Recently, the Indian cabinet unequivocally turned down the idea of increased autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. The J&K assembly resolution had called for a restoration of the states pre-1953 status. From a nationalist Kashmiri perspective, this would surely be the desired maximum autonomy they might have hoped for. But instead of seriously engaging with the prospect for autonomy, the Vajpayee government simply rejected the resolution. This was, most assuredly, a squandered opportunity.
The state assembly resolution offered a point of departure for a negotiated devolution of the powers of the state to the three culturally distinct regions of J&K-the Valley, Ladakh and Jammu-powers usurped by the Centre over the decades. To reject the resolution out of hand amounts to closing a door that might have been opened on to a path leading towards both addressing the sources of discontent that had spawned the insurgency and in reaching a settlement. Prior to 1953, J&K enjoyed an extraordinary degree of autonomy under the aegis of the Indian Constitution. Under the terms of the Delhi Agreement of 1952, signed between Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, Kashmirs prime minister, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kashmir had a special dispensation within the Indian federation. This agreement circumscribed the role of the Indian government in Kashmir to three areas: defence, foreign affairs and communications. All other subjects were under the purview of the J&K government. Furthermore, Kashmir, as the only Muslim-majority state in a predominantly Hindu country, was the only state where the CM was referred to as the prime minister.
Unfortunately, this agreement was steadily undermined once Abdullah was dismissed on allegations of treason in 1953. The steady erosion of Kashmirs autonomy reached its apogee in the late 80s when local regimes were toppled and recalled at the whim of the political masters in New Delhi. Earlier generations of Kashmiris had grudgingly tolerated these malfeasances. But a far better educated and more politically conscious generation proved far less willing to grant such latitude to political chicanery. Finding every legitimate avenue of political dissent effectively blocked and lacking an alternative model of political protest, they resorted to violence. Sensing an opportunity to wreak further havoc, Pakistan promptly moved to aid, abet and support the incipient insurgency. By the mid-90s, Kashmir was in flames. New Delhi resorted to a tried and trusted method to douse the fires of rebellion. Its strategy consisted of massive and extensive use of force against the rebels. In the process, Indian troops, and more particularly paramilitary forces, committed significant human rights violations, further inflaming the already volatile situation. Over a decade, this mailed-fist strategy wore down the insurgents. Simultaneously, the insurgency also lost ground as various groups engaged in internecine violence and showed flagrant disregard for the concerns and well-being of the Kashmiris.
Having restored a degree of order, the Indian government then sought to restore some of its lost legitimacy in Kashmir through the holding of parliamentary and later local elections. The parliamentary elections were widely criticised for their lack of probity. But even critics of New Delhi conceded that the state-level elections, for the most part, were free from coercion or intimidation. The new government of Farooq Abdullah assumed office in September 1996. Many Kashmiris, tired of the harassment from the security forces and the depredations of the insurgents, hoped the newly regime would address their myriad grievances.
Simultaneously, the central government falsely assumed that with an elected government in place it could afford to reduce its vigilance along the LoC, the de facto Indo-Pak border. Both assumptions would prove to be deeply flawed. Within Kashmir, the small hopes of the Kashmiris were not realised. Farooq constituted several commissions, including one to investigate human rights abuses. But none proved particularly efficacious. As the heightened expectations of the Kashmiris waned, the insurgency again gathered steam as Pakistan-trained mujahideen percolated across the border exploiting the complacency of the Indian security forces. Soon thereafter, in May 1999, an emboldened Pakistani military breached the Line of Control at Batalik, Dras and Kargil. This military operation almost brought the now nuclear-armed adversaries to the brink of full-scale war by mid-summer. Fortunately, war did not erupt and a phased de-escalation ensued with American intercession.
In the aftermath of the May 1999 crisis, the Centre fell back on its time-honoured counter-insurgency strategy of using extensive force. Earlier this year, probably as a consequence of US prodding in the wake of President Clintons visit to India, the government expressed a willingness to discuss outstanding grievances with the All Party Hurriyat Conference. These negotiations became quickly mired in mutual recriminations. Against this political backdrop, Farooq Abdullah, fearing his political marginalisation, introduced the autonomy resolution.
The rejection of this autonomy resolution only defers Indias day of reckoning in Kashmir. A national willingness to consider the possibility of an autonomous Kashmir within the confines of the Indian Union would have been the logical first step toward addressing the Kashmiris long-felt grievances. One can only hope that despite seeming intransigence, the Centre will reconsider its position. n
(Sumit Ganguly is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Cooperative Monitoring in Albuquerque, New Mexico and a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Robert L. Hardgrave Jr. is Temple Professor of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas at Austin.)