Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Kashmir Conundrum: A Simple Complexity

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 42, October 9, 2010

Kashmir Conundrum: A Simple Complexity

Thursday 14 October 2010, by Ajay K. Mehra



Identity Politics in Jammu and Kashmir by Rekha Chowdhary (ed.); Vitasta Publishing, New Delhi; 2010; pp. 470; Rs 895.

“We have decided to work with and die for India…. We made our decision not in October last, but in 1944, when we resisted the advances of Mr Jinnah. Our refusal was categorical. Ever since the National Conference has attempted to keep the State clear of the pernicious two-nation theory while fighting the world’s worst autocracy.”

—Sheikh Abdullah at a press conference on March 6, 1948 (The Statesman, March 7, 1948)

Reaffirming similar sentiments in an address to the Gandhi Memorial College at Jammu on December 3, 1948, Sheikh Abdullah said:

Kashmiris would rather die following the footsteps of Gandhiji than accept the two-nation theory. We want to link the destiny of Kashmir with India because we feel that the ideal before India and Kashmir is one and the same.

Later following India’s republican Constitution coming into force, he said in a manner of forceful reassertion:

The real character of a State is revealed in its Constitution. The Indian Constitution has set before the country the goal of a secular democracy based upon justice, freedom and equality for all without distinction. This is the bedrock of modern democracy. This should meet the argument that the Muslims of Kashmir cannot have security in India, where the large majority of the population are Hindus. Any unnatural cleavage between religious groups is the legacy of imperialism …. The Indian Constitution has amply and finally repudiated the concept of a religious State, which is a throwback to medievalism…. The national movement in our State naturally gravitates towards these principles of secular democracy. (Quoted by M.J. Akbar, Kashmir: Behind the Vale, Viking, New Delhi, 1991, p. 141)

It is unusual to begin the review of a book by copious quotes from a leader. However, reviewing an edited volume on identity politics in Jammu and Kashmir at a time when dominant images from the Vale of Kashmir are wails from thousands in unison for daily deaths (many of those killed being in their teens) in security operations against stone-pelting protesters, large crowds (including young children and women) throwing stones at the armed security forces despite daily loss of precious lives and members of the security forces felled either by a chase by the protesting citizens or stones thrown by them, compels bringing in the perspective at the time of Kashmir’s accession to India. Maharaja Hari Singh might have been a reluctant party to the accession, later even to progressive land reforms in the State, but not Sheikh Abdullah, being credited with assertive accession of Jammu and Kashmir to independent India. He was later to be incarcerated for eleven years in the Kashmir Conspiracy Case of 1953 eventually being brought back as the Chief Minister after the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah pact in 1974. However, turmoil in the Valley since then has been unending, let alone Pakistan’s proxy war with India in the region with its soldiers of terror. Obviously, the Sher-e-Kashmir might have been the undisputed leader in his life-time, but the party he founded and put at the vanguard of the Kashmir movement and the next two generations of his family, to whom he had bequeathed the leadership of Kashmir in his life-time, no longer command support and respect even in the Valley, leave aside the entire State.

Further, there are contrastingly varying views on whether the once proudly flaunted Kashmiriyat as a symbol of a secular and peaceful culture of the Valley ever existed—variously social and political fora of the Kashmiri Pandits contest if Kashmiriyat was ever a reality—or it still exists, particularly after the mass flight of the Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 and increasing mobilisation for azadi and against India through mosques with Islamist slogans. Whatever the reality, in the State of Jammu and Kashmir it is the Valley of Kashmir that is the real apple of discord. The Valley consists of 15,520 sq kms of the 222,236 sq kms comprising the entire State (seven per cent) and its 5,476,970 people form 53.9 per cent (97.16 per cent Muslims) of the State’s total population of 10,143,700 (2001). Increasingly since the weakening influence of the National Conference, there is no single party that commands a support base throughout the State. As political reactions escalated in Jammu to the violent protests in the Valley against Amarnath land row during May-August 2006, the socio-political divide in the State became evident as also the intentions of certain political parties to create and ensure support bases on regional and communitarian basis rather than in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Obviously, despite the distinctiveness of the Valley, the current and persisting political problems of the State deserve to be understood holistically.

THIS is where the book under review, ably edited by Rekha Chowdhary, an eminent political scientist who has been observing and studying the politics of the Jammu and Kashmir State from the vantage point of her faculty position in the Jammu University, helps us. Consisting of 20 chapters organised in five sections and an Introduction, the volume has come at a time when the Kashmir Valley is on the boil all over again and umpteen times in recent decades. As young and old, men and women in the Valley descend on the streets with stones in their hands to be hurled at the police and security forces symbolising the might of the Indian state, two identities, of being a Kashmiri (regional) and being a Kashmiri Muslim (religio-regional), are at the forefront in the current stage of the movement. Though some of the leaders do mention Jammu and Kashmir in their rhetoric, the people of other regions of the State—Jammu, Ladakh, and so on—despite having been affected by the politics of terror for two decades and having witnessed half-a-war waged by Pakistan in Kargil, have never been part of this movement. The movement, which is turning increasingly violent, has been described variously as separatist, for greater autonomy, based on identity and against the repressive policies of the Government of India. Further, despite the claims that the movement is for azadi of Jammu and Kashmir, in reality the slogan of azadi is confined only to the Valley and Muslims.

This necessitates understanding the Jammu and Kashmir imbroglio from the perspective of identity, which this book has set out to do. Twenty essays in the book have been organised in five sections: (i) Identities and Politics in Jammu and Kashmir; (ii) Religion, Identities and Inter-community Relations; (iii) Exodus and Identity Politics of Kashmiri Pandits; (iv) Identity Politics of Women and Dalits; and (v) The Other Kashmir. Rekha Chowdhary’s editorial Intro-duction puts in context the intricacy of the multifaceted socio-political issues which create the scorching issue that Jammu and Kashmir is. No wonder the peace process in 2002-03 further augmented the ‘sharpening of multiple identity politics’. ‘It triggered claims and counter-claims activating not only various identity politics but also bringing to the centre-stage the question of representation in a very big manner.’ Obviously, while the Kashmiri identity, which due to the predominance of Islam in the Valley, particularly since the controversial mass exodus of the Kashmiri Pundits in 1990, has been controversial because of its mono-dimensional religious nationalism seeking ‘azadi’, the multi-dimensional contexts of diversity in Jammu and Ladakh in themselves as well as in the larger context of the State, but for a reactive reassertion in the case of the Amarnath Yatra controversy in 2008, has been dormant. But Chowdhary’s introductory conceptualisation hints at a ‘reactive identity’ assertion emerging out of relative regional deprivation, different manifestations of a multi-layered minority-majority complex and over-lapping identities: social, cultural, linguistic and political.

She also flags the fascinating, though significant, political expression of identity in Jammu and Kashmir both from the theoretical and governance perspectives—beginning from the accession of the ‘riyasat’ of a reluctant Hindu Maharaja with majority Muslim subjects to India, to the extent of ‘autonomy’ in the unionist federation of India, to debating ‘azadi’. This multifaceted and multi-directional journey of the Kashmir issue is in reality rarely discoursed even by the Kashmiri leaders espousing ‘azadi’ from the Friday pulpits of mosques in the Valley, using the fully mobilisational potential of the religious identity, as the issue of Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh (whichever order is considered politically correct) and several other sub-identities the troubled State contains, gets complicated.

THE first section on ‘Identities and Politics in Jammu and Kashmir’ contains seven essays—by Balraj Puri, Riyaz Punjabi, Neera Chandhoke, Gul Mohammad Wani, Mohammad Ishaque Khan, Rekha Chowdhary and Sonam Chosjor. Analysing identities in what he calls a ‘mulit-plural’ State, Puri concludes that ‘non-recognition or regional identities—constitutionally and politically—encourages communal identities’, whereas ‘regional, ethnic and liguistic identities are the most effective cementing force between different religious communities’. The challenges in the new context for the multiple identities that have coexisted for centuries, according to Punjabi, is ‘to reallocate them mainly in their cultural domain’. He emphasises the role of the ‘accommodative and assimilative edges of Kashmir identity….’

Neera Chandhoke attributes the current conflict to the breakdown of the Rosseauvian social contract in the State (p. 63), which provides an interesting context to discourse J&K (not merely Kashmir, the Valley). While she appropriately and significantly emphasises the obvious that ethnic conflict is about who will control power and institutional weaknesses coming in the way of power-sharing and ensuring cultural rights (p. 74), in the context of the current autonomy demands in various States she rightly asserts that the prospect of every ethnic group having its own State is unsustainable. A multi-ethnic India must learn to sustain multi-ethnic States. Wani’s analysis puts in historical and current socio-political perspectives the various attributes of ‘Kashmiriyat’, which has not been able to resolve the identity question that the post-colonial state system created in British India. If it questions the Indian identity of Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri identity of Kashmiri Pundits, it creates a sufficiently rough political surface. And Khan only supports Wani’s analysis that the Kashmiri identity has veered closer to the Muslim and Islamic identity. Rekha Chowdhary delves deep into identity in a heterogeneous Jammu region, where Hindu-Muslim identity blurs due to coexistence and overlaps with caste and tribe. If ‘neglect’, real and perceived, leads to religion based ethnic mobilisation, Chowdhary points to the Jammu region’s neglect being appropriated historically as well as in the current sensitive situation by the political Right—the RSS, BJS/BJP and Praja Parishad. Obviously, the power politics that Chandhoke refers to aggravates the regional discontent and its use on the political stage. Jammu’s neglect and consequently aggravated regionalism is further accentuated by the centrality of the political conflict in Kashmir, reducing the negotiating capacity of that region’s elites with both the State and Centre. No wonder the low economic indices obiviously aggravate sub-regional discontent. Under current political circumstances some Governors also indulge in political games, complicating matters. While Chowdhary refers to Ladakh, Sonam Chosjor illustrates how this idyllic land remains an ignored dimension of the Kashmir discourse.

Five essays in section II (Religion, Identities and Inter-community Relations) raise a serious debate. Rekha Chowdhary shows how the religious undertone arising out of the 1987 election took over the 1989 eruption, though the Valley Muslims did not appeal to other co-religionists in the State. The religious dimension got further highlighted due to the targeted terrorist killings and the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pundits of the State from the Valley and gave rise to new slogans. Chowdhary’s attempt to unravel the Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pundit dichotomy has the potential to take this debate further in the socio-political and policy realms, particularly her analysis that the tragic events of 1990 have led to an imagined construction of a historical divide by the Pundits, while the Muslims nurse the grievance that the Pundits never supported Kashmiri nationalism as they identified with the Hindus of India. The merit of the analysis is in steering clear of partisanship.

Mohammad Ashraf Wani refers to the beginning of the religion-based economic nationalism amongst the Valley Muslims, who began education 1950s onwards, but jobs began drying up soon. Though religion has been an important rallying point, Kashmiri nationalism did not begin as jihadi nationalism. Yoginder Sikand focuses on the socio-cultural and religious syncretism that brought Sufi shrines in the Jammu region creating voices that critique both the radical Islamists as well as Right-wing Hindu groups. He makes a strong case for them to be heard. Though a minuscule minority and invisible, the Sikhs are an important component of the society in the Kashmir Valley and have generally been accepted there. Ravinderjit Kaur argues that Chittisinghpura and Mehjoornagar (2001) have bruised the Sikh psyche, but their stay in the Valley after the exodus of the Kashmiri Pundits has been appreciated by the locals and separatists alike. Lalit Gupta analyses the emerging consciousness amongst the Jammu Muslims, who are not part of the Valley agitation, upholding a distinct identity in the State and more particularly in the region that has witnessed the rise of Hindu Rightist politics in response to the separatist and autonomist demands in the Valley. Obviously, these are significant indicators for future political articulation.

Section III (Exodus and Identity Politics of Kashmiri Pandits) has three essays analysing a vital aspect and phase of both identity and contemporary politics of Kashmir. Shyam Kaul, Pramathesh Raina and Badri Raina in brief articles bring out millions of paradoxes that are packed in the history, society and current politics of the Kashmiri Pandit community, each paradox also being a part of the history, society and current politics of the Valley. Naturally, each of the authors, themselves members of the famed community, perceptively deal not only with the contributions of this community to the culture of the community, which was indeed carried over with the conversion to Islam of several of them as Kashmiri Hinduism represented a distinct cultural stream, but the pathos and psychological disorder that the post-1990 exile has brought to them. There are two significant aspects of the discourse here under the current situation. First, whether they can go back and would be accepted by their Muslim brethren in the Valley; this shows a dilemma. Second, the desire to be back in any case, reflected in the proposal by Pramathesh Raina to set up a village for them.

Krishna Misri, Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, Vibhooti Ubbott and P.S. Verma analyse ‘Identity Politics of Women and Dalits’ in section IV. The first three discuss womanhood and gendered identity in a region in turmoil for six decades, particularly for the past two decades. Misri covers a large canvas to bring out that though the role of the Kashmiri women has been recognised in literature and history, there have been not-so-complimentary references too. More important indeed is her perceptive analysis of their difficult existence in terror-torn and militarised situations, both of which pry on the perceived soft existence of womanhood. Though this has made them tough, they have come out on the streets, participated in their own way in politics, do they have an autonomous existence and status vis-à-vis their menfolk? Jamwal almost complements Misri’s arguments when she says that ‘gender identity in Jammu and Kashmir, however, continues to play a subservient role to the larger political identity based on the caste, religion and regional divide’. Ubbott focuses on the Amarnath issue and concludes that women came out so openly for the Amarnath issue, but not for their own gender issue; in fact, they did not have a scope to do so, as has been the case of women in such situations worldwide.

Verma’s detailed and comprehensive essay on Dalits dissects the status of this tormented community of the Indian society in a State where they are concentrated only in a few areas. Though not divided like in other States, their politics does not have an autonomous status in Jammu and Kashmir.

FINALLY, Ershad Mahmud’s comprehensive discussion on the ‘Socio-Political Reality of Pakistan Administered Kashmir’ presents an important perspective, generally missing in discussions on Jammu and Kashmir. Though not part of the Vale of Kashmir, the ‘other Kashmir’ had its share of underdevelopment pre-1947, and due to the forced partition continued with underdevelopment that resulted in considerable migration, which brought in a remittance economy with its consequence. Not ‘integrated’ into the Pakistani polity, its politics is not autonomous of Pakistan. However, what Mahmud has been able to highlight in his simple analytical narrative is the diversity that Dogra-ruled J&K contained.

This gives rise to some very fascinating contemplative as well as reflective research questions. What would have happened if Jammu and Kashmir was (a) not divided, and (b) not disputed in the manner in which it has been done? I reckon, despite the hypotheticity in these questions, answers from any quarter are likely to be difficult. From the vocal discordant voices in the Kashmir Valley in India, to the ‘Kashmir’ across the border, to the political echoes from the Raisina Hill in Delhi and the power architecture in Islamabad—all refer to the dispute of Jammu and Kashmir, but in effect refer to issues arising out of the Kashmir Valley.

The essays in the volume lay bare the diversity of the ‘State’, which anywhere is a political rather than a natural construct, that brings out how politically slender the ‘dispute’ is from the perspective of the myriad people that inhabit its tough terrain of Jammu, Rajouri, Poonch, Kargil, Kashmir, Ladakh, Mirpur, Gilgit, Northern Areas or any smaller part one may like to mention. Indeed, underdevelopment of each of the areas, barring smaller pockets housing the officialdom, is the only stark reality, though the figures of fund transfers from New Delhi to Srinagar would perhaps defy it. Yet, underdevelopment is least of the issues in the ‘dispute’ and voices of Jammu-Kashmiris (the only hyphenated State in India that makes it difficult to address people with a singular identity noun) on this are unheard. Naturally, for the people to take a position also on the ‘dispute’ with a singular or integrated identity would perhaps be impossible.

Another interesting question that facts and discussions in this book, Mahmud’s article in particular, throw up is this: what if ‘Azad’ Kashmir too directs the echo of the chant of azadi in tandem with the people of the Kashmir Valley to the Government of Pakistan? Given the current boiling cauldron in the Valley, we need to read this book in search of a resolution.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director (Honorary) of the Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA, and editor of the ICSSR Journal of Abstracts and Reviews in Political Science. He can be contacted at

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.