Draupadi’s Question & the Claim on Kashmir- Staking That Which You Do Not Own

“Tell me Dharma,” Draupadi asks again and again to the Kuru court, “who did you lose first, yourself or me?”

At this significant point in the Indian epic of the Mahabharata, the pandavas and the kauravas are seated together in the assembly for a game of dice, and Dharmaraja’s weakness to gambling has cost the five brothers their land, titles and every other asset they have ever owned. Yet Dharmaraja  believes he will win it all back, and so one by one, he stakes his younger brothers, and when he loses all of them, he stakes himself. Losing again, he finally stakes Draupadi, the common wife of the five pandava brothers, and consequentially loses the game again.

Draupadi then is summoned to the court by those who have ‘won’ her, where she poses a question that is relevant even thousands of years on. She questions the right of her husband in staking her at the game, for (i) is a wife the property of a husband to be wagered away, and more relevant to this article, (ii) could Dharmaraja, who had already lost himself to the kauravas, where lost himself would indicate having lost the freedom over his mind and body, stake Draupadi at the game in the first place?

Ancient Hindu traditions dictate that the younger brothers are subservient to the eldest one, and misogyny that survived the centuries dictates that the wife is the property of a man. After staking his brothers, Dharmaraja bet himself – and lost, so what right did he have to wager something that he stopped ‘owning’ the moment he lost himself?

Reading up on the debacle of Kashmir, especially Alistair Lamb’s Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy brought this parallelism to my mind.

In 1947 when freedom from British rule was near and certain for the subcontinent, the process of nation building was underway, led by those who sat at the upper tiers of the Congress party. More than 565 princely states, or what had always been princely states, that comprised the landmass that is now known as India, were brought to negotiations, and subsequently, accession. For Kashmir, lying at the northernmost tip of India, the issue never got resolved, even after seventy years of independence.

Flanked by India, Pakistan and China on its borders, Kashmir is a land of breathtaking beauty and utmost political significance to all the three nations. Certain histories and facts say the following: at the time of independence, the state’s demography had a chiefly Muslim population with Hindu rulers, the Dogras. Each state in the subcontinent was given three options: (i) Accede to India, (ii) Accede to Pakistan, or (iii) Be an independent state. The Maharaja of Kashmir at that time signed standstill agreements with both India and Pakistan over the fate of Kashmir.

More facts and histories state that infiltrators from across Pakistan entered the territory of Kashmir to take it under siege and possibly create and an uprising of the people against the Maharaja, at which point the Maharaja was forced to flee to Jammu with his family and is said to have requested the government of India for help. The government of  India, in its part, claimed that they possibly couldn’t extend defence to a territory that wasn’t theirs in the first place, and furnished the ‘Instrument of Accession’, the signing of which apparently acceded the territory of Kashmir to the nation of India. A war later, one third of Kashmir, ‘Pakistan-occupied’ or what is also known as Ázad Kashmir’ went over to the other side while two thirds of it was occupied by India.

But contrasting histories suggest that these ‘infiltrators’ were actually Pathani tribes who were quite willingly welcomed by the people of the territory whom they were supposedly out to terrorise. That much is not so hard to believe, for it is always the case that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Contrary accounts also suggest that the population of Kashmir was anyway dissatisfied with the Maharaja of Kashmir and that by the time the Instrument of Accession had been signed, the Maharaja had been effectively overthrown by the people. What right then did the Maharaja have to give away Kashmir, when the legitimacy of his own rule was under contestation?

And so we must ask, was Kashmir ever the Maharaja’s to give away? And so we must also ask, in that sense, is any land ruled over by a monarch, inherited entirely on the virtue of birth, is his to be wagered away?

Such a question is irrelevant for any fruitful conclusion though, for that is how the world worked up until that time, and so we must take it as how it is and not how it should be. The comparison with Draupadi’s question is feeble and rather poetic, but still a valid one. Yet delving on parallelisms is not worthwhile, and perhaps our energies are better focused in delving on the mindless bloodshed and violence that has engulfed Kashmir for seventy years, while two nations stake their claim on the land.

In the years that have led up to this seventieth anniversary of independence, we must question the validity of India’s claim on Kashmir, and the subsequent Kashmiri struggle which has turned to what many claim as paradise in a ghost state, subject to bloodbath and a struggle that still goes on. We must question whether our interests truly lie in the protection of Kashmir and its people, or pride and conquest, and whether then our actions are any better than of those from whom we gained independence in 1947. The fate of Kashmir at the moment though, remains much the same as of Draupadi, which Irawati Karwe appropriately describes as in Yuganta, “Each agony of that dying yuga, Draupadi suffered in her own person.”

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