Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Conflicting Claims on the Kashmir Question

I was intrigued by two contrasting articles in the current issue of Frontline. One by Praveen Swami analyzing the historical political currents in J&K notes that the National Conference (NC) led by Sheikh Abdullah played on communal sentiments as much as other parties and is as responsible for the communal divide between Jammu and Kashmir as the others. A second by Noorani portays the late Sheikh as the epitome of transparency and statesmanship who was deeply wronged by Nehru. Historical perspective apart, Noorani insists on tying the J&K problem to Nehru's treatment of Abdullah. He claims that this slight was never forgiven by the people of that state and the road ever since his imprisonment in 1953 on trumped-up charges has gone steadily downhill.

Noorani has made this point in articles many times before. He routinely insists on tying the latest Kashmiri uprising to perceived slights of the past. This is something the NC leadership also claims - Farooq Abdullah used to throw a similar charge at New Delhi when he was the CM and I would not be surprised if Omar now asserts the same. But beyond the NC faithful, do the Kashmiri streets hold such a feeling? There is no evidence of that which makes it hard to take this view seriously. Also, one must not forget that J&K politics has taken several turns over the course of the last six decades. The NC under Abdullah which held out for a negotiable version of azadi for a long time through the '50s and '60s made its peace with India in 1975 when Sheikh Abdullah signed the Kashmir accord with Indira Gandhi. In what has been termed a completely free election, the NC under his leadership also won the subsequent assembly election in 1977 - the idea that the 1975 accord had no popular legitimacy at that time is debunked by this fact.

The accord however did not end the movement for azadi: while it allowed the mainstream NC to settle down to business as usual, it forced the opposition to offer a more extreme version of azadi repudiating the association with India. As the violence escalated towards the end of the '80s, the agenda of the opposition was steadily galvanized by the backing of the various militant outfits. Not surprisingly, the demand for azadi, always latent and implicit in the accord itself, got a new lease of life. The current struggle being led by the Hurriyat thus has its origin in the non-NC opposition. Geelani and co. care little about the compromises the NC made and are anxious to undo them. They are not particularly bothered by what happened to Sheikh Abdullah even if they are willing to deploy his treatment as a rhetorical point. The idea that Abdullah's shoddy treatment has left open a wound that now festers is a figment of Noorani's imagination - it was sutured and closed in 1975 and has given no further cause for trouble ever since. What we have now is a new wound that, despite being relatively disinfected, has turned into an abscess and continues to plague the body. It remains to be seen whether the UPA will manage to drain it and restore normalcy or will allow the past to be repeated albeit in a new form with a different set of actors.

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