Interview with Dr Eqbal Ahmad
David Barsamian: The legacy of partition lives on in the subcontinent with wars and an arms race and the ever-vexing issue of Kashmir.
Eqbal Ahmad: Three wars: 1948, 1965 and then again in 1971-72. Continued conflict over Kashmir, which is costing the Kashmiri people enormously. It’s heartbreaking what their costs are and nobody notices. Continued arms race, which is now also nuclear. It’s a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. And worse. We are both now engaged in missile development. The logic of proliferation and the arms race becomes much worse with missiles. Because you can produce one family after another of more advanced, more powerful, longer ranged, blah, blah, blah missiles. So it’s pretty nasty. It’s very serious. But you know, something else is not being recognized. That is, what these migrations did on such a large scale to internal conflicts in each country. The worst massacres that in India have happened in Delhi itself in 1982. When nearly 2,000 Sikhs, descendants of migrants, many of them from what is now Pakistan, were murdered in Delhi.
DB: This is in the wake of the Indira Gandhi assassination.
EA: Two thousand Sikhs were simply wiped out in the capital city. That’s a conservative estimate. Or take a look at what has been going on for two years in Karachi. The mohajirs, the Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan, heavily concentrated in Karachi, have been at war with the state. So these migrations have produced communities which are still struggling to settle and come to peace, make peace with their new surroundings. Not so new now, but still it has created an environment of social conflict.
DB: The Indian government steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the right of Kashmiris to self-determination. They say that issue was settled in 1947, when the Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union.
EA: That’s the official position of India. Pakistan has a similar one, but with much less lethal effect. The Pakistan government’s position is that the Kashmiris were given the right to exercise their self-determination by choosing between India and Pakistan. This right was written into the U.N. Security Council resolution of 1948. So Pakistan is insisting that there should be a referendum or a plebiscite on the basis of the U.N. resolution, which would force the Kashmiris to choose between India and Pakistan. It looks like fifty years later the Kashmiris are more interested perhaps in choosing either maximum autonomy from these two countries or independence from them. Pakistan is not conceding that. The difference in the Pakistani and Indian position is that India is occupying the Kashmir Valley, whose people we are discussing. There is a revolt, since 1989. So far about 50,000 people have been killed, mostly at the hands of the Indian military. India’s denial is costing lives and properties, while Pakistan’s old position is not quite as costly but is still outdated. I’ve been arguing in favor of both India and Pakistan coming to an agreement to give the Kashmiris a chance to decide their future. It can be done in such a way that it does not hurt the interests of either Pakistan or India.
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DB: Nehru agreed to hold a plebiscite but then never followed through. There were delays and delays and then it never happened.
EA: Under the prime ministership of Pandit Nehru India had committed itself to holding a plebiscite and carrying out the U.N. resolution. That promise India has reneged on.
DB: Comment on the issue of linguistic nationalism in Pakistan and India. In Pakistan there has been the introduction of more Persian and Arabic words and terms. In India the common language is being replaced by a more Sanskritized Hindi.
EA: Less and less so. But what you have observed is absolutely correct for the first twenty years. Nationalism was trying to create new realities, and it has not succeeded very well. It succeeded partially already, but I don’t think it could go on succeeding. First of all, Pakistani nationalism identified Urdu as its national language. There were two problems with this. This first was that while the Pakistani nationalist leaders identified Urdu as its national language, this definition of national language was not quite acceptable to the people of Pakistan. For example, at the time, 1947-1970, more than half of the country was Bengali-speaking, in East Pakistan. Bengali was a developed language, at least as developed as Urdu. It produced such great poets as Tagore and such great novelists as Chatterjee. Bengalis wanted to keep their own language. As a result, when the Pakistan government dominated by mohajir Urdu-speakers, tried to impose Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, Bengal resisted. So far from strengthening Pakistani nationalism, the imposition of Urdu as a national language actually divided the country. It broke up the unity of Pakistan. It contributed to the separation of Bangladesh as an independent country.
Similarly, in India, Urdu has been identified as a Muslim language and therefore an effort has been made to use more and more Sanskrit words in the old Hindustani. It doesn’t work either, because the absolute truth about Urdu is that it is not a Muslim nor a Hindu language. It developed in response to the necessity of two people to discover a common language. It developed out of an honest, genuine, meaningful, creative encounter between Islam and India. Out of that multicultural, multi-religious encounter, has developed a language that is our common heritage. We call it Urdu in Pakistan. It is called Hindustani in India. What I find interesting is that this language has suffered deeply from the patronage of the state in Pakistan, witness the resistance of Sindhis to Urdu, of Bengalis to Urdu to the point where they have actually separated, and in India it is rooted in the creation of an official language which doesn’t appeal to the hearts of people. The result is that in both countries it has suffered. In India it has suffered from official hostility. In Pakistan this language has suffered from official patronage. And at the base this language is now going through a certain transformation in both India and Pakistan.
For example, Urdu is more widely spoken in Pakistan, but it is different from Radio Pakistan’s Urdu. Its genius being that of a syncretic structure. It has now taken on Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi and a huge number of English words and absorbed them within itself. Thus it is now functioning as the language of the Pakistani market. While it is dying as a literary language in schools and universities, it is expanding as a dialect, as a spoken language among common people. In India, Urdu is making a massive comeback through Bombay, so-called Bollywood films. Bombay films, looking for markets, use Urdu. The songs are all in Urdu. The dialogue is in Urdu. Or it is in Hindustani that we are used to identifying fifty years ago as Urdu. So in a very genuine sense, while officials have created myths of nationalist languages, the people are once again creating languages that are more common between India and Pakistan.
DB: What is your analysis of the situation there? It’s been reported by a number of human rights organizations that there have been massive violations going on.
EA: An uprising began in 1989. The Indian forces intervened. The uprising has continued. Violations by Indian forces have escalated to unimaginable degrees. But this is not saying very much. I should quickly recapitulate that Kashmir is a disputed territory. It’s one of the first issues the United Nations took up after its founding. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India at that time, committed to the United Nations that India and Pakistan should hold a plebiscite to allow the Kashmiris to determine their future. That plebiscite has been denied to the Kashmiris. That is a cause of great anguish to the people of Kashmir. It has also been a cause of two wars so far, between India and Pakistan. Pakistan occupies about a third of Kashmir and India two thirds. The Pakistanis say, at least formally, that they are willing to hold the plebiscite. India is the one which is now refusing to do so. The uprising is on the Indian side of Kashmir.
DB: Is there a communal factor at work? Is there a Hindu-Muslim issue?
EA: It is a Hindu-Muslim issue to the extent, although it must not be exaggerated, that the majority, about sixty five percent, of Kashmiri population is Muslim and about thirty five percent is Hindu. I said it should not be exaggerated because my feeling is that had India had the courage to hold the plebiscite in 1949, when it promised, or 1955, when it was scheduled, or even 1964, before the second major war between India and Pakistan over this issue, I think that the Muslim population of Kashmir would have voted to go with India. The people of Kashmir have become alienated from India for the reasons that you mentioned. It is a country now in which Muslims are being massacred, in which Sikhs are being massacred, in which Christians are in jeopardy. As Hindu fundamentalists rise and their demands exclude minority groups, obviously Kashmiris have become more and more alienated from India. Primarily because they are a majority Muslim population who find themselves threatened. What they want, I think, is not joining Pakistan, but probably independence.
DB: What solutions would you propose to the Kashmir question?
EA: Most recently I have argued at some length that India and Pakistan must begin the process of finding a solution with the leaders of the Kashmiri movement. Having said that as a mechanism, we need to recall a little bit of the background. Kashmir, since 1948, has been divided between India and Pakistan. On the Pakistani side is primarily a Punjabi-speaking area which we call Azad Kashmir, Free Kashmir, with its capital in Muzaffarabad. It has its own autonomous government, and it does exercise autonomy over local matters. Pakistan almost totally controls its foreign policy, its defense and its commercial policies. So in a sense its autonomy is very severely compromised.
India controls all of the rest of Kashmir, which divides into three broad parts. There is the valley. Eighty to eighty-five percent of the valley’s population is Muslim. They have over the last two centuries suffered great discrimination, injustice and oppression at the hands of the Maharaja of Kashmir, who was a Hindu ruler put in power first by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab, and then since the 1850s by the British. They were genuinely discriminatory, to the point where Muslims were really serfs. They couldn’t join any government services. They were not allowed to study. It was very bad. Since 1948 the situation has improved. More Kashmiris have gone to schools and been educated. A sort of Kashmiri nationalism is centered in the valley with its population of about four million. The valley is one identifiable unique component of Kashmir which is the seat of Kashmiriat, Kashmirism, Kashmiri nationalism, Kashmiri aspirations.
Then you have Ladakh, which is predominantly Buddhist. Some portions of it are Muslim. India considers Ladakh to be terribly important for its defense because it is next to China. Then there is the large district of Jammu, where roughly sixty percent of the population is non-Kashmiri-speaking Hindus. I think religion is less important in this case than ethnicities. These are Dogras, the same people as the Maharaja. They have been favored. They speak a different language, Dogri. They feel much closer to India. They do not share the premises of Kashmiriat.
Now keep this division in mind. Kashmir is divided between Pakistan and India. The part under India is the most disputed at the moment. That’s where the uprising is, and that divides into three parts: the valley, Ladakh, and Jammu. My proposal is that we seek an agreement which leaves the Pakistani part under Pakistani control. Jammu and Ladakh, which do not share the premises of Kashmiri nationalism, should be left under Indian sovereignty. The valley should be given independence. But the agreement among the three, Kashmiri leadership, Pakistan and India. must envisage uniting Kashmir with divided sovereignty. Unite the territory, keep sovereignties divided, which in our time is fairly possible. Remove the lines of control, remove border patrols, make trade free among these three, make India, Pakistan and the independent Kashmiri government jointly responsible for the defense of this mountain area.
Kashmir is at the moment is a bone of contention between Pakistan and India on the one hand, Kashmiri nationalism in India on the other hand, between Dogras and Kashmiris on yet another hand, and anxieties and fears among Buddhists and Kashmiris on still yet another hand. All this is removed to create here instead of a bone of contention a bridge of peace. Allow each community maximum autonomy with divided sovereignty.
Kashmir would then serve as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan. And if India and Pakistan normalize relations, with free trade, free exchange of professionals and reduction in our arms spending, in ten years we will start looking like East Asia. We are competing with each other with so little money. Four hundred million people in India out of a population of 950 million are living below the poverty line. In India this means people who do not have a 2000-calorie intake in one day. These are people whose children are being born with defects. This condition has to be removed.
DB: Do you think the resolution of the Kashmir dispute could provide that wedge to heal the wounds between Pakistan and India?
EA: At this time nothing divides the two countries except Kashmir. And they have proved that they can reach agreements on more important issues than Kashmir. Kashmir is more of an emotional issue.
But the division of water, of our rivers, was a much more central issue, because that’s the lifeline of Pakistan and of the Indian part of Punjab and Haryana. But we have reached an agreement on water twenty years ago, and we have honored it. So whenever we have come to remove emotions and seen our mutual interest in reaching an agreement, and the international community has taken an interest in bringing about such an agreement, in the case of water, the Indus Basin water distribution agreement, it was the World Bank that played a very central role in bringing about the treaty, one of the few good things that the World Bank has ever done. Today we are not fighting over the water any more. So we have no water dispute left. Recently India and Bangladesh reached a water agreement on the Ganges.
So that is being reduced at least as a source of trouble. We have no other dispute. And sometimes just see what happens when I arrive in Delhi. People are flocking to see me. People are flocking to see Romila Thapar when she arrives in Pakistan. We don’t have any rancor left. Except for the die-hard Hindu nationalists in India and the militant Islamic parties in Pakistan, there is no rancor among secular people or among common people between India and Pakistan. In fact, the longer we delay normalization of relations between India and Pakistan and the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, the more we are creating a climate, an environment for the spread of Islamic and Hindu militancy.
Eqbal Ahmad’s views on Kashmir are excerpted from two interviews (1993, and 1996) he gave to David Barsamian of Alternative Radio.
Interview excerpted from Confronting Empire and republished with permission from David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, Colorado.
Editor’s Note: Publishing this interview may not be construed as Mountain Ink‘s endorsement of the views expressed within.
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One of America’s most tireless and wide-ranging investigative journalists, David Barsamian has altered the independent media landscape. His weekly radio program “Alternative Radio“ is now in its 34th season. His books with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Richard Wolff, Arundhati Roy and Edward Said sell around the world. His latest book with Noam Chomsky is Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy. He lectures on world affairs, imperialism, capitalism, the media, and the eco-crisis. In 2017 Radical Desi in Vancouver presented him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. He has collaborated with the world-renowned Kronos Quartet in events in New York, London, Vienna, Boulder and San Francisco. David Barsamian is the winner of the Media Education Award, the ACLU’s Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism, and the Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. The Institute for Alternative Journalism named him one of its Top Ten Media Heroes.