Trapped between past and present, Kashmir's politics is headed towards a dangerous deadlock

Praveen Swami
·9-min read

The cold-blooded threat was delivered in silence, not one word said in public, under the searing sun of the summer in 1951. From their base in Meerut, historian Srinath Raghavan has recorded, the 1 Armoured Division pushed west into Punjab; the 4 Infantry Division and 2 Independent Armoured Brigade perched themselves along the border, signalling India's intentions to its western neighbour. The war to come, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru brooded, would be "neither brief nor gentlemanly". He predicted, instead, "a bitter conflict full of suppressed hatreds".

Later this week, Jammu and Kashmir will hold elections to its District Development Councils€"part of the most ambitious process of democratic construction in Kashmir since New Delhi moved to constitutionally fold the region into India, sparking off the crisis of 1951.

The election results, expected at the end of December, will test many things: the influence of the so-called Gupkar Alliance of the state's ethnic-Kashmiri parties; the degree of communal polarisation between its Hindu and Muslim majority regions; the force of the government's claims that its administrative purpose and developmental initiatives have won its policies legitimacy.

And there will be one learning, perhaps more important than all the rest: the ability of Pakistan to exercise a veto over political life in Kashmir, through the use of its jihadist proxies, and the long-term credibility of its claim to be acting as a guardian of the state's Muslims against a predatory, Hindu-nationalist India.

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Like in 1950, Kashmir's constitutional reconstruction has polarised its politics on communal lines. That year, as discussions on a state Constitution to join Kashmir with India deadlocked, its preeminent leader, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, recast himself as a communal leader: "it is the Muslims who have to decide accession with India", he argued, "and not the non-Muslims, as the latter have no place in Pakistan, and their only choice is India". "It was the Muslims", Abdullah went on, "who were forced to ponder whether they could rely on the Indian promises".

In essence, the scholar Navnita Chadha Behera has perceptively noted, Abdullah had transformed himself from acting as a spokesperson for the peoples of his state to Kashmiri Muslims alone.

The Gupkar Alliance, spearheaded by the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party in response to New Delhi's decision to end Kashmir's special status, has done much the same. The Alliance's leadership is entirely Kashmiri Muslim; there are no significant faces from the Hindu-majority regions of Jammu or the now-Union Territory of Ladakh, nor any effort to engage its representatives, bar a single, perfunctory meeting. There has been no effort, either, to seek common ground on a way forward.

In the short term, this makes tactical sense: en-bloc support in Kashmir, and in Jammu's Muslim-majority reasons, would strengthen the Alliance's negotiating position with New Delhi. There are, however, significant downsides: speaking only for Kashmir's Muslims would make it harder for the Alliance to find support among India's political system, risking political ghettoisation.

Even if the Alliance does win the District Development Council elections€"and eventual elections to the Legislative Assembly€"this would, then, lead to cul-de-sac. As the National Conference painfully discovered in 2003, the failure to deliver on its extravagant claims to federal autonomy cost it electoral legitimacy€"a lesson the Peoples Democratic Party, in turn, learned the hard way when its Islamist-leaning vision of self-rule ended up empowering the Islamists whose protests brought down its government.

In 1950, Abdullah believed the pressure of Pakistan€"and his lobbying of the Great Powers€"would allow him to leverage his legitimacy as the leader of Kashmir's Muslims to secure near-independence. He failed. But that failure came with costs for India New Delhi would also do well to contemplate.

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Looking out at India in the wake of Partition, Abdullah saw darkness. "There isn't a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur," Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah said of the toxic legacy of Partition violence, noting that "some of these had been Muslim-majority states". Kashmiris, he added, feared "the same fate lies ahead for them, too". Hindus living south of the Pir Panjal mountains looked at these events through a different lens but saw the same apocalypse ahead: In Kashmir, they feared, a new Pakistan was forming.

In 1953, the Praja Parishad, an alliance of landlords and business elites angered by the redistribution of their assets, launched an agitation against Abdullah's policies. Abdullah used the rise of the Jana Sangh-linked Praja Parishad to stoke communal fears in Kashmir. In one speech, he claimed that the Praja Parishad was part of a project to convert India "into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised". If the people of Jammu wanted a separate Dogra desh, Abdullah said, "I would say with full authority on behalf of the Kashmiris that they would not at all mind this separation".

The crisis was to lead, inexorably, to a breakdown of the relationship between Abdullah and Nehru. Even though the Sheikh spent years in jail, though, New Delhi was unable to bring about genuine integration. In the political vacuum, communal anxieties flourished, degrading Kashmir's polity.

From 1977, when the Jama'at-e-Islami allied with the Janata Party€"a precursor to the PDP-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance€"Abdullah's language became increasingly irate. He attacked the Jamaat's alliance with the Janata Party, "whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims". National Conference leaders administered oaths to their cadre on the Quran and a piece of rock salt, a symbol of Pakistan.

The paranoia paid off. The National Conference won all 42 seats in Kashmir. But when the 1983 elections came around, other politicians showed communalism could be a multiplayer game. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted an incendiary campaign in Jammu, built around the claim that the discrimination the region faced was because it was part of "Hindu India".

Across the Pir Panjal, Farooq Abdullah and his newfound ally Maulvi Mohammad Farooq€"Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq's father€"let it be known that they were defending Kashmir's Muslim identity. At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state.

From the rise of the long jihad on, the division was cast ever stronger. In a 1998 book, Kashmir's Islamic patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, suggested that Kashmir's secession from India was essential for the survival of Islam in the region. For Muslims to live among Hindus, he argued, was as difficult as "for a fish to stay alive in a desert". In 2006, following a successful Islamist campaign against sex work in Srinagar, Geelani launched the fateful mobilisation that would explode in 2010. He claimed that "hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris".

In the following years, new campaigns were mounted, each pitting an authentic Kashmiri Islamic identity against India's modernity-suffused vice: the targets ranging from migrant workers alleged to have raped a teenager to a teacher whose students were filmed dancing during vacation. "I caution my nation", Geelani warned, "that if we don't wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced".

The collapse of the political system had inevitably begun €"leading to the new cycle which began with the end of Kashmir's special status.

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In a secret note to his senior colleagues, written in August, 1952, Nehru contemplated the lessons of the previous year's military crisis. "We are superior to Pakistan in military and industrial power" Nehru wrote. "But that superiority is not so great as to produce results quickly either in war or by fear of war". "Strength", he went on, "ultimately does not come from the defence forces, but the industrial and economic background behind them. As we grow in strength, and we are likely to do so, Pakistan will feel less and less inclined to threaten or harass us".

History has not borne out those assumptions. In spite of its defeats in the wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999, Pakistan has not ended its support for the Kashmir jihad. Though the risks of the post-9/11 world€"financial sanctions, diminished international support, retaliation by India€"have tempered the actions of Pakistan's military-led establishment, they have not proved enough to alter its strategic intentions. Ever since 2019, Pakistan has held its hand: the number of foreign terrorists killed this year remains lower than last year, and jihadist groups suffer from chronic shortages of weapons. This is unlikely, however, to be a permanent state.

Firm action on human rights violations by the Army, better compensation for land acquisition, the grant of new forest rights, criminal prosecutions against a notoriously venal élite: all these have won New Delhi unexpected friendship in Kashmir.

These are likely to drive reasonable levels of voter turnout. They won't, however, solve the underlying ethic-religious crisis that has bedevilled its politics.

Expectations that demographic change will transform Kashmir politics, even leaving aside the ethics of such a situation, border on fantasy. Kashmir's population includes just 1.3 percent migrants from other states, comparable with Bihar. It hasn't been property rights laws that kept away migrants, but a lack of jobs; it's deeply improbable that will change any time soon.

Kashmir's Gupkar Alliance needs to realise that the state's special status won't come back. Leaving aside the fact that that this special status, in practice, meant little€"most central laws were applicable there long before last year€"there's little hope that any future government will consider Kashmiri claims founded on ethnic-religious particularism. There's little realistic chance, either, that any Indian leader will face enough international pressure to change course on Kashmir: even Nehru, leader of a much weaker India, was unbowed by pressure from western diplomats, one of whom described him as a "prize bastard".

New Delhi, though, must also understand a respectful, open-minded conversation on the state's constitutional future€"one that addresses the state's many ethnic-religious constituencies, and their concerns about their security in India. Invective aimed at the Gupkar Alliance might win votes elsewhere in India, but will only serve to sharpen resentments and suspicions within Kashmir. The longer the political deadlock in Kashmir persists, the more risk there will be of instability within the state€"and opportunities for Pakistan's military to capitalise on them.

For the best part of the century, Kashmir's politics has been shaped by opportunistic compromises, half-measures€"and, when these failed, ruthless coercion. As the renewal of electoral processes in Kashmir begins, it's worth giving genuine, democratic dialogue a chance.

Also See: J&K DDC polls: Non-BJP candidates stopped from campaigning, claim Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti

J&K DDC polls: PAGD candidates confined to secure locations, not allowed to campaign, says Farooq Abdullah in letter to EC

DDC polls in Jammu and Kashmir: Politicking over Article 370, seat-sharing eclipse local issues in UT's first election

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