The Indian Opposition and the news media were up in arms last month after Sartaj Aziz, the advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the Kashmiri separatists. It did not matter what the meeting was about, but it tugged at the political nerves of many parties in the backdrop of cross border violations, the death of many Indian soldiers along the LoC, and most importantly the general fact that separatists were meeting a senior Pakistani official on Indian soil, no less than the Indian capital. The outrage spilled over to the social media with terms like ‘betrayal of India’ and ‘India’s capitulation to Pakistan’ became the key terms to signify the event.
Hurriyat meeting officials from Pakistan is not new. They have been doing it for decades under Congress as well as BJP regimes. I believe the regular outrage over the separatists is nothing more than political in nature, an attempt by political parties to gain traction by tugging at sour India-Pakistan relations. It’s the same reason why these cases are built up in the media because it’s interesting television, where ‘experts’ from Pakistan and India get pitted against each other in numerous television studios for a shouting match over the same old India vs. Pakistan narrative.
This issue seldom gets a rational point of view. From a legal standpoint, the Hurriyat has every right to move around Indian territory and meet whoever they want. They are not a banned organization and have every right to meet Pakistani officials in India. On the other hand, the Hurriyat is only criticized for the ideology they represent and never critiqued for the cosmetic nature of their clout. The call for the independence of Kashmir is a political one and not practical primarily because of the dire social and economic consequences of cessation. In my opinion, if the dream of an independent Kashmir is realized, the nation will be immediately invaded by the Pakistan army. The unification of Kashmir with Pakistan was and will remain a crowning political achievement for any Pakistani government. Pakistan has tried it before and the sentiment favouring Kashmir’s unification with Pakistan is very much still alive. Considering how the Hurriyat has for years pandered to the Pakistani leadership, its leaders may be in favour of Pakistani control; similar to their lack of objection to Pakistan’s tight control of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir also known as Azad Kashmir. The independence of Kashmir will be a fleeting reality, followed by an immediate submission to Pakistan by those who claim to represent the region’s sentiments.
Let’s consider another scenario, if the state of Kashmir remains independent of India and Pakistan control. The region has very little capacity to float an independent economy. For decades, Kashmir’s special status, which has prevented Indian companies from setting up shop there, has endowed the region with major subsidies for schools, healthcare and infrastructure. With tourism being the only major revenue stream in the region so far, the immediate fallout of independence will be a nation state engulfed in economic turmoil causing a mass exodus of economic refugees to India and Pakistan. The sour taste of cessation will have major social ramifications. It will boost the already prevalent sense of alienation associated with the people of Kashmir, where economic refugees will be persecuted and shunned by people both in India and Pakistan despite the stance of the governments.
The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has had a Kashmiri Muslim chief minister for decades. Article 370 of the Constitution gives the region economic and political autonomy and the most powerful Kashmiri party, the National Conference, which has ruled the region for decades, is allied with the government in the Centre. Even though there is a major development deficit in the state, the questionable politics of the Kashmiri parties are responsible for that, and only the people of J&K can address that problem. The citizens of J&K have never refrained from exercising their mandate as Indian citizens despite the calls of the separatists to boycott the elections. People have come out in whopping numbers to vote with a 62% voter turnout in the 2008 Assembly elections, a boost from the 44% average turnout in the 2002 Assembly elections.
Pakistan and India do not have clean records with Kashmir. There have been gross human rights violations on both sides. On the Indian side, the armed forces in Kashmir have jailed and tortured hundreds of Kashmiri civilians in its crackdown on militants in the state, with no apparent action taken against perpetrators by the military justice system. On 21st August 2011, India’s State Human Rights Commission admitted to 2156 unidentified bodies from 38 grave sites in Kashmir.
Kashmiri civilians have alleged the proliferation of such unmarked graves where victims of state sponsored torture and murder have been dumped for decades. From the Pakistan side, a Human Rights Watch report titled ‘With Friends Like These…’ drafted post research in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir highlights the stranglehold of the Pakistani state on the socio-political freedoms of the region. The report states that the government has placed tight controls on the freedom of speech, banning publications favouring the independence of Kashmir. It highlights that under PoK’s 1974 Constitution, election candidates are pre-screened to ensure that only those who support Kashmir’s union with Pakistan can contest the elections, while anyone who wants to serve the administration has to sign a pledge of loyalty to Pakistan.
A 2012 report by the Pakistan based Centre for Peace, Development and Reforms dubbed the Azad Kashmir government ‘an ineffective and impotent body with no executive powers’. It added that the Azad Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974 gave the Prime Minister of Pakistan the authority to appoint and dismiss the chief election commissioner, auditor general, and the judges of Supreme Court and high court of the region. Retired Justice Basharat Ahmed Sheikh, one of the drafters of the report, called the political arrangement a ‘violation of the Constitution of Pakistan’ because under article 257 of the Pakistani constitution, Kashmiris have the right to determine what sort of a relationship they want with Pakistan. He highlighted the salient point that the Prime Minister of Pakistan is not elected by the people or the elected representatives of Azad Kashmir and is not even answerable to them.
This case is not black and white. The prosperity of the people of Kashmir is contingent on choosing a lesser of two evils, and I believe the region has a better shot at social and economic prosperity with India as compared to Pakistan. India has a stronger economy to support Jammu and Kashmir and celebrates socio-political freedoms rooted deep across the country. The state has enjoyed local leadership for decades where Kashmiri parties have consolidated their position in steering the state. In my opinion, the issues of corruption, social disparity and lack of development should be posed to the Kashmiri leadership by the Kashmiri people. The people of the region have the mandate to choose their political and economic future and other Indian political parties must offer new political alternatives to the region’s population. It will be foolish for the separatists to mistake the disaffection of the Kashmiri people with the state government with a hatred of the Indian state. As they peddle their ideology, history is a witness that there are no takers in the region. The people have time and again reinforced Indian democracy. Separatists posing with terrorists and Pakistani officials should not raise India’s blood pressure, as that is the only extent to which they can show their defiance to the Indian state, which has tolerated their ideology in respect to its Constitution and ethos. Let them bray and provoke. The people of Jammu and Kashmir know better.