NEW DELHI: Who am I? What is my idea of Azaadi? How do we get there?

Not many have had a more diverse education than myself. At various times in my life, I have been taught by a Goan Christian Missionary, a Telegu Engineer, a Bengali Brahmin, a Parsi from Surat, a Kashmiri Pandit from the Armed Forces, a Marathi from Pune, a Konkan Muslim, a Punjabi Hindu, and a Sindhi. A little bit of all of them lives in me.

I am not wrong in saying that I have given my blood to the nation of India, my blood flows in the veins of nine Indians, the names and faces of whom I don’t know. I have deep love for the people of this country. My patients have included Actors, Directors, Businessmen, Secretaries of Central Government Departments, and decorated war­heroes from the Armed Forces. They have also included a truck driver from UP, a grocer from Kolkata, a labourer from Tripura, a mason from Odisha, and many others.

I have been privileged to have served them all.

But I also know that I am not unique amongst Kashmiris. There are Kashmiris who perform heart transplants in Jaipur, kidney transplants in Ahmedabad, fly planes in Chennai, head Departments in Delhi, handle social media in Bangalore, and thousands others who live decent, honest, law­abiding lives throughout India. When Indians trust Kashmiris with their hearts, their livers, and their kidneys, and trust Kashmiris to fly their planes, to run their Departments, Companies, and handle their computers, why can’t India listen to what Kashmiris have to say ­ both within and without Kashmir ­ and trust them in their own affairs?

I am India.

I have not failed India ­ but when it comes to Kashmir, India has failed me. India failed me on the six occasions when I was beaten up for just being a Kashmiri, the most recent in 2013 when I was 32 years old, walking to Hospital for work, and just a few metres from my home. It was a humiliating and numbing experience.

I am the Indian success story. There is little that people in my field achieve at my age that I have not yet achieved. Yet I say Kashmiris need Azaadi.

Freedom, or Azaadi, in my opinion is free political space.

There are some who argue that Kashmir was never a part of India ­ I counter that by saying that Kashmir was always part of the political construct of India; largely on its own terms till 1586, and then on terms imposed from Delhi after that. No matter what happens, Kashmir’s future is inextricably linked with the rest of India. We can change politics, but we cannot change history and geography.

Kashmir needs its own space within and outside the Indian Union ­on terms that can be negotiated and made acceptable to all. From what I hear on the ground, the people of Kashmir are willing to starve themselves to achieve what they call their goal. When a people are willing to go to such lengths to achieve what they believe in, then there is something seriously wrong.

I can refer to three major international disputes with ethno-­religious basis not unlike that of Kashmir, which have been settled peacefully. The Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland over Swedish speaking population in Finland. The South Tyrol dispute between Italy and Austria over the right’s of German speaking people in a region in Northern Italy. And the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement ­ which has brought lasting peace to the British Isles after almost two centuries of intermittent strife.

There is no off-­the-­shelf solution to Kashmir, but there are many off­-the­-shelf ingredients which can be used to guide us:

1. There are no purely military solutions to insurgencies, in the end it is the political problem at the root of the insurgency that needs a political solution; insurgencies can be contained indefinitely, but they can never be wiped out completely. The Counter­Infiltration Grid in Kashmir has achieved what it was set up for, and statements by successive Army Commanders over the last six years have corroborated this fact

2. Insurgent groups don’t just surrender and disappear ­and one of the worst chapters of recent history in Kashmir was when various counter­insurgent groups were let loose on the population in the mid­1990’s. It led to a massive rural to urban migration of people from the countryside escaping the lawlessness that was wreaked upon them by these groups. Yet, 20 years later, Kashmir has been under over two months of curfew to quell protests after the killing of one of the commanders of the same organisation that was meant to have been decimated.

3. A peace process is not an event, it is a process ­ as long as there is cause for hope andthe parties are kept busy, there will be a continuation of this process. If there is no process, a terrible vacuum is created. It is the bicycle theory of negotiation ­ difficult to start, but when it gets going, a small effort is needed to keep it moving ­ but if it falls, it requires extraordinary effort to get it back up again.

4. There can never be a zero ­sum game ­ India should look at the CPEC as an opportunity to break through the wall of Pakistan and gain land access to Central Asia, and the Middle East. If India can secure ‘limited sovereign access’ to the CPEC routes, the potential is immense ­ not only will it make China interested in suing for peace, but will irreversibly involve Pakistan in the process of maintaining peace in the region.

In my limited understanding of conflicts ­ I can make the following recommendations:

1. India appoints a Chief Negotiator who reports to the Prime Minister, and who has a rank of a Cabinet Minister, whose job it is to negotiate with all parties in Jammu and Kashmir and bring them to the table, and complete the process within a fixed timeframe. All negotiations should be without preconditions.

2. After meetings with all shades of opinion, a vision document should be released to the general public ­ for opinions and inputs.

3. This document can then be tabled in the Assembly of J&K and brought forth for a referendum for ratification by the people of J&K.

Nobel Laureate, Jagdish Bhagwati said, ‘India is so large, so vast, that whatever statement of fact you make, the exact opposite is also true. ‘

Certain unique regions can, and always have existed in large countries like India ­ the UK has Northern Ireland, the United States has Guam and Puerto Rico, China has Hong Kong, Macau and Chinese Taipei.

In my understanding of India, I think India is large enough, and the people of India are understanding and tolerant enough, to make way for the uniqueness of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. I would like to call it, ‘Inclusive Indian Nationalism,’ the same nationalism that has absorbed and assimilated varying degrees of Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi nationalism. India, has only emerged stronger after that. There is no overarching and singular idea of what India is;­ it means so much different to so many people. A narrow national construct constraints the space available for inclusive and collective growth.

History is replete with stories of nations that became arrogant due to their power and strength, only to become self­ defeating in the process.

History has also told us that whenever an attempt is made to impose a particular social order over a people by force, they have revolted, and no amount of theocratic or political weight can hold such a people by force for long.

In conclusion, to quote Swami Vivekananda. He said, ‘Condemn none; if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers, and let them go their own way.’

(Cover Photograph carried by sections of the media when Kashmiri doctors and others rushed to help accident victims on the Amarnath yatra)