Monday, February 21, 2005

Wresting the Azadi Argument in Kashmir

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.


Kumar said...

"...a few liberal Americans, and their angst-ridden Indian counterparts..." challenged you on the Indian take on J&K ? I think India's moral case on J&K to be quite easy to secure based on the most elementary principles of democracy. It's interesting that so many liberal Indians stumble on this point.

You should know that I'm a Kashmiri Pandit. No doubt this may cause many a good liberal (Indian and American) to dismiss my argument. But I will offer it nonetheless--if we Kashmiri Pandits don't argue on our behalf, no one else will either. I've learned at least that much from the treatment meted out to our community.

Briefly, the argument for Kashmiri self-determination is undermined by two points: First, there is no(monolithic) 'Kashmiri' community. Second, there is no liberal politics (small 'l') among the secessionists' leaders (read, urban--primarily Srinagar--Sunni Muslims).

About the first: There are many Kashmiris, divided along lines of religion and ethnicity. As well, there is an urban-village divide, divides along dialects, among other division. Thus there are not only Shias and Sunnis, Pandits and Sikhs but Dogras and Gujjars.

About the second: The interests of these communities are quite divergent. Democracy isn't simply majority rule, but such rule constrained by respect for the rights of the minority. Unfortunately, there is simply no prospect for such a liberal politics in an 'independent and free' Kashmir.

The 'Hurriyat' Conference, aided by terrorists, most certainly does not fit the bill. And, yes, I've taken into account the numerous soothing press conferences they hold with Western journalists. The facts remain what they are, however. On the ground, the Hurriyat gets its power from the barrel of terrorists' guns.

Any 'freedom' brought about by such elements is likely to be hollow. More likely than not, it'll just be another democracy on paper. American and Indian liberals can allow themselves to nurse illusions about a monolithic Kashmir and the impact of 'Kashmiri' freedom on Kashmiri minorities. The many minority groups in Kashmir don't have that luxury.

This will no doubt shock liberals, but the best guarantor of genuine democracy for all Kashmiris is still India. No doubt the Government of India will have to give greater autonomy to J&K. Such devolution, btw, should go all the way down to the panchayat level, along the lines suggested by Balraj Puri. (Indeed, I think greater devolution would benefit other Indian states as well).

About the rest of your commentary: I'm rather more sanguine than you are about the ultimate outcome of the current round of negotiations over J&K. India holds both the strategic and moral high ground. Precisely because India is a genuine democracy, its political class must heed the settled consensus that J&K is an 'integral' part of India. Even the eccentricites of its politicians won't be enough to turn the tide in the terrorists' favor.


Nitin said...

Your arguments are well made.

It is a shame to see the unelected, self-styled 'leaders' of the Hurriyat pass off as genuine representatives of the Kashmiri people.

It is also quite shameful that the opinion of a Kashmiri pandit seem to be discounted just because he (or she) is one! A similar discount does not seem to apply to the Hurriyat, at least not on that dinner table.

My greatest fear is while Pakistan may have failed to wrest Kashmir by a 'thousand cuts', India may yet give it away in a 'thousand bits'. In all those numerous confidence building measures, even that bus that is supposed to link Kashmiris, I see no mention of the Pandits.

Why not a bus from refugee camps in Delhi and elsewhere back to Kashmir?

someone else said...

I think the argument needs to be made that Kashmir is neither part of India nor part of Pakistan, but a disputed border area of the region that both can lay claim to in their nationalistic dispute at the expense of people who actually live there. Regardless of who has the superior legalistic or moral arguments or the facts on the ground, neither India nor Pakistan will satisfactorily "win" Kashmir in a lasting, peaceful, and moral way. Ultimately, the best solution is for a deescalation of tensions, which will finally allow an atmosphere of autonomy in Kashmir that might shed light on what the eventual solution will be. Otherwise, it will remain a war zone in perpetuity.

As for the Indian guilt and the American liberal indictments; the notions of "free" states vs. "not free" states are highly overrated. There are degrees of openness and development of civil society in all countries, ranging from Somalia to the Netherlands. It's far from paradoxical that a an over-centralized "democracy" would attempt to stifle the right of autonomy of a disputed region while a neighboring illiberal state would seek to exploit notions of democracy to mask what is really a dispute with its neighboring country. These are the games that states play, and we shouldn't lose the reality by getting caught up in overly black and white terminology.

Kumar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kumar said...


It’s incorrect, as a matter of fact, that all societies are open to one degree or another. Many, perhaps, but not all. Think, for example, of states such as Germany in the Nazi era or North Korea today. However, even if all societies are open to some extent, it’s a fallacy to argue that—therefore--the distinction between free/not-free is “…highly overrated”. That’s like arguing the distinction between ‘red’ and ‘blue’ is highly overrated since colors lie on a spectrum.

In any case, I suspect the view you discuss here isn’t a novel one to those who write and read this blog. Your language about ‘nationalistic’ India and Pakistan warring at “…the expense of people who actually live there …” hasn’t come to grips with the socio-political diversity in Kashmir. The idea that “…Kashmir is neither part of India nor part of Pakistan…” is problematic for a number of reasons. Not least, this view rests on the elision of the voices of many Kashmiris who vigorously dispute this proposition. I’m afraid your view founders on these elementary facts.


Primary Red said...

We fully endorse Kumar's discussion of these issues. Very well put.

Gerald Millspaugh said...

Hello, I am interested in hearing from others