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Death in Kashmir’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Pankaj Mishra’s articles on Kashmir [“Death in Kashmir,” NYR, September 21, 2000; and “The Birth of a Nation,” NYR, October 5, 2000] tend to overlook one of the greatest tragedies that has befallen independent India. While his efforts to highlight the plight of the Muslim majority of Kashmir are to be appreciated, he conveniently ignores an important aspect of this issue: the Kashmiri Hindus. The selective killing of Hindus by the Muslim militants prompted, according to his own estimate, more than 130,000 Hindus (who are in a minority in the state of Kashmir) to flee the valley. Never before in independent India have such a large number of its citizens been driven from their homes permanently because they belonged to a different religion and yet the plight of nearly a quarter-million refugees merits but a footnote in the writings of Pankaj Mishra. When the Pakistani army let loose a reign of terror in Bangladesh in 1971, nearly ten million Bangladeshis crossed over to India. The number of refugees is directly proportional to the degree of victimization. If the atrocities perpetrated by the Indian army on the Kashmiri Muslims are so widespread and gruesome as Pankaj Mishra claims, then why are the Muslims not fleeing the valley? Why are not refugees pouring into Pakistan?

Truth, honesty, and objectivity are the essential ingredients of good writing, not style alone.

Vivek Gumaste

Cresskill, New Jersey

To the Editors:

There is compelling justification for sending the following critique of the three-part article by Pankaj Mishra on Kashmir [NYR, September 21, October 5, and October 19, 2000]. It comprises a mélange of human interest stories about unfortunate civilians caught in the zone of paramilitary operations and of the loathsome behavior of those charged with maintaining law and order. The use of armed force to control civilian unrests invariably results in repulsive situations; one has only to recall the televised images of the dozens of such confrontations that occur all over the world, including the extrication of eleven-year-old Elián Gonzalez from the arms of his self-appointed guardians in Miami, Florida, in May 2000 and the storming of Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993.

Unquestionably, the handling by the government of India of the crises that continuously arose in the region were, at times, inept and lacking in sensitivity. Mishra, unfortunately, projects the impression that the blame for the current sordid situation should be borne exclusively by the successive administrations of India. He provides only anecdotal evidence, rumors, and conjectures to accuse the Indian security forces of heinous crimes. Two examples should suffice. The detailed account (Article 1, September 21) of the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in a village which occurred while President Clinton was visiting India, last March, is followed by the suggestion that this monstrous act was perpetrated by the Indian forces themselves. They are then reported to have forged evidence to implicate the terrorists from across the border. As the basis for this astounding allegation Mishra recounts the shoddy handling of potentially important evidence. Is the latter, realistically, so unusual in places where disasters of such magnitude occur repeatedly? He adds that local people do not “believe” that a proper investigation will ever be conducted by the government. Is it not then the responsibility of a reputable journalist to explore further and to unearth better bases for making such a serious charge than quote the incompetence of those in control and the beliefs of unnamed people? The second example (Article 3, October 19), equally odious, is the exodus of 140,000 Kashmiri Hindus from the Srinagar Valley in 1990 and most of whom still live in refugee camps in Jammu and New Delhi. Mishra writes that many Kashmiris believe (sic) that the then governor of Kashmir arranged to have the Hindus out of the way while he “dealt” with the Muslim guerrillas. He did not care to address any of the numerous legitimate questions such a claim raises, including the most important one of what would persuade such a large number of people to leave their ancestral homes forever, if they felt safe there.

Stripped of the consequences of all the actions over decades by the various individuals and parties concerned, the basic events and facts that are indisputable are: (1) Kashmir acceded to India according to the rules agreed upon by both India and Pakistan at the time for the partition of the subcontinent. (2) The intelligentsia of Kashmir did not subscribe to the two-nation theory propounded by the founder of Pakistan. This is clearly stated in his autobiography, Flames of the Chinar, by Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first prime minister. The Lion of Kashmir was more attracted to the declared Indian model of economic and social changes than by the feudal and theocratic system that Pakistan was expected to adopt. (3) The only basis for Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir is the religious identity of the majority of its population. The acquisition of Kashmir is perceived as being necessary for the vindication of the two-nation theory, more so after the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangla- desh. (4) The emergence of the present-day India, secular and democratic, followed the rough course that was foreseen. Forging a single nation out of such a large, economically and culturally dis- parate, multireligious, multiethnic, and multilingual population was a formidable undertaking. Often the political leaders, many undoubtedly corrupt, were not equal to the daunting challenges that had to be faced. (5) Finally, it is significant that none of the more than two dozen states of India has been free of disaffection or strife. These were eventually contained in all but the few states that shared a border with another country, both in the northwest and the northeast. In these states the dissidents obtained, or were proffered, aid from across the border which enabled them to keep the insurgency active.

Mishra did not see fit to include any of the above aspects in his discourse. The style he employed, long descriptions of a few selected incidents, interspersed with remotely relevant histories and ethnic origins of the population, is more suited for a semi-fictional narrative. It is inappropriate for a chronicle of serious political developments. Passionate focus on specific incidents has distorted the portrait of the grave tragedy in Kashmir beyond measure.

Soma Kumar

Professor Emeritus

Georgetown University

Washington, D.C.

Pankaj Mishra replies:

I can’t find the footnote to which Vivek Gumaste accuses me of reducing the plight of Kashmiri Hindus who fled Kashmir in the early days of the anti-India insurgency. But if he looks up the concluding part of my article [“Kashmir: The Unending War,” NYR, October 19, 2000] he will find a long account of a visit to the refugee camps in Jammu where many of the poorer Hindus live in conditions of extreme wretchedness, ignored by the same Hindu nationalist organizations that had once used their plight to incite anti-Muslim hysteria in India.

Unlike Gumaste, Professor Soma Kumar appears to have read all three parts of my article. In fact, the evidence suggests that, if anything, he has read them so many times that he has trouble distinguishing between his own conclusions and mine. For instance, he faults me for omitting to note that the “the Lion of Kashmir [Sheikh Abdullah] was more attracted to the declared Indian model of economic and social changes than by the feudal and theocratic system that Pakistan was expected to adopt.” In my own remarkably similar assessment of Abdullah’s situation, I wrote that he shared Nehru’s “conviction that the old social and economic order of India…had to be destroyed through land reforms and centralized economic planning…. [He] also feared that the poor Muslims of Kashmir would get a bad deal in the feudal setup of Pakistan.” I discussed at length and actually broadly agree with Professor Kumar on all but one of the five “indisputable facts” listed by him. I am quite baffled by his ambitiously redundant list of my omissions, and can only suppose that he got a bit carried away by his eagerness to discredit me as a peddler of “semifictional narrative.”

Let’s now look at the central theme of what might be Professor Kumar’s chronicle of “serious political developments.” Kashmir, he claims, “acceded to India according to the rules agreed upon by both India and Pakistan at the time for (sic) the partition of the subcontinent.”

This has been the official Indian position right from the time of the accession of the princely state of Kashmir to India in 1947. It suppresses all the ambiguities surrounding, and compromising, the accession—some of which I explored in the second part of my article—in an attempt to assert that Kashmir is an integral part of India. To make it a point of departure in a discussion of Kashmir is to go nowhere; it is to merely indulge in a bit of patriotic tub-thumping. It is also to ignore the fact it was Pandit Nehru who as prime minister of India in 1948 publicly acknowledged Kashmir as disputed territory by referring the issue to the United Nations and promising to hold a plebiscite, in which Kashmiris would be offered a choice between India and Pakistan.

Professor Kumar credits me with the “astounding allegation” that Indian security forces organized the mysterious event that inaugurated and overshadowed Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000: the massacre of thirty-five Sikhs in a Kashmiri village called Chitisinghpura. I made no such allegation. I did, however, raise several questions about the brutal manner in which Indian security forces sought to blame Pakistan-based Muslim guerrillas for the massacre.

Professor Kumar seems not to know that the official Indian version, always very shaky, has unraveled fast in the last few months. In October 2000, a courageous Indian judge, named Pandian, indicted seven Indian security men for firing upon and killing nine Kashmiri Muslims in a crowd of demonstrators. The demonstration was in protest against the murders of five innocent Kashmiris, whose corpses were defaced and presented to the national and international press by Indian security forces as Pakistan-backed terrorists responsible for killing the Sikhs in Chitisinghpura. The judge was naturally suspicious about the whole chain of unexplained events, beginning with the massacre of the Sikhs, and recommended an inquiry into it. Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, risked the disapproval of the central government in Delhi by announcing a judicial inquiry in late October 2000, a full six months after the massacre. It was welcomed by several Delhi-based newspapers and magazines that had gone along with the central government’s version in March; Chitisinghpura was visited again by journalists from Delhi.1 A senior Kashmiri policeman now admits that Wagay, the Muslim peasant who, according to the Indian version, escorted the guerrillas to the Sikh village, was framed.2 At this time I don’t think we’ll ever know who killed the Sikhs. To be a journalist in a battlefield is to see for the most part what you are allowed to see by the men with guns—it is a survivor, not a journalist, living in distant France who has dared to ask blunt questions about the role of the Algerian army in the much-reported massacres in Algeria in the late 1990s that were then routinely blamed upon Islamic fundamentalists.3

As I write, the judicial inquiry into the massacre still hasn’t got off the ground; newspaper reports from Kashmir say that it has been quietly buried. In any case, I doubt if there would be an honest investigation into the Sikh massacre, since it can only produce results very damaging for the present Indian government in Delhi: quite apart from the conclusions it reaches about the killers of the Sikhs, it would inevitably end up exposing the brutalities and lies of the many Indian intelligence and security agencies operating in Kashmir.

Professor Kumar accuses me of spinning out “human interest stories” about what he thinks are no more than a few “unfortunate civilians caught in the zone of paramilitary operations.” But the “zone” he refers to happens to be the home of four million Kashmiris, to which nearly half a million Indian soldiers have been sent out in order to fight no more than a few thousand guerrillas. Even the Indian government appears to be reconsidering its militarization of Kashmir as it declares a cease-fire and calls for peace talks. But no doubts exist for Professor Kumar. Maintaining law and order, he suggests, can be a dirty business—and so what of it? Consider this sentence in his very first paragraph: “The use of armed force to control civilian unrests invariably results in repulsive situations.” After all, “dozens of such confrontations…occur all over the world”—and here Professor Kumar attempts to justify state-inflicted violence in India by offering us the peculiarly American examples of Elián Gonzalez and Waco, as if the kidnapping of a six-year-old boy and an ill-judged assault on a cult headquarters can be compared to the death, torture, and maiming of tens of thousands of people in the course of a systematic decade-long suppression of a popular insurgency.

Professor Kumar points, quite correctly, to the uniqueness of India’s nation-building experiment. But he makes the crucial mistake of assuming that the “emergence of the present-day India, secular and democratic,” is an irrevocable triumph, instead of the ongoing, deeply fraught process that it is. His repeated deployment of the past tense is revealing in this regard: “forging [India]…was a formidable undertaking”; “daunting challenges…had to be faced”; “disaffection and strife” were “eventually contained” (except of course in border states where, according to Professor Kumar, hostile neighbors are always ready to undermine India).

My argument—that repeatedly frustrated Indian aspirations to secularism and democracy led to the insurgency in Kashmir—is bound to outrage Professor Kumar, who would rather blame it all on the viciousness of Pakistan instead of exploring the various ways in which the founding ideals of India have fared for the country’s diverse communities. Like many well-placed but powerless intellectuals, Professor Kumar has let himself be awed and infatuated with the apparent power and unity of big, heavily armed nation-states. Nationalist passions about India on a green campus in Washington may be more self-indulgent than harmful; but they are always likely to keep Professor Kumar from acknowledging the awkward and painful facts of what for India’s much less privileged millions is by no means a complete or successful transition to democracy and secularism.

  1. 1

    See The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Hindustan Times, November 2, 2000; and Outlook, November 20, 2000.

  2. 2

    See The Independent, London, December 5, 2000.

  3. 3

    See The Economist, November 11, 2000; also see “A Kashmiri Mystery,” The New York Times Magazine, December 31, 2000.

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