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Kashmir and the clash of symbolisms

Jacob Kashmir

To successfully reach out to Kashmiris, and establish good faith, the Central government needs to address the symbolism that drives the separatist quarter

Over the past one and a half months, a host of institutions and individuals in India have impressed upon the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led Central government to reach out to Kashmiris to bring a peaceful end to the crisis in the Valley. Parliament discussed it at length, participants in an all-party meeting urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a political solution, and even a senior Army general has indirectly hinted at the need to talk to ‘all stakeholders’ in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). And yet, the BJP leadership has summarily failed to act on such advice and normalise the Valley.

The BJP continues to approach the Kashmir issue either using a Pakistan angle (insisting that the Kashmir uprising is propped up by Pakistan) or from a Hindu-Muslim perspective. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s attempts to blame the unrest entirely on Pakistan and rope in Delhi-based Muslim clerics to reach out to Kashmiris are indicative of these flawed approaches. The reality is that neither do Indian Muslims have anything to do with what happens in Kashmir nor is the ‘azadi’ struggle in Kashmir a purely Islamic movement.

This shocking inability of the BJP to meaningfully resolve or sensibly respond to the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir is not merely a result of the arrogance of power or sheer political ignorance. At a very fundamental level, this is the result of a clash that exists between the BJP’s politics of symbolism and what Kashmir’s ‘azadi’ movement symbolises. While some of the demands made and positions taken by both the BJP leadership and the Kashmiri dissidents are indeed substantive, if not entirely useful, the fact is that there are thick layers of symbolism that surround these substantive arguments, with the latter almost clouding the former. The Kashmir issue is as much symbolic as it is substantive. Hence one cannot address the substantive issue of conflict resolution in Kashmir without addressing the symbology of the ‘azadi’ movement.

BJP’s politics of symbolism
In the BJP’s (and Sangh Parivar’s) hyper-nationalist cosmology, Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, and the separate flag and constitution which symbolise that special status of J&K in the Indian Union, run counter to their idea of Indian nationalism. Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s evocative slogan “Ek vidhan, ek nishan aur ek samvidhan” (one country, one emblem and one constitution) forms the BJP’s political approach to Kashmir. In reality though, the J&K flag and its constitution are not privileged over the Indian national flag or Constitution, and Article 370 of the Constitution has lost all meaning over the years.

In other words, while in the Kashmiri political imagination, the flag, constitution and whatever is left of Article 370 form a crucial part of Kashmiri nationalism and even its ‘azadi’ demand, the BJP, a party that rides high on exclusivist political symbolism, finds it hard to accept it. For the Kashmiri nationalist, abolition of Article 370 would be symbolic of complete ‘Indian occupation’; for the BJP and the Sangh, it would be in line with bringing Kashmir into the Indian mainstream.

What about the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA? To Kashmiris, draconian laws like AFSPA are symbolic of Indian oppression in Kashmir, whereas for the BJP, withdrawing AFSPA would be a symbolic defeat at the hands of Kashmiri separatists. The reality, however, is that revoking AFSPA from a few districts in Kashmir or even partially amending it would be a symbol that Kashmiris would find greatly encouraging. Moreover, doing so would hardly affect the Indian Army’s operational capability there.

The same logic applies to the withdrawal of Central forces from the residential areas of the Valley. Having put itself on a ‘better than thou’ nationalistic pedestal, the BJP finds it difficult to heed to such demands, which the Congress party could if it willed it. However, doing so would make a great deal of difference to Kashmiris since, for them, the gun-totting soldier frisking Kashmiri civilians, day after day, represents Indian oppression.

The only BJP leader who played to the Kashmiri nationalist symbolism, if not do anything about it, was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who by merely uttering the magic mantra that every BJP leader takes refuge in today — ‘Kashmiriyat, jamhooriyat, insaniyat’ — transformed the discourse on the relationship between New Delhi and Srinagar. His wise words did not lead to any action: the word was the act, and it made a difference.

Moreover, the BJP managed to form a coalition government in the Valley with the ‘soft-separatist’ Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), despite declaring in its manifesto that it would abrogate Article 370, precisely because it managed to not only go back on its hardline positions but also address some of the key symbols of Kashmiri nationalism in its ‘Agenda of Alliance’ with the PDP.

The United Progressive Alliance regime, on the other hand, was adept at symbolically playing to Kashmiri demands. Most of its Kashmir initiatives from 2004 to 2011 show that it cleverly used symbolism with an occasional sprinkling of substance: Manmohan Singh engaged the separatists without any hesitation (unlike the BJP), organised Round Table Conferences in Kashmir, set up Working Groups on key themes linked to the ‘azadi’ question, and, after the 2010 agitation, sent a group of interlocutors to Kashmir who went out of their way to meet all key separatists in the Valley. While nothing came out of any of these initiatives, Dr. Singh managed to convey to Kashmiris that he was willing to engage them in an ‘out of the box’ manner without riding high on aggressive nationalism.

BJP vs Pakistan
The India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir is a substantive issue pertaining primarily to the State’s territoriality, and yet there are strong symbolic aspects of the dispute that can indeed transcend the substantive claims. Armed with the unavoidable realisation that a territorial change of the Kashmir border is impossible due to a variety of reasons, Pakistan has been looking for an ‘honourable exit route’ from the Kashmir quagmire, a conflict that has had immeasurable adverse implications for its own society and polity. This explains the thought-process behind the so-called Musharraf formula on Kashmir, a solution that hinges on resolving the bilateral Kashmir dispute without changing its currently existing borders.

Dr. Singh understood the symbolism behind the Musharraf formula and offered to work with the Pakistani leader to ‘make borders irrelevant’ in Kashmir. Both proposals were full of symbolism, with hardly any substantive territorial transformation in it. Dr. Singh was able to pursue it precisely because the symbolism behind his politics, and that of the Congress party, did not clash with the proposed solution.

How fundamental is Kashmir to Pakistan’s identity? There was a time when Kashmir was bandied about as the “jugular vein of Pakistan”. They continue to do so, but of late, there is a recognition in the country that it needs to focus more on its own internal conflicts rather than Kashmir though the current stand-off may help reverse it. Pakistan also regularly refers to the UN Resolutions on Kashmir, but that is essentially to put New Delhi on the mat rather than being reflective of its seriousness about the Resolutions which would require Pakistan to first vacate the J&K territory under its control. In short, it is not impossible for India to address Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir, if preceded by a proper peace process.

The BJP, however, due to its hyper-nationalist baggage and puritanical claims about Kashmir, may find it hard to address Pakistan’s need for a ‘symbolic resolution’ of the Kashmir dispute.

Electoral compulsions
The BJP’s inability to resolve the Kashmir issue also stems from its domestic political compulsions. Having often termed the Kashmiri separatists as ‘Pakistan-backed terrorists’, and then ‘successfully’ sold this line to its loyal constituency at home and on social media, it has become difficult for the BJP to proactively reach out to the separatists. No wonder then Mr. Modi took more than a month to even make a reluctant statement about the ongoing uprising in Kashmir, and Rajnath Singh failed to reach out to the separatists despite two visits to the Valley.

More importantly, the BJP’s Kashmir policy will continue to be dictated by electoral compulsions. Its electoral campaigns tend to ride high (along with the developmental promises) on nationalist symbols, national pride, national power, civilisational greatness, etc. Such high-octane symbolism does not go well with attempts at negotiating with the Kashmiri ‘terrorists’ supported by Pakistan especially when the party is bracing for Assembly elections in crucial States such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.

Kashmir’s contemporary ‘azadi’ struggle is a powerful concoction of hatred towards New Delhi, a desire to be free from Indian ‘occupation’, lived experiences of daily humiliation represented by the presence of the Indian armed forces there, a historical sense of victimhood and betrayal symbolised by centuries of being ruled by ‘outsiders’, New Delhi’s inability to keep promises, and a disturbing amount of religious influence. Sure, there is a substantive political basis to the ‘azadi’ demand. However, most of these expressions of ‘azadi’ can be addressed by a number of measures, mostly symbolic in nature, as pointed out above. In other words, addressing Kashmir’s symbolic needs then is perhaps key to the heart of the conflict in Kashmir. However, as Amitabh Mattoo, a renowned academic currently based out of Kashmir, points out, “The Kashmir issue is as much symbolic as it is substantive, but the more you wait to address the symbolic aspects of it, the less you would be able to address the substantive aspects.”

Insurgencies are almost always waged, and fought, with a great deal of symbolism. However, the use of excessive counter-symbolism by the state to defeat the separatist/insurgent narrative, without catering to the insurgent’s symbolic needs, can often have the obverse effect of strengthening the separatist narrative. Therefore, if New Delhi wishes to get to the heart of the problem in Kashmir, it needs to address the very symbols of Kashmir’s ‘azadi’ movement.

Happymon Jacob is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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