Kashmir: Can the nation win back Kashmiri hearts and minds?
(Indian Independence Day Special)
The army restores near normalcy, at a big cost in soldiers’ lives and peoples’ goodwill and, on each occasion, politicians in Delhi and Srinagar belie the peoples’ hope that they will step in with a panacea for Kashmir, writes Admiral Arun Prakash (retd.) for South Asia Monitor
Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) Aug 12, 2018
Independent India and I are both septuagenarians, but since I am a trifle older, I take the liberty of indulging in some reminiscences, on behalf of us both, on the nation’s 71st birthday. My early recollections are focused on Kashmir, because that is where I was born; in a town called Anantnag, near Srinagar.
Etched in my memory, is the traumatic night of 30 October 1947, when India was a mere 10 weeks old and I had just crossed three years. Clutched in my mother’s arms I, along with two elder siblings, hid under bushes in our garden, as bullets ricocheted off the tin roof of our cottage. We lived in a village named Badgam, about 30 km south-west of Srinagar airport, where my father was a revenue officer in-charge of the district. The fusillade was coming from surrounding hills, occupied by Pakistani kabailis (tribals), en route from Uri and Baramulla hoping to capture Srinagar airport.
At the break of dawn, we piled into the family horse-drawn tonga, with just the clothes on our back and fled to the airport, where RIAF DC-3 Dakotas were disembarking Indian troops. My father watched, as we clambered into a departing aircraft, which flew us to Delhi, and refuge with relatives. We rejoined father in mid-1948, to start life again from scratch.
Growing up, in lovely little towns of the Valley in post-independence decades was idyllic. My playmates were all Kashmiris; of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faith. Our parents were friends; we ate in each others’ homes, and celebrated festivals together. But even as children, we clearly understood that Kashmir was not (yet) India, and that the average Kashmiri’s attitude towards India was ambivalent.
India provided huge financial assistance to J&K; food, education, clothing and medicine were either free or heavily subsidised. Kashmiris would accept the largesse, but tune in every evening to Radio Pakistan which invariably played on their religious heart-strings, spouting propaganda about "occupation" of Kashmir and "atrocities" by the Bharatiya fauj (Indian Army).
Kashmir’s first ‘Prime Minister’ Sheikh Abdullah was the state’s tallest figure then; a friend of Nehru’s and a staunch secularist, he was the self-styled Sher-e-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir). In 1953 he fell from grace and was alleged to have conspired with the Americans to become "King Abdullah" of an independent Kashmir. He was arrested, and the Valley burst into flames.
In 1953 as a nine-year old, I recall seeing my father, then magistrate of Baramulla, coming home, bleeding from the head; there had been ‘patharao’ (stone-pelting) in the old town, as agitators waved Pakistani flags and shouted pro-Pakistan slogans. The para-military forces opened fire, and many were killed, before the Valley relapsed into sullen silence.
In 1959 when I left J&K, to join college and the navy, my parents were in Leh (Ladakh), which seemed like ‘Shangri La’. The Valley, too, was peaceful, with few signs of hostility or bitterness amongst Kashmiris. However, an utterly unimaginative New Delhi seemed to have little to offer them, apart from money. The state, being a nest of corruption and nepotism, 95% of the millions that India poured into it, never reached the impoverished Kashmiri. In the absence of a politico-economic strategy for creating jobs, industry or infrastructure, Indian money merely enriched some Kashmiri politicians and aggravated the people’s resentment and alienation; which Pakistan exploited.
India’s maladroitness did not end here. A succession of Pakistani-orchestrated incidents, between 1963 and 1999, demonstrated the ineptness of our intelligence agencies, lack of civil-military coordination and the complete strategic bankruptcy of New Delhi. This depressing sequence included the theft of Prophet Mohammad’s sacred relic, kidnapping of Rubayia Sayeed, sister of ex-Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, seizure of Hazaratbal shrine, capture and burning down of the Charar-e-Sharif shrine, persecution and expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, the Kargil War and hijacking of IC-814. Add to this, the self-inflicted wound of the rigged 1987 elections which triggered armed militancy.
This reminiscence is not a history of Kashmir’s travails, but merely a reminder to those who profess shock at the recent developments in the Valley, that the Indian state has, since 1947, learnt nothing from history. It repeated its mistakes and failed to convince the Kashmiri that he/she is an Indian.
We can, smugly, point out, to our Kashmiri brethren, the political and economic mess in Pakistan, and that its PM-elect is, a Taliban supporter, upholder of blasphemy laws, oppressor of Ahmedias and holds regressive views on women. But they see, at home, the political chicanery and government lassitude, which has resulted in repeated crises. The army restores near normalcy, at a big cost in soldiers’ lives and peoples’ goodwill and, on each occasion, politicians in Delhi and Srinagar belie the peoples’ hope that they will step in with a panacea for Kashmir. In this context, serious reflection is required, whether our milieu of growing intolerance and an agenda of revoking Article 370 in a tearing hurry, will really win Kashmiri hearts and minds?
In closing, let me recall three men, forgotten today, who were legends in my Kashmiri boyhood. The gallant Major Somnath Sharma of 4th Kumaon, whose patrol made its last stand in Badgam, to successfully defend Srinagar airport against Pakistani tribals, and who earned India’s first Param Vir Chakra posthumously. Brigadier Mohammad Usman, having spurned Jinnah’s offer to become Pak army Chief, was Commander 50 Indian Para Brigade, which re-captured Jhangar and defended Naushera. Usman was killed by a Pakistani shell and posthumously earned the Maha Vir Chakra.
Last, but not the least was 19-year old Maqbool Sherwani, who realized that the marauding kabailihordes had to be delayed in his native Baramulla till the Indian Army’s arrival in Srinagar. Using guile and deception, he succeeded; but when the enraged Pakistanis discovered his subterfuge, Sherwani was nailed to a wooden cross and shot repeatedly. A grateful Indian Army has erected a memorial to this local hero.
The French have a cynical aphorism: “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. This Independence Day, let us introspect if this is also true of India’s management of Kashmir?
(The author is a former Chief of the Indian Navy and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org