End of India-Pakistan Conflict over Kashmir in Sight?
By Siddique Malik

A lot has been made of Gandhi’s meeting with the ruler of Kashmir around the time of the partition of India. Some people believe that he encouraged Maharaja Hari Singh to merge his Muslim majority state with India rather than Pakistan. Some others have accused him of harboring softness towards Muslims; in fact it was one such accuser-turned-fanatic who later murdered Gandhi. However, it is hard to imagine a philosopher of the heights of Gandhi entering the dark, narrow and filthy alleys of bigotry, and making illegal, immoral and unethical maneuvers to gain territory for the people of his faith at the expense of the people of another faith.

History proves that by reaching the heights of dynamism, charisma and philosophical acumen, one engenders intense reactions from many quarters. Fair-minded people of all persuasions love such a person because in him/her they see vindication of human equality and dignity. Close-minded people of all persuasions hate this soul, because he/she, by nature, constitutes an anathema to their insecurities and prejudices. Mohandas Gandhi like other giants of human history (Abraham Lincoln for one) was no exception to this rule. Ironically, they both lost their lives to the bullets of assassins who felt threatened by these icons’ humanistic zeal and mission.

The Maharaja’s unfair decision to unilaterally merge Kashmir with India without thoroughly consulting his people, undoubtedly gave birth to the Kashmir problem. But this man could be forgiven for his aloofness towards the wishes of his people. How was a dynastic ruler to know the pulse of the people? However, the problem was solidified when the control passed to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and one of its founding fathers.

In a period of about 15 years, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe changed from being a world-acclaimed freedom fighter who drove the colonialists away form his country to being a typical Third World power-hungry dictator who would stop at nothing to cling to illegal power, at the expense of his people. After gaining independence for his country, instead of cultivating the institutions of freedom, democracy and accountability so that his people could enjoy the fruits of independence, he set out to reinforce his personal powers, repeatedly running for office in increasingly murky elections. Consequently, today, the people of Zimbabwe are experiencing a living hell. The economy is in shambles in a country full of natural resources, and inflation out of control; a bus ride across town in the capital Harare costs half the average monthly salary. The midnight knock at the door has become a tool of governing. The state of human rights in Zimbabwe, today, is much worse than it was under the rule of colonialists. To the detriment of his country and its people, Mugabe has become the poster boy for the aphorism: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. To Africa’s disgrace, another Mbuto is in the making.

However, it is ironic and surprising that a man of the stature of Nehru took the Mugabe plunge within months of having gained independence for his country, even though he indulged in Mugabe-style suppressive behavior only partially. He cultivated democracy in India but kept the seed of democracy far away from the people of Kashmir, becoming their chief suppressor. In the early days of the problem, he had pledged to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir but later reneged, hardly a democratic stance.

Had Nehru allowed Kashmiris even the muted sovereignty that the British Empire had allowed Indians, the issue of Kashmir would have been solved in its infancy. One wonders how could Nehru continue to hold free and fair elections in India while disallowing Kashmiris the right to decide over their own fate? A man who months earlier fought for freedom became its usurper. What suddenly happened to his conscience?

Since Nehru hailed from Kashmir, perhaps, he did not want India to be devoid of Kashmir. He continued to avoid plebiscite for the fear that Kashmiris, if given the choice, would bail out of India. Or, perhaps he expected that Pakistan was going to fail as a country and consequently would come back crawling towards reunion with India, making the issue of Kashmir defunct; and he was trying to buy time.

Yet another possible reason could be the simple ‘sibling rivalry’ between India and Pakistan both of which had the same mother, the British India. Both these countries desperately wanted Kashmir to become their federating unit, and ignored the aspirations of the people of Kashmir. This denial of a people’s right to decide their own destiny degenerated into a terrible sore that over the years cost many lives.

Approximately three decades after Nehru faced the possibility of his ancestral land leaving the country of which he had become the prime minister, thousands of miles away, another prime minister faced the same emotionally taxing possibility. But this prime minster handled the situation by relying on the powers of democracy rather than the skills of his army's sharp shooters.

A separatist movement has existed in the Canadian province of Quebec for a long time. In the late seventies, a native Quebecois, the legendary Pierre Elliot Trudeau was Canada’s prime minister, when the separatist party won the provincial election, and its leader, Rene Levesque, after taking over as provincial premier vowed to hold a referendum over the issue of separation from Canada.

Emotions on both sides ran high but instead of dispatching troops to stymie the referendum, Trudeau, as the prime minister of the whole of Canada, took his case straight to the people of Quebec, presenting arguments in favor of staying in Canada.

On May 20, 1980, the people of Quebec voted on a yes-no referendum and in the evening, soon after the result came out (60%-40% in favor of Canada), a humbled prime minister addressed the nation. He did not gloat over victory but expressed sorrow over the fact that 40% of the Quebecois had decided to leave Canada. He promised to work hard to undo their feelings of alienation, and he kept his word. Shortly after the referendum, Trudeau initiated a process of national dialogue, involving all provinces, to develop a new constitution that was going to acknowledge and grant Quebec’s distinct status within Canada.

His tireless efforts culminated in the emergence of a constitutional draft upon which all provincial premiers including Quebec’s Levesque signed. It was then adopted by the parliament as the country’s constitution replacing the British North America Act that had hitherto acted as Canada’s de-facto constitution. On April 17, 1982, the Queen of England who is also the Head of State of Canada, in an impressive ceremony in the lawns of the Canadian parliament, signed the new constitution into life (this scribe stood close enough to see the Queens’ pen turn the page of history). I vividly remember seeing immense joy and pride on the face of Prime Minister Trudeau who stood by the Queen, having saved his country from disintegration, succeeded in consolidating Quebec’s role within Canada and clearly earned a spot in history for himself, without a shot being fired or any one even getting a bruise. Alas, India never had a Trudeau.

By the time Nehru died, the Kashmir issue had become an effective tool for Indian rulers and politicians. It came in handy whenever the need arose to shift the Indian electorate’s focus away from the bread and butter matters of the day. Because of India’s socialistic tendencies of its early years, these matters were often of significant nature. It was only when Dr. Manmohan Singh (the current prime minister) as finance minister liberalized Indian economy that the economic tide started to turn in India. It would thus not be surprising if a solution to the Kashmir problem were reached under his stewardship.

India’s leaders have been terribly unfair to their country. It is truly disgraceful that the world’s largest democracy with otherwise great democratic credentials would not allow the people of Kashmir, whom it calls its own citizens, to vote over their own destiny. When you have democracy, why fear the outcome of a vote or a plebiscite?

Indian parliament maintains empty seats in the house supposedly reserved for representatives of the part of Kashmir that is under Pakistani control? What about the democratic rights of the people of the Indian side of Kashmir? They may have representation in the parliament but what about their real aspirations?

If India had given democracy a full chance, one likely outcome would have been Kashmir becoming an independent country, making Pakistan irrelevant. Pressure on Pakistan would then have mounted to give its Kashmiris the same choice. By being stubborn on Kashmir, India has given Pakistan the very relevance that it for 57 years has tried very hard (but unsuccessfully) to keep away from Pakistan. It is pointless to even talk about Pakistan’s consequent irrelevance, if Kashmiris would have opted to stay in India.

Of course, there is a possibility that Kashmiris would have opted for Pakistan but the possibility of this materializing shortly after the 1947 partition of India was not as great as it subsequently became owing to India’s continued aversion to democracy in Kashmir. Even if Kashmiris had decided to opt for Pakistan, the credit for a solution to a thorny issue would have gone to India and she would have become an undisputed moral and democratic leader in the region. Today, such a stature would have helped India as it tries to attain permanent membership in the Security Council.

Instead of propelling India towards the future with the power of foresight, its leaders chose the blinding strategy of fomenting and abetting tension with neighboring Pakistan. It is surprising and saddening that no Indian leader even tried to explore the possible outcome of a plebiscite. Obviously, India never had a visionary like Gorbachev, at the helm.

Of course, Pakistan could have taken the lead in this arena and made India irrelevant but Pakistan’s problem was its democracy handicap. While its people were suppressed by feudal lords cum politicians in conjunction with religious bigots and army generals, its attempts to lease the vehicle of democracy to the people of Kashmir would have looked cant. At the risk of sounding repetitive, one would assert that India did not have such a handicap in mainland India. Therefore, India had a better chance of upstaging Pakistan than Pakistan had of upstaging India. As it turned out India and Pakistan were pretty darn unwise enemies. One hopes they are going to be smarter friends than they were enemies.
India has finally realized that Pakistan’s strategy of trying to rule over dead bodies that failed in East Pakistan is also not going to work for India in Kashmir. Moreover, Pakistan has realized that it is never going to ‘conquer’ Kashmir, no matter how many ‘jehadis’ may converge on the Line of Control. Thanks to America that it has put its persuasive techniques to work in making these realizations possible.

In the past, Pakistan army generals have torpedoed any attempt to solve the Kashmir problem. However, it looks like that this time, the junta wants a solution, thanks to Uncle Sam’s phone calls. A solution to the problem may very well be in the cards.

The Himalayas that have wept over the plight of Kashmiris for many long years must now be smiling over recent positive developments. One hopes that this thaw will continue until the meltdown is complete. If this disappoints those who oppose the meltdown and would rather live under illusions, then let it be their turn to weep.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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