Jammu-based Krishen Dev Sethi, one of the founders of the communist movement in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
In conversation with Yoginder Sikand
Can you tell us something about your background? How did you get involved in the Left movement in Kashmir?
I was born in Mirpur, in what is now Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in 1925. As a child I saw the terrible oppression of people in my area under the Dogra raj and I felt impelled to do something about it. So, in 1940, when the National Conference (NC) held its first session in Baramulla, I went there, and that’s how I began my political journey. It was not that the formation of the NC was the first stirring of revolt against the Dogra raj in Mirpur. The Mirpuris had a long history of resistance and rebellion long before that. When the Dogra ruler, Gulab Singh, took over Mirpur, the Mirpuris, led by local rajas, staged several revolts, which were cruelly crushed. Raja Sultan Khan of Bhimber, a Chibb Rajput, was captured, brutally tortured and blinded. He died in prison. The Gakkhar Rajputs of Mirpur and the Mangral Rajputs in Kotli also rose up in revolt. So did several others. Although these local resistance movements were forcibly put down, the fires of revolt continued to simmer, as the Mirpuris regarded the Dogra rulers as oppressive foreigners and invaders and they hated them.As a child, I grew up with an awareness of the cruel exploitation of the peasantry by landlords, moneylenders and the Dogra officials. They were subjected to heavy taxation and were forced into <begari> or compulsory, unpaid labour for the Dogra officials. The moneylenders in Mirpur were mainly Hindus, while the landlords were both Hindus and Muslims, the former being mostly moneylenders who had become landlords through usury. More than 90 per cent of the people in our area were Muslims.In 1931, when a mass movement against the Dogra rulers swept Kashmir, the Mirpuris also rose up in revolt. It soon acquired a communal hue because it was directed principally against the Dogra officials and exploitative moneylenders, who were Hindus. Yet, it was rooted in economic factors and was an expression of the discontent and suppression of the Mirpuri peasantry who refused to pay taxes. To suppress the movement, the Maharaja of Kashmir called in British troops who unleashed a wave of terror.As a child, all this affected me deeply. My grandfather was a moneylender. One day, in protest, I grabbed some documents in his house containing details of the money he had lent to peasants and threw them into a tandoor. I left home and after that never returned. My family, like most other middle-class Hindus in Mirpur, was fiercely opposed to the NC for its opposition to the Dogra raj, and hence, naturally, they did not like my political involvement. So stiff was the opposition that our Hindu neighbours would wash the rope that my mother used to draw water from the well in our locality after she had used it, saying that I had become a Muslim! You have been involved in various people’s struggles in Kashmir for decades. I took part in the Quit India movement and then in the Quit Kashmir movement against the Dogra raj in 1946. I was imprisoned till November 1947 in Mirpur jail till Mirpur came under the control of Pakistani forces who broke open the jail and released the prisoners. Muslim Conference workers and leaders, including Major Ali Ahmad Shah, who later became President of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, persuaded me to stay on in Mirpur, but the <goonda> element in the Muslim Conference was determined to drive all Hindus and Sikhs out. So, some local NC friends helped me to reach a safe zone in Nowshehra, while the rest of my family shifted to Poonch.
After shifting to the other side of J&K, how did you carry on with your political activities?
Once I came to this part of J&K, I deepened my involvement with the NC, serving as the general secretary of the Jammu unit till 1957 and as member of the J&K Constituent Assembly till 1962. This was a time of momentous political changes. Hindus and Sikhs in the part of the state that had come under Pakistani rule were subjected to brutal murders and mass exodus, Muslims in the Jammu province faced a similar fate with several thousands of them being slaughtered by mobs led by the Sangh is — RSS and Hindu Mahasabha elements — and abetted by the maharaja’s forces. Many more were forced to flee to Pakistan. The Akhnoor, Ranbirsingh-pura and lower Samba areas had a Muslim majority, but they were almost completely eliminated. So, too, was Jammu town. One of the first tasks before us was to in still a sense of security among the few Muslims who remained in Jammu. For this my colleagues and I were falsely accused of being Pakistani agents, just because we tried to rehabilitate these Muslims instead of asking them to migrate to Pakistan. I was arrested on this fake charge and was released only when Sheikh Abdullah put pressure on Nehru. Massacres of Hindus and Sikhs in one part of the state and of Muslims in the other fed on each other. When Pathan tribal invaders entered Muzaffarabad, they killed Colonel Narain Singh and several Hindu soldiers. In revenge, when the forces retreated from Kotli, Hindu soldiers killed their Muslim colleagues in Beripatni. So many Hindus and Muslims lost their lives in this madness. I think of those innocents whose precious lives were lost in the name of religion and nationalism, and it still sends shivers down my spine. Another major development was the radical land reforms that Sheikh Abdullah’s government undertook, abolishing landlordism and providing land to the tillers and tenants. This was unprecedented in the whole of India. Besides, these reforms did not entail compensation to those whose land was being expropriated. It was the leftist element in the NC that was instrumental in getting this law passed and implemented. However, gradually, Sheikh Abdullah began compromising on his principles, and mounting charges of corruption made me disillusioned with him and his politics. In 1957, Sadiq established the Democratic National Conference and I joined it. We worked as an effective opposition group, channelizing opposition to the government to ensure that Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists and communalists are not able to take advantage of the growing discontentment with Sheikh Abdullah. However, the Government of India was sacred that we would emerge as a powerful leftist force and this led to several compromises by our colleagues. In the early 1960s, I began attending meetings of the Communist Party of India and was jailed in the wake of the Indo-China war. From 1967 to 1972, I remained underground, having established an association with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). I also went underground during the Emergency, but I gradually realised the futility of the thesis of violence.
What do you feel is a realistic solution to the ongoing conflict?
As a Marxist-Leninist, I believe in the right to self-determination of every nationality. There are several nationalities in the state. Numerically, the Kashmiris of the valley are the single largest nationality, but there are several others, such as the Dogras of Jammu, the Potohari-speakers of Mirpur, the people of Gilgit and Baltistan, the Ladakhis and Kargilis, and other smaller groups. The problem is that when Kashmiri leaders of the Valley demand the right to self-determination, the other nationalities of the state feel threatened, seeing this to legitimise and strengthen Kashmiri domination over the other nationalities. The right to self-determination should be for all nationalities, not just for the Kashmiris of the Valley. Consider the Hurriyat Conference. Hurriyat leaders claim to speak for the right to self-determination of J&K but they are limited in their support to the Kashmir Valley. And even they are not united. They talk of Kashmiriat as the basis of Kashmiri nationalism, but this notion of Kashmiriat is entirely Kashmir Valley-centric, representing the culture, traditions and aspirations of people in the Valley, from Baramulla to Qazigund. This does not have any resonance among people living outside the Valley. In theory, an independent federal state seems to be the best solution. But this is easier said than done. This requires the consensus of all the nationalities, which is not easy to secure.
Do you think that India and Pakistan would ever agree to an independent federation of J&K?
Frankly, I don’t think both countries will. Even Pakistan, which keeps talking about freedom for J&K, is basically hostile to the idea. After all, Islamabad is only a few miles from the border of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and if J&K becomes independent, Pakistan would find the international border too close to its capital. Pakistan’s economy depends on the rivers that flow into it from the part of Kashmir that it controls. I have discovered during my recent three trips that many people in Pakistan-administered J&K genuinely seek independence.