October 17, 2011

Get Kashmir off the Indo-Pak agenda



Mr Prashant Bhushan committed a grievous error by advocating plebiscite, when most Pakistanis too don't think the issue can be revived

Had controversial lawyer Prashant Bhushan participated in the annual India-Pakistan Peace Process Dialogue organised by the German think tank FES last week in Dubai, he may not have said some of the things he did on plebiscite in Kashmir. That would have spared him and subsequently a few of his sympathisers, physical assault at the hands of hoodlums as well as a tongue-lashing by his leader Anna Hazare. In turn, question marks about his continuance as a high-profile member of Team Anna may not have arisen either. Mr Bhushan’s obnoxious suggestion that a plebiscite could be held in the State of Jammu & Kashmir and that if its people did not wish to stay on with India they should be allowed to go, has pitchforked him into the category of professional India-bashing self-promoters like Arundhati Roy, who is universally hated by most right-thinking Indians.

I say that Mr Bhushan would have thought twice before uttering seditious tripe if he had merely observed the tone and tenor of last week’s deliberations at Dubai, which I attended. FES has been hosting this Dialogue for the last nine years and I have participated in four of them. On this occasion, there was a remarkable change in perceptions both among Indian and Pakistani delegates. Most importantly, there was recognition on the part of Pakistani opinion-leaders and academics that both countries had to go beyond shibboleths of the past. Despite their dislike of former President Pervez Musharraf, they agreed that the 1948 UN Resolution calling for plebiscite (a move endorsed by Jawaharlal Nehru — one of the many policy disasters he scripted), was now passé and unenforceable and thus best dumped in the trash can of history.

Last July I visited Lahore for two days for a symposium and a TV debate. As I wrote in these columns upon my return I noticed a refreshing absence of belligerence on Kashmir despite continuing emotional attachment to the issue. The frightening spread of jihadi tentacles inside Pakistan has caused sufficient alarm in the country’s intellectual Establishment and civil society to recoil from any action that would further strengthen the Taliban or jihadi terrorist. I observed the same reasonable trend in the Pakistani intellectual elite at the Dubai conference.

In other words, Mr Bhushan, like many of his compatriots in the Arundhati Roy League, is hopelessly out of touch with reality. Also ironic that Roy has emerged as big-time Anna-basher because the Gandhian’s Lokpal campaign has taken the wind out of the sails of Sonia Gandhi’s “sarkari” jholawalas, ensconced in the NAC. Roy thugh not officially part of that coterie has always hobnobbed with this 10 Janpath-sponsored group. It must be particularly galling that Ms Medha Patkar, whom she tried very hard to upstage over the Narmada issue, has become a candidate member of the Team Anna core, while Roy languishes on the receding shores of self-importance.

To get back to Mr Bhushan, an intelligent, articulate activist-lawyer who is capable of being reasonable on occasion. Being a tolerant society, Indians may shake their heads in despair when they hear the likes of Mr Bhushan talk subversively on Kashmir, but nobody was outraged in the past because he did not really matter. But today he does, thanks to the surge of popular support for Anna Hazare’s Lokpal campaign. This agitation has catapulted people like Mr Arvind Kejriwal and Bhushan who hitherto resided on the intellectual fringe, centre-stage. As a people, Indians abhor extremism, which is why ideologies such as Maoism have never found acceptability among the masses, notwithstanding the apparent support they claim to command among sections of the rural underprivileged. Mr Bhushan should have realised that in his new role, what he says or does makes headline news, unlike the past. Team Anna is under public scrutiny 24/7 and its members are expected to conform to people’s expectations. They do not have the luxury of expressing opinions that run counter to middle-class convictions any more. As Team Anna steadily drifts into a quasi-political role, they have to be extremely mindful of how their actions are interpreted.

Even the usually circumspect Mr Kejriwal, the Team’s lead strategist, has invited criticism from Mr Santosh Hegde for seemingly giving Anna Hazare’s Hissar foray a trenchantly anti-Congress direction. They also need to recognise that the Congress’s dirty tricks department is a past master at defaming its opponents, regardless of its indifferent record of success. It may have eventually boomeranged, but the meticulously planned campaign to derail VP Singh for his son’s fictitious bank account in St Kitts on the eve of the 1989 election, should have been recalled at least by veterans like Mr Bhushan’s father Shanti Bhushan, a former Law Minister. In this case, the Congress spin masters only had to deflect Mr Bhushan’s ill-considered hook to the waiting hands of fielders — namely the media. I have no direct evidence of this but there are strong suspicions that Mr Bhushan’s attackers, rogue ex-sympathisers of BJP-minded front organisations were also aided and abetted by various undercover agents of the ruling dispensation. Anna Hazare, an ex-serviceman, has expectedly reacted with robust rage, denounced his Team member’s comments, reaffirmed that Kashmir is and will remain an integral part of India. So Mr Bhushan is out on a limb, hanging on to the Team, but barely.

On the concluding day of the Dubai meet, KhurramDastagir Khan, MP of the PML(Nawaz) observed that India should recognise that for Pakistan, Kashmir and river waters were emotional issues and had to be approached with sensitivity. He is right, but Pakistanis often forget that Kashmir is an equally emotional issue with Indians. Our soldiers have died in four wars defending the State. A large part of India’s religious and cultural heritage is associated with the State. The passions aroused by the issue also reflect India’s innate secular mindset. Despite the ethnic cleansing of Pandits in the early 90’s, nobody can get away suggesting that the Valley, almost exclusively Muslim today, should be bartered away in the hope of achieving permanent peace with Pakistan.

Given these bluntly conflicting realities, both countries must gradually reconcile to the impossibility of either getting complete possession of the State of Jammu & Kashmir as it existed on the map in August 1947. Much as those who indulged in despicable violence against Mr Bhushan deserve to be unambiguously condemned, Bhushan himself must recognise that he has violated the nation’s sensibility by his irresponsible, almost seditious remarks. Just as Pakistan can never hope to annex Kashmir, India can never agree to hold a plebiscite there. So, the issue must remain in deep freeze as we grapple with new threats in our neighbourhood, emanating from a common enemy — jihadi terrorists. With the focus fast turning to post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, New Delhi and Islamabad need to apportion their respective roles in that country’s stabilisation and economic progress. Kashmir is probably no more the “core issue” that Mr Musharraf used to claim. Any attempt to bring it back to the top of the agenda, either in Pakistan or in India, amounts to trying to turn the clock of history back.

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