In a freewheeling chat with Daily Excelsior, Dr. Arun Kumar IAS (Retd), the author of the novel “KASHMIR IS FREE” shares his experiences of working in Jammu and Kashmir as a civil servant and author.
Q: Arun ji, first things first. Why have you chosen such a provocative title “Kashmir is Free” for your book; as if you are advocating freedom for Kashmir? As if you have joined that infamous tukde-tukde gang? Are you being anti-national, by any chance?
A: That’s a fair question. So, let me give you a little background. From the time I first faced a violent, stone pelting mob in Baramulla in 1980, some 38 years back, where I was then posted as an IAS probationer undergoing district training, this story has been whirring around my mind. The story of what will happen if the mobs on the roads of Kashmir could achieve what they have been shouting for – Azaadi.
Now to be practical, everyone knows that no amount of stone throwing or causing mayhem on the streets of Srinagar can help get Kashmiris freedom. Nor can any amount of military manoeuvres including nuclear sabre rattling by Pakistan make that “pipe dream” come true. But what if India on its own walks out of Kashmir and makes Kashmir FREE?
Now, why should India do that? And what should then happen to the regions of Jammu and Ladakh? And what will happen to Kashmir when it attains freedom?
So, I discuss all these “interesting questions” in a fictional setting, basically to have fun. And my first expectation is that readers too will have fun going through the scenarios I mention. In the process, if I make people think, about the intricacies involved, about the implications and consequences if they pursue this rather irrational dream of pursuing azaadi to its logical conclusion, that will be a bonus, a sone pe suhaga as they say.
So, I don’t think this question of me sounding anti-national will arise if you read the full book.
Q. So, you are not advocating another partition of the country?
A. Absolutely not. But I certainly want people to consider the implications of any such partition in the 21st century in a fictional setting.
Q. So, you don’t think this book will benefit the enemy country or the elements inimical to the interests of our country?
A. Yes, I’ve no doubt that this book can neither benefit any enemy country nor any elements inimical to the interests of our country. If anything, those elements after reading this book will realise how complicated, and even expensive, it could be to own or manage Kashmir, and may lay off. Quite like the proverbial saanp-chchundar story, na ugalte banega na nigalte.
Q. What do you think then of this demand from some political parties for autonomy or self-rule, in this background?
A. Whenever I hear of autonomy I’m reminded of a little incident I’d witnessed in the Black Forest area of Germany, in 1995 I think. I had gone there to interview a consultant in connection with a national project on small hydro I was then executing. While we were chatting, the consultant got a call and his face fell. While I didn’t want to pry… as to who it was on the other end, the consultant himself disclosed that it was his teenage son, who while in college had moved out to a flat with his girlfriend. But what was more “interesting” was that the son still wanted his dad to continue paying for his expenses, which was naturally going through the roof!
Well, the political parties may not like this, but their attitude too has been on similar lines. One party talks of self-rule, another of autonomy, and yet another of special status. While people may joke about they all wanting self-rule in perpetuity for their families in some form or another, what is more interesting is that they all want their newer status with the Govt. of India still footing the bill!
So, I don’t think even these political parties have thought through the full implications of their demands. For example, one party wishes to go back to the pre-1953 position, with just defence, currency, and communications left to be managed by the centre. But why concede even defence when you hate the army and AFSPA so much? Why leave out currency too when you want a dual currency system in Kashmir? Without understanding the confusion it will create in the marketplace where in value one Indian Rupee may be worth two Pakistani Rupees?
And then, the question arises: why stop at 1953? Why not go to 1947? Or, even the stone age that your stone pelters, if not checked, will someday take you to?
Q. But tell me, sir. What will really happen if Kashmir breaks free?
A. To that hypothetical question, I’d say it will depend on the extent of the freedom they manage to get. Will that be freedom like Bhutan’s or Nepal’s or like what Pakistan has? If latter, then do you think it will be business-as-usual? Would Indian flights or Indian mobile companies continue to operate as they do now? Would Banihal be open for visa-free traffic? Would Indian railways still run your trains? Would you continue to get your rations, medicines, electricity, gas, petrol, spares for your cars, and what not like before? So, If this be a total break-away, as many elements on the streets seem to demand, then let saner elements in Kashmir think cooly about the full implications of such a FREE status.
Q. When granting “freedom” to Kashmir, how do you deal with Jammu and Ladakh?
A. The ‘problems’ in Jammu and Ladakh differ greatly from those in Kashmir, as everyone knows. In my book, in Chapter 35, I deal with the aspirations of Jammu and in Chapter 36 with those in Leh and Kargil. And in Chapters 39 and 41, I deal with the nitty-gritties of the tri-furcation demand. At this stage, I don’t want to dwell any further on these issues as they may then spoil the suspense for people who are still to read my book.
Q. Coming back to your book, we find we can easily relate to the characters that are there, as if they refer to real people. For example, the prime minister, your outgoing and incoming governor, your chief minister, your chief secretary, and so on.
A. Look, if you are saying that my characters are realistic and believable, I’ll take that as a compliment. But if you are hinting that they resemble some real people, then I’ve to quote the disclaimer at the beginning of the book, you know, that “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, events, businesses, and incidents are either the product of the writer’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
Q. Some people have raised questions on the timeliness of your publishing this book; that this book has come at a time when national elections are just a few months away; when some right-wing elements in India are building public opinion to revoke Article 370 or 35-A of the Indian Constitution, etc, etc. What is your take on this?
A: I shall have to deny all such insinuations vehemently as I am NOT affiliated with any political party. In fact, those who read my book, would realise that I am focusing on a different and far more complex a problem than just Article 370 or 35.
I started writing this book from January 2017 the moment I retired from the IAS. It was published internationally in August 2018, and in India in hardcover in November 2018, i.e. 19-22 months later, which is the normal time it takes to finish and publish any book. If that made it “time” with the forthcoming national elections or the current Supreme Court hearings related to Article 35-A, then that would be totally coincidental.
Q: But may we know what is your personal stand about Article 370 and Article 35-A? And why?
A: Look, my views are the same as those of any other outsider all-India service officer, which is that these provisions are prima facie insensitive, even inhuman, for all those officers who have given the best part of their lives working for the people of J&K.
You have to let these officers grow their roots in J&K if they wish to do so. Mind you, a good deal may not, because of the disturbed conditions in J&K or because they may still have some contacts left with their hometowns. But that would be another matter. At least you would have tried… made the gesture… taken the initiative… to sound human. Otherwise you have no right to drag these officers away from their stable, and sometimes even more prestigious postings in Delhi where they may have gone also to educate their children or look after their parents or make their houses.
So, in my opinion, the sooner these articles are scrapped from the Indian Constitution, the better it would be for everyone, insiders and outsiders. Then only you will have better industrial climate, more investment opportunities, better prices for your property, less ghettoization by particular cultural, linguistic, and religious groups, and so on.
Q. Arun ji, what do you think is the essence of the Kashmir problem? Is it political as our politicians keep on declaring?
A. Actually, this use of the word ‘political’ has intrigued me too. Interestingly, the problem is described as political till you become the chief minister. The moment you get in power, the problem ceases to be political. That’s interesting.
Q. Then what is the Kashmir problem? Is it alienation, joblessness, electoral malpractices, or excessive use of force by the state machinery?
A. Look, all these grievances are real but tell me, don’t they exist in other states, too? Don’t you have unemployed youth elsewhere? In fact, if unemployment was leading to alienation you shouldn’t have government servants, assistant professors, and Ph.D. scholars picking up the gun in Kashmir. Before EVMs were introduced, capturing electoral booths was rampant in many states, but that didn’t lead to terrorism on the scale we see in J&K. As for using excessive force, it’s often a vicious circle. One or two terrorists create mayhem somewhere. The police, para military or the military react, sometimes over zealously, and that then starts a chain reaction of killings and revenge killings.
Q. So how else do you see the Kashmir problem?
A: Ask the Pakistanis, and they will tell you point-blank. That it’s communal, the same Hindu-Muslim divide that created Pakistan in 1947.
Now if you say this divide affected only the British India and not the princely states who were given the choice to join either India or Pakistan, they will say you’re just being technical.
So, forget the history and ask those, the likes of Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, azaadi ka matlab kya? And the unabashed answer, as you know, would be La ilahi il-lil-lah. So, when you want the Caliphate and Shariat imposed on Kashmir, why are you hiding behind the veils of unemployment and alienation? To fool the secular brigade of India? To get the Lutyens’ media on your side?
Q. That’s an interesting viewpoint. But tell me Arun ji, as a Ph.D. from IIT Delhi, you could have also expressed these points in a scholarly manner, in an academic, non-fiction work too? Why did you then choose the medium of fiction?
A. As I said, to have fun. An academic work with footnotes and citations would have been so boring. Why take things so seriously? You want to be free? So, go ahead first increasing your revenue base and then improving your governance? Why should all your PSUs be sick? Why should all your doctors and teachers be posted only in Srinagar or Jammu? Is it because you are not free?
The point is that there are so many things you could do, without getting in to the hassles of really becoming independent. So why not focus on those?
That’s the message, if there could be any message in a work of fiction… that I wanted to convey.
Q. So, are there any concrete tips in your book for improving governance in J&K?
A. Actually, there are quite a few, in Chapters 30 and 31, for example. You can’t stop an old bureaucrat from offering advice on governance, even in a work of fiction. Can you?
Q. Thank you, Arun ji for talking to us. I’m sure readers both in Kashmir and elsewhere would benefit immensely from reading your book. So, wish you all the best with the success of your book.
A. Thank you so much for your kind words.