An unfinished agenda

My†Kashmir: The Dying of the Light
By Wajahat Habibullah.
Penguin/Viking. Pages 236. Price not mentioned.

Reviewed by Ram Varma

Kashmir festers like a wound in`A0India`A0ís body politic. In 1947 British India was partitioned into India and`A0Pakistan`A0and the princely states were left free to accede to any of these newly carved out nation states. Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state ruled by a Dogra king, Hari Singh. He vacillated, but when tribal hordes from Pakistan attacked Kashmir, he sought India ís help in defending his territories and signed the instrument of accession to India. That should have sufficed for its merger with India, but Pakistan sent its army, staking her claim on the basis of its being a Muslim majority area. Later, it became an international dispute. The UN Security Council, dominated by the US and the UK, advised plebiscite, and the matter hangs fire ever since and has remained an unfinished agenda.

Though there is no dearth of literature on Kashmir, Wajahat Habibullahís book has a special claim, as he deems himself to be an insider, having served the state as an IAS officer ó SDO in Sopore in Baramulla district, Deputy Commissioner in Poonch and Srinagar, and Commissioner of Kashmir division, at different times in his career. An earnest desire to understand the psyche of the people of the area he served and be at pains to remain in touch with representative sections of the people in times of crisis, including separatists and militants, have characterised his style of functioning.

Habibullah contributed to the resolution of the Hazratbal shrine crisis in 1993 and describes it in graphic detail in the chapter "Implosion". The state was under Presidentís rule at the time; Gen Krishnaswamy Rao was Governor and Habibullah was recalled from Delhi and posted as Divisional Commissioner. JKLF militants had made the shrine their bastion and were holding civilians, including children, hostages. The security of the relic was at stake; its disappearance earlier in 1963 had rocked the state. The Army laid a siege to the shrine, depriving the holed-up militants, including the hostages, all access to food. Habibullah got the people living in the congested neighbourhood evacuated to a hostel in the nearby engineering college. He enlisted the services of a couple of respectable intermediaries to engage the militants in dialogue and accept surrender. They wanted a safe passage, no surrender, which was not acceptable, as in a similar situation last year, the militants had been allowed safe passage from the shrine by the Army, but soon thereafter, they had returned to reoccupy it. Habibullah sent two women to talk to the militants to release the children, but they were unrelenting. There was an impasse.

Habibullah wanted to offer food to the militants as there were reports of starvation among the captives, but Gen Zaki, Adviser to the Governor, wouldnít agree.

Habibullah was in Doon School with Rajiv Gandhi, and had worked in the PMO when the latter was Prime Minister. He, therefore, knew the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Union Minister of State for Internal Security, Rajesh Pilot, and spoke to them about it. They encouraged him and asked him to persist in his approach. In the meanwhile, tension had been mounting; people were coming out on the streets demanding that the siege of the shrine by the Army be lifted. All major towns were, therefore, brought under curfew, which proved counterproductive. Four persons died in police firing on protesters in Srinagar and 28 in Bijbehara near Anantnag.

Habibullah was crestfallen but persevered with negotiations. Strangely, the militants softened after he promised that the government would probe into the causes of Bijbehara firing. They accepted food, and after a week of intense interaction, agreed to surrender. Habibullah had accomplished his mission. But what he got as his reward was a fractured skull! As he was going with Gen Zaki in the Generalís car, a military truck rammed into it, injuring both, Habibullah grievously. But he survived to tell the tale.

Unlike the happy ending of the Hazratbal episode, the militants burnt down the exquisitely crafted walnut wood shrine at Charar-e-Sharief in 1995, which they had occupied. Habibullah is critical of the way this crisis was handled by the Army and says no attempt was made to seek cooperation of local residents. The local residents blamed the Army and not the militants for the tragedy and Habibullah seems to share their view. The biggest tragedy that befell Kashmir, however, was the flight of the Pandits from the Valley beginning with 1986, when their houses were burnt down in Anantnag district in thirty villages and looted. Habibullah believed a stray personís story that this was being done by Congress workers. Indeed, the book is replete with aspersions and innuendoes against the Central and state governments and the Army.

"This thoughtful and incisive book," says Prof Teresita Schaffer in her "Foreword", "is part memoir, part history and part prescription". It is also judgmental. With oodles of hindsight available to a historian, the temptation to judge is irresistible, as it is fashionable. Habibullah too calls the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah and his arrest on charges of treason in 1953 as "the first in a series of blunders", forgetting that the Sheikh was hobnobbing with the US to carve out an independent Kashmir. In similar vein, he criticises Indira Gandhiís decision to send Jagmohan as Governor in 1984. He dubs Jagmohan as Indiraís hatchet man and alleges that he engineered defections and ensured Farooq Abdullahís ouster and induction of G.M. Shah as Chief Minister.