After the last couple day’s of television furore on Prashant Bhushant’s comments on Kashmir, the hysteria spilled to the streets today. According to reports, 50-60 people bearing paraphernalia of ‘Hindu Raksha Dal’ attacked the office of Aam Aadmi Party in Kaushambi to protest Bhushan’s comments.
So, what are these comments that managed to grip the self-avowed "raksha dal" of "Hindus" to come out in daylight and commit trespass of private property and indulge in vandalism?
There is no agreement. Depending upon what your read and who you watch, Prashant Bhushan could have said many things. The key words of course are Kashmir, the question of demilitarisation, and the opinion of the Kashmiri people. The last of these three words is most culpable for all the frenzy and hullabaloo.
According to the online Roget’s thesaurus, following are included among the synonyms of the word ‘Opinion’:
feeling; impression; judgement; notion; Point of view; sentiment; inclination; view; thought; and imagining.
Obviously, if one is to arrive at any of these above words for a large group of people, we will need to undertake some activity whereby people can express their opinion (or feeling or impression or judgement…etc). Such an activity can take many forms. One could ask those people; we can conduct a sample survey; we could conduct a poll; which, if it was an Yes or No question and asked of everyone, would become a Referendum or Plebiscite.
In an ordinary context it shouldn’t matter so much which word you used as long as you were observing basic syntactic rules and commonly accepted words to say commonly accepted things. However, in a hyper charged political atmosphere, which has been further electrified by introducing the word ‘Kashmir’, and then inserting the radioactive issue of demilitarisation in Kashmir, nothing remains ordinary and the semantics of every syllable you utter come to mean more than the entire pantheon of religious books in the world combined. (No, that doesn’t explain why the members of Hindu Raksha Dal, who in all likelihood cannot spell either Referendum or Plebiscite, feel it incumbent upon them to trash the AAP office, but it explains other curiosities).
According to this Indian Express article, “On Sunday, Bhushan told Aaj Tak and Headlines Today, ‘People should be asked whether they want the Army to handle the internal security of Kashmir... If people... say they don't want the Army to be deployed for their security then the Army should be withdrawn from the hinterland.’"
Bhushan himself put out the following statement, clarifying what he said:
Headlines Today and Aaj Tak have sensationalized and quoted my response out of context to a question on my stand on Kashmir asked by them in an interview yesterday. In reply to a question about whether I favoured a referendum in Kashmir, I had clarified my stand which is as follows:
I said that there is considerable alienation among the people of Kashmir which is primarily because of the human rights excesses by the security forces in Kashmir and the impunity from prosecution given to them by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. I had said impunity of APSPA should be removed in order to win the hearts of the people of Kashmir. I further said that my personal view is that even the deployment of the Armed forces in huge numbers within Kashmir, not for external defence or to prevent infiltration but for the security of the people of Kashmir, should not be done without the consent of the people of Kashmir. Of course the union government is fully entitled to deploy the Army for external defence in Kashmir as well as for protecting the minorities there if there is a threat to minority rights. This, I said, is consistent with my view of participatory governance and Swaraj.
The Aam Aadmi party is of the view that Kashmir is an integral part of India. Needless to say that I share this view. Any reference to referendum shouldn't be misconstrued to mean plebiscite on Kashmir's relationship with India. It is the prerogative of the state to deploy Security Forces, including Armed Forces for any stretch to internal and external security. This prerogative must be exercised in the best interest of people, and as far as possible, with their consent.
So, just to keep things clear, let’s make a few notes:
- Bhushant is not talking about a referendum on Kashmir’s relationship to India
- He is talking about “consent of the people of Kashmir” and that “people should be asked” regarding deployment of Armed Forces within (not referring to external defence or preventing infiltration), particularly given that the deployment is for the security of the people living in Kashmir.
- He talked about alienation of the people, and the impunity of the Armed Forces
Even if you think the above points are matter of perspective or ‘personal opinion’, no objective reading can possibly find anything anti-national about it even if you are the most devoted integrationist nationalist with the mixed blood of Nehru and Patel running in your veins. Bhushan clearly didn’t talk about a referendum on Kashmir’s status within India, so the question of disintegration doesn’t arise. So, why would it be anti-national to ask Indians what they want regarding their own country? TV Channels do it every night! India is a pollster’s delight. Indians love to give opinions. On everything.
- Do you think India should launch its Mars Mission? SMS Yes or NO to ABCD.
- Do you think Tarun Tejpal should be charged with rape? SMS Yes or No to EFGH.
- Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi? SMS PM <SPACE> A for RaGa and PM <SPACE> B for NaMo.
- Should I become Prime Minister of Delhi Despite Not Winning Majority and Not Having Coalition Partners. Tell Me What To Do on 67599.
If Indians can answer all these grave questions without the spectre of anti-nationalism hounding anyone, why can they not offer their opinion on how they feel about army men sticking their guns in their face every morning as they go to school, office or the bazaar? You don’t think Kashmiris are unIndian, do you?
Wait, what if I told you that till last year it was quite kosher to ask/consult/listen to/survey the Kashmiri /and seek opinion. What if I told you that Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, along with several other political leaders, were party to such consultations?
On September 20, 2010, Union Minister P. Chidambaram led an All Party Parliamentary Delegation, comprising of BJP’s Jaitley and Swaraj, SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav, among yet others. The delegation, Chidambaram told the media, had come to Jammu & Kashmir with an “…an open mind and the main purpose was to interact with people, listen to them patiently”.
Is it conceivable that issues of AFSPA and demilitarisation didn’t come up?
Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. In October, this All-Party Parliamentary Delegation instituted a 3-member Group of Interlocutors with a mandate to “hold wide ranging discussions with all sections of opinion in Jammu & Kashmir in order to identify the political contours of a solution and the roadmap towards it.”
…wide ranging discussions with all sections of opinion.
To do this, the group was tasked with spending about a week each month in the State, and they visited J&K every month for 11 months. By the end of it, the interlocutors had met
“700 delegations comprising 6000 people across all 22 districts of J&K. The delegations represented political parties at the State and Local levels; civil society groups engaged in the protection of human rights, development and good governance, student bodies; academic fraternity; associations with lawyers; journalists and businessmen; trade unions; religious establishments; community organisations of specific ethnic groups and people uprooted from their homes due to war or endemic violence (ie Kashmiri Pandits); newly-elected Panchayat members, the heads of the Police, the Paramilitary Forces, and the Army. In the executive summary, it says “several thousand ordinary citizens also turned up at three mass meetings…to express their views on a wide range of issues. Furthermore, we met militants and stone pelters lodged in the Central Jail in Srinagar, and the families of the victims of alleged human rights abuses”
Not only did the interlocutors ask the people of Kashmir their opinion on a variety of political matters— remember, at the behest of the All Party Parliamentary delegation— they also argued in their report that:
“Any resolution, must be based on the vision for a future that has emerged from our interactions with more than 700 delegations during our visit to the twenty two districts of the State over the past 11 months.”
— Chapter 2, For a New Compact with J&K, Report by Group of Interlocutors
For flavour, let’s read in some detail these interactions:
The sense of victimhood is articulated in the most intense emotional terms in the Kashmir Valley. The reasons are all too compelling. Here, for over six decades, people have experienced what, in their eyes, constitutes a systematic denial of their democratic rights. They have been witness to rigged elections, the dismissal of elected governments and installation of pliant ones, the arrests of their popular leaders, the choking of dissenting voices through harsh laws, the detention of political prisoners without the due process of law; the failure to bring to book those guilty of violating human rights; and, not least, violence perpetrated by militants and by the security forces. That these alleged violations of human rights – including the deaths of 104 youth in the summer of 2010 – did not adequately figure either in the Indian media or in Parliament is seen, rightly, as India’s lack of concern for the sufferings of the Kashmiri people.
Add to this the widespread allegations of mis-governance, pervasive corruption among the political and bureaucratic elites, lack of quality education and public health services; poor physical infrastructure and woefully inadequate job opportunities, especially for skilled and educated youth. All these factors, taken together with what is seen as a mushroom growth of religious extremism of all hues, have brutalized Kashmiri society to such an extent that today it fears for the very survival of its religious and cultural identity.
This accounts for political demands ranging from ‘Azadi and the establishment of an Islamic State to autonomy, self-rule, achievable nationhood and such other alternatives. At the heart of all these dirges, however, is the sentiment that the woes of Kashmir are due to the emasculation of the substance of its distinctive status enshrined in Article 370 of the Constitution of India.
—(Pages 34-35, Final Report of the Group of Interlocutors)
Citing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “comprehensive vision” as presented at the first meeting of his Roundtable Conference on Kashmir (2006), the Report says that the response to the suffering of the people lies in freeing them from physical, psychological, economic, social and cultural insecurity. It goes on to outline what each of these mean “in specific terms” and includes “Freedom from all forms of intimidation, oppression and violence perpetrated by State and non State actors to enable people to exercise their democratic rights with their honour and dignity intact; and “Freedom from harsh laws, or laws harshly applied, and judicial delays that curb the space for legitimate dissent.”
In fact the report goes further. In a subsection titled ‘Centre-State Relations’ it goes over the history of divergent views and interpretations regarding Jammu & Kashmir’s accession to Kashmir, describing all the various perspectives and opinions, and concluding that the matter was complex but that a search for “permanent, political settlement in Jammu & Kashmir against the backdrop of so many serious, indeed even fundamental, differences on every major document related to defining the relationship between Centre and the State” need to abide by a set of common principles. There are seven principles enumerated, the two of which are:
- Key stakeholders must be on board and commit to its timely implementation
- It would need to cover not only political status but also economic self-reliance, strengthening of social infrastructure, security and administrative system reforms, internal demilitarisation and justice.
Read together, and assuming “Key Stakeholders” includes the people of the State (and in this report, it does), it would suggest that talks on and decisions regarding demilitarisation needs to include consultation (ask, listen, survey, poll— take your pick) with the people of Kashmir valley.
How wonderful and democratic. A participatory democracy, as they say. But read the whole set of principles and soon you will encounter principle vi: “It should be acceptable to the people of India”.
And here lies the rub. The issue has nothing to do with whether we should ask Kashmiris or not about their lives and how the State impinges on it. It is that we the asli Indians, the Indians from India, (and, sshhhh, the ' Hindu' Indians) must be the final arbiter of what happens in Kashmir. Go ask ‘them’, but in case ‘they’ talk like militants and separatists, we must clamp down and veto their wishes. If you are Indian, you must love our jawans; if you don’t, you are anti-national.
For most of the country, a referendum in Kashmir is not an issue of democracy because there is no citizenry involved. Kashmir is an integral part of India but what about the Kashmiri? How necessary is the Kashmiri to Kashmir? As far as the aam aadmi is concerned every Kashmiri is an a priori gaddaaar, a traitor, a Pakistani for all practical purposes. How can you compare a Kashmiri’s opinion with a common man’s in Delhi?
And if a common man in Delhi, say, a man named Prashant Bhushan, sees that Kashmiris—those other, brow beaten, boot-kicked Indians in Kashmir—are suffering at the hands of our jai-ful jawans for the past 25 years, and says let’s ask them what they think of it, all the big guns of obfuscation come out: UN Resolutions are no longer valid; Plebiscite is no longer possible; Pakistan and China do not meet pre-conditions; look, there was normalcy this summer; see, they voted in big numbers last time. None of these are answers, none justify or explain the much documented horrors of Indian military presence— since we are talking semantics, let’s throw the word ‘occupation’ in there as well— in Kashmir. In this noise, most often the question gets lost, reason completely erased. Separated from the question of Azadi, Prashant Bhushan’s question on Kashmiri opinion was an excellent intervention to create a meaningful debate on the Indian strategy on militarisation, to create an opportunity for the media to breach the complete blackout of ground reality in Kashmir.
It doesn’t matter what terms of reference we use but if we don’t break this septic ring of rhetoric and hysteria that obfuscates all conversation on Kashmir, we would have failed the very test of secular identity that we so desperately want to flaunt by keeping Kashmir tied to our hips.
Abhijit Dutta is a freelance writer