Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Book Recap: Kashmir - Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace

In the 1987 Assembly elections in the Amirakadal constituency in Kashmir valley, the incumbent centre-backed National Conference (NC) candidate was challenged by Mohammad Yusuf Shah of the Muslim United Front (MUF) party. A 21-year old man named Yasin Malik was Shah's campaign manager. On counting day, when it became clear that Shah was winning, the NC candidate quietly left for home. But a few hours later, he was recalled to the counting office and declared a winner. The NC being favored by the Centre, presiding election officers had 'intervened' and changed the course of the result. The same evening, Yusuf Shah and Yasin Malik were arrested and imprisoned without trial for nearly 9 months.

Bose uses this incident to highlight the plight of the political process in Kashmir. In the 60 years since Independence, this story has been played out repeatedly across Jammu and the Kashmir Valley, and Bose contends that as much of the Kashmir problem is due to mishandling of Kashmiri democratic institutions by India, as is to the extraordinary conditions of its birth. But this particular incidence has special significance. After being released from prison, the frustrated MUF candidate and his campaign manager crossed over into the so-called Azad Kashmir (POK), returning after a couple of years - with Mohammed Shah (later taking on the name Syed Salahuddin) founding the Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Yasin Malik founding the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, both organisations having violence as their key strategy.

The first half of the book is thus given over to making the point that contrary to projections by Indian leaders and perception of the Indian public, the Kashmir problem is an internal political problem rather than a boundary dispute. In fact, cross-border terrorism is barely mentioned till late in the book. Interviews of the author with native Kashmiris who talk fondly of vague but lofty notions such as kashmiriyat and khudmukhtari while berating the acts of both India and the violent militant culture, would give fresh insight to Indians brought up to think "Kashmir problem = Pakistan". Another stark reminder is that of the shallowness and corruption within the National Conference (NC), once thought to be the equivalent of the Indian National Congress in Kashmir's freedom struggle, that is better known by its leaders Farooq Abdullah and recently by his son Omar Abdullah. Remember how in 2002 the Indian media, with its enchantment for everything young and beautiful, had presented the freshly-elected MP Omar to the unsuspecting Indian public as a messiah-in-the-making?

While the earlier sections of the book are written in a quasi-journalistic subaltern style, Bose resorts to a more traditional academic approach in the last. He tests some of the frequently-aired solutions to the Kashmir problem and proposes an original resolution framework. Plebiscide and partition are both dismissed out of hand because of the complex nature of the problem. A parallel is drawn between Kashmir and Northern Ireland (the latter faces a similar problem of conflicting nationalities and religious cultures, with the Catholic minority leaning towards the Republic of Ireland and the Protestant majority leaning towards England). The peace of the last 6 years in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is taken as proof of the success of the complex solution followed there, and Bose models his own framework on that basis. In essence, his approach calls for the establishment of an all-inclusive independent governance structure in Kashmir with direct but benign intervention of both Dilli and Islamabad.

Overall, the book is excellent reading for someone with only a casual understanding of the Kashmir problem. Others might find Bose's ideas, especially those centered on the solution, less inspiring. While he maintains a fairly interesting narrative throughout, one feels restricted in perspective by the fact that the book is essentially written from the standpoint of an Indian (though the book contains plenty of objective criticism of India's approach). For example, many Indian readers would like to know what Kashmir looks like from Islamabad, or from Muzaffarabad (the capital of POK) to get a better grasp of the problem, but Bose doesnt offer that luxury. The upside being that his point-focus keeps the book short and precise, thus making it a good primer.

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