Should Kashmir Break From India?

The trigger seemed benign enough. In July, the government in Jammu and Kashmir tried to transfer land that it owned to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to create shelters for Hindu pilgrims on their annual pilgrimage to the historic Amarnath shrine in Kashmir. This move, which was well intentioned but clumsy, gave separatist leaders, who had steadily lost political ground over the past decade, a golden opportunity to stoke grievances over the deal. Over the last several weeks, large crowds of Kashmiri Muslims have defied curfews, scorned Indian security forces and marched through the streets of its summer capital demanding freedom. Once again, the question of whether Kashmir should secede from India is on the agenda.

Secession, it seems, is now in vogue, thanks to Vladimir Putin and Russian tanks, which came steamrolling into Georgia a few weeks ago in defense of South Ossetia. Russia now officially considers this tiny enclave an independent state. Basques in Spain, Baluchis in Pakistan, Turkmen and Tibetans in China and other secessionists all over the world will be watching the reactions of the international community closely. The creation of micro-states such as Ossetia is a worrisome precedent in international politics. If it proves to be contagious, it would generate a legion of geopolitical conundrums. In the case of Kashmir, secession would do nothing to promote peace and stop violence; in fact, it would make things worse.

The most compelling argument for secession is genocide and extermination: if a government is killing its people, the government must be replaced. International law and custom recognizes such claims. New Delhi has used force to quell disturbances and terrorist threats. It has made many cultural faux pas, has been politically insensitive, and has treated some dissidents harshly. Having said that, what is happening in Kashmir today, and what has occurred in the past, is certainly not part of a policy of genocide.

Genocide isn't the only argument for secession. A people might also rightfully secede when subjected to "ethnic flooding"-the that is, the loss of ancestral lands through a conscious policy of population transfers. Here again, India's hands are clean. Despite demands from Hindu zealots, New Delhi has refused to dismantle constitutional provisions that prohibit non-Kashmiris from acquiring land in the state, and at no time has the government encouraged migration to Kashmir.

Secession may also be justified if a people face massive discrimination and denial of human rights. In the case of Kashmir, the opposite is the case: Article 370 of the Indian constitution grants the state special political privileges. Although New Delhi has undermined Article 370 over the years, it has done nothing to justify secession. Whereas Kashmir is not one of India's strongest economies, it is far from the worst. Geography, education levels, malgovernance, poor infrastructure, and lack of industrialization have kept Kashmir poor, but this could be said for many other Indian states.

The human rights record of the Indian government over the past 20 years, since the violence in Kashmir began, is certainly questionable.  There is no doubt that unauthorized arrests and detention, torture, and the killing of innocents, have occurred in substantial numbers.  However, New Delhi has also taken remedial measures. The Indian military has court-martialed a number of officers and men, and others have faced civil prosecution for human rights abuses.  The government has tried to educate the Indian army and paramilitaries on better human-rights practices, and, in 1995 and 2004, it allowed draconian preventive-detention measures to lapse.  Despite its earlier electoral follies, it has attempted to ensure free and fair elections, and it has consistently allowed the media to report human rights violations and corruption in high places.

Without a compelling case against the Indian government, the onus is on the supporters of secession to show that they won't make things worse for Kashmir. Are the secessionists themselves capable of providing good democratic governance? Will they ensure human rights, free and fair elections, and just administration? Will minorities in an independent Kashmiri state be safe under a Kashmiri government? In other words, is there evidence that those asking for rights have a robust "culture of rights"?

Going by the pronouncements and actions of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference—the umbrella group that claims to enjoy the support of a large section of Kashmiris—and given the violence perpetrated by the militants in the name of secession, the answer is an emphatic no. The Hurriyat has been rather coy about its political values including the future of ethnic and religious minorities and the nature of an independent Kashmir, and it has no record of electoral politics; while the militants have attacked not just the armed agents of the Indian government but also unarmed civilians, Muslims and Hindus, with great regularity. If these are the future rulers of a putatively independent Kashmir, then secession is dubious.

Finally, could Kashmir be truly independent in a geopolitical setting of contending regional great powers, namely, China, India and Pakistan? The prospects are not encouraging. Would an independent Kashmir bring peace between these three? Clearly, the issues between them go far deeper than the status of a small state. Kashmiri secession might encourage others near and far to hive off, might energize Islamic militants farther afield, and might destabilize both India and Pakistan. This presages not geopolitical peace, but disaster.