how its Kashmir policy was influenced by the United States. It spells out the perceptions and counter-perceptions of many of the key local actors. The author also explains how a visit to the ‘Friday prayers' helped in figuring out the direction in which the Valley politics was heading. Most significantly, he does not subscribe to the view that the Kashmir problem is intractable.
The cardinal points upon which Habibullah builds his arguments in this book of nine chapters are: the economy of Kashmir, as also of India and Pakistan, is at once the source of conflict and the solution to it, and Pakistan has fanned the flames of conflict. As for the Indian state, he argues that it mismanaged Kashmir, a region which — on account of its unique historical background — needed to be treated with the utmost care and foresight. The dynastic politics and the arrogance of power displayed by New Delhi had their own fallout. If these factors resulted in a good part of the country coming under Maoist influence, they compounded the problem in the already sensitive and strategically important Jammu and Kashmir. In his view, the Kashmir policy both in Pakistan and India was, to some extent, shaped by public opinion, but not always in a positive fashion.
In conclusion, Habibullah quotes Lalla Ded, a Kashmir poet of the 14 century, as saying “Out of nothing emerged something, bewildering and great.” He urges the Indian state to give Kashmiris the dignity they need, like other citizens elsewhere in the country.
The stark reality is that all citizens across the country suffer the same fate, as soft targets of violence and victims of misgovernance, political corruption and so on. The Indian state and its managers need to address the serious concerns not just of the Kashmiris but the country's entire dispossessed majority.