Kashmir and freedom

Jim Gilbert assesses the response of India's left to the hijacking of Flight IC814

The Christmas Eve hijack of Indian Airlines flight IC814 from Kathmandu ended with one hostage dead in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the five hijackers being permitted to leave, and three Kashmiri militants released from jail. It also had India's extreme rightwing BJP government of prime minister Vajpayee ranting impotently against the 'hidden hand' of Pakistan and its Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (Pakistani secret service). As for the Kashmiri people, they overwhelmingly showed a certain sympathy for the hijackers. They do after all favour independence, but are held by force within the Indian state.

Maulana Masood Azhar, a leader of one of the pro-independence Kashmiri liberation struggle organisations and one of the three released by India in exchange for the hostages aboard the hijacked Indian airliner, had been held without trial since 1994. The other two, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, an Indian Kashmiri, and Ahmed Umar Saeed Sheik, a Pakistani-born British citizen, have not been seen in public. Speaking to a rally of 10,000 in Karachi on January 5, Azhar declared that the five hijackers were Indian Kashmiris and that they had returned to Kashmir: "They are preparing for their next assault." Clearly, India's Kashmir question is not going to go away.

India's establishment media was unsurprisingly universal in its condemnation of the hijackers' terrorism, moderated only by criticism of the government in its mishandling of the crisis itself. Kashmir and its people's rights took a back seat, swamped by media and state generated public outrage. Tucked away in some newspaper articles there was mention of 'autonomy', but then that is a term which can mean almost anything. In the course of the crisis, Indians of almost all political persuasions were united in their refusal to support Kashmiri rights, overwhelmingly rejecting any suggestion that self-determination should even be considered for discussion.

The only reported instance where dissidence amongst India's population outside of Kashmir occurred while the hijack was still going on, was when relatives of the 154 hostages aboard the Indian Airlines plane staged a demonstration at government offices in Delhi. They not only insisted that they be kept informed of developments, but that the government accede to the hijackers' demands. These relatives' attachment to India's territorial integrity was clearly too abstract when faced with a human issue: the threat to the lives of their loved ones.

Unfortunately for the world wide project of human liberation, none of India's motley communist parties and groups could be differentiated from India's bourgeois parties in their views on the hijack and Kashmir. The overall view of the Indian polity, including its 'official communists', is and was that the integrity of the Indian state's territory is inviolable. The main differences arise around how that inviolability is to be maintained, whether by direct, military force against the recalcitrant Kashmiris, whether attrition will wear them down, or whether they can bamboozled through social policy sops. Many liberal and radical Indians (including the 'official communists') imagine that once Kashmir was granted the right to secede, others such as the Tamils or the Sikhs/Punjabis would follow suit, not to mention the fractious northeasterners like the Nagas. This logically leads to the denial of the democratic rights of the Kashmiris, lining up the left, the centre, and the right behind the state's 'rights' rather than peoples' rights.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), India's largest 'official communist' party and the leading force in the left coalition running West Bengal, is only prepared to tackle the crisis in Kashmir by suggesting ameliorating social conditions from above, without involving Kashmiris except as supplicants. More than anything, the CPI(M) is intent on preserving the territory of the Indian union. It has no programme which recognises Kashmiri self-determination, which any communist worthy of the name would advocate. In the current issue of the CPI(M) weekly English language newspaper People's democracy, GN Malik praises the former United Front government of Deve Gowda and its "announcement of support to the state [of Jammu and Kashmir]." But then his, and presumably the CPI(M)'s, only solution to the present crisis is to assert that, "it is an established fact that only the political workers of all hues who can save the situation for the country ... with their myopic policy, the central and state governments have created such a situation that political workers are being hounded out [of Kashmir] ... [which is] not in the interest of the country and its democratic set-up. The situation demands united intervention by all the democratic and patriotic forces in the country so that the [Jammu and Kashmir] state's autonomy could be restored and further strengthened ... something absolutely essential for overcoming the Kashmiri people's sense of alienation, re-integrate them into the national mainstream, and thus defend the unity and integrity of the nation." (People's democracy January 9 2000)

The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), never averse to advocating Blanquist attacks on the Indian state, also took a distinctly nationalist line, contenting itself with criticising the government's handling of the hijack. "Close on the heels of the Kargil war, the Kandahar episode has come as yet another classic example of the Vajpayee government's comprehensive failure on the sensitive subject of national security." Defying logic, the CPI(ML) also trotted the usual cliché about seeing "the shadow of the invisible long hand of US imperialism". And this Maoid party could only manage the following conclusion in its statement following the hijacking: "The revolutionary left and other patriotic democratic forces must focus primarily on pinning down the Vajpayee government on the many facets of its internal failure and on the failure of its shady Kashmir diplomacy with the United States." Not one word did this 'revolutionary' party spare for the rights of the Kashmiri people.

What is the background to the Kashmiri question? British withdrawal in 1947 resulted in the disastrous partition between a Hindu-majority dominion of India and a Muslim-majority dominion of Pakistan (West and East, the latter seceding following the war in the 1970s and becoming Bangladesh). Partition trains literally dripping with blood arrived in India and Pakistan, full of murdered Hindus and Muslims. In this atmosphere, and complaining of Pakistan's military incursions, the British puppet Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Kashmir, Sir Maharaja Hari Singh Dogra, decided that 'his' country would join India rather than Pakistan. No one asked the Kashmiris. As Hari Singh admitted to Lord Mountbatten, the last governor general of India: "The people of my State both the Muslims and non-Muslims generally have taken no part at all." The Indian army halted Pakistani tribal Lashkar forces outside Srinigar and attempted to take control of all Kashmir; after the 1947 war, Pakistan controlled 37% of Kashmiri territory, so-called 'Azad (Liberated) Kashmir', and India 63%. Currently, two million Kashmiris are refugees in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world, 4.3 million live within Pakistan controlled Kashmir, and 7.3 million live within Indian controlled Kashmir. In Indian controlled Kashmir there are 64% Muslims and 36% non-Muslims; there are only Muslims in Pakistan controlled Kashmir.

Since independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought three wars in and over Kashmir, in 1947, 1962, and 1971. The 1971 ceasefire line became the current line of control separating the two countries. But within the last six months, military conflict flared up again when Pakistani-coordinated forces were repulsed by India's armed forces in the Kargil-Dras region of Kashmir, less than a year since both sides tested nuclear devices in a sabre-rattling exercise.

A poll conducted on behalf of India's Outlook news magazine in 1995 in Jammu and Kashmir found that 72% thought independence would bring peace to the region, 80% thought that elections are no answer to the problem, and 90% thought that Indian armed forces were guilty of a high level of human rights violations in Kashmir. Official figures show that 20,000 people have been killed in Kashmir since early 1990, when the present insurgency began; but figures maintained by hospitals, journalists, and lawyers suggest that over 52,000 Kashmiris between the ages of 15 and 35 have been killed in the past nine years. More than 175,000 Hindus and Muslims have been displaced from their homes. Over 40,000 Kashmiris are in illegal detention without trial in Indian jails, their families not informed of where they are being held.

To contain the insurgency and demoralise its mass support base, India sent 300,000 soldiers into densely populated civilian areas of Kashmir. As a result, the minority Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) community has been uprooted as communalist tensions have turned even nastier, and are mostly now living as internal refugees.

Pakistan's governments have tried to rely on resolutions of the United Nations from 1948 onwards to bolster its claim to Kashmir. Something continued by the present military government in Karachi.

However, under the UN definition the right to self-determination does not exist in any sense consistent democrats would understand it. For the UN, self-determination does not mean the right to secede if the 'parent state' is an independent one, a decolonised one. The UN has defined self-determination in such a way that it is restricted to meaning only devolution of power, regional autonomy, and minority rights; but secession, an absolutely essential element, is denied. Given the nature of the UN, of course, this is hardly surprising.

The only hope for Kashmir's people in their present circumstances, having faced the depredations of the Indian army's jawans (privates) over more than a decade, lies not in some international forum of nation states (the UN) or the International Court of Justice. No, their democratic demand for self-determination, untrammelled by interference from the two states jostling to dominate them, lies with the working class in both India and Pakistan, but primarily that of India. As consistent democrats communists in India must raise the demand for self-determination for the Kashmiri people, up to and including the right to secession. In Britain, we have a similar duty to support the self-determination of the Irish people.

Pakistan's working class, too, must demand the right to self-determination for Kashmiris, especially including those millions within Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir. Pakistan can have no right to hold onto a third of Kashmir's population without a free vote. 'Azad' does not mean 'liberated' if there is no democracy. There does, however, not appear to be a movement for independence within the Pakistan held parts of Kashmir. Whether or not that would change if Indian Kashmir got self-determination is another matter.

Yet, among the Kashmiri people straining under the yoke of Indian oppression there is very little enthusiasm for a rai shumari (plebiscite) which would confine them to exchanging life under India for life under Pakistan. Pakistan is, after all, one of the world's poorest countries (ranked 132 out of 173 in terms of human development) and there is a huge democratic deficit. A real choice by rai shumari would include the right to opt for independence, for the true ability to make a decision by and for a people.

Finally, there is another aspect of the whole question of self-determination for Kashmir that has interesting parallels in current discussions within and around the CPGB over the future of the British-Irish within a united Ireland, and that is the position of the large Hindu minority within Indian occupied Kashmir, particularly in the clearly delineated territory of Jammu (which is two thirds Hindu, one third Muslim), and of the other large non-Muslim minority in areas such as Ladakh (which is half Buddhist, half Muslim). Communists would surely urge as a key component of a consistent revolutionary democratic programme that the democratic rights of these groups Jammu and Kashmir should be fully respected. To the extent that there is a national question Hindus and Buddhists in definite territories within Kashmir must have the right to self-determination. Consistent democracy demands it.