by Arnold Zeitlin 2 June 2020
The book, a compilation of essays by five writers and the poetry of one, serves as a reminder of how tragic the story of Kashmir has become since the book was published a decade ago.
The Kashmir epic, for more than 70 years, a running sore between India and Pakistan, has entered a new chapter. The Narendra Modi government in New Delhi, last year, scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution giving Kashmir and neighboring Jammu internal autonomy and divided the territory into two ordinary Union states. Under the new status, citizens from elsewhere in India would be permitted to settle and own land in the new states, a measure many Kashmiris believe would dilute the Muslim nature of Kashmir’s legendary valley.
Since the revocation of Article 370, Modi placed Kashmir under a sweeping security lockdown with a communications blockade cutting off the territory from the rest of the world.
That Muslim nature was the core of the dispute when the Hindu maharajah, Hari Singh, acceded his princely state under pressure to India in October 1947 as a condition for his getting Indian troops to repel a Pakistan government-supported invasion by Pathan irregulars, who spent most of their time in the territory looting.
Pakistan believes the territory should have gone to it; after all, it claims to be the Muslim homeland, most Kashmiris are Muslim and the K in Pakistan stands for Kashmir. Since 1947, the Kashmir matter had soured Indian-Pakistan relations, led to wars in 1947-48 and 1965, plus persistent border clashes, the most serious in 1999 when Pakistan troops occupied the heights in the Kargil mountain range overlooking a vital Indian highway. The issue raises the horror of two nuclear-armed states coming to blows. The Indians have stationed a force reportedly of up to 600,000 troops in Kashmir to hold the territory against Pakistani incursions and to suppress Moslem uprisings protesting Indian rule.
With accession came an Indian promise, never fulfilled, of a plebiscite in which Kashmiris would vote to determine which country they preferred to join. The authors of this book raise the issue of Kashmiri independence from both Pakistan and India.
“Neither Pakistan nor India favours the cause of Kashmiri independence,” writes Pakistan-born Tariq Ali, long a critic of his native land, “….and yet independence is what the Kashmiri people appear to want.”
After meeting a leader of the J&K Liberation Front, Ali writes, “they would be happy for their frontiers to be guaranteed by India, Pakistan and China so that Kashmir…could become a secular, multicultural paradise, open to citizens of both India and Pakistan….a noble, but utopian, hope.”
Novelist and social activist Arundhati Roy titles her essay: Azadi (freedom) The Only Thing The Kashmiris Want, a stand that earned her a Delhi police charge of sedition.
“Does any government have the right to take away people’s liberty with military force?” she asks, a question today as pertinent as it was a decade ago. “India needs Azadi from Kashmir as much as — if not more– than Kashmir needs Azadi from India.”
She, Tariq Ali, and the other writers each describe killings, rapes, oppression, and other human rights violations over decades of Indian military occupation. Translation of romantic but mournful poetry of Habbah Khatun, a peasant who became the consort of 16th century Kashmir ruler Yusuf Sha Chak, eases the litany of brutality. Known as the Kashmir nightingale, her songs are still sung in Kashmir.