Kashmir in Comparative Perspective

Book Name: Kashmir in Comparative Perspective: Democracy and Violent Separatism in India

Author: Sten Widmalm, Publisher: Routledge Curzon, Date of Publication: 2002, Pages: 206

Reviewer: Touseef Mir

The ethno-nationalist conflict of Kashmir is among the major conflicts prevalent in the South Asian region involving two nuclear-armed neighbours-India and Pakistan-apart from Kashmir. The Kashmir conflict has remained a major impediment to the betterment of relations between India and Pakistan who have fought nearly four wars over the conflict and almost reached a nuclear flashpoint in 2002. It is this complexity and fragility of the conflict that the US President Clinton in March 2000 declared the Indian Sub-continent to be ‘the most dangerous place on the earth’. Due to its volatile and highly contested nature, Kashmir conflict has interested academic scholars and policymakers alike. The wide literature on Kashmir explores the conflict from various dimensions and perspectives.

‘Kashmir in Comparative Perspective: Democracy and Violent Separatism in India’ by Sten Widmalm is another addition to the burgeoning literature on Kashmir. The book mainly gyrates around the violent uprising and armed insurgency of Kashmiri people against the Indian state in the late 1980s. The author not so adroitly marks 1983 state legislative assembly elections as the turning point of Kashmir politics where communal cards were played out openly for the first time for consolidation of vote banks and terms the arbitrary dismissal of Farooq Abdullah from the post of Chief Minister in 1984 as the major event alienating the Kashmiri masses from the Indian state and their loss of faith in the [un]democratic institutions of the state. The author asserts the mass rigging of 1987 assembly elections followed by mass arrests and suppression of opposition leaders, workers, elections agents etcetera-particularly of Muslim United Front (MUF) in Kashmir as the spark that set Kashmir in flames-commencement of violent uprising against Indian State.

Grounding his contentions theoretically, the author proffers the underpinning causes of the violent uprising as the absence of democracy post-1983, manipulations by political elites in concomitance with mass mobilisation. The author further uses Albert Hirschman’s ‘Voice’ and ‘Exit’ model to justify the start of the violence. A thorough reading of the book enunciates the fact that the author in delineating his main claims borrows heavily from Summit Ganguly’s concept of ‘institutional decay’ in Kashmir and Atul Kohli’s concept of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of Indian State. The author refuses to acknowledge the causal role of ethnicity, historical context or socio-economic factors in the emergence of a violent uprising in Kashmir. However, the main contentions drawn by the author either theoretically or factually stand on shaky grounds.

Firstly, the author’s usage of ‘Voice’ and ‘Exit’ model to explain the emergence of violent uprising fails to explain why it didn’t happen during similar or even worse circumstances in the past be it the arbitrary dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 or mass riggings of legislative assembly elections in 1957 or banning of Plebiscite front and arrest of its leaders and workers in 1967 or 1972 elections.

Secondly, the author’s assertion of the time from 1975- a time of Indira Abdullah Accord- to 1983 as the period of democracy and the period afterwards as a reversal of democracy, suggest a superficial analysis of socio-political happenings in Kashmir or minimally the cherry-picking of facts for substantiation of the claim. The book neglects the facts of the inertia of absence of democracy ab-initio, in addition to mass opposition to the accord right from 1975 including the terming of it as a ‘sell-out of the rights of people’ by Mirwaiz-chief cleric-of Kashmir, beating of Sheikh Abdullah’s workers over the issue by public on the following martyrs day-13th July-in Kashmir, installation of Sheikh as Chief Minister in 1975 flouting the democratic norms, the pressing in of safety act in 1977 to arrest anyone who opposed him along with the press censorship and the expulsion of anyone who he despised including his long term associate Mirza Afzal Beg apart from many others. As such, a historically construed understanding of Kashmir is suggestive of the fact that democracy as a norm as well as an institution never matured in Kashmir. So, terming the era of 1975-1983 as democratic is unfounded and reversal of democracy from then on equally erroneous.

Thirdly, the author acknowledges the miasma prevalent in Kashmir since accession but fails to appreciate the role of popular movements against Indian rule-including the presence and activities of non-electoral political organisations like political conference, Mahaz-e-Azadi, Young Men’s League, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Peoples League etcetera- as the underpinning reasons of violent uprising against the Indian state in late 1980s. So, a conclusion based on immediate events bereft of historical and underlying context suggests a misjudgement of analysis on the part of the author if not an intentional cherry-picking of facts.

Fourthly, limiting the cause to the consequence of elite manipulations is a denial of agency to the masses and restricting them as passive receivers and followers of political elites. Whereas, the scholars of the likes of John G Cockel term the movement in Kashmir as mass driven calling it ‘subaltern movement’.

Fifthly, the author debunks ethnicity as a consequence rather than the cause of violent uprising against the Indian state in Kashmir. The author looks at the issue from Primordial and Instrumental perspectives, but the constructivist approach, which most authors like Chitralekha Zutshi, Mridu Rai etcetera have used to show ethnic constructions and their causal role in the nationalist uprising in Kashmir go unappreciated.

Lastly, the author’s comparison of mass movement in Kashmir with the 1950s movement in Tamil Nadu and comparison to West Bengal in equating nationalisms sounds palatable, but a deeper investigation makes it appears like a comparison of apples to oranges. As such, the comparison to justify the non-causality of the violent uprising to nationalism is reductionist and erroneous. The ignorance of the unique position of Kashmir in Indian polity where it stands in contrast to all other states-even acknowledged by scholars of the like of Summit Ganguly from whom the author borrows his concepts of un-democratisation and mass mobilisation-suggests a misjudgement of socio-political analysis of Kashmir on the part of the author. Widmalm seems to have missed on some important facts, that, unlike Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have historically been an integral part of India. The states have matured as units of greater Indian landmass and fought for independence against colonisation as a single unit not as independent states. Kashmir, unlike the duo, existed as a separate state prior to British decolonisation. Unlike the two integral states of the Indian union, Kashmir acceded rather than integrate to the Indian state through a conditional instrument of accession. Kashmir also, forms an international dispute between India and Pakistan and abuts the two states and has been a reason of nearly four international wars between them, which is not the case in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Moreover, what the author terms as nationalisms in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are technically sub-nationalisms of larger Indian nationalism. Ted Robert Gurr classes such nationalisms- selectively referred by the author- as ethno classes-a subset of a larger ethnopolitical group, in this case, India- and not as ethnonational group; whose aims Gurr defines as autonomy and independence, respectively. Moreover, in case of Tamil Nadu, the movement was largely elite-driven not populist, anti-Brahmin-as they saw the Congress party of India- and mostly driven over language issue, which they managed to achieve unlike the case of Kashmir, where the movement has been mass-based and not entirely driven by elites, nationalist in orientation and non-castist in approach.

Methodologically the book takes a top-down or statist approach of looking at the entire issue neglecting the popular perspective. The lack of interviews with local leaders or masses depicts anaemia of first-hand knowledge of the subject rendering the conclusions as a product of secondary knowledge bereft of actual input from the field. The book has some factual errors also like the reference of installation of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in 1953 as Chief Minister instead of Prime Minister or dissolution of Muslim Conference in 1939 instead of rechristening of Muslim Conference in National Conference.

Overall, despite the flaws mentioned above the book is interesting and rich enough to see the transition of a popular movement to violent opposition to the Indian State from various theoretical perspectives. For the students and scholars of conflict, politics as well as Kashmir conflict specifically, the book is especially useful in understanding the positioning of the subject in the wider literature of conflicts and politics.

The author is a doctoral candidate at University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom.

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