Should India disinvest Kashmir?

Although the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit failed to produce an agreed statement, many observers claim that considerable progress was made in areas like commercial exchanges or Sir Creek.

One draft okayed at the foreign minister level made no mention of Lahore or Shimla (a concession to Pakistan) or to the UN resolution of 1948 (a concession to India). This draft was later shot down, but optimists regard the very fact that things got this far as a breakthrough.

Beware of supposed breakthroughs. The Tashkent Agreement, the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Agreement were all hailed as breakthroughs when signed, yet failed to bring peace. No agreements signed by leaders of the two countries are worth the paper they are written on if they do not reflect ground realities. And the ground reality is that identity politics continues to dominate the subcontinent.

The Pakistani sense of identity includes Kashmir, and always has since partition. For most Indians including both the secular and Hindu nationalist strands, Kashmir is a symbol of Indian identity, not to be disrupted by another partition. And most Kashmiris of the valley have a strong sense of an identity of their own, distinct from India and Pakistan.

Musharraf says the core problem is Kashmir. More correctly, identity politics is. It is so strong that no peaceful solution looks on the cards, regardless of how clever diplomats are in drafting agreements.

The formal Indian position is that we must move forward on other issues like trade and energy. I am not sure this can overcome the mayhem created by identity politics. After all, India and Pakistan had almost unfettered trade and cultural exchanges between 1947 and 1965, and that did not solve the underlying identity clash.

I am reminded of what was said in a very different context by Sharad Joshi, leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, a powerful farmers organisation. Joshi has for decades campaigned for unfettered trade in agricultural commodities between Indian states, for lifting the myriad curbs on the sale and movement of agricultural goods between states and districts. Farmers have a huge common interest in this, and so Joshi can organise lakhs of farmers to blockade roads and paralyse the countryside. Yet when he tried to leverage this organisational strength into politics, by setting up his own political party, he failed dismally. Why? Because, he says, at election time people think mainly in terms of identity. They do not think of themselves as farmers first, they think mainly in terms of caste, religion and region. Very true.

In 1947, our leaders hoped that divisions of caste, religion and region would soon dissolve in a larger national identity. In fact, the narrower identities are stronger than ever today. Gone is the traditional dominance of parties claiming to represent all sections of society, like the Congress Party and two Communist parties. The last decade has witnessed the rise of parties based on caste (BSP, RJD, SP), religion (BJP, Shiv Sena) and region (TDP, BLD).

As long as identity politics comes in the way of a settlement in Kashmir, we cannot expect Indo-Pak amity. If such amity is to be achieved, it will probably have to be done by harnessing identity politics in favour of a settlement. That will mean a new paradigm or mind-set. An example is a brilliant article written by Shubhrangshu Roy in The Economic Times on July 14.

Roy is a sophisticated, unashamed believer in Hindu raj. But he sees Kashmir as a liability, not an asset, to Hindus. He notes that 300,000 Hindus and Sikhs have been rendered homeless by bullets. Hindu India will be forking out Rs 16,428 crore to Kashmir in 2000-05, the equivalent of Rs 3,300 per year to each Kashmiri.

Believe me, he says, Kashmir is a bad investment. The Sunnis of the valley simply do not want to be Indians, and it is not worth spending money and lives hanging onto the valley. Let us get rid of it for as high a price as we can get.

Now, RSS diehards will agree with Roy that many Kashmiri Muslims do not view themselves as Indians. But the diehards condemn this as treason, and want to punish the traitors. They see Kashmir as an asset which should not be given up at the instance of secular or Muslim traitors.

Now Roy has come forward with a novel paradigm—get rid of Kashmir in order to promote Hindu interests. He has met Hindu soldiers in the valley who do not want to fight indefinitely, and are worried whether they will return home alive.

Roy agrees wholeheartedly with disinvestment minister Arun Shourie that there is no point in retaining assets that do not yield returns. He sees Kashmir as a poor asset that yields no returns to India, yet is viewed as valuable by foreign bidders. So, he says, let us disinvest Kashmir.

Often, a government strips assets from an unproductive company before disinvestment. So, says Roy, let us strip off Ladakh and Jammu, which would like to continue to be with India. Let us then auction the valley.

Roy’s article is very funny, but it should not be dismissed as a joke. It is written in a lighter vein, but has a serious underlying strain. This is the first time I have seen such a succinct formulation by a Hindu nationalist on the need to dispose of Kashmir in the interests of Hindus. Starting from very different premises, it is nevertheless compatible with a Muslim nationalist view or a libertarian view on self-determination for Kashmiris. I do not think the RSS or other Hindu nationalist organisations will accept it anytime soon. But in the long run, peace requires a formulation that can be sold to Hindu nationalists, and this looks a good candidate.

What do you think?