Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I support Azaadi for Kashmir trapped in a prisoner's dilemma

I feel baffled when I look at the turmoil in Kashmir. It is a classic case of the prisoner's dilemma. On one side of divide are the angry, victimized Kashmiris who have little faith in Indian Democracy, coz they have seen very little of it, and on the other side of the divide is the paranoid, skeptical Indian establishment. The international nature of this dispute just increases this mistrust. In this chaos, the Kashmiris are confused about who to trust and what to ask for and the Indian establishment is too afraid to raise and discuss the real questions.

Whenever there has been a talk about the divide between Kashmir and India, we have always talked about one side of the gap, i.e. all Kashmiris do not consider themselves as a part of India. We forget to mention the gap as seen from the other side: Indian establishment treats Kashmir as a battle ground and an alien state. Regardless of the historic context of the problem before 1948, Kashmir would have been much more peaceful and prosperous had we treated the Kashmir problem as we treated the separatist sentiment in other parts of India, like the demands for Khalistan and Dravidstan or insurgencies in the North East. While the separatist leaders elsewhere were accorded political space, the revered leader Sheik Abdullah was put in jail coz of a few comments. Interestingly Indian government at that time could do so only because Kashmir had a special status and it was out of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. While free and fair elections have been the hallmark of Indian democracy, even when people chose the former insurgents as their chief ministers, there are just a few elections in Kashmir which are widely considered free and fair, namely those held in 1977, 2002 and 2008.

Kashmir is one of the most politically backward regions of India. While local governments and panchayti raj have deepened the democracy else where in India, it is yet to be introduced in the state. Every small demonstration is painted as anti national and every bite of anti - India rhetoric is used to justify the brutal handling of the situation. India has been very accommodative of the separatist sentiment else where. Even today, the photograph of the dreaded Sikh militant, Bhindrawale, is hung in some of the Sikh seminaries in Punjab and he is accorded the status of a martyr. The Akali Dal party, which also heads the state government in Punjab, has often flirted with separatist sentiments before.

While the common people suffer and protest in Kashmir. The spin doctors claim their leadership and use it to further their own interests. There are the separatists who dub Azaadi as succession from India. No one cares to define what their Azaadi means for common man in Kashmir and how it would be different than what is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Do they have a more enlightened definition of Azaadi? If yes, then why don't we incorporate it in the Indian Constitution? I would love to have that Azaadi in my home town too. Well, in reality there is no vision or idea of Azaadi in the minds of the separatists. All they want is more political power for them. While some want to enforce a Sharia based constitution in the state with a large number of people not comfortable with that, the others just borrow words from the Indian lexicon (words like multi cultural, secular, plural democracy) to define their Azaadi. Then there are the main stream politicians who dub Azaadi as calls for giving them unchecked powers and autonomy to convert the state into a kingdom, as was in the British times, with just foreign affairs, defense and communications to be a part of the Indian democracy. The track record of such kingdoms, during the British raj, was abysmal. The nationalist leaders often rued that these kingdoms were much more repressive than the colonial Indian government directly under the British. Not surprisingly, the call for autonomy is given by the National Conference party, whose current foremost leaders, father and son, have when ever freedoms guaranteed by the Indian Constitution have been overlooked.

I feel that the call for Azaadi in the valley is the call for the basic rights of the people. Those rights which have been enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The right to practice one's religion freely, the right to live with dignity, the right to elect one's government freely and fairly, the right to move freely, the right to speak freely and the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration. Are these not the demands we hear when ever the common man in the streets of Kashmir is interviewed? Are these not the fundamental rights accorded to every Indian? Yes, the demonstrations do turn violent at times, but does it not happen in the rest of the nation? Do we dub every protest in the country, against the government and the wrongs of the administration, as anti-National? Why do we have to support an inept Chief Minister, the black berry czar, who cannot go around and meet people of this state, who speaks of the people of his state in third person? Today, the protesters are under the age of 20. They were not there to experience the historical cause of the problem and like most of us would be willing to move to an honorable closure to the historical problem between Indian and Pakistan. Today the problem is the handling of the people by the Indian establishment and keeping the democratic process away from the state.

The need of the hour is to introduce real democracy in the state, where people can be sure that the elections wont be rigged. Where people can say to a wrong doer in the government that we ll see you at the time of elections. The need is to strengthen the police force in Kashmir with numbers, equipment and training to be able to handle the law and order of the state without any help from the para military forces, so that those personnel can go home and live lives with their own families. The need of the hour is to make sure that every Kashmiri enjoys the same rights and has the same duties as any other Indian. This is a game where trust would bring more dividends than skepticism and caution. And by trust I mean that Indian establishment starts trusting the people on the streets in Kashmir. The attraction of true Indian democracy is very strong.

PS: There is a similar article in The Hindustan Times on this issue: http://www.hindustantimes.com/Bristling-to-belong/Article1-584860.aspx