At a recent New York dinner a few liberal Americans, and their angst-ridden Indian counterparts, challenged us on the irony of illiberal Pakistan's support for Kashmiri self-determination, versus liberal India's resistance to it. The following is our response -- a bit long (forgive us for this) but it is (we hope) a sound liberal argument countering India's unfortunately apologetic liberal consensus on this matter. Key passages are bolded for quick perusal.
Consider a hypothetical 10-year-old tsunami orphan, facing these terrible choices: either join an ill-run orphanage or become a bonded laborer or a street urchin. Her choosing freely from among these is hardly "free choice", is it? In other words, free choice absent good options is meaningless.
Why this principle doesn’t apply in Kashmir is baffling. Here, India is pressured to allow Kashmiris "free choice" from among terrible options all of which, as we shall see, would reduce their existing freedoms. Liberals aggressively demand Indian flexibility on Kashmir - implicitly condemning Kashmiris to an illiberal fate.
This attitude is rooted in a discomforting irony - Pakistani dictatorship champions Kashmiri "free choice" while Indian democracy resists it. Notwithstanding India’s legalistic albeit valid claims, this ideological inconsistency bothers Indians - when challenged, we stammer away our discomfort by referencing Kashmiri elections and Pakistani terrorism, and when really cornered, vague possibilities of Kashmiri autonomy. These, alas, don’t really address the core issue of Kashmiri free choice - and we know it.
Our discomfort with the vocabulary of freedom is unbecoming of India. We might secure Kashmir some day with silver and sword, but our ideological discomfort will forever bite. It’s already causing us to poorly negotiate - we are now discussing concessions that, while soothing our ill-concealed discomfort, are potentially terrible mistakes. India had best resolve this matter now, ahead of serious negotiations - for, it is bad form to negotiate from a position of discomfort.
Fortunately, there exists a moral framework where our liberal discomfort is easily addressed. With this, India can wrest the Azadi argument away from separatists.
Consider Freedom House’s 2005 Freedom in the World country ratings. Here, India is rated free, like the West, while Pakistan is rated not free, like Saudi Arabia. In fact, none of India’s neighbors are rated free, making us the lone exception in a decidedly illiberal South Asia. More interesting are Kashmir ratings. While Jammu and Kashmir is rated partly free, like Singapore, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir is rated not free, like Palestine.
Kashmiri self-determination is, thus, really about Kashmiris being asked to choose between their current partly free status and either, a not free future with Pakistan, or an illiberal autonomy, mirroring South Asia ex India. This so-called Azadi that reduces freedom is political self-mutilation. If free choice has meaning only with good options, this is hardly that.
While liberals naively equate polities of democratic India with our illiberal neighbors’ - who are we to judge, they say, let Kashmiris choose freely for themselves - the moral framework asserts the self-evident superiority of secular democracy over communal dictatorship. Further, it deems freedom to choose valid only when such choice, in turn, improves freedom. Therefore, any Kashmiri choice involving illiberal Pakistan or freedom-abating autonomy is rejected on moral principle, not on dry legalisms alone.
Kashmir’s only acceptable free choice involves choosing between its current partly free status and a free future - matching the rest of India. Absent this, we have the absurd paradox of "free choice" which, upon exercise, eliminates the very freedom that made it possible - i.e., free choice reduced to "one person, one vote, once".
A people’s (even self-determined) regression from freedom is bad enough - after two decades of absorbing terrorism, we fully know its spillover consequences on the world. Thus, it’s just as important to defend a people’s existing freedom, as it is to support a not free people’s quest for it. The former is India’s moral and strategic imperative in Kashmir. We may reasonably negotiate with Pakistan on issues of terrorism, river waters, gas pipelines, and free trade, but there is no moral basis to settle these in the currency of Kashmiri freedom. Neither Indians nor Pakistanis, and crucially not even Kashmiris themselves, have the moral right to barter this freedom away.
How should Kashmir be transitioning to greater freedom from its current partly free status? It’s likely that this would occur naturally once Pakistan’s illiberal shadow is lifted. Nevertheless, India should be pro-actively defending Kashmiri freedom constantly - not selling it out by discussing freedom-abating options.
For starters, we could establish this Lakshman Rekha - India will not accept options that reduce existing Kashmiri freedoms rooted in India’s Constitution. This does not compel Kashmiri separatists to accept India’s Constitution per se; it demands they demonstrably embrace its liberal spirit instead. Also, absent substantial reform at home, Pakistan’s role in Kashmir is de-legitimized. Our freedom vocabulary will also help deflect American pressure - after all, President Bush himself has proclaimed spreading freedom as America’s foreign policy. Best of all, it has the comforting virtue of moral consistency.
Monday, February 21, 2005
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- Wresting the Azadi Argument in Kashmir
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