Is Jammu & Kashmir Division a ‘Clever’ Gambit or ‘Risky’ Gamble?
Have you watched Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), the only full-length Hindi-Urdu film made by Satyajit Ray? Based on a celebrated short story by Munshi Prem Chand, set in 1856, it is about two decadent nawabs in Lucknow being addicted so much to chess, that they forget they are ‘pawns’ in the British game of conquering India. A baritone voice over from Amitabh Bachchan tells us that thanks to these gentlemen who fall victims in a global chessboard, Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of British India, could swallow one more territory, like popping a cherry into his mouth.
Cherries grow in the Kashmir Valley, but we are not sure if it is southern Jammu or the Valley to the north that is the ‘cherry’ for Home Minister Amit Shah. But it can be said safely that like Lord Dalhousie, he knows how to treat pieces on his political chessboard like succulent fruit. But we digress.
The president of the ruling BJP may be more familiar with his own state, Gujarat’s, favourite dish — dhokla. It might be better to compare Jammu with a piece of dhokla. But for that, I must take you to Bengaluru, to the time when it was called Bangalore, and discuss a bit about idli and sambar.
Why ‘Trifurcation’ Wasn’t An Option
Less than 20 years ago, I was fascinated that you could buy two idlis dunked in sambar at a measly sum of Rs 5 a plate. As somebody who likes sambar with rice, I wanted to buy a standalone bowl in a takeaway, but the boy at the Udupi restaurant said a firm no. Apparently they don't sell sambar separately. So what, I thought. I ordered a ‘parcel’ of idli-sambar at an incredible price of Rs 5. I ate the idlis the following day from my fridge with the delectable chutney that also comes gratis with the idlis. The sambar I put to use separately with rice.
Now think of Jammu as idli, Kashmir as sambar, and Ladakh as coconut chutney. The united province combining the Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hindu-majority Jammu, and the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh goes back to the days of Rajput rule under Maharaja Hari Singh, who acceded to India rather reluctantly under duress (though he was a Hindu ruler). In an age when Telangana is no longer part of a united Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh has been carved out of Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand from Bihar, it pays to ask why one should cling on to a united Jammu and Kashmir.
For us, that may be a matter of musing. For Amit Shah, it is a strategy. But there is a catch. Like idli dunked in sambar, Jammu and Kashmir are linked by history of soaking in each other and hence, trifurcation was not an option. Besides, there are chances of acute communal tensions in Muslim-majority districts of the Jammu region that has 70 percent Muslims..
J&K Being a New Union Territory Means ‘Direct Control’ of the Valley
However, Amit Shah has created a ‘virtual trifurcation’ of J&K by separating three aspects of the problem to further his own party's politics. Jammu being a natural zone for Hindutva, the BJP gains in stronghold as a no-nonsense player, winning loyalty and a likely vote-bank. Congress is contained as a result. Kashmiris may be furious about the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution that granted J&K special status, but who really cares in ‘BJP country’? It suits hardline Hindu campaigners to package the new order as a fight against separatism and terrorism, never mind the fact that both the National Conference (controlled by the Abdullah family), and the Mehbooba Mufti-led People's Democratic Party (PDP) are actually pro-India.
Now, all you have to do is picture Mufti and Abdullah as new-age versions of the Lucknow nawabs who played chess in Ray's epic movie. They were so busy scoring points on each other that they forgot a newer generation of Kashmiris had emerged strong. They also forgot what a ‘Dalhousie-like’ Amit Shah could do. Many of them may be just enraged or frustrated. It is this frustration that first gave rise to the Muslim United Front in 1987 that later became the core of the motley separatist Hurriyat. Now there are more groups claiming to represent Kashmiris. In a confused scenario, the BJP gains pre-eminence, because J&K being a new union territory means direct control of the Valley with a higher say for the home ministry. This strikingly resembles the doctrine of lapse practised by Dalhousie. As in “since no one is ready and fit to rule yet, let me do the job.”
Is the Home Minister Like Lord Dalhousie?
For Shah, what matters is that the old equations of the Hari Singh era should not matter anymore; history can be written anew and a new lot of leaders promoted. Shah may have separated the idlis from the sambar so he could face the spice from Kashmir later. But it would be more appropriate given his Gujarati origins, that Jammu is like the soft, spongy dhokla, and Ladakh the tamarind chutney that often goes with it. That leaves green chillies enjoying sambar status in Shah's dhokla politics. But unlike sambar, which is difficult to squeeze out of dunked idlis, pickled green chillies can be taken away, with only traces of lemon and hot taste left. Green chillies may go well with dhokla, but then they could be described as spicy and acidic – just like angry Kashmiris.
For now, the home minister is like Lord Dalhousie, popping a lemon-juice laden piece of dhokla officially called Jammu, as if that was a cherry. Friendly, lobby-softened parliamentarians from Europe may be called to witness a fight against green chillies, while the pacifist Buddhist chutney goes well with Hindutva dhokla.
In Scrapping 370, Modi & Shah Have Triggered Events That Aren’t Easy to Manage
But then, politics need not be chess. Sometimes, it turns poker because the cards you play may not be the best ones. Dalhousie's politics led to the so-called first war of independence against British rule in 1857, something the rulers called the mutiny. If Hindutva resembles British paramountcy and Jammu is like a piece of dhokla, Amit Shah may be entitled to a favourite dish. However, in abolishing Article 370, he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have triggered events that are not so easy to manage. In that sense, a gambit in chess may resemble a gamble in poker.
Now, we have to find out if there is a story that can be written called 'Shatranj Ke Juaari.' Only time will tell if what happened this year was a clever gambit or a risky gamble.
(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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