By Jyoti Thottam Thursday, Sep. 04, 2008
When I left New York City for New Delhi earlier this year, I thought Kashmir would be a "good news" story. The valley had been relatively quiet for years, and in April and May Kashmir was celebrating record numbers of tourists. By August, however, normalcy had been replaced by strife, death, curfews and checkpoints. The immediate cause of the conflict this time was a dispute between Muslims and Hindus over 100 acres (40 hectares) of land near the Amarnath shrine in the Kashmir valley, which Indian authorities had granted to a Hindu pilgrim group. A compromise now gives the group exclusive use, but not permanent title, to the land — which they will use to build temporary shelters during their annual trek — and the protests have subsided. But the prospect of losing any territory has brought back to the surface the decades of unresolved anger Kashmiris have bottled up against the Indian government.
India and Pakistan fought over Kashmir after partition, and a Kashmiri separatist movement has been fighting to eject Indian troops from the region since 1989. The separatists' trump card has always been the threat to join Pakistan, which supported them with guns and guerrillas. India eventually silenced the separatists with force, but Amarnath has reignited their movement. The cries of "Azadi" (Freedom) and the Pakistani flags waving above the crowd of 500,000 people at one particularly fierce protest on Aug. 18 made the point that Kashmiris were once again ready to leave India.
This time, many Indians seem willing to let them go. "Why are we still hanging on to Kashmir if the Kashmiris don't want to have anything to do with us?" wrote columnist Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times. "Is it time the K-word got out of India, and India out of the K-word?" asked political satirist Jug Suraiya in the Times of India. Novelist Arundhati Roy argued that "India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much — if not more — than Kashmir needs azadi from India."
These are words that, in India, one rarely says aloud. Through military force, acts of Parliament and two wars with Pakistan, India has held on tightly to Kashmir, and its attachment has always been a bit romantic. It isn't just the beauty of its lush valleys and jewel-like lakes. Kashmir is a test of the Indian national idea. Insisting that Muslim-majority Kashmir should and can be a part of Hindu-majority India speaks to the notion, admirable but perhaps naive, that a coherent, secular democracy can be fashioned out of dozens of different languages and faiths. To hold on to Kashmir, even by force, was to pledge, implicitly, that the people of Kashmir would be better off as a part of India than as a part of Pakistan.
What does it say about India that people are losing faith, or losing interest, in Kashmir? It is a sign of frustration, first of all, with India's political failure to live up to that promise of unity in diversity. Over the years, the Indian government has poured millions of dollars of aid into Kashmir and spent millions more putting down the separatist insurgency. But it fails to understand that peace isn't just the absence of fighting. It's in the political details: withdrawing the half-million Indian troops who still occupy Kashmir, developing the local economy and, most importantly, accounting for what human-rights groups say are widespread abuses committed against Kashmiri civilians by the military.
The Indian government hasn't addressed these tough issues, leaving Kashmir angry and restive. And so all it took to shatter Kashmir's fragile peace was one blunder — the tone-deaf move this summer to transfer those 100 acres of land near Amarnath. It set off not one but two ferocious protest movements — by Hindu nationalists and by Kashmiri separatists — who have fueled each other's frenzy.
Indians seem to have come to terms with the idea that the separatists really are Kashmiri — not some proxy force sent in from the shadows of Pakistan. But that only makes it easier to see Kashmir as yet another one of India's secessionist struggles, to be subdued and eventually co-opted. Today, the possibility of losing Kashmir to Pakistan seems remote: Pakistan has its own insurgencies to worry about, and if the people of Kashmir ever get their long-promised plebiscite, it's unlikely that they would choose to trade India's occupation for Pakistan's instability.
Of course, it's equally unlikely that any Indian government would actually let go of Kashmir. But if India loses its quixotic attachment to Kashmir, the state could become just like any other place in India where millions of grievances go unheard as a busy nation turns its attention elsewhere. And the romance would end, as romances usually do, in indifference.