‘Kashmir issue cannot be resolved in isolation’

Mathew J. Webb talks about his new book, the Kashmir conflict, its right to secede and much more… in a conversation with Majid Maqbool.

The book happens to be the only full-length analysis of these theories with regard to a contemporary secessionist dispute. “Previous studies have employed empirical data from a series of unrelated disputes to illustrate a point,” the author points out. “However, there has been no sustained application of these theories to a real-world case study to see how they might play out in practice.”

Matthew wanted to look at the Kashmir issue from a new, unexplored perspective. “It also bothered me that many of the separatist actors in the dispute bandied about terms such as, ‘a right’, ‘nation’, ‘self-determination’ while clearly having no understanding of what these terms meant in a practical, legal or theoretical sense,” he says. “Rather, they took the validity of their own arguments as given, or adopted an interpretation of these terms and of Kashmir’s history that supported only their own viewpoints, without taking into consideration other, often valid perspectives.”

Equally, it also concerned me, Matthew says, that international jurists and political theorists often lacked a detailed understanding of the disputes to which the theories and principles they sought to develop would ultimately be applied. “The book attempts to address these concerns by comparing and marrying theory with practice and reality,” he adds.

In an interview with Majid Maqbool, the author talks about how he came to write a book on the less documented question of Kashmir’s right to secede from India, and why until the Indian state assumes a position of moral legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Kashmiris, discontent and dissent will continue.



How did you come to write a book about the moral justifiability of Kashmir’s right to secession? While researching for the book, how useful was the existing literature on this aspect of your research.

I first visited Kashmir 1991 as a tourist. At that time, the mood in the Valley was one of impending independence. People were very optimistic about Kashmir’s future. Large parts of the city were effectively under the control of the various ‘militants’, as they had come to be known, and they enjoyed considerable popular support. I returned several times subsequently and found that Kashmir was following the well established trajectory of a separatist insurgency. There was a lot more fear amongst ordinary Kashmiris that I met who were more pessimistic and war-weary. As a scholar, this peaked my interests. Whereas my original intent had been to write on the dynamics of the separatist struggle, I found that there were already a lot of scholars working on this and carrying out the kind of detailed fieldwork necessary to address this, and other empirical questions, was not really feasible because of the security situation. So I returned to my academic background in political philosophy and decided to approach the issue from that direction.

While there was a large body of scholarly work on the right of sub-groups to secede, it was almost all conducted in a theoretical vacuum and included very little detailed research on real-world separatist movements. The book is to my knowledge the only full length application of these theories to a single case study. So, in summary, the book grew from both my personal background and interest in Kashmir and the large, but separated, literature on a moral right to secede and Kashmiri politics and history.


How does your book look at the different accounts of the moral right to secede, assessing theories as well as the claims of those who want to separate Kashmir from India?

I don’t look specifically at the claims of the various protagonists to the dispute. I think that has been one misconception of the book in the reviews that I have read and which expected a less theoretical historical narrative. Rather, the book addresses the three main types of theory that attempt to justify right of groups (not just Kashmiris) to secede. The claims of the various protagonists to the Kashmir dispute are contextualized within these theories. One of the things that I emphasize in the book is that if we are to assess the statements, tactics and agenda of these protagonists then we need a framework for doing so. Otherwise, we just have a series of conflicting, polemical claims with no basis for comparison or adjudication. The three theories provide this basis.


Your book analysis the three main types of normative theory that ground the right of groups to secede in principles of national self-determination, consensual governance and rectificatory justice. Can you elaborate on this?

The question of the moral (rather than legal since, for the most part, states write law and no state has an interest in its own dismemberment) justifiability of secession has been debated by political theorists since the seventeenth century. More recently, since the mid 1980s, academics have developed a variety of opinions on the issue that have been grouped into three categories. Put very crudely, these say that a group has a right to secede if it qualifies as a nation, the majority of its members want to secede or it has been the victim of an injustice for which secession is an appropriate remedy of last resort. Each theory has its strong and weak points. In the book, I analyse the Kashmir dispute from the perspective of each theory highlighting the problems that Kashmir throws up for the theory while evaluating the justification for Kashmir’s secession provided by each theory. In many cases, these justifications mirror the claims of protagonists to the dispute. In other cases they do not. Again, the book is not supposed to be an accurate historical record of the claims and counter-claims of protagonists to the dispute.


Your book says that “human rights violations by Indian security forces provide one of the most potent justifications for Kashmir’s secession.” This will not find many takers in the Indian academic circles and Indian media, who have often dismissed human rights violations in Kashmir as something of an aberration rather than a historic reality. How did you come to focus on the human rights abuses as a “potent justification” for Kashmir’s right to secession?

I didn’t focus on these abuses in particular. Rather, when time came to discuss the third type of theory – remedial right theories – which say that a group has a right to secede if they have been the victim of an injustice for which secession is an appropriate remedy of last resort, then these abuses seemed to be the most salient instance of such an injustice. This is not to say that there may not be others. But this is the particular type of injustice that the book focuses upon. I’d be quite disturbed if someone – particularly an influential media commentator or learned academic – tried to dismiss these human rights abuses as aberrations rather than historical realities. They are very much realities for the people that experienced them or have to live with their consequences.

The book obviously deals with a very controversial and emotive subject from an unusual perspective. So, I expect it to attract critical attention; you can’t say anything about Kashmir and its political status without being controversial. But, at the same time, if you’re not controversial then you aren’t saying anything new. The book was most certainly not written to please any side to the dispute, Indian, Pakistani or separatist. In terms of the reception the book would receive from readers, aside from providing an accurate, original and intellectually rigorous examination of the Kashmir dispute, my only real concern was to avoid offence to those that had suffered as a consequence of the violence there. For this reason I avoid attributing blame and getting mired in the polemics that usually characterise discussion of Kashmir.


You write in the book, “Kashmiris may well be a nation…they may also have a right to secede. However, they do not have a right to secede because they are a nation.” What does it mean?

I think you’ve answered your own question. What does it mean to be a ‘nation’? Even ardent nationalists agree that nations are politically constituted as a result of individuals choosing to see themselves in a particular way, and that this process can be (and is) manipulated by elites. In other words, the cultural and other components that make up a Kashmiri national identity may be inherently valuable; Kashmir has a broad and extraordinarily rich cultural mosaic that is deservedly celebrated. But it does not follow from this that an identity build upon these factors provides a good foundation for being a ‘right holder’. National identity is notoriously ephemeral and elusive, consisting in often contradictory elements that are shared to varying degrees by non-/members of the nation. And while nationalists often claim that this lack of specificity is an advantage because it allows nations to be more inclusive, it most certainly is not an advantage in terms of identifying a right holder which requires clarity and precision. Also, nationalist arguments presume the prior identity of the right holder; if a group qualifies as a nation then it gets a right to secede. But, in actual practice we find that often it’s the other way around, i.e. groups form around institutions of rights which create sentiments of a shared identity and loyalty.


You further write in the book, “putting aside conceptual objections and focusing on the case of Kashmir, it is important to note that none of the liberal-democratic theories considered here would necessarily produce a result similar to that sought by Kashmiri separatists.”  How did you look at the demand of plebiscite and right to self-determination in your book?

As in the case of nationalist theories there is a general problem identifying the right-holder. If we hold a plebiscite, for example, who gets to vote in it? Only current residents of the Valley? What about the Pandits who fled after 1989? Or the residents of Azad Kashmir? Each has an interest in being included in any plebiscite, and how we determine the constituency for the plebiscite may significantly influence its result. There is a big myth that a plebiscite is an ‘easy’ way to resolve the issue. This overlooks the prior questions of who gets to vote and what are they going to vote on that must first be addressed before any plebiscite can be held.


In the book you reject secession on the grounds of “historical injustices of the circumstances of accession,” or “India’s military intervention and subsequent failure to hold a promised plebiscite”. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

First, they’re two separate conclusions, the second does not necessarily follow from the first nor are they mutually exclusive, e.g. you could agree with the former but not the latter, vice versa or accept/reject both depending upon the evidence and where it takes you. I reject the circumstances of the accession as providing a sound justification for a contemporary right to secede because in most variants it presumes the right of the Maharaja to decide Kashmir’s fate. The most common variant says that because India interfered in the state’s accession it effectively invalidated the accession. The corollary of this is that if India had not interfered then the accession (to either India or Pakistan) would have been justified. There are other variants of the argument that require a more complicated response and which I can’t summarise here. Readers will just have to read the book if they’re interested in them.


How has India’s “sustained, serious and systematic infringements of Kashmir’s fundamental human rights” prevented any mediation by a third-party?

I do say that these infringements have undermined India’s ability to act (or be seen to act) in good faith in Kashmir by damaging its credibility as a neutral arbiter between competing interests. The key question is why India has, after more than half a century, been unable to make Kashmiris feel at home in India. Once this question is successfully addressed then the issue of Kashmir’s secession becomes irrelevant because, even if Kashmir has a right to secede, it will be a right that Kashmiris are content to not exercise. The same holds for all secessionist disputes because any right to secede is a discretionary, rather than a required, right. I am not aware of any credible theory that says if a group meets certain criteria then they have to secede.


The government discourse at present says “normalcy has returned”, tourists are coming in big numbers to the valley, and some Indian commentators even write “Kashmir is happy” – that people want to “move on”. But in the absence of justice (more recently, over 100 killings during the 2010 uprising, perpetrators unpunished) will there be any progress towards peace in Kashmir?

The Government has an interest in perpetuating claims such as this to allay critical coverage in the media and alleviate international scrutiny. Similarly, however, it should be noted that separatist groups also have an interest in promulgating the opposite view of Kashmir as a seething cauldron of discontent to buttress their own claims. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between, and that Kashmiris have had enough of violent conflict and do want to move on, but not on someone else’s terms. There is a distinction to be drawn between giving up on the fight (i.e. the principle) and on fighting the fight. Seventy years of Soviet repression and tourism did not extinguish pro-independence sentiment in the Caucasus which voted with its feet even before the fall of the USSR. Similarly, until the Indian state assumes a position of moral legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Kashmiris, discontent expressed in some form will continue, tourists or not.


What does a Kashmiri reader take away from your book?

It is only natural for Kashmiris to view the Kashmir issue from a Kashmiri perspective. However, Kashmir is a symptom of a wider problem; the lack of a coherent, implementable and transparent system of rights for adjudicating claims of territorially concentrated minorities for political independence. Any workable solution to the Kashmir issue must accommodate this reality by (at the very least) not conflicting with widely accepted principles of justice (which include the principle that, ‘like cases should be treated alike’). I would hope that a Kashmiri reader would have a new appreciation that the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved in isolation from this wider context. Whatever solution is adopted will set a precedent for other, similar disputes and should contribute to the ultimate aim of an international regimen for avoiding and resolving separatist conflicts.

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