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Understanding Kashmir


Kashmir is rugged and beautiful. And it's been a source of contention between India and Pakistan, Kashmiris and the Indian federal government since partition in 1947. India and Pakistan have gone to war twice in Kashmir, in 1965 and 1999. The semi-autonomous region of India has been in a kind of lockdown and blackout for the past 12 days when India cut all Internet and phone service and declared a curfew after the government announced that it will abolish Kashmir's autonomous status. Suvir Kaul is a historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania and joins us from Philadelphia. Professor, thanks for being with us.

SUVIR KAUL: You're welcome.

SIMON: You're from the region and have family there. Have you heard from them?

KAUL: No, in fact I haven't been able to talk to my sister or to my aunts and uncles who are in Srinagar for the last 12 days. But then I'm not alone, hardly anybody has been able to get through. The Indian government is supposed to have created a few - what should I call them - cleaned up spaces where there are telephones available. People can line up, they can say exactly what they'll talk about and they have one minute in which to communicate. But we haven't managed to talk.

SIMON: Have you heard anything from responsible sources as to what's going on there?

KAUL: You know, the good thing is that the journalists have been able to smuggle out pictures or to visit Kashmir and come to Delhi and make available their reports. And even more importantly, a group of four activists took themselves from Delhi to Srinagar and spent a day and a half there literally walking around in the city, but also in the village. And their report makes really scary reading because they are talking about the fact that people have been more or less locked into their homes, they've been told not to leave. And while basic supplies seem to be available for the most part there are any number of hardship stories when it comes to medicines and getting patients to hospitals and back again. There is no question that local Kashmiris are suffering because of this lockdown. How could it be otherwise?

SIMON: Professor Kaul, those of us who have covered India - I speak for myself. I've always respected Indian democracy and freedom of expression and their commitment to having a multireligious, multi-ethnic state. Is that in jeopardy now?

KAUL: It's been in jeopardy for a few years now and I will explain what I mean. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the grouping that is the parent body for the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party that has come to electoral power in two national elections, including most recently. They were formed in the early years of this century with a very explicit agenda to Hinduize India and to put minorities in their place. So there has been, for the last I would say 80 years or more, a slow and concerted effort to get that kind of Hindu majoritarian identity into parliamentary power, and they have succeeded. They've succeeded so well that they are now in a position to override some of our constitutional protections such that the very unitary form of our Constitution - India is meant to be a union of states which means that the center has differential relationships with different states, including Jammu and Kashmir. Well those elements of the Constitution can now be overridden through acts of parliament without any discussion with the opposition, or indeed the people whose lives are going to be transformed.

SIMON: What you're describing is a dictatorship of the majority, which is not what democracy is about.

KAUL: I keep worrying that in a number of European instances and, you know the ones I'm thinking about, fascism came to power through parliamentary elections. And I fear that some of that is going to be visible increasingly in the India of the near future.

SIMON: This is very sobering, Professor Kaul.

KAUL: It's a very disappointing conversation for me to have. I have grown up enjoying and reveling in what Amartya Sen called the logic of the argumentative Indian where dissent was the lifeblood of our democracy. Yes, we have regular elections, but the periods in between were characterized by open dissent, discussion, questioning of everything that state power or authority did. And now dissenters over the last five years have been locked up, several have been killed.

SIMON: Sounds like you're worried about your country.

KAUL: I am and I have been. This is material that I have written about when I - with particular reference to Kashmir. No, I want to say that, you know, there's a great deal in India that is still a remarkable experiment in putting together a multi-lingual, multi-religious state that brings together very diverse populations. I mean that's what is so remarkable about it. That's the India I cherish and I'm a citizen of. But I'm watching this government doing all it can to change that kind of unitary sense of the nation and that's what worries me enormously.

SIMON: Suvir Kaul, historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much.

KAUL: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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