(An excerpt from the book “KASHMIR THINKS IT’S FREE” by Dr. Arun Kumar IAS Retd.)
Srinagar April 2, 2022 (the first day of Ramzan) 21:45 p.m.
Hasina Ittoo’s heart was beating fast as she entered the conference room attached to Fair View, the Chief Minister’s official residence in Srinagar. As everyone got up, she was surprised to find that her Finance Minister, Law Minister, Housing Minister, Agriculture Minister … everyone who held any cabinet minister’s portfolio in her cabinet, constituting the full J&K Government, had made it to her emergency cabinet meeting that evening. Why, even her chief secretary, the irrepressible, the one and only, Bashir Ahmed Fukhtoo had just entered the room and surprise, surprise, was not yet sozzled.
The 55″ TV on the wall in front was on “mute” displaying pictures from the speech of the Prime Minister of India. The scrolls said it all: Kashmir is FREE. India walks out of Kashmir. Celebrations rock Kashmir. And so on.
It was not yet summer in Kashmir, but Hasina couldn’t help wiping some sweat off her brow.
“Gentlemen,” addressed Hasina, “do you think it’s all a big joke? A huge prank, with morphed pictures of the Indian PM addressing the UN?”
Everyone was silent. But the sombre mood indicated this was no joke.
“But then, why were we not told? When the British freed India, I believe, they gave a two-year notice. And here, we don’t even get a day?”
“Madam,” it was Bashir, the Chief Secretary, “although the phone companies now warn I am making an international call, I have been able to reach a few batch mates of mine in Delhi … who say this … that the decision to walk out from Kashmir … was taken some two years back. All preparatory steps were rolled out accordingly, coolly and rationally. But the public was not told, because they wished, as they claim, to avoid a partition-like situation where Kashmiris outside Kashmir and non-Kashmiris inside Kashmir could be heckled, harassed, even lynched.”
“What?” Hasina was shell-shocked, “Two years back? Did you say two years? And we don’t even get a whiff, a hint, anything? What were you all doing so far? With your great batch mates in Delhi? Smoking weed?”
No one said a word.
Hasina kept glaring. As if it was all their fault.
“This is just bizarre. I can’t believe it. Abdul,” Hasina addressed her private secretary, “get me please the PM of India.”
It took about three minutes to get to the PM’s office. Past the warnings that international call rates shall apply to this call, and the usual recordings, the PS got through to a human operator and asked to be connected to the PM. As he listened to the reply, his face fell.
“Madam, the PMO says the PM is still in the US and is not reachable.”
“Okay,” said Hasina, “try Sapru ji, the Home Minister of India then.”
This time the call went through without a hitch.
“Madam, it is the Indian Home Minister’s PA.”
Hasina took the phone. “Halooo … PA saheb?! Sapru saheb hain kya?” Is Mr. Sapru in?
“Yes, mam. Just a moment,” said the Home Minister’s PA as he connected the call.
“Hasina ji, the Prime Minister of Kashmir,” Sapru almost sang, “war-e-chhuwas?” Is everything okay? “Khos peth?” Are you happy?
“Sapru ji,” said Hasina as she put the call on the speakerphone, “is this some kind of sick joke? You walk out on us and don’t even give us a warning?”
“What warning did you need Hasina ji? Kashmir and Jammu became separate states in October 2021. And so, you had almost six months to put in practice your concept of self-rule or autonomy or whatever. You had all the powers and the opportunity to assert your financial independence. But instead, you kept on encouraging your stone-pelting mobs to storm the streets chanting hum kya chahe azaadi (what we want is freedom), Kashmir ki azaadi tak jung rahegi, jung rahegi (till Kashmir is free we shall continue to wage war), and so on. And sending us the bill! So… we decided to let you have what you have been demanding. Your Azaadi. And you are still unhappy?”
“Sapru ji,” Hasina protested, “that was politics, or rather rhetoric, most of the time. You know that very well. Most we ever wanted… seriously… was to go back to the 1953 position when India had jurisdiction over just three areas – defence, currency, and communications. But you withdraw even the army and leave us to be invaded by anybody? We now have no army to guard our borders and … no paramilitary forces to guard us civilians. Har mulk ki ek fauj to hoti hi hai. (Every country has to have an army of its own.) We’re still a young country and it will take time to form and train an army of our own-”
“Hasina ji, now I’m puzzled. What do you… exactly… want from us?” Sapru knew what Hasina was hinting at but refused to take the bait.
“Sapru ji, it’s simple. Till the time we’re able to stand on our own two feet, we want a Bhutan like status,” Hasina cleared her throat. “An independent country, if you have decided to make us one, but with our defence being guaranteed by India.”
Hasina heard, what she thought, Sapru chuckle at the other end. “Who are you scared of, Hasina ji? India has walked out. And can you complain if Pakistan walks in? After all, your boys on the streets have been chanting Pakistan se rishta kya, la-ilahi-il-allah (what is our relationship with Pakistan, that there is no God but Allah). And if I remember correctly, when you were in power as chief minister … before Kashmir became independent … you always talked about de-militarisation. You have already announced how you would be converting swords into ploughshares by housing your educational institutions into cantonments vacated by the Indian Army. And now … you want our army to guard your borders? Again? But why this turnaround?”
“Sapru ji, chodiye purani baat. Woh zamana kuch aur tha.” Sapru ji, let’s not discuss the past. That was a different era.
“Really, Hasina ji? So, tell me what has changed? You promised the people of Kashmir that you’ll get rid of the BIG BAD Indian Army. We have been listening to so many of your press conferences in which you accused the Indian State of extra-judicial killings. So, tell me-what do you propose to tell the people of Kashmir now? That they still have to rely on the Indian Army for defending them from their enemies? Or that you’re still a slave of India?”
“Sapru ji, this is not fair,” protested Hasina, “my position has always been very clear… from day one. I’ve never painted the entire Indian Army with one broad brush stroke. Instead I’ve been saying that there are a few black sheep everywhere, including in the army, and that they must be identified and punished. That doesn’t mean the entire Indian Army becomes bad.”
“But you’ve also encouraged your boys to throw stones at the army… often in the middle of their operations against terrorists … so that they… the terrorists… escape. And then cry foul when they get hurt in the cross-fire. That day, during that press conference, do you remember, you talked about a borderless Kashmir, something like the European Union. Don’t you think what you’re asking now goes against your own dream of having a borderless Kashmir?”
“See Sapru saheb, Europe is borderless today, but that doesn’t mean they have disbanded their armed forces. You know … France, Germany, the UK …”
She heard more chuckle. And then Sapru spoke as if he was still catching his breath from excessive laughter. “Hasina ji, I don’t know about you. But we too are answerable to the people of India. We have elections to fight. What will we tell the people of India? Everyone is going to ask the same question: Why help a country which hates our army so much? So many of our boys were killed there. And let’s face this … you mention Bhutan, but did the Bhutanese ever throw stones and hand-grenades at our boys, shouting jive jive Pakistan (may Pakistan continue to live)? They never did that, did they? So, they deserve our protection, while you do not. Simple, isn’t it? So, Hasina ji, no matter how many times you ask us, our answer will still be no.”
“Sapru ji, please try to understand. Yeh zamana nahi hai nai sarhadein banane ka. Yeh zamana hai purani sarhadon ko mitane ka. (This is not the time to create new borders. This is the time to wipe out old borders.) The world has changed, Sapru saheb. We live in a borderless world, a global village. So here are a few of my demands: One, like the Nepalese or the Bhutanese, no Kashmiri should need a visa to travel to India. Two, you will not deport any Kashmiri, from India to Kashmir. Three, every Kashmiri will have a right to carry on with his life in India. You will not force a Kashmiri to abandon his job or his property anywhere else in India. You-”
“Too late, Hasina ji. Isn’t this ironical that when you or your friends in opposition were in power… as chief minister… you both wanted to go back to the pre-1953 position. You wanted Indians to get a permit for entering the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
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No Indian could be allowed to buy property in J&K or even get his son or daughter educated in a technical institution in your state. And not even an IAS or an army officer serving your state was exempted from these regulations.
“In India, if you haven’t noticed, we are already living in a borderless world, as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. We have a common Indian market with a common GST, which you refused to be a part of. Instead you, and your people, kept on demanding azaadi… from India. You wanted to create a new wall between Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris, and now you accuse us of creating new borders.”
“But Sapru saheb-”
“Listen to me, Hasina ji. We’ve had enough. And this time, I’ll speak and you’ll listen. You want a borderless Kashmir, right? So, tell me do you now propose to give the same benefits to Indians, in Kashmir, that we’d given to Kashmiris, in India? When do you propose to accept that Indians have a right to settle in Kashmir freely? And also have the right to buy property and educate their children in Kashmiri institutes?
“You’re so fond of talking about a borderless European Union. But even in the EU, a French national has every right to settle in Germany and vice versa. So… tell me Hasina ji, are you willing to give the same right to settle in Kashmir to every Indian, ever?”
“But why are you blaming us only Sapru ji… for all this mess?” countered Hasina. “That was all the Indian Government’s fault, don’t forget that. Who inserted Article 370 and 35-A in the Indian Constitution? Certainly, not us? It was you who agreed that Indians may have no right to settle in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. You contradicted your own constitution. So, now please don’t shift the blame on to the people of Kashmir.”
“You’re right, Hasina ji. Our predecessors did make that terrible mistake. But if we were to correct that today, will you agree? Since now you’re the new PM of Kashmir.”
There was pause for a few seconds as Hasina looked around at her cabinet colleagues. As most shook their heads to indicate their disagreement, she said, “Sapru ji, we also have a right to preserve our cultural … and religious … identity. You cannot take away that right from us. You cannot take away our lands. You cannot take away our jobs. You cannot let us die in slums as our Palestinian brothers are forced to under Israeli occupation. I know that has been your agenda from day one. You want to dilute the Kashmiri identity, don’t you?”
“So … I take this as a ‘no’ from you?”
PM Ittoo sighed. “Kashmir belongs to us, Sapru saheb. And I can NOT give even an inch of its land to any outsider.”
“Very well, Hasina ji. Then we too will treat you like any other country, like Pakistan actually. We shall apply the same visa and trade regimes for Kashmir as we have with Pakistan. We will deport every Kashmiri from Indian soil who we suspect of not being a secular Indian. We will treat their immoveable and moveable property as enemy property, even in Jammu, and confiscate that … and allot to all those who had to be taken out of the Valley… Because you are, for all practical purposes, a terrorist state just like Pakistan.”
PM Ittoo was so shocked that her voice choked. She switched off the speakerphone and picking up the cordless handset walked out to another room.
“Sapru ji, why don’t you understand that on grounds of insaniyat (humanity) you have to help us … You know very well how much I’ve to fight these Jamaat-e-Islami elements, who want to kill me in the name of Islam. They want to destroy the spirit of Kashmiriyat. If you help us, we can build a better future for Kashmir. But … for that I’ll need to first remain alive. If I’m gone, Kashmir too would die. Kashmir ko bacha lee jeeye (Save Kashmir) Sapru saheb.”
“Prime Minister sahiba, I can understand your pain. We were always with you. But you were the one who pushed us away.”
Sapru paused. “Now what you wished for has come true. Allah has answered all your prayers. Now protecting your own life or the future of Kashmir is your responsibility. And for that, you do have the JK Police with you. May God bless you.”
“Sapru saheb, wait … one last request,” Hasina shrieked.
“Yes, what is it, Hasina ji?”
“There are some Kashmiri boys who serve in your army. You can return them to us so that we have some kind of army of our own. That could be the best gift this Ramzan that starts from today. And this is something India had agreed to do with Pakistan in 1947.”
There was silence. And then Sapru spoke, “Hasina ji, I cannot promise you anything. Your government cannot even pay the salary of your existing employees. How will you then pay our boys?” Sapru tried to sound as reasonable as possible. “But I can speak to Patel bhai, our PM. And we can certainly give our Kashmiri boys an option-either to serve in our army … like the Gurkhas, or to serve in the army of the Islamic Republic of Kashmir. But the final decision would be theirs.”
Hasina was too shocked to react.
“All right then, Hasina ji. Bye for now.”
And there was a click as Sapru disconnected the call.