(Disclaimer: The Kashmir issue, just like many others plaguing nations, is way too intricate and complex to be discussed in a few hundred words. This article only deals with a few aspects of a few of its aspects.)
Once out of school in India, it is strange how several beliefs are shattered as one grows up and knows more. For example, one learns that Jinnah’s 1946 Direct Action Day was a lot more brutal than what textbooks said, and that there was much more to the 1948 annexation of Hyderabad State than the one page dedicated in school books. Another moment of revelation for me as an Indian youth was seeing the beautiful (but under-celebrated) film Yahaan nine years ago. All of a sudden, several of my pre-conceptions about Kashmir, its people, and its state of affairs were decimated in one clean stroke of courageous, honest cinema.
The film essentially taught me that for someone like me who has never faced even a fraction of what Kashmiris go through each and every day, it is not exactly sensible to have strong opinions on what they should do and what their future should be. I realized how the frequent proclamation of so many of us, that ‘We will never give up Kashmir’, is as senseless as someone from Assam or Kashmir itself giving a verdict on, say, the Kaveri river water dispute. Yahaan, for the first time, convinced me that when it comes to highly sensitive issues, we as citizens should tame extreme opinions, because there are always some important aspects which get ignored in the heat and noise of nationalism and patriotism.
One of the most amusing things about us is how proficient we are at stating and believing ‘opinions’ as facts. The Internet is replete with hundreds of webpages (both Indian and Pakistani) commenting on several facets of the subcontinent’s history in single-dimensional, biased ways. There is no dearth of websites and YouTube videos spawning out highly inflammatory and erratic discourses, zealously maintained by both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists alike. Often the young Indian’s post-school (and these days even ‘during-school’) contact with history, especially India’s partition and post-independence events, happens via these incorrect, propagandist takes. To add ignorance to injury, hardly anyone of us ever reads history from multiple authentic sources. Unsurprisingly, a large majority of India’s young millions has scant knowledge about its recent past, although that hardly prevents them from being strongly opinionated.
Konkan, on the western coast of Maharashtra, is one of the most beautiful places in India and the world (so is Kashmir, I hear). Born and brought up in a town there, most of my childhood memories revolve around natural beauty, the rain and the green. The fun at school, the peace, the nice people, and the brushes with innocent love. Now when I am mature enough, I realize how lucky I was to be born there.
When I try to imagine what a young person (from among those still alive) born in Kashmir in the 1980s will recollect about their own childhood, what come to my mind are human cruelty, the bloodshed and the red. Frequent curfews, violence, jingoistic people and nascent beginnings of hate and revolt. How many of us from the rest of India have seen family members being brutally beaten or killed before our eyes, or leaving home one fine day and never coming back? Yet we so quickly and thoughtlessly form opinions on Kashmiri people who have been through some of the worst, most terrible situations that the current world has seen. What is it about our ‘love for the country’ that makes us forget loving our countrymen and women? And, most importantly, why have we lately become so eager to repeat the mistakes Europe committed in the 1930s and 40s in the name of nationalism?
Kashmir is so complex an issue that there is no plain black and white there. It will be a high point of maturity for our nation when we finally accept and understand that. Besides, despite the fact that the Kashmir problem is predominantly of geographic and political origin, it has unsurprisingly turned (or was converted) into a Hindu-Muslim conflict. We must abstain from falling prey to this maleficent fallout of the crisis. There are several anti-government movements in other states actually heralded by non-Muslims: the ULFA and Maoists, for example, have been no less barbaric than the militants in Kashmir.
History is the greatest guru of all. It is not just a chronicle of the past, but also a crucible of precious lessons. Still, hardly anyone of us attempts to understand our country’s history with an open, unbiased mind. We love waxing eloquent about events like the Partition, and maligning the likes of Gandhi and Nehru, but much of it is done on the basis of half-baked, selective information collected from hate-filled websites, Whatsapp forwards, and videos of divisive leaders. It is astonishing how even the most educated among us quickly turn irrational and narrow-minded when it comes to such a sensitive topic as Kashmir. As with most problems plaguing India, the Mahatma can be invoked here too. Be the change you wish to see in the world, he urged. If we wish to change the Kashmir situation, we first need to change ourselves as citizens of India (with the same positive change happening in Pakistan too).
We can commence by amending our ignorance (or perhaps by first accepting we are ignorant) about the Kashmir issue and about India in general. Both Hindus and Muslims need to get rid of the propagandist notions that we have been fed by our respective fun-folks (fundamentalists, that is) since decades. Expert historians like Ramachandra Guha (India After Gandhi), and credible government officers like A.S. Dulat (Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years) can help us do that. Besides, there are two recent books, one by a Kashmiri Hindu and other by a Kashmiri Muslim, giving us perspectives from the two main involved parties in the issue. (As you can see it’s four books already! But that still won’t suffice to profess complete knowledge of this intractable issue.) Then there are some excellent videos and movies on the subject, like this heart-wrenching documentary on India’s partition and this well-made program on the origins of the ‘Kashmir issue’. Once we get more knowledgeable about our past and understand the complexity of historical events through such active efforts, we start turning into more responsible citizens, instead of click-happy social media maniacs.
But our responsibility doesn’t end there. Perhaps the most important reason why a peaceful political solution for the Kashmir crisis has never been reached is that the governments and leaders of India and Pakistan are scared of infuriating the general public in their respective countries. This, I believe, is the most farcical form of injustice that the Kashmiri people have had to go through. Their fate depends more on what a far-flung Maharashtrian or Keralite thinks about Kashmir rather than what they themselves think. It is terribly amusing that a nondescript Gujarati who may never have chastised his local corporator for their dilapidated municipal hospital will be more than willing to get violent or encourage violence “for Kashmir”. We need to grow up and understand that there is a lot more at stake for the terrorized and alienated people of Kashmir (both Hindus and Muslims) than there is for us the non-Kashmiri Indians. This is geopolitics, not some social sector issue like corruption or women’s safety that each Indian should scream and try to influence decisions.
Instead, we should show faith in the governments that we have chosen, in the experienced bureaucrats who guide the government, and the expert historians who guide them both. Our paramount duty is to give them and the people of Kashmir a pressure-free environment for discussing and deciding on the matter. Huge mistakes have been committed by all involved parties in the past, but we can’t afford endlessly revisiting the same mistakes. What the Kashmir crisis most importantly needs is strong political will from all sides, and we as citizens of India must take the responsibility of creating a conducive, favourable atmosphere for it. Perhaps Kashmir may not regain its label of ‘heaven on earth’ soon, but we can at least make sure its resident demons and devils, both physical and psychological, are driven out in the coming years.