So, he finally bit the bullet. After months of speculation, Shah Faesal, the erudite and charismatic topper of the 2010 batch of the Indian Administrative Service, a pioneer, a celebrity and a role model for many in the Kashmir Valley and beyond, has resigned. In a social media post announcing his resignation, equally loaded with idealism and political posturing, he enumerated his reasons for taking this step.
To recap, his resignation has been brought about by the unabated killings in Kashmir, the lack of sincere outreach by the Union government, the second-class treatment of India’s Muslims, the threat to the special status of J&K, the growing intolerance and hate in mainland India, and the subversion of autonomous institutions such as the RBI, CBI and NIA. For any principled and idealistic officer, any one of these reasons should be sufficient to quit in protest. Taken together, they make a seemingly compelling case for en masse resignation for all public-spirited civil servants.
Many have lamented the system that could not keep someone like Faesal interested enough to continue in service. If getting into India’s higher echelons of civil services is tough, navigating an ecosystem with constantly shifting sands of political fashion and public sentiment is even harder. It is tempting to think that the system kills all idealism in the likes of Faesal, and that those of us who carry on within, do so by making different types of Faustian bargains. Anyway, the scope of this article is not to psychoanalyse Faesal or the motives that drive the bureaucracy. It is to examine his views on Kashmir as expressed in his resignation post as well as in an article published in this newspaper some days ago.
In his concerns for India’s minorities, its Constitution and its institutions, Faesal echoes sentiments that are shared by most Indians, irrespective of their current voting preferences. However, in his views on Kashmir, Faesal pays homage to a narrative that is at considerable variance with both facts on the ground, as well as with the sentiments of the majority of liberal, secular Indians outside Kashmir, who see Kashmir as an integral part of the civilisational heritage and constitutional ethos of India. The hidden assumption is that Kashmiri separatism and exceptionalism are somehow completely consistent with our Constitutional values. This is an assumption that needs to be examined and challenged.
The dominant narrative in the Kashmir Valley is one that has been readily embraced by a section of our intelligentsia and even the international community. It emphasises the alleged betrayal and oppression of the people of Kashmir, that has been ongoing in different ways right from the time of the accession of Kashmir to India, by a cynical and ruthless Indian deep state. It makes the implementation of the UN resolutions on Kashmir, especially with regard to the promised plebiscite, the foundation of any settlement of the dispute. And it explains away both the ongoing radicalisation in the Valley and tactics like fidayeen attacks and stone pelting, as a justified response by a population that is supposedly under the military occupation of India.
For far too long, this narrative has been given a free pass by the rest of India. It is, of course, quite impossible to question it in the Kashmir Valley, where it has a status of divine revelation. But for the sake of Kashmir, and for the sake of the rest of India, it is important to question and expose this narrative for what it is — a narrow, sectarian ideology, that itself rests on religious bigotry, xenophobia, and a complete denial of Kashmir’s own cultural and historical past. It is a one-sided narrative of victimhood that ignores the missteps by Kashmiris themselves, the extravagant assurances given by Kashmiri leaders to gain their special status under Article 370, a high level of engagement with the deep state of Pakistan, an electoral politics marred by doublespeak and subversion of the popular will, a political economy that has never shied away from seeking ever-growing subsidies and concessions from the rest of India, the shameful ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits, and a popular culture that has turned away from its joyous, syncretic roots to adopt the puritanical imperatives of Wahabism.
Much is made by Kashmiris of the need for India to respect Kashmiri sentiments. Respect is a two-way street. So perhaps the separatist leadership in Kashmir needs to appreciate this and begin engaging with and understanding Indian sentiments on Kashmir.
Indian sentiments are based on our experiences of the Partition and the relationship with Pakistan since then. No amount of anger on the streets or violence is going to make the rest of us agree to anything that remotely looks like another partition of India. The vocabulary of intifada and jihad neither shames the mainstream in India nor intimidates us.
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Over almost three decades, the violence in Kashmir has ebbed and flowed with many false alarms about peace. Pakistan has no interest in a peaceful settlement that doesn’t involve the merger of Kashmir with itself. And there is no way India will agree to that. These underlying sentiments of the people of India are perhaps insufficiently appreciated by the people in the Valley.
The current political conversation in the Valley has an echo chamber like nature. Kashmiris can convince themselves till kingdom come about the victimhood of Kashmir. The rest of us take a more nuanced view. We see it as an unavoidable tragedy where Kashmiris themselves have been complicit in its creation and perpetuation. Unless Kashmiris genuinely and mistakenly believe that they can impose a military solution on India with the support of Pakistan, there is no substitute for participation in electoral politics under the ambit of the Constitution of India.
Faesal invokes his concern for our declining constitutional values in his resignation post. It is an admirable concern. But it would be a worthless Constitution that readily agreed to the dismemberment of the nation that it is meant to define and protect. In interweaving it with a one-sided narrative of Kashmiri victimhood and concern for our minorities in “mainland” India, he gives the game away. His idealism may be sincere, but his ambition and cynical manipulation of his target audience are equally sincere. The politics of Kashmir has definitely gained a rising star. I am less sure about the loss to the bureaucracy that is meant to be guided by the twin pillars of loyalty to the Constitution and to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of India.