If Separatism is Dead, what then for Kashmir?

  • Matthew J. Webb
  • Publish Date: Feb 10 2016 4:17PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 8 2016 12:25AM
If Separatism is Dead, what then for Kashmir?

 

Writers who address the question of Kashmir’s political future often attempt to identify a distinctive angle, or perspective, from which to analyze the region’s troubled history and prospects. My own view has always been that what is, often unhelpfully, termed ‘the Kashmir issue’ needs to be seen within the wider context of economic development and changes to state sovereignty, both of which present challenges and opportunities in the search for a peaceful solution. After gaining independence from Britain the states of South Asia faced the difficulty of constructing a national identity that bound their diverse populations together. The result was a process that inevitably created winners, losers and opportunities for political entrepreneurs to carve out a sphere of influence in the chaos and changing environment that followed the 1947 partition of the sub-continent. A multitude of violent separatist conflicts ensued as ethnic and religious identities clashed with these nation-building projects, and leaders on both sides hijacked legitimate demands for greater political autonomy and national unity to satisfy their own selfish agendas.

Today the political landscape in both South Asia and around the world is markedly different. The collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, inclusion of China in the global economy, acceleration of processes of economic rationalization, integration of national economies and rise of transnational alliances, trading blocs and multi-national corporations have substantially and irrevocably altered the nature and extent of state sovereignty. Whereas once the state was indisputably the dominant international actor, today it competes and cooperates with a range of other bodies that perform sovereign functions. To understand the extent of this change one need only consider how the role of the state and extent of government influence has changed in India since the reforms of the Narasima-Rao and subsequent administrations deregulated the Indian economy. Prior to these reforms India’s economic and political landscape was heavily government-controlled with strong protectionist measures, state intervention in labor and financial markets, extensive bureaucratic control and effective nationalization of key industries such as electricity generation, steel-making, telecommunications and insurance. While many tasks remain undone and the benefits of past reforms have not been evenly distributed, economic liberalization has had a transforming effect. Foreign direct investment increased from US$132 million in 1991-92 to US$31 billion in the first half of 2015, GDP per capita soared from US$375 in 1990 to $1,498 in 2010 and other indicators such as private sector employment, land values, share price indices, international trade and the value of the Indian rupee witnessed dramatic increases.

Another remarkable change that accompanied these reforms has been the decline of separatist, but not political, violence in South Asia as shown in Fig.1. Clearly influenced by the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, and escalating Taliban violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, these statistics nonetheless demonstrate that, while rebellion against the government is an increasing problem in South Asia, separatism is not. In fact separatist-related deaths in South Asian states have fallen to near-negligible levels as conflicts such as those in Sri Lanka and Punjab are effectively ended and others, including in Kashmir, while not resolved, continue at much reduced levels of violence. Ongoing anti-government violence in many regions, including India’s northeast is more accurately categorized as ‘criminal activity’ or ‘lawlessness’ than ideologically-motivated rebellion, with Pakistan’s province of Balochistan the only large-scale separatist conflict currently of note in South Asia. Note that I am not suggesting that the ‘push’ factors responsible for violent separatism in places such as Kashmir (e.g. mis-governance, human rights abuses, economic under-development etc.) do not still pertain or that everyone is ‘happy’ with central rule. Rather, my point is simply that the motivations for, and dynamics of, political violence have changed and are generally no longer sufficient to sustain large-scale, mobilization by separatist groups.

Of more interest are the ‘pull’ factors. And it is here that my earlier point regarding changes in state sovereignty comes into play. Prior to economic reform the Indian state had acted as a political and economic leviathan. Centralization of policy-making, intervention in states’ economies and political processes (including the dismissal of democratically elected state governments on flimsy grounds as occurred in Kashmir) and other high-handed maneuvers made control of the state a valuable prize that reduced politics to a high stakes ‘winner takes all’ game. Moreover, the state’s extensive apparatus of coercion meant that power-holders possessed significant ability to perpetuate and extend their control through intelligence-gathering, law enforcement and military networks. In such a state of affairs political elites had an incentive to capture state power and an enhanced capacity for not sharing and holding onto it, while marginalized groups had a reduced incentive to ‘play by the rules of the game’ which they perceive as unfairly rigged against them. Today, these ‘pull’ factors do not apply and the state, having surrendered many of its powers and rent-generating capabilities, is a less attractive prize. Consequently, when political rebellion does occur it is generally not with the aim of establishing a new jurisdiction of state sovereignty through an act of secession, but instead to carve out zones of exception, change government policy or substantially weaken the ability of the government to impose its edicts. The allure of independent statehood is, for the most part, a thing of the past.

One interpretation of these changes might be that the state has less of an incentive to bargain with sub-groups; its authority already eroded it should strive to retain what limited authority it still possesses. An alternative understanding is that the state, being less of an attractive target for capture, has less to fear (and lose) from a process of negotiation with, and devolution to, sub-groups. I subscribe to the latter view. Indeed, India, for all its faults, has shown a remarkable willingness to devolve political authority to sub-regions. Kashmir’s Article 370 is one instance, the States Reorganisation Act (1956) and 2014 creation of Telangana are other examples. However, in the case of Kashmir, while India may have militarily defeated separatism, its sovereignty lacks a veneer of moral legitimacy in the eyes of many Kashmiris who continue to crave real control over their own affairs. My contention is that the decline in separatist violence, return to the ballot box, détente with Pakistan (and accompanying drop in cross-border infiltration) combined with realignments in state sovereignty offer new opportunities for Kashmiri political elites and the Indian government to open a meaningful dialogue.

In making these statements I assume a degree of realism that I believe is necessary for substantial progress to occur on the ground in Kashmir. The only act of secession to occur post-1947 in South Asia was the creation of Bangladesh that was feasible only with substantial Indian support. Similarly, no insurgent force in India has proven sufficiently potent to defeat the Indian military. Civil disobedience and militancy is capable of paralyzing economic, political and social life in aregion, but cannot ultimately force India’s hand. The ability of the Indian state to weather armed conflict is simply too great, its resources too vast and determination to maintain its territorial integrity insurmountable. Accordingly, if real progress is to be made on Kashmir’s political future – by which I mean an outcome that has the support of the Indian government and majority of Kashmiris – then it must be a degree of freedom less than independent statehood or accession to Pakistan. This, however, will require real concessions from India including a genuine attempt to redress past wrongs and improve the welfare of ordinary Kashmiris.

A good place to start would be the repeal (or substantial amendment) of security legislation that has effectively shielded government agents from legal responsibility. This includes the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) (1958), Maintenance of Internal Security Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (ULP) (1967), Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act(TADA) (1985-95), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) (2002) in addition to state-specific legislation such as the Jammu And Kashmir Disturbed Areas Act (1992). While ending the impunity that these acts confer is vital, it is far from sufficient to ensure a return to political normalcy and dialogue. In addition, because one would be hard pressed to find a family in Kashmir that has not suffered personal or financial loss as a result of the violence there, some sort of ‘truth and reconciliation’ committee is essential if India is to convince Kashmiris of the moral legitimacy of its position in Kashmir. The mandate of this committee should include past actions by both security personnel and militants, and the ability to recommend criminal proceedings in specific cases. Equally importantly, it should be empowered to investigate cases of unlawful disappearance and given the resources necessary to return to families the remains of victims where feasible.

Another concern is economic development and civilian infrastructure. Electricity generation, water purification, sewerage treatment, flood defenses and the ecological regeneration of Dal lake are all areas of immediate concern. In the past efforts to improve these fundamentals of economic and social life in the Valley were either inadequate or poorly managed. It is not lost on ordinary Kashmiris that while the Indian government spends countless millions of rupees on security in the state, it has abjectly failed to ensure access to basic necessities for many Kashmiris. Finally, a concerted effort must be made to clean up government in the state from the highest officials to the lowest ranks of the public service. Corruption, maladministration and a lack of redress for citizens have blighted public administration in the state for far too long. Federal legislation such as the Right to Information Act (2005) have proven potent weapons against corrupt practices, and has a state equivalent in the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act (2009). Other federal legislation such as the Prevention of Corruption Act (1988) and Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act (2013) present further scope for state-level legislation that, when backed up with competent and sufficiently empowered enforcement, offer an effective means to reducing corruption and malpractice.

These measures are starting points only that constitute minimum standards for a meaningful dialogue between the people of the state and center that might one day lead to a mutually acceptable agreement on Kashmir’s status. No doubt, there are many others. Even those who are in favor of Kashmir’s separation from India, or remain implacably opposed to any special accommodations, should support these measures as tangible steps towards improving the welfare of ordinary Kashmiris. For far too long the people of the state have had their futures held hostage to the whims of elites and privileged classes more interested in maintaining their own influence than benefitting those whom they are supposed to serve.

(Matthew J. Webb is the author of Kashmir’s Right to Secede: A Critical Examination of Contemporary Theories of Secession (Routledge, 2012) and co-editor of The Political Economy of Conflict in South Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)