The mainstream is dead, long live the mainstream

What they mean when they say mainstream politics has lost relevance in Kashmir

After India broke the treaty of accession it had signed with the last Dogra despot, Hari Singh on 5 August 2019, an unending stream of eulogies to the “mainstream” in Kashmir has spurted forth. For instance, on 9 August, while Kashmir was still spinning the newscycles like a unicyclist on acid, the title of an article in Scroll.in asked, “Is this the end of Kashmiri mainstream politics as we know it?” and took us to this answer: “The politics they [the valley’s mainstream leaders] once stood for has been forced out of the mainstream. Indeed, there may not be a mainstream anymore.” On 30 September, with the situation in Kashmir remaining unchanged but no longer hot news, another piece in Wire.in asserted, “By denigrating mainstream politics in Kashmir, the Modi government at the Centre has created a dangerous vacuum, reversing the gains of the past couple of decades.” On 4 December, an article on BBC.com, raking the dying embers, reported, “Kashmir's political parties have always operated in a middle-ground—between integrating completely with India and seeking outright independence. By the very act of participating in India's democratic processes and fighting elections, they acknowledged Delhi's right to have a say in the affairs of the region. But in order to win votes, they have had to speak the language of popular sentiment.” The time-lapses between and after these three examples are populated by numerous similar stories.

Mainstreaming stooge culture

These vacuous attempts at truisms, these meagre yet—paradoxically—overbearing ventures into meaning, stand over a crumbling edifice of presumptions that deserves closer examination.

First presumption, that pro-Indian control parties (I will explain why I choose this term later) are the “mainstream” in Kashmir? The term implies normativeness and popularity. Pro-Indian control parties command neither. Pro-Independence and pro-Pakistan politics in Kashmir are rooted in history and can be the grounds of a collectively imagined future within the paradigm of nation-states. They are the mainstream.

The second (and more substantial) presumption is that pro-Indian control parties in Kashmir have “politics”. These parties support neither merger with Pakistan nor sovereignty for Kashmir. They claim to have autonomy in its various iterations—restoration of the pre-1952 or pre-1953 position, self-rule, achievable nationhood, etc.—as their loftiest ideal. In 1951 and 1952, Kashmir was in a pre-1952 and pre-1953 position respectively. No one ever gives up autonomy, so how did we land in the 2019 position? What guarantee do these parties have that if pre-whatever position is restored; it won’t be eroded gradually or suddenly again? These parties do not engage with this core political question regarding autonomy.

Similarly, when on occasion India has shown an inclination towards negotiations on the question of restoration of autonomy, it has only been because insurgency or mass protests by Kashmiris have forced its hand. So the best chance pro-Indian control parties have of getting autonomy restored is by strengthening insurgency and mass protests, the suppression of which is the raison d'être of these parties. These self-contradictions defeat the claims of pro-Indian control parties that they are advocates of the politics of autonomy.

On top of these foundational infirmities, the claims to politics of pro-Indian control parties are also defeated in action. To do politics is to exercise some sort of agency. These parties only do the bidding of the Indian state and exert no independent political will. National Conference cannot engage with the first half of its name. A Farooq Abdullah is known to reverse his “political” stance day in and day out, like a Sufi engaging in Nafi Asbat. A Mehbooba Mufti underlines “police excesses” in Kashmir one day and the next she attempts to justify the shooting dead of teenagers by Indian armed forces in Kashmir by retorting, “Had a kid gone to buy a toffee from an army camp? A 15-year-old boy who attacked a police station, had he gone to buy milk?” A Sajad Lone complains for years that Delhi binned Achievable Nationhood without even flipping through it, but then participates in elections overseen by the self-same Delhi. Another senior leader of a pro-Indian control party tells a Kashmiri journalist privately, “The fate of Kashmir is to be raped, our only job is to make it less painful.”

An excellent illustration of these non-politics of pro-Indian control parties was provided by Haseeb Drabu in a 2015 interview, when he was the Finance Minister in the BJP–PDP alliance government, “Th[e] idea of India has changed. You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but it is a reality. Our alliance is an experiment in trying to engage with this idea of India.” Echoing generations of pro-Indian control politicians, Mr Drabu tells us that whatever new direction India takes, pro-Indian control parties will follow faithfully.

If India agrees to grant Kashmir freedom tomorrow, pro-Indian control political parties will support such a move. The yes-men of Delhi in Kashmir are not even loyal to their most accurate political description (and for this reason there is no better term to describe them—they simply cannot be called “pro-India”). How can what they do be called politics?

Relevance relapse

In response to another question in the same interview, Mr Drabu said, “I campaigned for eight months in the remotest regions, and never was the issue of resolution (of Kashmir) discussed. Nobody asked me my view on the issue of resolution. They were only concerned about electric poles, graveyard fencing, roads, masjid funds, etc.” This honest description has also been echoed repeatedly by other pro-Indian control politicians, though “graveyard fencing” is a macabre little touch by Mr Drabu.

Pro-Indian control parties in Kashmir invoke day-to-day issues of governance and development. They follow orders from rulers in Delhi. They do not concern themselves with politics, except those expounded and approved by the rulers of the day. They are indistinguishable from civil administration.

India does not need the “mainstream” in Kashmir to rule. India’s military grid is quite capable of ruling Kashmir by itself. On top of that, India also has a robust bureaucracy to act as an interface between Kashmiris and India’s military administration in Kashmir. India only invests in this charade of “mainstream politics” to camouflage the military occupation. The carefully cultivated impression, for worldwide consumption, is that the representatives of these parties are actually calling the shots. Thus, pro-Indian control parties supply legitimacy to Indian rule over Kashmir. In return, they obtain gainful employment and some measure of petty power.

This approach is actualized through a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, elections are held to keep up the façade of representative government. But these elections are always rigged (in a substantial sense) ab initio. The number one political question in Kashmir—plebiscite—is never allowed to be raised in them (as Mr Drabu explains). However, if there is a movement within the electoral politics towards resolution of Kashmir, representatives are arrested and elections are rigged in a more direct sense. So the rigging of elections is as important as the holding of them.

Secondly, India always endeavours to create more government in Kashmir, hoping that it will also create more governmentality in the process. The state tries to inject itself into every interface between people and between them and their natural environment. Of course, this only increases the resentment of people against India, as they feel less and less in control of their own lives and destiny. But more government allows members of the pro-Indian control parties to gain more traction and work, while also generating more legitimacy for the Indian state. Kashmiris challenge this by seeking new avenues of living outside the ambit of the Indian government. There is, thus, a tug of war between the imagination of the Kashmiri people and their leadership (the real mainstream) and the processes and procedures of the Indian government.

The events of August 5 may have many far-reaching consequences, but they are unlikely to change these equations. The faces of stooges might change, but India will continue to hold limited elections in and pump more government into Kashmir. The lackeys of India will keep insisting that they have politics. In order to bestow it credibility, journalists will continue to rue the loss of relevance (or, at other times, celebrate the return) of pro-Indian control “politics”. Kashmiris will persist with their resistance. As long as India continues to govern Kashmir, mainstream politics will be relevant, and this statement is true in both its Indian and Kashmiri senses.