Friday, 21 September 2018

Book review

Saifuddin Soz hit the national limelight when his lone vote in the Lok Sabha brought down the Vajpayee II government. In 1999, the late Prime Minister Vajpayee was into the thirteen month of his second stint—the earlier one in 1996 being aborted in a mere thirteen days. Vajpayee’s coalition lost the No Confidence Motion in April 1999 by the narrowest margin possible of one vote—attributed to Soz voting against the whip of his party, the National Conference. He later joined the Congress Party and became a minister in the Manmohan Singh government. Alongside, he served to further the United Progressive Alliance government’s outreach to disaffected Kashmiris in a period when the peace initiatives were at their most credible mark. In the event, the Manmohan Singh government was unable to deliver and peace remains elusive in Kashmir a decade on.
The book under review is therefore timely. Disturbed by the continuing unrest since the killing of Burhan Wani, an icon of Kashmiri militancy, Soz returns to his long- standing position that the problem in Kashmir is not one of law and order, but is a political problem. As a political problem, it behoves a mutually negotiated political solution. This is useful to reiterate at a time when the ruling party at the Center has chosen to bring down the provincial coalition in which it was partner in Srinagar. Though there is a special representative in place and a governor with a political background has been appointed after over a half century of non-political governors in place in Raj Bhawan, it is equally clear that in an election year political initiatives are unlikely. As for the elephant in the room—Pakistan—the change in government there to one headed by Imran Khan and his proposal of a return to talks is unlikely to change the Indian position on ‘no talks without an end to terrorism’ before national elections next year.
Given that the status quo in terms of militancy and disaffection is set to continue in Kashmir for another year, the book provides ballast for peace voices. It is altogether for the good that the release of the book attracted controversy. The saffronite media had it that in his book Soz was advocating ‘azadi’—defined by them as freedom—for Kashmir. Soz gamely defended his view that azadi to Kashmiris is not self-determination as much as a release from the political stranglehold India has acquired over its affairs ever since it dismissed and imprisoned Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. To this has been added the militarized template over the past three decades. Soz defends Kashmiris wanting out of this bind. He courageously also calls on the Hurriyat—the hold-out political formation there—to moderate its position on talks.
Soz brings out that Chidambaram, Home Minister in Manmohan Singh’s second term, had the correct interpretation of ‘azadi’, but was unable to follow through. Federalism holds the political answers, but New Delhi then did not have the political heft, and currently is unwilling to countenance the possibilities that it opens up.
Soz is clear-headed on the way forward, elaborated in the last chapter. To him, India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir are the relevant parties. He thinks recourse to the United Nations is passé. The problem is in India’s ‘impairing the constitutional relationship between Kashmir and the Union of India established on the basis of the Instrument of Accession, the institution of the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly and the Delhi Agreement of 1952’ (p. 205). He thinks the dispute is not a complex problem, but is a simple proposition in case political sagacity it forthcoming. He believes that the contours of resolution exist in the two speeches by the Lion of Kashmir in the J&K Constituent Assembly on 5 November 1951 and 11 August 1952.
As a first step, Soz advocates a gesture from the Union government to bail Kashmir out of its cycle of violence. He advocates a dialogue with the primary stakeholders, the people of Kashmir, through the political conglomerate, the Hurriyat. He believes a political consensus through dialogue is an ‘achievable goal’ (p. 206). His second point is in the Center undertaking introspection where it went wrong over the years. These include the junctures: arrest of Shaikh Abdullah in 1953; lack of follow up on the Indira-Abdullah accord of 1975; dismissal of the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984; foisting the hardliner Jagmohan on Kashmir yet again in 1990; and alleged rigging of the 1987 elections. His third point is on lifting of ‘repression’ (p. 207). The army must reach out to the people, rather than indulge in bean counts. The fourth is instituting a commission of enquiry to bridge the trust deficit resulting from over 70000 Kashmiri deaths and 5000 disappeared over the period of the unrest. The fifth is on a common understanding between the mainstream political class in mainland India and the Hurriyat on the terms of the settlement. The sixth is an internal dialogue between the three regions of Kashmir—Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh—organized by the central government. Seventh is demilitarization of Kashmir, which can be merged with his eighth point, the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It is in his ninth point that Pakistan enters the equation. He wants the rigours of the people along the Line of Control to be lightened by ending the military stand-off along it. His tenth and final point is on ending the perpetual animosity between India and Pakistan that plays out in violence in Kashmir.
Some of these points are in hand. With Pakistan, much ground was tread in the Musharraf-Vajpayee-Manmohan formula. Internally, the recent appointment of a political governor—who does not owe affiliation to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—and the earlier one of the former intelligence head as special interlocutor has potential. In US embassy correspondence carried on wikileaks Soz is credited with helping put the Hurriyat in direct touch with the central government. He therefore exhorts the government to take up meaningfully a ‘credible discussion and dialogue without any pre-conditions’ (p. 214). He warns against raking up the Article 35A issue, even while highlighting Mr. Modi’s Independence Day reference to Kashmir in his 2017 address as promising. Soz in his conclusion rightly makes the point that the present juncture provides yet another opportunity for a policy shift—the proverbial ‘ripeness’ moment for conflict resolution initiatives. Both sides appear at a ‘hurting stalemate’ with the indigenous militants having a short shelf life and the army acknowledging through periodic utterances of its chief that it promises to be a long haul in Kashmir.
Though not self-consciously so, the book appears divided into two parts. The first—longer part—covers the past, starting from its remote recesses seen through the eyes of historians and travellers through Kashmir. The author aims to highlight that the region is distinct, if not different, thereby making his case that it merits a different federal yardstick than mainstream India. He brings out the wellsprings of Kashmiriyat, setting the stage for possibilities of a liberal-secular conflict resolution approach. The second part is his laying out a case of how political neglect of this unique feature of Kashmir has resulted in yet another calamity for the people of Kashmir. The next government at the center of whichever hue has its task cut out in following up on the Soz road map for Kashmir. As he points out (p. 211), it is the ‘only option available to the Government of India….’