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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

Stakes in Kashmir

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The cordially generated during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Kashmir has far-reaching significance for Indian politics.

It is one of the futile by-products of low-level politicking—so widespread in the national scene today—that has led to the deplorable rift between Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference and the Congress-I. This estrangement, avoidable as well as unnecessary, has not only polluted the political atmosphere in Kashmir but has threatened to touch off a vicious chain reaction which could be exploited with profit by communalists of all shades all over the country.
It is time that we paused and pondered over what is at stake in Kashmir. Thirtyfive years ago when we as a nation almost lost confidence in secular values, having been caught and outmanoeuvred in the colonial ruler’s game of divide-and-rule leading to the partition of the country, it was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah with his intrepid band of National Conference cadres who repudiated communal partitioning of the country and proclaimed Kashmir to be part of the Indian nation and thereby made short shrift of the dilly-dallyings of Maharaja Hari Singh who was left with no option but to sign for the accession of his princedom to the Indian Union.

At that dark hour in the history of independent India, Sheikh Abdullah’s memorable role helped in no insignificant measure to nurture the cherished plant of secularism, a precious heritage of our freedom struggle. For Sheikh Abdullah it was the only natural course to take because, for years before, even while facing the persecution of the Maharaja’s regime, he had doggedly fought the communal politics of the Muslim League. We need to remind ourselves that his National Conference was and has always been a part of the national movement: in fact, its commitments on socio-economic isssues in some aspects were far in advance of the accepted programme of the Congress, and in those days, it commanded the respect and admiration of all the forward-looking elements in our freedom struggle.

It was unfortunate that out of a series of misunderstandings, Sheikh Abdullah was put in prison by the machinations of men who should have known better. A case was launched against Sheikh Abdullah implicating even his family which dragged on for months but could prove nothing, and it was finally dropped. Nobody knows why it was launched at all, but what everybody knows is that Sheikh Abdullah was kept in detention for eighteen long years—a sufficiently long period of political persecution in which iron could enter the soul of any mortal.

It was to the credit of Indira Gandhi that she over the years could realise this historic mistake and once that realisation came, took steps to undo the wrong and through painstaking efforts enabled Sheikh Abdullah to return to the mainstream of national politics. The understanding reached between her emissary and his resulted not only in Sheikh Abdullah’s return to freedom but to office as well in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. And it was to the credit of Syed Mir Qasim to have voluntarily offered to step down from the post of Chief Minister—a self-denying ordinance so rare in our present-day political culture. It is indeed surprising that with such a record of service and dedication Syed Mir Qasim should have to face being left out in the cold for a considerable length of time now, particularly at a time when his mature sense of judgement could have provided a touch of wisdom in the deteriorating relationship between the Congress and the National Conference.

There is no gainsaying the fact that at the very first electoral contest after the rapprochement with Sheikh Abdullah, the petulant hotheads of the Jammu and Kashmir Congress, innocent of the far-reaching implications of the accord with the Sheikh, were allowed by the Congress High Command to go in for a trial of strength with Sheikh Abdullah’s party, thereby seeking to destroy the very basis of the accord which envisaged an enduring entente between the Congress and the National Conference. The result was not only that the Congress fared miserably but also negative elements could worm their way up in both camps.

In recent years, this unwholesome state of mutual acrimony between the Congress and the National Conference has been compounded by the mushrooming of a bunch of cronies and impetuous politicos who have done a lot of damage in vitiating Sheikh Abdullah’s personal rapport with Indira Gandhi. The result has been that the two basically secular forces in Jammu and Kashmir have been at loggerheads, which has opened up an alluring prospect for communal disruptors, both Hindu and Muslim.

A bizarre scenario unfolded when Sheikh Abdullah’s government mooted the much-talked-of bill for the resettlement of refugees from across the border from Pakistan. Certainly there was scope for sober and dispassionate discussion, and no doubt this would have happened had not the relations between the local Congress bosses and the National Conference already touched a record now. The issue involved was not the constitutional authority of the State Government to pass such a legislation but a more fundamental political question: if hundreds of thousands of Hindu refugees could be accepted although many were legally citizens of Pakistan; if as recently as 1971, thirty thousand Sindhis could be admitted and settled within the Indian Union—ignoring the protests of the Jana Sangh, let it be noted—why should several thousand Kashmiri Muslims be denied that opening? By raising this hue and cry against the Jammu and Kashmir Bill, are we not unwittingly subscribing to the theory that the Hindus alone have a homeland in India and not the Muslims—a theory which Pakistan’s military dictator flourishes to justify his warlike postures? With mutual respect for each other’s point of view, there is still scope for serious discussion to settle this controversy over the Bill, and let it be hoped that better sense will prevail now that the atmosphere is cleared at least partially by the Prime Minister’s visit to Kashmir and Sheikh Abdullah’s endeavour from his sickbed to respond to the need for understanding—a response which could be read in the National Conference decision to support the Congress-I candidate for this month’s President poll.

The urgency of settling amicably with Sheikh Abdullah has to be realised for both short-term and long-term national interests. It is absurd for New Delhi to enter into serious dialogue with Pakistan without mending fences with Sheikh Abdullah. Viewed in the wider context of the constant assault on the edifice of secularism by a frightening recrudescence of caste and communal violence in many parts of the country, the need for defending the bastion of secularism in Jammu and Kashmir assumes added importance. This can be ensured not by making a target of the National Conference but by enlisting it as an ally. It is tragic to find that the forces of the Left, expected to be forward-looking, have also often erred on this score.

The initiative taken by the Prime Minister for reforging links with Sheikh Abdullah has to be taken forward. Here lies the challenge to our statesmanship. By no means could secularism be upheld in Kashmir by sniping at Sheikh Abdullah whose secularist nationalism has held out like the towering chinar in all its majesty, through stress and storm for fifty long years. It is time that the nation recognised this and regarded this as a valuable asset in times like these.

(Mainstream, July 3, 1982)

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