By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
A Nepali perspective on a South Asian problem: “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India,” declared Arundhati Roy in New Delhi last week. “It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this.”
By saying so the Booker-prize winning author of The God of Small Things created a tsunami that instantly swept through India—from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The ripples were the biggest in the Capital, the power centre of India. The ruling Congress party asked Roy to withdraw her statement. Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party demanded that she be charged with sedition for questioning India’s authority over Kashmir. The government, through its law minister, said her comments were “most unfortunate” because the freedom of speech “can’t violate the patriotic sentiments of the people.”
Whether India has authority over Kashmir has been a hotly debated issue since 1947. But what the world agrees on, by and large, is that India is a democracy that provides a relatively greater degree of freedom to its citizens. Including, happily, to Roy, who was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, to Keralite Syrian Christian and women’s rights activist Mara Roy, and a Bengali father, a tea planter by profession; Roy now lives in New Delhi. At the same time, rights violations and stiff restrictions on civil liberties have become part of daily life in certain parts of India, almost as a price to keep the Indian union intact and its democracy safe from the ultra-left. That is the reason people like Roy believe India is increasingly becoming a police state.
Every democracy has its flaws. The Indian democracy is no exception. But with strict enforcement of laws like the Right To Information (RTI) Act the Indian democracy has empowered its people like never before. One hallmark of Indian democracy is its crowd culture wherein the collective wisdom of the leadership or the mass outmaneuvers any wickedness of an individual or a small group that may be looking to exploit loopholes—legal or otherwise. There are many instances of flawed decisions of the courts which were later changed to reflect the popular sentiment or public uproar that demanded a more humane and just approach. Despite the controversies surrounding it and despite being branded by opposing parties as a government tool to harass them, public-interest organisations like the anti-graft body of Central Bureau of Investigation are functional. They command public respect and trust. The culture where politically connected and influential people can easily get their work done is still prevalent in India. But thanks to laws like the RTI, the poor and the socially marginalised believe they are also heard by the system. Despite the hysterical nationalistic sentiments and appalling corporate control over some influential media, the public discourse is still open, fearless and impactful because there are too many media outlets in India to be manipulated by governments or business groups or political parties. It is the pluralistic Indian society and its democractic culture that allow vibrant discussions on sensitive issues like the Indian authority over Kashmir. Vague issues like national security are often used as an excuse by Indian authorities and agencies to subvert just voices inside the country and in its neighborhood. But as long as there is stable democracy in India, just causes will find their way to success.
After the Roy statement and the aforementioned reactions to it I asked myself: As a South Asian, do I support her? Or do I support the freedom of Kashmir, its independence from India as advocated by the majority of people in Kashmir? Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a hardline Kashmiri separatist leader who also spoke at the programme where Roy made her statement, has said at other occasions he wants independence from India, but only to merge the separated territories with Pakistan. Pakistan’s questionable reputation on freedom and democracy is well known. After reading Geelani’s plan for Kashmir I wondered why would anyone even think of trading the freedom that the faulty Indian democracy provides with the possibility of being a part of the society that is increasingly under Taliban influence. Just as I support one-China policy of Nepal, I think, I cannot support the disintegration of India.
That doesn’t mean I agree with those who argue that Roy should be charged with sedition for saying what she did. The people of Kashmir have the right to live peacefully and respectfully. India should do everything to ensure that. It cannot act like a colonial power and impose its wishes from Delhi. Like Sikkim across our eastern border, Kashmir was also an independent kingdom even after India and Pakistan gained independence from the British. India sent its army in Oct. 27, 1947, after Kashmir came under attack from hardliner forces who wanted to establish Pakistani control there. It’s said that the then Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, signed a treaty of accession to India a few hours before the Indian army landed in Srinagar. This has been disputed by the separatists who want to portray the Indian army’s involvement as an act of war and forceful occupation of Kashmir. They believe the Hindu Maharaja had no right to sign a treaty representing the majority Muslim population of Kashmir.
The Indian involvement in defending Kashmir was provisional. It had promised a plebiscite on the status of Kashmir while signing the treaty. India has been organising regular democratic elections in Kashmir. If it has the confidence in the Kashmiri people that they would definitely vote for its democracy and freedom there is no reason why it should shy away from the plebiscite that it promised 63 years ago. If it has no confidence that Kashmiris will vote for it then, to borrow a phrase Roy used to defend herself after her Kashmir statement came under attack, “pity the nation” that enjoys no confidence of its citizens.
This article first appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post