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: 226

Reviewer: Touseef Mir 


The outbreak of armed insurgency against the Indian State from 1989 in Kashmir and its implications for the security of the South Asian region at large has got a veritable interest of journalists, research scholars, policymakers and academicians alike. The resultant being a glut of literature over the conflict in Kashmir that tries to excavate the multiple dimensions and perspectives of the same. The book by Sten Widmalm is an exciting addition to the burgeoning literature regarding conflict studies of Kashmir. The pith of the book gyrates around the outbreak of armed militancy in Kashmir and its causes. The book makes its unique contribution to the academic debate around the origins of armed insurgency in Kashmir that near the author also constitute the (initiation of the nationalist/separatist conflict of Kashmir). Unlike majority of the serious academic literature concerning the excavation of causality of the said armed insurgency, the author discounts the problems of partition of Indian Sub-continent in 1947, diplomatic as well as non-diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan over the issue or the various socio-political movements within Kashmir, especially post 1947. Widmalm instead assigns the manipulations by and between the New Delhi and Srinagar political elites from the elections to the Kashmir legislature in 1983 to the next term of the elections in 1987 as the cogent cause for the inception of armed insurgency challenging the Indian State in Kashmir.

The foreword of the book by Professor Ian Talbot-an authority on South Asian history- rounds up the assertions of the author in the book apart from briefly reviewing the existing literature regarding Kashmir. The book seeks to explain the causes responsible for the inception of the armed insurgency of 1989 in Kashmir and begins by delving into the events that unfolded post-1983 elections to the legislature of Kashmir. The author argues the manipulations by political elites at New Delhi, and Srinagar resulted in the process of reversal of democracy. The argument is built around the line of thought taken by Summit Ganguly explaining the reason of armed insurgency as a response to the centralising tendencies of Government of India undermining the democratically elected governments in Kashmir-calling it the ‘institutional decay’ (Ganguly, 2003) and the larger concept of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of the Indian State during the phase-proffered by Atul Kohli (Basu and Kohli, 1998).

The Widmalm study asserts the arbitrary dismissal of Farooq Abdullah as the lawful Chief Minister of the state in 1984 as a turning point in the politics of Kashmir. Near the author, the undermining of the democratic institutions (p. 64) in the state by the central government jolted the faith of people in the sanctity of democratic process alienating the masses as a consequence. The National Conference-Congress coalition in the shape of Rajiv-Farooq accord (1986) for the assembly elections termed by the author as ‘election cartel’ (p. 73) and the subsequent electoral rigging and harassment of opposition-including the arrest of contesting candidates and their election agents- marked the escalation of popular alienation to its zenith finally culminating in the inception of armed insurgency and mass uprising against the Indian State in Kashmir. Widmalm approvingly quotes Abdul Gani Lone “…to hell with the democratic process, and all that this is about…let’s go for the armed struggle” (p. 80) to attach significance to the assertion that the 1987 election malfeasance forced the young Kashmiri generation towards armed uprising.

The author very adroitly imbricates the ‘voice and exit’ model[1] of Albert Hirschman to substantiate further the veracity of his assertion arguing that the absence of space for voice and exit in Kashmir led to the armed insurgency. Further, the author debunks causality of socio-economic factors in the conflict. A line of thought emphatically advocated by the Indian journalist, Prem Shankar Jha, asserting the unavailability of avenues for vertical social mobility and lack economic opportunities as the main reasons for the eruption of armed insurgency (Jha, 1996). Widmalm, argues against the claim citing the counterexample of Kerala proclaiming that if poverty were a reason for violent separatism, then India Wouldn’t survive as a state (p. 83-7). Widmalm’s discounting of Pakistan’s role in the inception of armed insurgency in Kashmir, nuancing the political and material support of revolt from the causing of rebellion (p. 88) is particularly interesting.

Taking a line different from most of the mainstream scholarship on Kashmir, Widmalm takes ethnic factor also as a consequence rather than the cause of the conflict. The author draws parallels with Donald Horowitz’s ethnic explanation to the eruption of ethno-nationalist conflicts by proffering his ‘elite manipulation’ thesis arguing that the ‘violent separatism was a response to the political events and not the cultural separateness’ (p. 4). The author substantiates his argument by furthering the case of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal as states having similar contentions around separateness of identity but the provision of voice and exit and absence of continued intervention from the central government in these states deescalated the conflict in Tamil Nadu and kept the same at bay in West Bengal (p. 97-9).

In nitty-gritty, Widmalm holds the competition for power between the political elites of New Delhi and Srinagar responsible for the mass insurgency. He also blames the persistent intervention of Indian State in the internal politics of Kashmir along with greed for power on behalf of unionist politicians for the breakdown of democracy and eruption of insurgency against the Indian State in Kashmir.

Although the book is a very interesting addition to the literature on Kashmir. It is, however, rife with problems regarding its analysis of the conflict in Kashmir. The author’s assertion of the time from 1975- the time of Indira Abdullah Accord- to 1987 as a period of democracy, suggests a miscalculation of socio-political happenings in Kashmir. The 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, the virtual press censorship to scuttle opposition to the accord and voices against his standing, the expulsion of anyone who he despised including his long-term associate Mirza Afzal Beg apart from many others. Additionally, the arbitrary removal of a lawful chief minister in 1984 followed by the rigging of election in 1987 and arrest of opposition activists is suggestive of the fact that democracy as a norm as well as an institution never matured in Kashmir. As such the author doesn’t problematize the functioning of democracy in Kashmir. Widmalm, despite talking about the elite manipulations from New Delhi, remains largely silent over the issue of ‘Patron-Client’ relationship between the Indian and Kashmiri political elites.

The book falls short of appreciating the independentist and pro-plebiscite movements in Kashmir right from 1947, that paved the way for the nationalist movement and popular insurgency of 1989, as a historical background. Also, the ‘elite manipulation’ thesis by the author takes away the agency of the masses and relegates them as passive followers. It contradicts the assertion of scholars like J G Cockel, for whom the movement is mass-driven, calling it ‘autonomous insurgent consciousness’ (Cockel, 2000 p.326).

Further, the assertion proffered by the author equating Kashmir with Tamil Nadu and West Bengal appears plausible but is erroneous technically as well as reductionist. Considering the fact that Kashmir’s existence as an independent nation prior to its conditional accession to India in 1947 unlike the said two states who fought against the British colonisation as Indian constituent units; the contestation over the issue between India and Pakistan and the resultant international wars over the issue and the disputed nature of the territory, in general, enunciate the distinction of Kashmir from the rest of the States of India. Moreover, what the author terms as nationalisms in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are classed as Sub Nationalisms of the larger Indian Nationalism, by Ashutosh Varshney and by Robert Ted Gurr as ethno classes-a subset of larger ethnopolitical group, in this case India- and not as ethnonational groups; whose differential aims, he defines as autonomy and independence, respectively (Gurr, 2000). Also, 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 was settled through the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 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 nature. Also, Widmalm is silent on why Indian State so forcefully and repeatedly intervened in Kashmir politics and not in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Widmalm does quote Huntington in his book, but not the idea that explains India’s unease with a proper democratic ecosystem in Kashmir, the idea being ‘democracy paradox’ (Huntington, 1994, p. 124). Moreover, the author’s assertion that Tamil Nadu and West Bengal remained with India ‘with far less coercion’, defeats the veracity of the very argument proffered by him with the mention of ‘COERCION’.



[1] The provision of the space for voicing the dissent and viability of latitude to leave a political fold and move to the other, is essential in a democratic set up to avoid violent and conflicting movements against the state. The details of the model can be seen in the Albert O Hirschman’s treatise “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”.


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

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