In the course of a sceptical account of the recent assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, Economist remarked: “Many Kashmiris… are deeply unhappy to be in India. Given an opportunity to determine their future — as India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, falsely promised they would — they would probably vote to secede.” The Economist’s man on the spot then spoke of how, as an Indian military convoy drove by, young men pelted mud at the passing vehicles, while “daring jeers turned into an angry chant of ‘Azadi!’.”
This ostensibly ‘objective’ report is based on some misleading, and even false, assumptions. It is necessary to deconstruct them, not least because these assumptions are very widely shared by the Western press and Western politicians, by quite a few Indians, and by the majority of the residents of the Kashmir Valley.
The principal reason that, some 60 years ago, India offered to hold a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir was that it had promoted a similar exercise in the princely state of Junagadh. Here, the ruler of the state was a Muslim; but the majority of his subjects were Hindus. On August 14, 1947, the Nawab of Junagadh, without consulting his subjects, chose to join Pakistan. Indian forces moved into the state. Then, to confirm the legitimacy of their action, they held a plebiscite in which an overwhelming majority expressed their wish to be part of India.
Junagadh was, as it were, a Kashmir in reverse. In the last week of October 1947, the Maharaja of Kashmir (a Hindu) acceded to India; this when the majority of his subjects were Muslims. The action was vigorously contested by Pakistan. The contestation was not merely verbal; for the massed armies of the two new nations were fighting each other on the high mountains. In the beginning of 1948 the dispute was referred to the United Nations, where India, under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, agreed to hold a plebiscite to discover the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
Hindutva ideologues continue to criticise Nehru for making the offer. They should be reminded that after Vallabhbhai Patel had overseen a similar exercise in Junagadh, there was really no other option before India. In any case, as a new nation, and an aspiring democracy, India had to abide by the rule of law and the wishes of the international community.
Among the preconditions of the plebiscite were the demilitarisation of the part of Kashmir then controlled by Pakistan. In turn, Pakistan insisted that so long as the National Conference was running the administration in the Indian part of Kashmir, no vote would be free or fair. Neither side would yield, leading to a stalemate. Various UN missions came and went, but the deadlock remained. By the early 1950s, Nehru himself had resiled from his earlier commitment to a plebiscite.
The historical background thus sketched in, let me come now to the often forgotten terms of the plebiscite. Had it been held, the residents of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir would have had to choose between joining India or joining Pakistan. There was no third option. This was in keeping with the Indian Independence Act, under which each princely state had the choice of joining either India or Pakistan.
The Economist, along with other Western and Indian papers, writes of Kashmir as if the third option exists or existed.
However, secession or azadi for Kashmir is emphatically not a legal option. Can it still be achieved through military means? The prospects are bleak. In the past half a century, only one new nation has come into existence as the result of an armed struggle. This is Eritrea, which successfully broke away from Ethiopia. Some Kashmiris (and more Pakistanis) take heart from the example of Bangladesh, which achieved its independence through third-party intervention. But the hope is illusory, for the Indian Army is far stronger in 2009 than the Pakistan Army was in 1971.
Azadi for the Kashmiris is not permissible under the law, and cannot be achieved through armed struggle, either. There is a third alternative, provided by the example of Eastern Europe, where some new countries were created in the 1990s after the larger nations, of which they were previously part, voluntarily ceded their sovereignty. A fourth possible path is that of East Timor, where the United Nations and powerful Western powers supervised a separation from Indonesia. However, neither alternative is open to the people of the Kashmir Valley. It is impossible to conceive of India giving up the territory voluntarily, or under pressure from the UN or the United States.
The one thing the Economist is right about is that many Kashmiris are unhappy in India. This is a consequence of the callous and corrupt attitude of successive Indian governments. How this unhappiness might be remedied is the subject of another column (not necessarily to be written by this columnist). My object here has been merely to demonstrate that legally, militarily, and diplomatically, azadi is not an option for the Kashmir Valley. Those writers, Western or Indian, who persist in claiming that it is are being economical with the truth. Whether out of ignorance or malevolence, they are providing encouragement and endorsement to a form of politics that has no legal basis, and that can only lead to more violence and suffering in Kashmir.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian andthe author of India After Gandhi)