Mirage of the Secular State

  • Bilal Handoo
  • Publish Date: May 11 2017 2:31AM
  • |
  • Updated Date: May 11 2017 2:31AM
Mirage of the Secular State

Prof Sumantra Bose, grandson of Subhas Chandra Bose, dismantles the ‘secular argument’ for India’s control of Kashmir


The moment he took those smalls strides towards the stage set for the “secular talk”, the resemblance with his grandfather was unmistakable: the baldy appearance, the demeanour, the somewhat similar spectacles. 

But unlike Subhash Chandre Bose, Prof Sumantra Bose wore no fatigues, and clearly this old hand on Kashmir, who documented the valley in its thickest years of war, wasn’t to get bogged down by his grandfather’s weighty legacy. He was very much carrying his own on the stage. 

In Srinagar’s Tagore Hall, where the audience was mixed -- lawmakers, columnists, academics, journalists, activists, students -- Bose stood up in remembrance of his friend Ved Bhasin on his 88th birth anniversary. It was Labour Day and like a tell-it-all professor, he talked about how he discussed Kashmir over drinks with the late editor, who was known for taking the state head-on and was Bose’s “eyes and ears” in Kashmir. 

The professor’s talk was titled “The End of the Secular State? Reflections on India and Turkey”, the strongmen now governing the two countries -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, both of whom he called the 21st century versions of ancient Roman god Janus -- were having a political rendezvous in Delhi. But Kashmir was inevitable.

Kashmiris are both prize exhibits and prime victims of the Indian secular state, he began. “New Delhi has not handled Kashmir in a right way. We all know what was being practised in Kashmir in the name of secular. Human rights abuse of Kashmiris by New Delhi was chronic.” 

Bose’s meticulous Kashmir mapping comes from his erudite punditry. As a professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he specialises in the study of ethnic and national conflicts and their management, with a particular focus on Kashmir, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. His publications include Kashmir: The Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace and Contested Lands: War and Peace in Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus and Sri Lanka.

Somebody who cut his research teeth in the “killing fields” of Kashmir in the 1990s, Bose calls for the establishment of inclusive, representative political structures in Kashmir. He invokes compelling comparisons to other cases, particularly the peace-building framework in Northern Ireland, which offers important lessons for a settlement in Kashmir.

He seems mindful of how the West has not fully appreciated the desperate tragedy of Kashmir despite massive war casualties. In his book, Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace -- a liberal stroke at the Kashmir quandary -- Bose calls for according “equal legitimacy” to the multiple strands of allegiances over Kashmir and to accommodate them all in a skilful compromise. “J&K as a whole resembles the Russian matryoshka doll -- layers of complexity which render easy solutions such as plebiscite or partition impracticable and call for a more sophisticated approach,” he argues. 

He attributes the root cause of the conflict to the Delhi-sponsored systematic subversion of democratic rights and institutions in J&K. The heavily manipulated 1987 assembly election in J&K was “no aberration”, he argues, “as it was entirely consistent with Kashmir’s political fate in India’s democracy over the preceding 40 years.” 

He maintains that “khudmukhtaari” lies at the heart of India’s chequered relationship with J&K. The professor writes off Article 370 as “dead in letter and in spirit” since 1954, when Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed buried it and eroded J&K’s autonomy. He argues that the “duality of mindsets” in the valley – “separation from India and preventing Pakistan’s forcible takeover” -- remained intact until 1988 when an “occupier-occupied relationship” emerged between the Indian state and Kashmiris.

After Nehru’s death, arrangements to integrate Kashmir at gunpoint gained momentum, Bose writes in The challenge in Kashmir: Democracy, Self-Determination and Just Peace. “The origins of the Indian anti- democratic and ultimately futile and destruction Kashmir policy are to be found squarely in the Nehru period ...nurtured to full maturity by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi.”

Bose first came to Kashmir when it was in the grip of full-fledged insurrection. He terms the early “intifada” phase as secular when fighters of the JKLF -- drawing inspiration from “the valley’s specific Islamic traditions” – was still roaming the valley’s streets with Kalashnikovs. Though averring that JKLF’s attitude towards non-Muslims was non-sectarian, Bose accepts that three-fourths of the outfit’s victims were Muslims, and only one-fourth Kashmiri Pandits.

By mid-90s, he observed how the tenacity and ruthlessness of the Indian counter-insurgency campaign had taken a heavy toll on the insurgents’ morale and capacities. “A lethal combination of Indian repression and Pakistani manipulation brought a close to the most spontaneous and popularly backed phase of the azaadi movement,” he writes. Even that didn’t signal an end to the strife. Instead of ‘secular’ JKLF, ‘Islamist’ Hizb was still taking Delhi head-on, despite suffering cadre carnage at the hands of the Ikhwan.

He would return in 2001, when a concerted campaign of “fidayeen” attacks targeting military installations was on in Kashmir. A year later, he managed to unearth the highly complex relationship between electoral politics and the deeper political problems of Kashmir. During the 2002 assembly election, he went to Trehgam, Maqbool Butt’s village. Later he would write, “83% voted without duress even as Butt’s aged mother lamented the ‘betrayal of the blood of martyrs’. The voters responded that their vote wasn’t ‘against freedom, just against the NC’, and staged a noisy demonstration for azaadi after voting.”

As a period marked by dwindling insurgency, a rare car bombing and occasional ambushes ensued, Kashmir was calmer, before the volcanic eruption of the 2008 land row triggered the largest demonstrations in the valley since 1994 against Indian authority. “Unlike their previous generation, who picked up the AK-47,” Bose noted, “this generation’s weapon of choice is the stone, but the sense of grievance is equally intense.”

As a field researcher in Kashmir, Bose believes that pro-Pakistan views constitute a minority opinion in the state. Independent statehood for Kashmir based on a plebiscite is a “rigid monolithic conception”, he states. His model for peace calls for “a strategic compromise between opposed perspectives”. The professor recommends an institutionalised permanent inter-governmental India-Pakistan council on Kashmir at the Track 1 level. At the Track 2 level, he seeks a representative and accountable political framework in J&K to ensure minimum quality of governance. Bose’s proposal for Track 3 requires transformation of the Line of the Control “from an iron curtain to a linen curtain”.


J&K, Bose says, has been a police state since 1953, when Nehru toppled Sheikh Abdullah’s government, and is being ruled by draconian laws. Under this set-up, “what really defines these people- Kashmiris?” he asks. His answer doesn’t seem to go in Delhi’s favour.

“Kashmir has been an integral part of the idea of Pakistan ever since the concept of a homeland comprising Muslim-majority regions of north-west India was dreamed up by an Indian Muslim student at Cambridge University in 1933,” he says. “India, by contrast, did not have a clearly elaborated ideological case for ownership of Kashmir until after it became the prime bone of contention with Pakistan. That ideological argument developed ex post facto, from the 1950s, and fixated on the natural affinity of ‘secular’ India and ‘secular’ Kashmir.” 

But Kashmiris have a long and bitter experience of the hypocrisy and perfidy of secular Indian governments, he says, hence the faint hope in the anti-secularist alternative. Even then, the secular ethos of Kashmiri Muslims was romanticised and exaggerated, and the cultural legacy of Kashmiriyat appropriated and distorted in the service of a political agenda, he says. 

“The description of Kashmir as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of secular India has a disturbing resemblance to the one-time description of the Indian subcontinent as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.”

The thing is, the professor asserts, Kashmir’s democratic aspirations were callously sacrificed at the altar of the “nation” to which Kashmiris were expected to be loyal. A political approach is needed if India does not want to be represented in valley simply by pellet guns, night raids on villages, curfews, and Army deployments, he argues. “That reeks of occupation.”

In reality, he stresses, the vast majority of the valley’s population rejects both Indian and Pakistani national identities. “They subscribe to a Kashmiri identity, rooted in the valley’s history, culture, and politics.”