(For the preceding part of this essay, see the previous blog, “Nationalism in South Asia: India, Pakistan, and the Containment of Terrorism”)
Within the present geopolitical framework, a “solution” to the Kashmir problem appears to me to be all but inconceivable. Still, unless one is to accept the notion that the two countries must be prepared to live in a state of perpetual low-intensity warfare, descending into open and increasingly lethal conflict every decade or two, it behooves us to reflect on whether the “problem” that persists in relations between Pakistan and India has been correctly identified. Many commentators who have lived in, or traveled to, both Pakistan and north India have identified the cultural ethos and modes of lifestyle that they share in common, and the indisputable fact is that both India and Pakistan are largely afflicted by the same problems. Both countries have a singularly dismal record in meeting the minimum and legitimate needs of their citizens, whether that be access to decent schooling, electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare, or anything that comes close to resembling a social safety net. The most polluted cities in the world are in South Asia; women in both countries lead imperiled lives in various respects; and both countries suffer from massive unemployment and under-employment. One could go in this vein ad infinitum, and the narrative remains unpleasant to the extreme.
However, much also divides the two countries, and with the passage of time the rifts have grown deeper. It has been said that Pakistan is an army with a state, which is not merely a reference to the fact that there have been long stints when Pakistan was governed by army officials. The army has entered into the very sinews and pores of Pakistani society. Some who are uncomfortable with the outsized role of the Pakistani army in the affairs of the country have nevertheless argued that without the stability furnished by the army, Pakistan would have disintegrated long ago. India is thought to offer a sharp contrast in this respect, and it can certainly be said that in India a concerted attempt was made to keep the army out of civil society, though, as nationalism becomes a potent and even unmanageable force in Indian life, encroachments on this critical feature of democracy are becoming more common. But such conversations are grist to the mill of the traditional political scientist and, in my judgment, do not engage with still more fundamental questions about what ails the country today. What is most germane to an understanding of how Pakistan has evolved, more particularly over the course of the last four decades, is the country’s steady drift towards the most extreme and intolerant versions of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the close links that the political and military elites of both countries have forged. Muslim ideologues in Pakistan have for decades sought to persuade ordinary Pakistanis that the proximity of Hinduism to Islam contaminated South Asian Muslims, and that the deliverance of Pakistan’s Muslims now lies in an inextricable bond with Saudi Arabia, the purported home of the most authentic form of Islam. Pakistan, according to this worldview, must unhinge itself from its roots in Indic civilization and repudiate its Indo-Islamic past. The insidious influence of the Wahhabi state of Saudi Arabia can now be experienced in nearly every domain of life in Pakistan, from the growing intolerance for Sufi-inspired music to the infusion of enormous sums of money to introduce Saudi style mosques and “purify” Pakistani Muslims. This remains by far the gravest problem in Pakistan.
India, meanwhile, has veered towards militant forms of Hindu nationalism. The sources of the explosive growth of Hindu militancy are many, and many commentators, myself included, have written about these at length. Not least of them is the anxiety of Hindus who imagine that they are besieged by Muslims and who contrast the worldwide Muslim ummah to the fact that historically Hindustan remains the singular home of Hindus. The last few years in particular furnish insurmountable evidence of the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim violence. The intolerance towards all those who cannot be accommodated under the rubric of “Hindu” has increased visibly. Hindu militants brought down a 16th century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, in the wake of which portions of the country were engulfed in communal violence. Ten years later, a pogrom directed at the Muslims in Gujarat left well over 1,000 of them dead and displaced another 100,000. Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi—who was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and under whose watch the perpetrators of the violence acted with utter impunity—to the office of the Prime Minister of India in 2014, civil liberties have eroded, dissenting intellectuals have become sitting ducks for assassins who murder at will, and Muslims have been, in the jargon of the day, ‘lynched’. The fact that roving mobs have attacked many others, among them African students and Dalits or lower-caste Hindus, should offer clues that while Indian Muslims may be soft and convenient targets for Hindu militants, the real problem goes beyond the question of the place of the Muslim in contemporary India.
Some scholars have spoken about the collapse of the consensus around secularism during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Prime Minister from 1947 until his death in 1964; others, myself included, would also like to consider the evisceration of the Indian ethos of hospitality. Nationalism may be a scourge worldwide, but among Hindus it is also animated by what is deemed an awakening after centuries of oppression and slumber. Just as Islamic preachers in Pakistan exhort Muslims to rid themselves of the creeping and often unrecognized effects of Hinduism in their practice and understanding of Islam, so Hindu nationalism rests on a platform of resurgent Hindu pride, the construction of a glorious past that is said to have been contaminated by foreigners (the Muslim preeminent among them), and the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (nation) where everyone else, particularly Muslims, is dependent on the goodwill of Hindus. What is transparent in all this is that, howsoever much India is tempted to blame Pakistan, it has plenty of work to do to confront its own inner demons.
As I have already averred, no resolution to what is commonly described as “the problem of Kashmir” appears even remotely possible within the present socio-cultural and geopolitical framework. If military action by either country carries the risk of blowing up into a full-scale war, and is nearly unthinkable owing to the unprecedented fact that the two neighbors are nuclear-armed powers, diplomatic negotiations are also unlikely to alter the status quo. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, low-intensity gun battles, exchanges of fire, and skirmishes along the Line of Control will almost certainly continue, punctuated only by very occasional and ceremonial declarations by one or both countries to introduce “confidence-building measures”, improve trade relations, and encourage limited border crossings. I suspect, however, that the dispute over Kashmir can only be “resolved” if, in the first instance, both countries are attentive to the problems that are present within their own borders. Kashmir, it must also be said, is a region unlike any other in India: though the dispute has been cast in the popular imagination as instigated by animosity between Hindus and Muslims, one third of Kashmir is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Even in the Kashmir Valley, which is predominantly Muslim, the long and complicated history of religious sensibilities renders obtuse a history that is shaped merely around a modern notion of “religion” and a demography based on the idea of religious communities as, in the language of the scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, “bounded” rather than “fuzzy”. I would go so far as to say that the day when South Asian Muslims—in Pakistan and Bangladesh as much as India—began to recognize the Hindu element within them, and, likewise, Hindus acknowledge the Islamic element within them, both countries will be well on the way to resolving the problem of Kashmir and acknowledging that Kashmiris alone have the right to move towards the full autonomy that they deserve.
The two parts of this essay were published as one single essay in a substantially shorter form, “Nationalism in South Asia and ‘The Problem of Kashmir'”, in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (4 April 2019).