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'You cannot resolve Kashmir on religious lines'

Navnita Chadha Behera
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April 16, 2007

No recent book on Kashmir has received the praise Navnita Chadha Behera's Demystifying Kashmir has, including from Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, a retired United States diplomat who worked many years in South Asia, Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Sanjaya Baru, media advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The book, published by the Brookings Institution, offers a detailed examination of the historical and modern dynamics of the Kashmir imbroglio and a deep understanding of the region, its peoples and politics and the controversy swirling around the traditional protagonists in this dispute -- India and Pakistan.

Behera, a former Brookings visiting scholar, explores the political and military components of the sub-continental neighbors' Kashmir strategy in all its forms, the self-determination debate and the insurgent movement that began in 1989, and paints a nuanced picture of the region's medley of races, tribal groups, languages and religions.

She argues that recognising the many different viewpoints and priorities of the region is necessary in order to understand the structural causes of the conflict and to provide opportunities for peace.

Behera, a former professor in the department of political science at Delhi University, is currently a professor at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

She has published widely in India and abroad and is the author or editor of seven books, including State, Identity and Violence: Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh, published in 2000, and Gender, Conflict and Migration, in 2006.

Behera received her undergraduate and graduate education at Punjab University, Chandigarh, and her PhD in international relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury in the United Kingdom. She spoke to rediff India Abroad's Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa. This is the first of a two-part interview.

India AbroadThere has been a surfeit of books on Kashmir in recent years. What is it that you offer? Also, what was the primary rationale for your book?

The primary rationale was that Kashmir is understood in the international domain in a very stereotypical way. Its history is laid down [as part of a] two-nation theory, a principle being violated or [as] a territorial conflict between India and Pakistan. I try to argue all these theoretical notions of Kashmir -- that it is not an ideological conflict [or] a territorial conflict. It was a battle of State-making between the two countries, which vision of the State appealed to Kashmiris more, and what would decide the fate of Kashmir.

That's what happened in 1947 and that's what's going to happen now. Even in the current phase -- in the 1980s phase when the insurgency began -- the conventional literature [mostly] looked at the insurgency as a militant problem and even the fact that it was defeated is attributed often to Indian military might.

But it's primarily a political failure of the movement. While they were asking for the right of self-determination in the name of all people of Jammu and Kashmir, they were actually representing the interests of only the majority community. They were not able to carry the minorities with them. They got checkmated at home because Jammu and Ladakh constantly and consistently opposed whatever the valley was asking for.

Over the last 10 years, even the valley is almost divided politically. Kashmir's is a political battle. It's not an ideological issue, nor is it a territorial issue.

Your book is also different from other literature in terms of the distinctions you draw between various Indian and Pakistani strategies.

Yes, it's not in the usual chronological way of understanding that this happened and that happened, but in terms of what their [India's and Pakistan's] military strategy was, what their political strategy was, how they failed and what was the success story -- if there was a success story there. Also, this book is a complete reference book for somebody who wants to understand Kashmir.

Can't it be argued this is what all authors would say about their books on Kashmir?

This book tells you in the current context who the players are, what their stakes are, what their strategic options are, why they are likely to opt for one option and not another and what the costs of pursuing those options will be.

Was this the notion behind the title, Demystifying Kashmir? Sort of going behind the myth?

Absolutely. It was basically questioning the stereotypical myths associated with Kashmir, historically as well as in a contemporary context. That's why [I chose] the title. It's simplifying it.

The interesting thing is that only just last month I was meeting with [Kashmiri political opposition leader] Omar Abdullah. He looked at the title and said, 'There has always been so much of literature on Kashmir, but why hasn't somebody simplified it and told people that this is what it's all about?'

The idea was to give a more nuanced picture of Kashmir: it's not just about Muslims and Hindus. There are several other communities who live there who have different political aspirations. If you are talking about peace in Kashmir, then you need to be talking about all the communities living there. The other breakthrough was a whole chapter on Azad Kashmir [Pakistan Occupied Kashmir], an area on which there is practically no literature available in the international domain. We got a lot of primary material from Azad Kashmir and Pakistan.

How did Brookings decide to publish it? Also, did Steve [Stephen P Cohen, head of the think tank's South Asia Program] and others like [Brookings President] Strobe Talbott set out some parameters for your research?

Not at all. The motivation was that when I was at Brookings, we went through this December 2002 crisis [when India and Pakistan hovered on the brink of war after terrorists attacked India's Parliament] and then there was a lot of interest in Kashmir and we had a lot of chats with State Department officials. That's where it struck me how these people have such set notions about Kashmir. And no matter what literature is available, they still operate within those parameters.

You mean not just within the US administration but even in some so-called policy circles?

Exactly. In fact, at Brookings, they had one particular meeting where they called the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans and the Americans for a discussion on Kashmir along with the area specialist. It came as a revelation that all of them share these stereotypical notions. The whole idea of what Steve said was, rebut all of them -- step outside these parameters and give them something more nuanced, and a more rooted knowledge of Kashmir and see to how people respond to that.

Did the book involve a lot of one-on-one interviewing and field research?

This book is a product of almost 15 years of research in Kashmir, because it's my second book on Kashmir. I started working on Kashmir in 1993 and in the initial years -- from 1993 to almost 2000 -- I spent months traveling to the different parts of Kashmir. I've had interviews with the militants of those days in hideouts, in prisons, and collected information and material on just about everything required at that time.

From 2000 onwards, more of them [the militants] have come out openly to talk and so there was a whole group of people who were surrendered militants, or call them whatever you like. But they were more open to the idea of talking publicly and discussing their ideas of what worked and what didn't and why it failed.

I also had access to a lot of community-level people. It wasn't just the political leadership. One was able to travel down to the villages and just talk to people as to what they required. In this book, it was not just absorbing all I had already got, but also putting one's knowledge of India and Pakistan per se, and then putting it together, Azad Kashmir and all.

We were able to do a lot of primary work. We were able to retrieve a whole lot of material from there [POK] and in fact, just to counter the anticipated criticism of partisanship, I have relied extensively on Pakistani sources to write that chapter on Azad Kashmir and Pakistan so that people don't think it's an Indian writing on Pakistan and on Azad Kashmir.

During the release of your book at Brookings, the likes of Steve, former US ambassador to India Tom Pickering and other experts like Ashley Tellis, Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Schaffer were optimistic that the peace process between India and Pakistan, despite moving at a glacial pace, was a positive step. Is this something your book can link itself to?

Absolutely. The last chapter -- the prognosis part -- lays out what the breakthroughs have been. That's where the positivity comes from. It's just that one shouldn't have any radical expectations of a miracle. Kashmir doesn't lend itself to miracles. It's going to be a slow process. It's going to be a painstaking process. The biggest challenge is perhaps just to sustain the momentum and say that, yes, we are making progress. But so long as we keep moving in the right direction, we are doing good.

In terms of the positives, what would you say moved things beyond the old stereotypes and the rhetoric targeted at various vested constituencies?

From the Pakistan side, the three big ones are when [President Pervez] Musharraf publicly debunked the United Nations resolutions in acknowledging the plebiscite mechanism was obsolete. Privately they accepted it long ago, but publicly for a head of Pakistan to accept that plebiscite was a no-go area was the first breakthrough.

But the biggest breakthrough to my mind came when he accepted [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh's point that a. borders will not change and b. that the final solution will not be based on religious lines.

A lot of Pakistanis have argued that this knocks out the rationale of Pakistan's claim on Kashmir, but the bottom line is that these are harsh realities -- you cannot resolve Kashmir on religious lines.

If that realisation is seeping into the Pakistani establishment, then that's a breakthrough.

The Indian mindset [has] internalised [the view] that Pakistan has no locus standi, that we will sort it out. I think, now, Manmohan Singh and others are willing to publicly acknowledge again that, yes, it's an outstanding issue, that yes, a final solution is still pending, and that yes, Pakistan has locus standi and we need to talk to Pakistan.

The third breakthrough is that both sides have realised that they can't do it between themselves -- they have to involve the local stakeholders, whether at the same table [or] separately. The channels of communication are open.

Part 2: 'Dr Singh's efforts on J&K are genuine'

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