16 May 2017

Exploring the Jammu & Kashmir Trilemma


My contention is that a united Jammu and Kashmir state will be a hindrance to a sustainable political process.

The Jammu and Kashmir trilemma

To explain why a united Jammu and Kashmir state is a hindrance, I propose a new framework to understand the issue- “The Jammu and Kashmir trilemma”.

A trilemma is a situation in which you have 3 options, but you can pick at most 2 out of the 3 possible options- you cannot pick all 3.

In case of J&K, the three legs of the trilemma are:

1. Addressing the democratic aspirations of Kashmir

2. Establishing a sustainable political process with disaffected Kashmiris

3. Addressing the democratic aspirations of Jammu

Let us take each leg of the trilemma to understand why a separation of the state is required:
Case 1: Option 1 + Option 2 — the case of 2002–2014

Case 1 was the situation during the UPA rule. J&K was first ruled by a coalition of PDP-Congress, followed by the National Conference and Congress coalition. This was a period where there was a dialogue of sorts with both the Kashmiris and with Pakistan.

However, this happened at the expense of the democratic aspirations of the people of Jammu. While the Congress party had won Jammu and was a coalition partner in the government, the administration was dominated by the PDP/National Conference and by Kashmiris.

Jammu’s interests were deprioritized (at least according to the people of Jammu) and there was a pervading sense of “Kashmiri dominance” and of the Congress party having sold out the interests of the people of Jammu for power.

With such an unstable equilibrium it was only a matter of time before the people of Jammu would democratically overthrow the Congress and vote for a party that represented their regional interests. Adding to that was a political mood of “nationalism” and protection of the interests of the “Hindus of Jammu”. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the BJP sweeping the Jammu region in 2015.

Hence, this case leads to an unstable equilibrium, a fugacious equilibrium.
Case 2: Option 2 + Option 3: The case of the final years of Governor’s rule (1994–1996)

Before the restoration of democracy in the election of 1996, reeling under a terrorist insurgency, J&K underwent long spells of Governor’s rule.

In this case, the democratic aspirations of Kashmiris were clearly compromised. However, a political process was still on, since the Indian state engaged with separatists (largely through intelligence agencies) and with Kashmiri political parties.

So, while democracy is suspended for the whole state, paradoxically, the democratic aspirations of Jammu are still largely met. Since the key political impulses of Jammu are “nationalism”, avoiding “domination by Kashmir”, and “protection of Hindu interests”, being ruled by Delhi is actually not a bad option for them, and hence one that meets their democratic aspirations.

However, the immediate goal of the Indian state in this phase is to restore democracy, for legitimacy. Negotiating with separatists without having an elected government in J&K for a prolonged period is not in the interests of the Indian state.

Such negotiation forecloses solutions whereby Kashmiri sub-nationalism can be sublimated within the normal democratic processes of the state; for example, by having local Kashmiri sub-nationalist or soft separatist parties keeping the Kashmiris within India (with the PDP and NC playing a somewhat similar role to the Akalis in Punjab, and the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, and many other regional parties, in giving a strong sense of securing their regional interests and identity, while still being part of the Indian state).

Therefore, even this equilibrium unstable, since the primary actor — the Indian state — would quickly try to restore democracy.
Case 3: Option 1 + Option 3 - The mess of today

The election of 2015 threw mixed results — mixed in the aggregate, but very clear in each region — with the PDP, representing Kashmiri sub-nationalism or soft separatism sweeping Kashmir; the BJP, representing the interests of the Hindus of Jammu sweeping Jammu, and the Congress winning Ladakh (which given the size of its population doesn’t affect the overall political direction of the state significantly).

Subsequently, the only stable governments that could be formed were a) A PDP-BJP coalition, that would represent the democratic aspirations of both regions or b) A PDP-NC coalition, that the National Conference proposed. The latter would have of course, led to an even greater sense of political dis-empowerment for the people of Jammu.

The coalition, however, only acts as a hindrance to a political process with Kashmiris. For in Kashmiris’ viewpoint, the BJP being part of the government means that Kashmir is under “Hindu rule”. This automatically causes massive alienation, preventing a political process. Even though the BJP won the Jammu region democratically, it is still seen as an illegitimate imposition of Hindu rule by Kashmiris.

This fundamental incompatibility of the political aspirations of both regions, and the fact that there is no larger Jammu and Kashmir common “imagined community” identity that both subscribe to, means that addressing the democratic aspirations of one will always cause disaffection in the other.

It is also understandable that there is no sense of a shared identity. After all, the state of Jammu and Kashmir had no religious, linguistic, or even ethnic commonality between themselves. J&K was a united political unit only because they were ruled by the same Maharaja; a Maharaja who the Kashmiris had already revolted against before independence!

While some people trace the current phase of the conflict to the killing of Burhan Wani, frankly that is just the trigger, not the cause. Kashmiris were already alienated significantly, even before Burhan Wani’s death, his killing just caused the immediate eruption of an already underlying emotion.

This can be proved by the fact that just a year after winning a landslide in the Kashmir valley, when Mufti Mohammed Sayeed died, very few Kashmiris turned up for his funeral. That was because they felt betrayed that the party they had elected to prevent “Hindu rule” in Kashmir had allowed a “back door entry” (from their standpoint) to the BJP.
Resolving the trilemma — lessons from history

With two parts of a state having fundamentally incompatible political aspirations, and with the states not sharing a sense of common identity which would allow them to peacefully reconcile with the others’ aspirations, a separation is not just required, but desirable.

Two examples from history are instructive: When the Awami League swept East Pakistan leading to an overall majority in the National Assembly of the united Pakistan, they were still considered usurpers and an illegitimate claimant for national power by West Pakistan. Zulfikar Bhutto’s response to that was “Udhar tum, idhar hum” (You rule there, and we will here), again because of a loss of a sense of common national identity. Separation was inevitable.

The second example is a counterfactual: Would Punjab have been an intractable problem to solve if it had been a united state? Greater Punjab, comprising modern Punjab, Haryana and Himachal was a united state that was separated only in 1966 after the “Punjabi Suba” movement led by Fateh Singh. If not for that, it would have mirrored the problem of Jammu and Kashmir, with a Sikh-majority, Punjabi speaking Punjab region (analogous to Kashmir); a Hindi/ Haryanvi speaking Haryana with a Hindu-majority (analogous to the Jammu region) and a hilly region of Himachal with tribals and other Hindus (analogous to Ladakh).

Fortunately, the state was already divided in 1966, while the political problem of a separatist Khalistani movement only erupted in the 1970s and 1980s. Had the state been united, the necessity to politically accommodate Hindu and Hindi aspirations under a united Punjab would have been a constant source of alienation for the already disaffected Punjabi Sikhs. A united state would have also delegitimized the regional/ ethinic party- the Akali Dal, as it would have had to pragmatically ally with a BJP or Congress (that would have won Haryana and Himachal) for power, which would have opened them up to accusations of selling out the interests of Punjabi Sikhs.

Instead, it became very possible for the Indian state to help solve the problem not just with the use of force (though the role of that cannot be underplayed), but by providing a sense of sub-national accommodation to Sikhs (such as the Rajiv-Longowal accord as well as secure political representation of Sikh interests by Akali-majority governments). The Indian state managed to achieve this without any backlash since the other regions of Haryana and Himachal already had democratic representatives and empowered Governments that could protect their interests.

Hence, without such a climate, a political process would be impossible to sustain as it faces constant backlash, push and pull from the stakeholders of different regions, with an escalating sense of competitive alienation.

The separation of Jammu and Kashmir is not a solution to the Kashmir problem. But it is a necessary precursor for a political process to emerge that can solve the problem since it breaks the fundamental trilemma.

India should confer statehood to Jammu, Union Territory status or statehood to Ladakh, and separate out the Kashmir Valley as a state. Then normal politics can be restored, with Kashmiris secure in their sub-national identity protected by the PDP or NC, which provides the right climate for political engagement with separatists, while having democratic governance.

At the same time, the aspirations of Jammu and Ladakh too will be addressed through normal democratic politics, and will not need to be sublimated to the needs of Kashmir.

If a full separation seems too extreme, we can also have radical devolution to newly created regional governments of Jammu and Ladakh, while still maintaining a united J&K government but with significantly reduced powers.
Will this weaken India’s case on Kashmir?

One concern that people would have is if this weakens India’s case on Kashmir. A united J&K has a substantial Hindu population, as well as Muslims in Jammu and Ladakh who are not disaffected, as well as a Buddhist population in Ladakh. The majority of the area of J&K state is also not Kashmir. Aren’t these big positives of keeping the state united as it allows us to point to these facts to prevent the secession of Kashmir from the Indian union?

In a word- No. Kashmir Valley is a part of India, not because of any of these reasons, but because simply the balance of power between India and Pakistan (as well as Kashmiri separatists) is heavily in India’s favour. International relations work on power, not by clever arguments in pleading a case. In any case, the regional, religious and linguistic diversity of united J&K has never prevented a separatist movement or Pakistani moves to use it to embarrass India internationally.

The pressure that India feels is directly related to a) The degree of alienation of the Kashmiri people b) The extent of India’s power globally. As India’s power has grown, as has its power distance with Pakistan, international pressure on India on Kashmir has only reduced.

There will be no change in India’s international power, or the balance of power with Pakistan, with an internal state reorganization. But it does give us a foundation to start addressing the alienation of the Kashmiri people. Hence, the separation of the state will only be beneficial even for India’s case on Kashmir.

Will our political establishment bite the bullet?

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