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July 19, 1999


E-Mail this report to a friend Ashok Mitra

Let go of Kashmir!

What about a few words of caution to the crowd gone gaga over Kargil?

The Nawaz Sharief set-up had its own reasons to foment trouble along and across the Line of Control in Kashmir. As long as the hapless people of Pakistan could be persuaded to forget their daily woes -- didn't they know, the infidel Indians were about to overrun their country and enslave them -- it was easy for the Islamabad regime to identify the item to occupy the top of its agenda.

This regime presides over a bankrupt economy, it does not know from which source the next lot of foreign exchange crucial for its sustenance is to come. These matters, experience has told it, have a way of taking care of themselves; the principle task is to steal a march over the Bhutto daughter and ensure that she fails to take advantage of the people's discontent. Destabilising the status quo along and beyond the LoC in Kashmir, it concluded, served that objective beautifully.

Quite by coincidence, the Islamabad line was manna from heaven for the caretaking stragglers in New Delhi. It fitted in snugly with both their short-term interests and long-term ideology. The war psychosis would yield, in their judgment, millions and millions of extra votes in September. At the same time, giving a bloody nose to Pakistan would be in essence according to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Vishwa Hindu Parishad vision of the future.

Whatever helps rouse the non-thinking masses of this country against Pakistan will duly lead, the assumption goes, to the crystallisation of a collective prejudice against Islam. Nothing is dearer to the cause of the revivalists, all this constituting the preliminary steps towards the full reconquest of the Hindu territories the Congress leadership had gifted away to Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Those greatly concerned over the prospect of fundamentalists wresting a permanent lease on the administration in New Delhi had a wonderful opportunity to take a principled stand on the issue of Kargil. The Bharatiya Janata Party government -- they could have gathered the courage to state it openly -- had no business to blow up the skirmish in Kashmir into a situation with the trappings of a fullscale war. The defence minister, once a formidable trade union leader, who was also a major functionary of that charming, fraternal sounding body, the Socialist International, choosing to toe the rabid communal line, of course, did present a spectacle. This should have caused no surprise though. Second Internationalwallahs, the history books proffer evidence, have a reputation for flexible morals.

It is, however, the total endorsement the BJP comrades received from the Left that boggles the mind. There was hardly any reason for ideologues, who have always taken pride on holding high the flag of secularism, to surrender so meekly to the patriotic demagoguery unleashed by the BJP-RSS-VHP regime. By doing what they did, the secularists rendered hollow the claim of their main concern, at present being the containment of the fundamentalist threat.

The Left could have proved its credentials by not falling into the Kargil trap set for it by the BJP-RSS-VHP triumvirate. Instead, it fell for it prodigiously.

The procession of leaders of the so-called secular opposition trooping into South Block with ponderous faces to listen, in the manner of obedient students, to the briefings of the prime minister was a bizarre sight. It was as if by some magic the fundamentalist line had been transformed, courtesy Kargil, into a secular one. The latest turn of events contributed to the suspicion that Kargil was perhaps a marionette dance sponsored by the Americans; by their demeanour, the Indian Left proved to be very much a part of that ensemble.

Should not the secularists, even at this late hour, engage in some soul-searching? It is 50 odd years since the Kashmir problem reared its head. The Indian administration has spent over this span of time several billions of rupees in order to establish the point that Kashmir is an integral part of India. Our politicians, civil servants and hired propagandists have pontificated day in and day out: no power on earth could detach the valley from India. The assertion has had no resemblance with ground reality. Not even one per cent of the valley's population, it is possible to lay a wager, is going to agree with the proposition that it comprises, honestly, the darlingest children of Bharatmata. To be unhappy with the so-called international community if it too nurtures a healthy scepticism with respect to the Indian claim is pointless.

The recognition of what is what, in fact, ought to proceed further. The details are well known; we have not exactly covered ourselves with glory by the manner we have gone about in the valley in the half century since 1948: the saga of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammeds and the Gul Mohammed Shahs encapsulates the Indian record.

There is now very little to show as an achievement against the billions of rupees spent in the effort to maintain Kashmir as an inalienable part of India. No genuine democrat would go along with the view that you cling to a territory even when the entire resident population dislikes your presence. Why not be brutally frank: India's presence in Kashmir is only as an army of occupation. The cost of this forcible occupation has been incalculable for a poor country such as ours.

Leave aside for a moment the consideration of the state of affairs in the valley. Even otherwise, this is altogether an unquiet country. Signs of incipient insurgency are rampant in the North-East. Conditions of anarchy prevail over large stretches of Assam. The People's War Group of different shades are active in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and part of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh as well. Our integral security arrangements are so wobbly that a sandalwood poacher has been operating unhindered for more than a decade along the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border. Caste warfare, often assuming violent forms, is the staple political activity in many states. Corruption has corroded the polity from top to bottom. Should we not move to even more basic issues? Despite half a century of independence, close to one half of the population remains functionally illiterate and one third of the population subsists below the line of poverty. The quality of nutritional intake, particularly for women and children, beggars description.

It is not being suggested that were the billions of rupees sunk in Kashmir instead put to use for purposes of development in the other parts of India, all the ills the nation is suffering from would have been instantly removed. But the permanent crunch on resources, inhibiting development activities on the part of both the Centre and the state governments, would without question have been substantially eased if the white elephant of Kashmir were not there.

A hypothetical example of what could have resulted from careful alternative uses of the money poured into Kashmir may be taken note of. Way back in the mid-'80s, a Reserve Bank of India report, much concerned at the persistence of monocrop farming in most parts of the eastern and northeastern regions of the country, had suggested a string of irrigation works to blanket the area. These works, if implemented, were expected to turn the agricultural tracts in Assam, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh following the completion of the Bhakra-Nangal and similar other irrigation projects. The committee had endorsed an irrigation investment programme of this nature for the eastern states because of the possibility of the petering out of farm production in the country's north-west consequent to the exhaustion of the irrigation potential there; the need was to open up new areas if the tempo of farm growth were to be maintained.

The aforementioned report had proposed an outlay of several tens of billions of rupees, to be spread over a number of years, to convert the irrigation dream for eastern and north-eastern India into a live reality. New Delhi would not, however, touch the report even with a barge pole. Honey, where is the money, has been the standard response from the powers that be. The opportunity cost of not spending this amount where it ought to have been spent is, one dares to say, the near anarchy now fast spreading over large parts of the country, the caste, sect and ethnic riots not excluded.

So what, national integrity uber alles, life is apparently not worth living for the secularists unless they join the bandwagon of Hindu revivalism. The cost is no consideration, even if it be wholesale national disintegration.

Ashok Mitra

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