Reading My Kashmir: Don’t Lose the Forest for the Trees

Reviewer: Rafique Khan
Conflict and Prospects for Enduring Peace by Wajahat Habibullah
USIP Books
May 2008, 220 pp.

MY KASHMIR: Conflict and the Prospects of Enduring Peace, published by the United States Institute of Peace, Washington DC 2008, has created a buzz on Kashmir related internet chat rooms. The writer of the book, Wajahat Habibullah, worked as an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer for thirty years in Kashmir. He was the top civilian administrator (Divisional Commissioner) of Srinagar (Kashmir’s Capital) during the 1990’s militancy peak inKashmir. In his book Mr. Habibullah divulges a gangster type double murder of a Kashmiri physician and his murderer. Habibullah also provides his ideas to help Kashmiris’ realize Aazadi (freedom). Freedom seekers in Kashmir need to heed Habibullah’s suggestions. Otherwise, in the zeal to expose Indian misdeeds, the chat room chatter could miss the forest for the trees.

Wajahat blows whistle on Dr. Guru assassination by govt. reads an email headline. Another email demands that unless Habibullah reveals the involved police person’s identity, JKLF would stage protests on the streets (quote from email attributed to Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front: Kashnet July 23, 2008). Dr. Guru a prominent Kashmiri physician and a patron of the JKLF was kidnapped and murdered in 1993. The government version of Dr. Guru’s killing was that he was killed by a rival militant group of JKLF, Hizbul Mujahidin. Here is what Habibullah writes: The police made an arrangement with the terrorist Zulqarnain, then in custody, who agreed to kill Guru in exchange for his release. But to ensure that this collusion remained secret, Zulqarnain was killed shortly thereafter, and the director general of police, B.S. Bedi, trumpeted his death as a triumph for the security forces, who had killed a dangerous terrorist in an armed encounter. But the truth was somewhat different. Instead of killing Zulqarnain in an armed encounter, the police stormed the home where, under the mistaken presumption that he was safe after having fulfilled his end of the bargain, he was consorting with a lady friend. (Page 82.)

In Kashmir the Indian administration is accused of extreme human rights abuses. One such episode has come to light again recently. In his introduction to Madeleine Albright’s new book The Mighty and the Almighty, President Bill Clinton writes: During my visit to India in 2002, some radicals decided to vent their outrage by murdering thirty-eight Sikhs in cold blood. Soon after this carnage in Chittisingpora Kashmir, the Indian authorities announced the killers of Chittisingpora – foreign mercenaries from Pakistan – had been liquidated in a fire fight with the Indian border police. Later under pressure the government was forced to exhume bodies of the branded mercenaries. DNA tests confirmed that were innocent Kashmiris of a nearby village arrested from the village earlier by the Indian army.

An estimated thirty five thousand Kashmiris have died violent death in the last decade alone. The list of disappeared persons attributed to Indian police is in the thousands. Thus, Dr. Guru’s murder is one of the many such state sponsored atrocities during the last sixty year Indian occupation of Kashmir.

My Kashmir, according to Mr. Habibullah is: . . . the product of a lifetime spent grappling with the bewildering intricate confluence of history, religion, folkways, and political institutions that forms today’s Kashmir. (Page 3).

Habibullah writes the book as an Indian. He dismisses the concept of Kashmir as a free nation state. But an independent state of 5.44 million people occupying 8,500 mostly mountainous square miles, located in one of the world’s most volatile regions amid rival nuclear powers and a number of smaller states in conflict, with potential oil wealth, is hardly likely to be left free. He declares Kashmir is no Switzerland (page 157). This is a post colonial imperial mind set. And why is Kashmir no Switzerland, one may ask? For most of its recorded 5000 year history Kashmir has been a free country. As an independent country it would be larger in area and populations than many member nations of the United Nations Organization. Kashmir is at the cross roads of historic trade routes of Asia; why should not its borders be open to all its neighbors?

As noted Habibullah writes as an Indian and Indians generally recoiled at the mention of azaadi by Kashmiris, . . . (page 157). Never the less, Mr. Habibullah has honestly described the conditions in Kashmir and more important provides ideas that can help Kashmiris progress towards Aazadi (freedom).

For starters Habibullah gives an honest context of the Kashmir Dispute. whereas Pakistan looked upon Kashmir as the unfinished work of Partition, India saw it as the vindication of India’s own concept of secular nationhood. (Page 133). He notes that Kashmir is thus viewed as a territorial dispute and that the aspirations of the people in Kashmir are ignored. Habibullah provides an honest snap shot of Kashmir which despite its enormous development potential suffers a receding growth. Its infrastructure has crumbled. The deforestation is rampant. Kashmirs water resources are endangered and severely polluted. Notes Habibullah: Thus, despite its rich resources, Jammu and Kashmir remains among the most deficient in power of India’s states. (Page 137.)

Habibullah also provides an honest portrayal of the dishonest practices of stakeholders in Kashmir including the elite in Kashmir who serve as surrogates of India and Pakistan. Habibullah makes the point that the respect for the dignity of the Kashmiri people is essential to resolution of the dispute in Kashmir. And that Ignoring the self respect of Kashmiris “ believing that they as a people could be bought- bought on and fueled the cycle of ruin (in Kashmir). (Page 9)

Habibullah points out that India has tolerated (read promoted) the undemocratic governance of the state by a favored elite that skillfully played on fears (of India) that full democracy in the state would lead the people to gravitate towards Pakistan. ( Page 164.) Thus India has perpetuated autocratic governance wherein a selected minority of Kashmiris becomes the agents of the rulers. A governance that is akin to the last five hundred year rule during the Moghul and Dogra period in Kashmir.

The present Indian sponsored governance of Kashmir started in 1947 by Sheikh Abdullah notes Habibullah: The government of Jammu and Kashmir was indeed a sheikhdom, run as a fief rather than a democracy. . . After Bakshi took power, he undermined Abdullah’s support base by awarding forest contracts, granting licenses for transport and tourist activities, and . . . the pervasive quest for channels of patronage, which I found to be the only hold that a self-serving political leadership in the 1960s and 1970s was able to exercise on a disaffected public. (Page 47).

Habibullah writes on how the personal relations between elite in India and in Kashmir played a marked role in the trajectory of Jammu and Kashmir’s history . (Page 20). The National Conference was started in 1930 as populist grass roots political party organized to oppose the autocratic regime, the Dogra Dynastic rule. Under Indian government patronage Sheikh Abdullah, one of the National Conference founders who fought against Shaksi-raj (personal rule), established his own dynastic rule. The Dogra dynasty that preceded the Abdullas lasted four generations. The present Abdulla khandani (dynastic) leadership in Kashmir is in its third generation. With the Molvi, Mufti and other hereditary leaders close behind.

The challenge for freedom seekers in Kashmir is how to break the cycle of elite-dynastic grip on the leadership. How to build a civil society democratic institution that can take back “ rustle “ political power from India that is now exercised via its agents the Kashmiri elite and keep it with the common man. Habibullah believes that democracy can be possible by decentralization of the governance where people of the state must see that government as something, they have given themselves. (Emphasis added) This is the message from Habibullah’s My Kashmir that Kashmiris need to take to heart.

Kashmiri freedom seekers have to build civil society institutions that will allow taking away the decision making authority from the elite and give to the populist. Democracy requires the civil society institutions to build consensus, help maintain checks and balances. Without these civil society institutions democracy becomes illusory. As Habibullah points out, the ultimate test of freedom for the people of Kashmir will be dependent on the ability of its different population groups to live together and endure the challenges of a shared future (page).

To create the self-government, where the people see that government as they have given themselves and not something that is conferred on them by others, Habibullah suggests a . . . paradigm shift, taking self-government down to the village level and giving a constitutional framework to elected village and municipal councils that can administer development activities and raise financial resources bringing political administrative structures down to the village level. (Page 154)

Habibullah suggests, With the village council being the basic elected institution, a council at the district level, and an elected body at the regional level, giving each level a sense of self governance conforming to its own distinct needs. This, then, is where I recommend that the people of Jammu and Kashmir apply themselves to making azaadi, or freedom to govern oneself, a living concept. Local autonomy down to the level of village councils would be a safeguard against tyranny of the majority, in a region recovering as it is from an era of traumatic violence. (Page 155)

Habibullah cautions that similar reforms were instituted by the Abdullah Administration in 1976 that established the district development board. However, these were nominated bodies of government and therefore controlled by the ruling political authority. (Page 155). When the Hurriyat Conference was formed in 1990, its constitution also had a decentralized organization format. But these top down reforms do not work. As the saying goes, power is not given, it must be taken away. Hence the challenge facing the freedom seekers is create the peoples government “ outside the present government “ a government that they have given themselves and not something conferred on them by outsiders.

Thus a starting point, among the many others, in the emancipation struggle for the Kashmiri people could be Habibullah suggestion . . . giving a constitutional framework to elected village and municipal councils that can administer development activities and raise financial resources bringing political administrative structures down to the village (and Mohalla) level. And as is the case many countries these grass roots bodies could be made of non- political candidates.

A recent New York Times OP_ED about Kashmir (Pankaj Mishra August —, 2008 reads A new generation of politicized Kashmiris has now risen; the world is likely to ignore them “ until some of them turn into terrorists with Qaeda links. It is up to the Indian government to reckon honestly with Kashmiri aspirations for a life without constant fear and humiliation. If past practices are any guide India will apply means necessary to portray the Kashmiri freedom movement as part of the Islamic terrorist movement. It will also try to coop the elite as its agents to continue its colonial occupation of Kashmir. For the freedom seekers building people’s grass roots institutional structure on the lines suggested by Habibullah can help to neutralize Indian designs and make the grass roots institution as stepping stones towards emancipation of the Kashmiri nation.

Habibullah’ book is a valuable addition to discussion on Kashmir affairs. A few noted inaccuracies and interesting observation follow.

Some inaccuracies in the book:
Identifying Abdul Kadir as a European. Kadir was an Indian in service to an Englishman. His impromptu address to a Kashmiri crowd became a bench mark for Kashmiri freedom struggle. Habibullah portrays Sheikh Abdulla fighting for Kashmiri freedom from the maharaja’s rule for for a secular, democratic, and independent Kashmir . Following his release from the Dogra jail in 1947, Abdulla in his address at the Hazuribah ruled out an independent Kashmir. Habibullah contention that during the October 2005 Earthquake the Indian army was at the forefront of relief in Jammu and Kashmir. Response to the 2005 Earthquake across all of India including its army was dismal. Habibullah contention The maharajah’s preference was that the state . . . opt for independence . Page 21. Not true. The Maharaja was a vacillating vassal of the British, unable to provide the needed leadership. Habibullah’s assertion that Jammu City had a large Muslim population before partition; most of its Muslims migrated to Pakistan. Not true. Most of population ofJammu was massacred.

Some interesting observations:
1. Indian government is in constant fear of the loyalty of the Kashmiri public. In Kashmir government successor candidates for the last fifty years were subjected to the Indian government’s scrutiny not for individual competence, integrity, and even the measure of public support commanded was secondary considerations. Page 14

2. The Sheikh’s structure, (Hazratbal Mosque) with its soaring minaret and its dome modeled on that of the Taj Mahal, is decidedly Mughal “ an Indian dynasty despised by the Sheikh as imperial interlopers. Page 36. Pertinent observation

3. On rigged elections and crooked goverance:Chief Secretary Pushkar Nath Koul ¦ suggested ˜ time spent scrutinizing grounds was time wasted.’ Page 39
Jagmohan rejected any effort at public outreach and deliberately sought to marginalize every branch of local government, including the police, all of whose loyalty he had begun to suspect. Page 75 State Human Rights commission setup in 1997 received 474 complains commission rendered ineffective Page 113. Confirming the biased Indian attitude. A modest World Bank “financed project initiated in 1999 to promote subsoil moisture conservation in the effort ¦was rebuffed by the government of India (Indian External Affairs).

Rafique Khan is a city planner based in Los Angeles. He heads the Kashmir Human Rights Forum and Kashmir Earthquake Relief. He is working on his first novel.

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