More Than Kashmir Is At Stake This Time

Posted: August 19, 1990

The Mughals called it an earthly paradise. Today, the central symbol is Miltonian: paradise lost. This summer in Kashmir, India's northernmost state, the crush of tourists fleeing the heat of the Indian plains is gone, replaced by the heat of bomb fires and the rattle of gunfire.

There is a state of war between the national government and the people of Kashmir. This year alone, the armed forces and police have killed some 600 people and bombings and shootings by separatists and Muslim militants have claimed dozens of lives, including those of prominent civil and police officials.

However, for India, there is more at stake than lush forests and the glory of the Himalayas: Kashmir has called into question the secular nature of India and the future of democracy.

In this world's most populous democracy, the separate pull of its different religious, ethnic and linguistic groups has always been strong. However, 30 years of democracy has sown deep roots. Or had until recently. The conflicts in Kashmir and Punjab have shaken those roots more than a little loose.

In both the cases the axman has been that ubiquitous 20th-century terrorist - the religious militant. Religious militancy in India, however, has been aided by a corrupt and Machiavellian national government that has increasingly subverted democratic means, legitimized state violence and condoned extensive human-rights abuses.

The roots of the Kashmir conflict lie - as do much of India's communal problems - with the country's partition into Islamic Pakistan and a Hindu- dominated India in 1947. It was uncertain which way Kashmir - a Muslim- majority state ruled by a Hindu king - would go. It asked for a "stand still" agreement with both countries. But Pakistan attacked, claiming Kashmir as its territory. The Indian Hindu king with support from the chief Kashmiri leader, Sheik Abdullah, agreed to join India and an instrument of accession was signed to that effect.

While the legitimacy of the accession has remained a source of controversy, Kashmir has been part of the Indian political process - participating in state and national elections. More crucially, until recently the state's fundamentalist and pro-Pakistani parties have been on the fringe of Kashmir politics.

Much of the responsibility for Kashmir's staying with India went to one man - Sheik Muhammad Abdullah. A powerful, charismatic leader, he wanted an independent Kashmir nation, but chose India, despite being imprisoned for nearly five years by the Nehru government.

However, despite the sheik's commitment to India, Kashmir's special status has steadily eroded with increasing control by the national government and inadequate economic aid to the its poor economy. A succession of state governments were supported by the national government and then toppled when they didn't toe the line.

But the real erosion of Kashmir's democratic institutions didn't come until the 1980s when, ironically, the sheik's son, Farooq Abdullah, came to power.

In the 1987 state elections, Abdullah's National Congress and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi formed a coalition in what was seen as a historical setting aside of differences. However, the reality was different. As the leading Indian news magazine, India Today, put it, "The coalition rigged the polls, disenfranchised the people and robbed them of their sovereignty."

The ground was set for the current crises. Abdullah was seen as someone who had sold out to the national government, and a range of separatist and fundamentalist groups gained legitimacy.

The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a nationalistic organization, emerged as one of the leading secessionist groups. Earlier this year, they kidnapped and held hostage a prominent politician's daughter until five of their imprisoned colleagues were released.

For the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and other groups, the struggle is not just political. It is also religious. For groups like the Allah Tigers - who bomb video parlors and cinema halls (considered anti-religious) - the enemy is not just the state but a Hindu state.

That the majority of Kashmiris share the perception of the once-marginal groups is evident in their participation in huge rallies and demonstrations against the national government, which has responded with a policy of state terror. Police have fired on peaceful demonstrators, killing scores.

Investigations by a group of Indian human-rights activists published in the prominent Indian journal Seminar catalogues atrocities of state repression. They say that they found evidence of "indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests, unlawful searches and unprovoked assaults on peaceful demonstrators."

Further, the group claimed that "these cases of blatant violation of human rights were not isolated instances or aberrations, but operative extensions of an official policy."

Much of the force behind this official policy comes from the Hindu fundamentalist parties that have emerged as the power behind the new national government of V.P. Singh. The Bhartiya Janata Party, which is patently jingoistic in its call for a Hindu state, is encouraging a nascent wave of Hindu fundamentalism, following Hindu-Sikh conflicts in Punjab and now Hindu- Muslim tensions in Kashmir.

For India's democratic institutions, it is the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in Kashmir and Hindu fundamentalist parties that constitute the gravest threat. Until recently, secularism was built not only on the Indian constitution but was cultural - tied to a high prescription of tolerance and peace. If the Hindu fundamentalists have their way and cultural tolerance breaks down, democratic institutions can only be so far behind.

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