When I first visited Kashmir in 1981, the pros and cons of accession to India or Pakistan inevitably cropped up in conversation. One government official argued that the Kashmiri economy, highly dependent on fruit, had suffered because the state had become part of India rather than Pakistan.
“Right through history,” he said, “all our fruit went down the Jhelum valley into West Punjab (which is now in Pakistan). That was always the natural road and river route, and low transport costs meant that our fruit farmers got a good price. But now we have been cut off from our natural trade routes and consumers. Instead, we have been forced to cross the Pir Panjal range into Jammu and the Gangetic plain. This route is fraught with logistical difficulties, high costs and longer distances. So, Kashmiri fruit growers get a lower price for their produce.”
I could not disagree. The argument seemed sound. The official went on to argue that exports would in the long run fetch the highest fruit prices. For exports, he said, Karachi was closer to Kashmir than Bombay, and this was an additional reason for Kashmir to be with Pakistan. I stumped him by saying that Kandla was even closer than Karachi. He had never heard of Kandla.
Yet my argument was not honest. Road and rail connections between Kashmir and Kandla were — and still are — so poorly developed that Kashmiri fruit is not exported from there. In the absence of cold chains, very little Kashmiri produce can be exported, from either Indian or Pakistani ports. The export argument offered by the Kashmir official was weak. However, it showed how strong was his nostalgia for the historical trade route. It must be so for millions of others in the Valley.
That conversation has come back to me vividly in the context of today’s blockade of Kashmir by Hindu mobs in Jammu, and the Kashmiri response to it. Last Monday, a huge crowd of demonstrators set out from Sopore to march across the line of control into Muzzafarabad, capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Hundreds of trucks full of fruit joined the ‘Muzzafarabad Chalo’ movement, which was backed by the Kashmir Fruit Growers Association, various trade and industry associations, the two Hurriyat factions and the PDP. As locals joined along the route, the crowd increased in size to 1.5 lakh people, and the cavalcade became several kilometres long. The gargantuan size of the demonstration showed the depth and breadth of Kashmiri outrage over the blockade.
The police cut the road at Chahal, and tried to stop the march with tear gas and guns. One Hurriyat leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, died in the firing. Furious mobs burned police stations. Tempers are still raging, and will further alienate Kashmiris from what they see as colonial oppressors from New Delhi. The PDP, once seen as a nationalist party, now has one foot in the separatist camp, represented by the Hurriyat factions.
Let nobody think that the march to Muzzafarabad was simply a response to the Jammu blockade. Kashmiris have long resented their being cut off from their historical trade route down the Jhelum into West Punjab. The Muzzafarabad Chalo movement was not just an economic plea for evacuating their produce, it was a demand for the restoration of the historical links between the Valley and what is now Pakistan. It was a demand by Kashmiris for the right to determine their own future, to send their produce where and when they wanted, and not be at the mercy of Indian (or Pakistani) political parties. The case for separatism has been strengthened greatly, even in the mind of moderates.
The Jammu agitators had no qualms about imposing a blockade with the explicit aim of starving or bludgeoning the Valley into submission. The immediate cause of their agitation was the government’s supine surrender to the Kashmiri outburst against transferring land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Yet much of Jammu’s anger stemmed from the earlier expulsion of Pandits from the Valley, which is and will always be a running sore.
Optimists may keep talking about Kashmiriyat and local traditions that transcend religion, and may project differences between the Valley and Jammu as regional rather than religious. But the fact is that communalism has mixed inexorably with regionalism to produce a toxic and combustible potion. Optimists can seek regional, economic or secular explanations for the Kashmiri protest over Amarnath and the Jammu blockade, but both have communal cores, notwithstanding regional outer layers.
It should surprise nobody that, after the police firing near the line of control, rampaging Muslims mobs attempted to destroy two Hindu temples. The Islamisation of the Valley is growing apace. The policemen who killed the Hurriyat leader may well be Muslims. But Kashmiris will see them as agents of Hindu imperialism. At the recent WTO meeting, commerce minister Kamal Nath waxed eloquent about his determination to protect Indian farmers against depressed prices arising from cheap imports. It never occurred to him that Kashmiri farmers might face not just depressed but zero prices if they were prevented from sending their produce either into Jammu or Pakistan.
Anger in the Valley will not disappear even if the Jammu blockade is lifted. The feeling of outraged vulnerability will continue, and azaadi (independence) will increasingly be seen as the only solution consistent with Kashmiri security and self-respect. This reality cannot be evaded by legal waffling about the state’s accession to India. Besides, the accession instrument provided for a plebiscite that has never been implemented.
The Jammu blockade is a blatant attempt to squeeze Kashmiris economically into submission. This approach is doomed to failure. You cannot starve a community into comradeship, and the very attempt to do so is a form of colonial brutality. The Jammu agitators may have legitimate grievances, but their chosen instrument of protest can only stoke secessionism. Ironically, the Hindu die-hards who most bitterly oppose secession are doing the most to make it a reality.