What went wrong in Kashmir

19 May 2008
The Indian Express
Seema Chishti

New Delhi: In 1970, three followers of Vinoba Bhave on a peace mission to Kashmir were kept away from the people of the Valley and subjected to a “public meeting” which was “packed with government clerks and policemen in civilian dress”. This revelation is part of a book by Wajahat Habibullah, currently the Chief Information Commissioner, on his experiences as an IAS officer in Jammu and Kashmir. Then a Subdivisional Magistrate in Sopore, Habibullah says in his book that support and crowds were manufactured by the administration in Kashmir and in this case, the police had even directed the audience “to demonstrate only patriotism”. Priced at $12, Habibullah’s book, My Kashmir, Conflict and Prospects of Enduring Peace, published by United States Institute of Peace Press, is not available in India yet. But a copy accessed by The Indian Express reveals Habibullah’s extensive, and often depressing, detailing of what went wrong since Partition down to the present day. Habibullah started his career as an officer of India’s elite administrative service, as a Jammu and Kashmir cadre officer. Associated with the state ever since he was first posted there in 1969, he served as the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir; Deputy Commissioner, Srinagar and Poonch; as well as Chief Executive, J&K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority. An IAS officer who worked closely with two prime ministers, Habibullah has now lucidly described all his experiences in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in his book. While the author says the Kashmir problem is “not intractable”, he has not absolved any party—including the government of India (“its steps and missteps”) or the government of Pakistan (“the greed of the entrenched middle-class elites and religious politics”)—of its share of the blame in bringing Kashmir to the point it is at today. The 201-page book is the work that the author did when he was a US Institute of Peace fellow in 2003-4. He also has a perceptive study on how Sufi Islam that had roots in the state has in the recent past morphed into a less tolerant form of the faith. While unsparing in his criticism of the violence perpetrated by militants, the author lays a large portion of the blame at the door of successive Indian governments “for having exacerbated the Kashmir situation...by accommodating the exigencies of national politics rather than the wishes of the Kashmiri people.” Habibullah candidly describes his attempts to ensure free and fair elections in 1977, despite instructions from the government to “arrange” and “rig” the polls. He also goes on to argue that the polls did end up being seen as largely free and fair and created an opportunity for India though the Indian state failed to capitalise upon the moment to generate goodwill for itself. The author is critical of the tilting of balance between the civilian and military forces, especially after the mid eighties. He gives several examples of how the common Kashmiri got increasingly alienated by cases of overreaction by some elements of the Indian armed forces. Habibullah says when he was Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, in 1990, “the 75th battalion of the BSF brutally murdered nine civilians in their homes; the victims included a child. We later learned that this crime, typical of a security force under siege, was in retaliation for BSF casualties in another part of Srinagar.” Habibullah recounts several cases, like that of the young widow, Mehbooba, who refused to accept government compensation at first. But slowly, once abandoned by her in-laws and too proud to knock on her parents’ door, she soon accepted the restitution provided by the government as “the relief process became a tenuous thread that linked the government and the general public”. While the book has a warm dedication to the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Habibullah, who was closely associated with him and was also general secretary of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, talks of how Rajiv Gandhi’s inexperience and idealism at the time of the Rajiv-Farooq accord in November 1986 contributed to the problem. He says, “Despite Rajiv’s worthy intentions, his efforts to improve Kashmir’s lot seemed damned at every turn by circumstances beyond his control.” With six chapters and a timeline, the book’s fifth chapter is a detailed enumeration of several things that could serve as ‘solutions’ to the problem, but only if India and Pakistan cooperated. His account • Says the Kashmir problem is “not intractable” and does not absolve any party—including the government of India (“its steps and missteps”) or the government of Pakistan (“the greed of the entrenched middle-class elite and religious politics”)—of its share of the blame in bringing Kashmir to the point it is at today • Says he attempted to ensure free and fair elections in 1977 despite instructions from the government to “arrange” and “rig” the polls. He also goes on to argue that the polls did end up being seen as largely free and fair and created an opportunity for India though the Indian state failed to capitalise upon the moment to generate goodwill for itself • While unsparing in his criticism of the violence perpetrated by militants, Habibullah lays a large portion of the blame at the door of successive Indian governments “for having exacerbated the Kashmir situation...by accommodating the exigencies of national politics rather than the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”