Kashmir: a place of blood and memory

In attempting to suffocate a separate Kashmiri identity, India reveals the cracks in its own idea of nationhood, argues Nitasha Kaul.

Parts of present-day Kashmir are occupied by India, Pakistan, and China. 

When you try to locate the territory of Kashmir on a world map, you will find it partitioned into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK, called ‘Azaad Kashmir’ and ‘Northern Areas’,  in Pakistan), India Occupied Kashmir (IOK, called ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ including ‘Ladakh’, in India), and areas such as Aksai Chin and Shaksam Valley under Chinese control (part of ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’ in China).Partitioned Kashmir, courtesy of Wikimedia 

A map of a divided Kashmir

Yet, even as it is devoured by the big states that surround it, Kashmir cannot be understood through the simplistic framing of ‘India versus Pakistan’, ‘Hindu versus Muslim’, or ‘China allied with Pakistan versus India’. Instead, see Kashmir as a vital link in the Himalayan mountain chain; a historic part of the Silk Route, that is now a violent battleground. Why? Because people in none of these three regions identify themselves as primarily and ‘above all’ Pakistani, Indian, or Chinese. Neither should they be forced to.

Cartography might lie, but topography and cultural geography does not. Kashmir is not India. Kashmir is not Pakistan. Kashmir is not China. Kashmir is the boundary zone of India-China-Pakistan. But it is distinctively Kashmir. And its people – whatever their religion or national identity – are Kashmiris. In the guise of crude nationalist narratives peddled by the surrounding post-colonial states for internal politicking and international leverage, their history is being stolen from the Kashmiri people. Wherever in Kashmir they are, their options boil down to bullets or ballots – bullets if they protest being co-opted into the big country which is not their homeland, and ballots if they agree to being co-opted into the big country which is not their homeland. How can a Kashmiri live under this perpetual erasure of his or her identity? The same way that every colonised people has survived through the ages: by interpretation and by insurrection. Interpretations enable a re-understanding of the identity choices available to a person, and insurrections allow a collectivity to challenge unjust dominance by force.

In the last years, regions of the POK saw nationalist Kashmiri protests against Pakistan (for example, in Muzzafarabad in December 2009), and, at the moment, nationalist Kashmiris in IOK are witnessing a harsh repression at the hands of Indian security forces; on average a person a day has been killed in the last two months since June 2010, nearly half of them have been teenagers (my focus is IOK, in particular the ongoing brutality in the Kashmir Valley, and the various erasures of blood and memory that surround it). Some in IOK give rallying cries in support of POK (‘Muzzafarabad Chalo’), and in turn others in POK warn that they will cross over to ‘help their brothers in IOK’. Moreover, even during periods of so-called ‘normalcy’, people in both POK (some being Shia ethnic minority in Sunni-majority areas) and in IOK (being a Muslim majority region in a Hindu-majority India) often live with severe restrictions on their freedom and face multiple levels of discrimination. No wonder Kashmiris who live under occupation feel a solidarity for their kind across the boundary lines.

The story of the mountain-peoples of Eurasia is, by and large, a tragedy. Run your index finger on the multi-coloured land surface of a modern day political world map, and you will see how many ‘problem areas’ (some states, some sub-state entities, some overlapping zones of displaced peoples) – Tibet, Kashmir, North Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria – were thriving zones of contact between diverse communities that traded goods and exchanged ideas along the arteries of the ‘Silk Route’. Like many of these other places, Kashmir, a Himalayan zone of contact between diverse peoples in history, has become a zone of conflict, due in large measure to modern boundary-making processes which evolved to accommodate economic privileges and political trade-offs with rivals that were necessary for European (especially British) colonisation of the region.

Genesis of the ‘Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction’

Empires of the ancient world had a fluid notion of boundaries. In parts of the Himalayas especially, there were multiple systems of power transmission – these ranged from marriages to tributes to reincarnations. The idea of people owing an overarching allegiance to a national identity (over religious, ethnic or other forms of affiliation) is a relatively modern construct. The British Empire in south Asia was nitpicky and dissonant, it was an empire run by a democracy, that expanded by median diplomacy, strategic but grounded thinking, conceptual reconstruction, and accounting, as much as it did by force. Unlike the earlier rulers who came from central Asia, the British operated primarily on the dual bases of economic rationality and assumed moral superiority. They often drew lines on maps opportunistically, and in time, these ‘boundaries’ would get transformed into ‘frontiers’. 

In the case of the Himalayan mountains, the British never saw much advantage in direct control (they calculated that the administrative, policing, transportation costs were too high and the returns not worthwhile when compared to the fertile and bustling plains) and preferred, instead, to follow a stated policy of “controlling the hills from the plains”. In order to do this, the administration at the centre needed to depend on local elites in the peripheral regions. So, the system was set up during colonial times – the bureaucrats at the centre would be the administrators and policy makers and they would cultivate local aristocratic, political and business elites in the peripheral regions. Often, they would patronise rival elites in a peripheral region and ‘activate’ their influence as and when required. In the middle of the twentieth century when the British formally left, the post-colonial Asian states inherited this mindset and this system of governance. To this day, the Indian state manages its peripheries in this way. Both Kashmir and the ‘North-East’ are examples.

Why does this matter? Because it sets up structures of power and responsibility that do not overlap meaningfully. The bureaucrats and politicians at the centre do not have direct interaction with the regions; their interest is only to have a ‘reliable’ power base in the periphery. Equally, the local elites in the periphery exaggerate reports of their influence over ‘their’ people in order to gain maximum advantage from the centre. This pattern of (what I would call) Mandarin-Machiavelli interaction has characterised the relationship of India with Kashmir (or rather of New Delhi with Srinagar). Neither the centre nor the periphery has any interest in being genuinely concerned about the people in whose name they wield power and exercise authority. What is more, in such a scenario, there is enormous potential of corruption as long as it doesn’t harm the ruling interests of both ends of the chain, and any dissent will only be tolerated if it can be channeled for political gains. Otherwise, those dissenting or seeking change will be punished and brutalised. This is exactly what is happening in IOK today.

Kashmir as India’s disputed ‘integral'

IOK (‘India occupied Kashmir’, called ‘Jammu and Kashmir’, including ‘Ladakh’, in India) has never been an indisputable part of India. Paradoxically, presenting this historical fact invariably causes most Indians to assert even more vigorously that Kashmir is an ‘integral’ part of India. Why? Why is Kashmir so fundamental to the Indian psyche? 

The average Indian insists that Kashmir is an indisputable part of India to be held by force when necessary in the same way that the Indian state insists that Kashmir is an ‘integral’ part of India while occupying it by military means. Indians and the Indian state find it necessary to repeatedly state this because they know that Kashmir is not actually an indisputable part of India and this galls them.

It is no coincidence that Kashmir and the North-East were two of the least involved regions during the nationalist freedom struggle which led to India’s independence, and it is these regions which have remained least understood in the mainstream nationalist imagination. In Kashmir, for example, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was the Kashmiri Nationalists (led by Sheikh Abdullah) and the Kashmiri Communists (both Hindu and Muslim) who shaped the pre-1947 political landscape by their opposition to princely rule (of the unrepresentative Dogra monarch); integration with India was an ‘unintended consequence’ of their progressivist leanings. With time, their faith in India was rudely jolted – independent India came to fear two things most – Muslims and communists (Kashmir had both). 

This way Kashmir is viewed in the mainstream Indian imagination is linked to the wider evolution of Indian self-perception in the decades after independence and more specifically to the quantum shift in the political and economic structure of Indian society in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

The Indian nation that had been born (from a partition) with idealistic anti-colonial promises saw its first national event in the assassination of its biggest moral voice – Mahatma Gandhi – at the hands of a Hindu fanatical extremist. The successive decades saw an undoing of the social, political, economic, and moral ideals which had motivated the people in their anti-colonial independence struggle. The two biggest, and significantly reactionary, transformations that India has seen since its independence became most visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s – the rise of economic and religious fundamentalism – neo-liberalism and Hindutva. From the late 1940s to late 1980s (with the exception of the rather telling ‘Emergency period’ and its aftermath), electoral politics in India was dominated by the traditional elites. Within such a system, there was a continued ‘capture’ of the Indian state by the privileged, the only route into the political imagination left for others was through asserting ‘identity politics’ (especially caste-based identities, as in the case of the BSP or Bahujan Samaj party, and the Mayawati – their leader – phenomenon).

The founding myth of the post-colonial Indian state was that of a ‘sovereign democratic republic’ (original preamble to the Indian constitution) and it was later amended to become, ‘sovereign socialist secular democratic republic’. The same amendment  (the 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976) that added the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’, also inserted the word ‘integrity’ in addition to the ‘unity’ originally mentioned; the changed preamble went from ‘unity of the nation’ to ‘unity and integrity of the nation’. It is of crucial importance that the labels confirming India as ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’, and the pledge for ‘integrity’ came about in 1976 during the Emergency era (1975-1977) which witnessed a general curtailment of the freedoms of most ordinary Indians, especially those such as religious minorities and the economically deprived. In other words, by the 1970s, India’s founding myths were already severely challenged, and therefore needed to be proclaimed as an exercise in self-justification. There was discrimination against religious minorities (for example, as an unstated rule, Muslims were never placed in ‘sensitive’ government positions – not that this has gone away – click here for a recent report that state-run banks in India routinely turn away Muslims), hence India needed to call itself ‘secular’. There was growing inequality and continued widespread poverty, hence India needed to call itself ‘socialist’. There was justified alienation in various parts of the country due to ignorance and corrupt misgovernance enabled by the Mandarin-Machiavelli relations (and the ‘integrity’ of India’s neighbour Pakistan had been challenged with the creation of Bangladesh in 1971), hence India’s ‘integrity’ needed to be affirmed.

From 1947 onwards, post-colonial India saw itself as an inheritor of the British imperial mantle in the region. Indian leadership, while aware of the negative legacies of the empire, also inherited its realpolitik attitudes, which were made worse by a euphoria of emergent nationalism and self-righteousness. The regime had changed but the processes had simply replaced foreign elites with a home-grown indigenous elite (for example, a significant number of rulers from the erstwhile princely states were appointed as bureaucrats, ambassadors, policy-makers). Add to which there was the personality cult of Nehru whose personal friendships, affiliations, and dispositions could brook little opposition and loomed large on the decision-making processes in a democratic state. In the subsequent decades, notwithstanding the official non-aligned third-worldist stance, India’s political priorities – national and international – were shaped by its close relations with the old and new imperial powers. An entrenched (often English-speaking, Brahminical, Hindu) elite thrived domestically, India began to be seen as a regional hegemon, relations with neighbours (China, Pakistan) rapidly deteriorated, and electoral politics became a game of patronage.

In the years following independence, India refused to negotiate with China on the boundary issue (while simultaneously following a less-than-pragmatic policy on Tibet), pursued an ill-advised ‘forward policy’ in NEFA (North East Frontier Areas), and Nehru – a Kashmiri himself and fond of Kashmir; Kashmir was special – promised Kashmiris a plebiscite to determine their future. 

In the middle of the twentieth century, my grandfather, then a young man, stood among the crowd at Lal Chowk in the centre of Srinagar (capital of IOK) listening to the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru make a rousing speech to the people of Kashmir - ‘Kashmir ke log koi bhhed-bakri nahin hain ki hamne kaha yahaan chalo ya wahaan chalo’ (the people of Kashmir can’t be led like goat or sheep in one direction or the other) – in which he promised them a choice to determine their identity, specifically a plebiscite to determine their own future. In later years, my grandfather would often recall those words of Nehru apologetically (recently he passed away and I went again to Srinagar to mourn for him in his birthplace, the land of my lost memories). This Nehruvian promise came to naught as India’s stance on Kashmir became ever more legalistic.

As for India’s claim that Kashmir is ‘integral’ to India to confirm its secular credentials (being the only Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority India): what an irony, since India’s secular credentials (being an afterthought as the ‘Emergency’ time amendment shows) were not ‘integral’ to the Indian state at its founding!

Internationally, the Indian state has thrived by trading on its publicised self-image as democratic, secular, and peaceful. The comparison has always been with neighbours like China and Pakistan - one communist, the other theocratic (to the wider western world, nothing could be worse than someone who is a ‘Commie’ or ‘Islamic’). The world at large has been fooled for too long by the articulate, if not argumentative, Indian upper-class governmental and corporate elite and their publicity machines. So successful is this illusion about India, that the world media consistently under-reports the Indian state’s brutality when it comes to Naxalites, the ‘North East’ (the only part of the country which is referred to by geographical co-ordinates; a telling synecdochic use of the generic term ‘north east’ to refer to one or all of the seven different states together), and always, Kashmir.

India is demographically a Hindu majority state, and for all its talk of ‘unity in diversity’, it is intolerant towards its minorities. That discrimination and intolerance flourishes in Pakistan or China or the West is no justification for ignoring this fact in India. For instance, there is a violent ongoing repression of the tribals, there is recurrent and extreme state brutality in Kashmir, there have been orchestrated pogroms against the Muslims (Gujarat 2002), violence against the Sikhs (Delhi 1984), the Christians (Orissa 2007-08), add to which, there is a constant ongoing broad-ranging discrimination against people in terms of their religion, caste, class, gender, sexuality. Of course, India is democratic, secular, and peaceful, except when it needs to suppress those that don’t look like mainstream Indians (the Hindus) - these ‘others’ include its tribal and indigenous people, ‘lower’ castes, its minorities, its ‘north eastern’ peoples (ethnically different, they are derisively referred to as ‘Chinks’, often confused for Chinese in the main metropolises, and seen as different and separate), and Muslims. The people who fit India’s self-narrative best are affluent Hindus.

Today, India wishes to be recognised as a ‘superpower-in-waiting’, yet like other superpowers (to wit, the USA) it is rotting from within. After the end of the Cold War, both the blatant privatisation (euphemistically called ‘liberalisation’) of the Indian economy, and the overt  ‘Hinduisation’ of Indian polity (rise of right-wing parties like the BJP) came to full flowering in the 1990s; together this created an intolerant and unholy consensus in the arenas of politics and economics. Today, both the main national parties – Congress and BJP – converge on the ‘free-market’ economic fundamentals and the political space is given over to divisive ‘vote-bank’ driven identity politics. Over time, this has resulted in greater inequality, more deprivation, and a disenfranchisement of large sections of the country, but it has been politically profitable for those who instigated these changes. The Hinduising, reactionary BJP came to power spreading its message of bigotry, and the Congress leader with a carefully maintained image who engineered the neoliberal restructuring of the country (as the finance minister) in the early 1990s, is the prime minister of the country today. In his recent remarks, he (bizarrely) used the public reaction to his budget in 1991 as a counter to the criticism of his Nuclear Bill in 2010.

In so many regions and in so many ways, the project and vision of postcolonial India is coming apart at the seams. The same-old routine use of the narrative of ‘national integration’ and ‘outside infiltration’ (Pakistani trained terrorists in Kashmir, China-trained Maoists in Eastern India) cannot inoculate a country that is failing its people economically, politically and socially.

The Indian political class is superbly corrupt. Entry into politics is seen as a route for upward class mobility by enabling wealth accumulation; generally only the sons and scions of those with pre-existing political connexions rise through the ranks, unless one is a goon with a criminal record! Indian bureaucracy has a reputation for being tremendously arrogant. It is a truism that Indian bureaucrats are generally smug and supercilious, unwilling to learn or exchange ideas from any but the most hawkish and pro-establishment intellectuals. The large swathes of Indian middle classes are stuffed with intolerance, unthinking mass entertainment, and over consumption – fed by a corporatised media that ‘manufactures consent’ in a textbook Chomsky way. The mix of ignorance and blustery self-confidence that one encounters in middle-class Indians rivals Americans (they share this ‘superpower’ trait!). All of the above – a corrupt political class, a smug bureaucracy, an unthinking and avidly consuming middle class – makes India a wonderful ‘market’ globally. This is the reason why the world keeps silent when the Indian state commits or abets violent atrocities, both inside its boundaries and outside. 

In such an environment, proper political consciousness is rare. Indian people are fed the ‘national integration’ mantra and they lap it up, unable to perceive the way in which people such as the Kashmiris are being dehumanised. The average middle-class Indian (who grows up learning in history and geography books at school about everywhere in the world except for the countries that are India’s neighbours) is intolerant of Pakistan, suspicious of China, unwilling to commingle with Muslims or ‘lower castes’, and willfully blind to the poverty that surrounds them – s/he is focused on making money, spending money, and occasionally, redemption through self-help. Kashmir is a distant nightmare for them.

Indian politicians ultimately don’t care for Kashmir. When the situation looks extremely grim, as now, they make a few statements, a few changes happen at the state level, a few lies are spun, and some schemes are floated to keep public opinion on board. The leadership is, by turns and at different levels, dull, corrupt, and lacking in morals. 

Most importantly, the compulsions of India’s domestic politics ensure that there is no real potential for dialogue and understanding on Kashmir. The entrenched national narrative is so strong that any move forward is seized by the opposition as ‘compromise’ and ‘betrayal’. Given the circumstances, even the most measly statement made by government representatives that recognises any problem in Kashmir or questions the Hindu right-wing is challenged by the xenophobic intolerant right-wing politicians (BJP and their ilk) and exploited for political gain ( e.g. the BJP asking the Home Minister to apologise for commenting on ‘saffron terror’/Hindu right-wing extremism, and the BJP challenging the PM for his statement on autonomy for Kashmir).

What is more, India’s political, military and bureaucratic interests in Kashmir are not coherently aligned, and are subject to the varying intensity and profitability of India’s strategic international alliances. The strength and honesty of political will of the Indian government on Kashmir then becomes a pawn in line with India’s interests in Afghanistan, and in turn hostage to US policy on ‘AfPak’. 

Finally, India’s defence sector is rapidly modernising and therefore internationally very lucrative at the moment. At the same time, there is an excessive use of force in the occupation of Kashmir. Such conflict then unleashes its own perverse incentives such as the increased expenditure on arms and debilitates the initiatives for peace. In any case, the militarisation of security in India is a dangerous development for the dehumanising violence it enables (some Indian military tactics in Kashmir are excessive even for the Israeli IDF!).

Kashmir is not an ‘integral’ part of India. It is a disputed integral, in fact, as I have argued, the Indian attitude to Kashmir can only be understood in the wider context of the failed political, economic, and social promises of post-colonial India. In the name of ‘national integration’, India is occupying a region against the will of the people who live there. Kashmir is ‘integral’ only to the life of Kashmiris.

The tragedy of Kashmir

Having a historical legacy as a sacred site of early Himalayan Buddhism, Kashmir was a Muslim-majority state in a Hindu-majority India at the time of India's independence from the British; through most of the last millennium, it was variously ruled by central and west Asian originating Mughal-Afghan dynasties. In the nineteenth century, it was ruled by Sikhs from whom the British acquired it and sold it on to a Hindu Dogra King. As a people of the mountains who had been bartered by the British, Kashmiris were aware of the oppression they faced. The distinctive identity of Kashmir was shaped by multiple influences and rulerships. Kashmir’s history is a knot of contested interpretations made worse by ignorance.

The biggest myth of recent times is that of seeing Kashmir historically in terms of Muslims versus Hindus, instead of Muslims and Hindus. 

Kashmiris did not see themselves in these terms until they were classified as such by the political games of the later part of the twentieth century. The centuries-old tradition of ‘Kashmiriyat’ bears testimony to the identity of Kashmiris as a people who did not let their religious affiliations overwhelm their ethnic and regional commonality. Contemporary Hindu religious extremists/activists often try to extrapolate selective facts from Kashmir’s rich history to push their communal case – citing especially the forced conversions to Islam (click here for a scholarly contradiction of this claim, notable because it is written by a Kashmiri Hindu, so it defies assumed communal viewpoint in this regard), and the 1989 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits (minority Hindus) from the Valley as having been forced by Kashmiri Muslims.

Kashmiris were a people who were somehow ‘bargained’ into nationhood when the British left the region. From mid-nineteenth century onwards, the practice of statecraft and governance came to be tied closely to statistics, enumeration and classification (the first census in UK was carried out in 1800s). In the colonies too, the British tried to stabilise and centralise channels of power by classifying their subjects and dealing with them in terms of race, genetic stock, community leaders, and religion. Hindus and Muslims were two important lenses through which people were perceived, roused, and then divided during partition. In the case of Kashmir, this British formula was messed-up – the Muslims were the majority in Kashmir, but the ruler (Hari Singh) was not Muslim, Indian Prime Minister Nehru was Kashmiri Hindu but close to Sheikh Abdullah, the most prominent Kashmiri leader, a Muslim. Plus, the entire Himalayas, including Kashmir, had been constructed as a strategic geopolitical buffer in the imperial trajectory till then; the ‘Great Game’ was a kind of proto-Cold War. When India and Pakistan were being carved up, Kashmir was coveted on either side (this manic struggle over possessing Kashmir has led to multiple wars – 1947, 1965, 1999 – between India and Pakistan – both of whom use Kashmir as a propaganda pawn for their opportunistic and hypocritical purposes – and a continued boundary stalemate, including over the unpopulated Aksai-Chin area, between India and China). 

In so many ways, Kashmir was ‘special’. The Kashmiri political voice and consciousness was different from that of the rest of India. The Kashmiris of an earlier generation – up until the 1980s – saw themselves as ‘Kashmiris’, in spite of everything. Kashmiris as a people have historically shared language, mannerisms, speech inflections, customs and even some festivals (such as the springtime ‘Badaamwari’). Today, very little understanding of this commonality remains. Why?

Because mainstream India (and Pakistan) never understood Kashmir nor cared for Kashmiri people. 

When Pakistan and India came into being, Kashmir was attacked by one side to obtain it by force and its unrepresentative ruler was forced by the other side to sign an ‘instrument of accession’ as a condition of providing help in repelling the attack. Where were the Kashmiri people’s aspirations accounted for in all of this? In India, they were promised self-determination but over the successive decades witnessed a tug of war between the centre and periphery during which governments in Srinagar were removed from power, puppets were installed, and elections were rigged. India saw the people of Kashmir as inherently ‘alien’ and ‘untrustworthy’, somehow always already ‘tainted’. 

The progressivist aspirations of Kashmir’s leaders and their openly communist leanings from the 1930s onwards did not help either when it came to the fast-polarising ideological alliances between states in the Cold War era (various other larger factors were salient in this framing also, such as the Dalai Lama’s exile to India, ZA Bhutto forging the alliance with communist China). The Communists of Kashmir had surnames that were both Hindu and Muslim. The intellectuals of Kashmir had vivid memories of pre-independence Lahore, a centre of gravity in those times. But, most people in India have never heard of Kashmir and communism together in the same sentence[1]. The currently evolving Chinese stance on Kashmir (China denied a visa in August 2010 to an Indian general posted in Kashmir) is news only to someone who doesn’t know of Sheikh Abdullah meeting Chou-en-Lai in Algiers in 1967.

Those non-Kashmiri Indians who spew hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric today and claim Kashmir as an undying part of India, do they know of one festival or tradition of Kashmiri Hindus, let alone of Kashmiri Muslims? But, why speak of festivals. Ask the average Indian what happened in Kashmir in the late 1980s. Some might know about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley from 1989 onwards (only some, for mainstream India does not actually care for Kashmiris, either Hindu or Muslim, they care for their own existential need to control and possess Kashmir), but they are unlikely to know about the elections of 1987, by which time India was acting desperate, rigged to prevent the Kashmiri people from electing anyone but those ‘approved’ by New Delhi. Every grievance of the Kashmiri people (who are majority Muslim) was seen through the anti-national lens. Is it any surprise then that some of those Kashmiri Muslims, frustrated and pigeonholed by India for decades, actually turned to radical political Islam, given the role of the Pakistani ISI, the wider dynamics of the closing Cold War (like Muslims everywhere else, Kashmiris too were/are affected by radical political Islam, which in many parts of the world was deliberately encouraged by the West as a counter to communist ‘red’ threat), and the Afghan and central Asian scenario at the time? 

In the 1980s, radical Islamism rose in Kashmir. But let us not forget the figure of Jagmohan, the governor of Kashmir in the 1980s (1984-1989, again in 1990) who played a prominent (though not exclusive) role in instigating the departure of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley. A communal right-wing Hindu who later joined the BJP, he was the representative of the centre in Muslim majority Kashmir in these turbulent years which included the 1987 election rigging[2]. Much more needs to be written about his terrible tenure in Kashmir in the 1980s.

Still, as Pankaj Mishra details, “Jagmohan’s pro-Hindu policies in Kashmir, and the lack of economic opportunities for educated Muslim Kashmiris, drove many Kashmiri youth to support Islamist parties that were gaining influence in the state”. These Islamist parties were “helped by the growth of madrassas, the privately owned theology schools which were often run by Muslims from Assam in eastern India, over a thousand miles away, where mass killings of Muslims in the early Eighties had forced their migration to Kashmir”. During Jagmohan’s tenure there, the elected government of Kashmir was dismissed twice, the number of Muslims being recruited in government service went down, non-Muslims were encouraged to work in Kashmir; also he sought to impose “a peculiarly Hindu modernity” on the state, permitting unrestricted sale of alcohol but forbidding Muslims to slaughter sheep on a Hindu festival day (see Pankaj Mishra, 'The birth of a nation', The New York Review of Books). Jagmohan was removed in 1989, but reappointed in 1990 (at which the state government resigned in protest) to govern Kashmir directly under central rule and deal with the militants. In her analysis of ‘Kashmir and International Law: how war crimes fuel the conflict’, Patricia Grossman writes, “In response to widespread threats and targeted attacks and killings by militant groups, many Hindus had fled. Jagmohan’s government ultimately assisted some 90,000 Hindus in leaving the Kashmir Valley for camps in Jammu and New Delhi”. What of those Kashmiris (mostly Muslim) who remained in the Valley? Grossman documents, “In the weeks that followed, Indian army and security forces opened fire repeatedly on unarmed protesters, in some cases shooting to kill wounded prisoners. These killings constituted a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Foreign journalists were expelled from Kashmir for several months, and new laws enacted granting the security forces increased powers, limiting defendants’ rights, imposing restrictions on public gatherings, and prohibiting virtual any public expression of dissent”.

Many Kashmiris (and others in India; Sanghvi, the reviewer of Jagmohan’s book – see link above – disparagingly calls them ‘secular journos’) believe that he envisaged a ‘total solution’ for Kashmir, and the reason he aided the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus was because he planned to isolate the Kashmiri Muslims from the Kashmiri Hindus and then ‘deal’ with them by violent means.

In a way that has come to pass. In a more fundamental way than theocratic Islamic Pakistan could ever do with all its cross border airwave propaganda and infiltration, a democratic India with its bungling Hinduised outlook has managed to convert Kashmir into a sorry communal battleground. The proliferation of the politics of hate has meant that the rise of Hindutva in India has been mirrored by the growth of Islamism in Kashmir.

The Kashmiris are alienated evermore each day. In the last two decades, the Kashmiri psyche has been surgically cleaved into Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims. An entire generation of Kashmiri Hindus have grown up outside Kashmir in India where they have learnt to identify themselves as ‘Hindus’ before Kashmiris, in accordance with the right-wing Hindu sentiment of mainstream India. This generation of young people is a recruiting ground for Hindu extremists for the RSS, VHP, BJP and the kind. Their justified nostalgia for their homeland is condensed into narratives of anti-Muslim hate which can be exploited for political vote gain. Equally, an entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims have grown up inside Kashmir where they have learnt to identify themselves as ‘Muslims’ before calling themselves Kashmiris in the environment of militancy and a brutal Indian military occupation who view them only as latent Islamic fundamentalists. Their justified aspirations of life and livelihood are daily denied by lack of representation and discrimination. In their imagination, Kashmiri Hindus are a traitorous pro-Indian minority, linked to the oppressive Hindu Indian majority. Often, even the Valley leaders who supposedly represent them are self-serving, corrupt, and manipulate their sentiments for political gain.

This two-fold absence – Kashmiri  Hindus whose memory is wiped clean of Kashmiri Muslims as being Kashmiris and who have had to strike roots outside their homeland and adapt to mainstream India, and Kashmiri Muslims who have lived under militancy and an Indian military occupation without the memory of Kashmiri Hindus being Kashmiris and who are tired of being scapegoated for machinations beyond their control – is the grafting of a virtual partition of Kashmir’s history and identity.

Until the 1980s, a Kashmiri – Hindu or Muslim – might say, we the people of Kashmir, do not belong to India, we are Kashmiri. Beyond the Banihal tunnel (Jawahar tunnel) was the land of Lipton tea, not Mogul chai. India was an ‘other’ to a Kashmiri as much as a Kashmiri was an ‘other’ to an Indian. Now, a Kashmiri will, in all probability, speak in line with their location and their precise suffering will systematically depend on their experience of where they spent the last two decades – within the Valley or outside it. 

The sheer toll on Kashmiri people has been staggering. Over 100,000 Kashmiri Hindus left their homeland, several hundred were killed, numberless young people have grown up in refugee camps. Especially for those who were poor and from rural areas of Kashmir, it has been a journey of ruin and devastation. Having lost home and homeland, living on handouts in the festering, sweltering chaos of refugee camps in India, peddling wares, being discriminated against, they have no political voice other than the high-pitched shrill of the right-wing Hindu leaders. The Indian state consistently downplays their situation and thus helps to channel their frustrations into Hindu extremism by having no vision for their future, ignoring their specific plight on the one hand, and by being generally Islamophobic, on the other.

The arithmetic gets really, truly miserable when it comes to the Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley. Their tragedy is to live their life under constant threat of militancy and an Indian military occupation of anywhere between tens to hundreds of thousands security personnel (and India being a big lucrative market that is ‘secular democratic’ and not Islamic, the world is happy to turn a blind eye to what happens in Kashmir). Since 1989, over 60,000 people in Kashmir have been killed, over 7,000 have gone missing, several hundred thousand have been maimed, tortured,  and psychologically damaged. In addition, there are thousands of unmarked graves, thousands of women have been raped, tens of thousands widowed and children orphaned. In the crazy count of violence, numbers lose meaning. The atrocities – murders, rapes, torture, extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances – committed by the Indian security forces in Kashmir are not investigated properly (as in the recent Shopian rape case of 2009).

There are currently existing draconian laws, such as the Armed Forces (Jammu & Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which was applied in Kashmir in 1990 (click here to read about political violence in Kashmir and AFSPA and here for reading on the genesis of the AFSPA from the 1950s in India’s ‘North East’). This act gives the armed forces carte blanche powers to search, arrest, and shoot people with immunity (something that the army often does with impunity in the ‘disturbed’ areas). The people living in Kashmir for the last two decades have only seen the inhuman face of an occupying force which degrades and kills people if they dare to raise their voice, which rapes women, kills young boys, kills beggars in fake encounters. Under such circumstances, it is the paramount duty of mainstream Indians to stand up and be counted, to convey the message to the Indian government that such atrocities cannot and should not be committed in their name.

Instead of rabid anti-Muslim hate-mongering and chanting how Kashmir is ‘integral’ to India (which can only produce mirror responses of hard-line intolerant Islamist ideologues inside the Kashmir Valley), the non-Kashmiri Indians have a duty to recognise the rights of Kashmiris as a people. Yes, the Kashmiri Hindus had to leave their homeland, but how will the perpetuation of violence and hatred help their cause?

Kashmiri Hindus themselves have been used as pawns by the Indian state. Their story is one of a small but educated and comparatively elite, affluent minority in a Muslim-majority state who had close connections with the Indian establishment and were always targeted and cultivated by Indian intelligence machinery as agents of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), IB (Intelligence Bureau) and the Indian state. Such machinations over the decades since independence have only served to widen the gulf between Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims. 

The Indian state has failed both Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims, failing to account for the aspirations of both communities; it has however, succeeded in dividing them in a fundamental (hopefully not irreversible) way. The tragedies of Kashmir are under-reported in India and treacherously ignored worldwide. 

What Kashmiris want

Since the late 1980s, Kashmir has been a war zone. Successive Indian governments have let Kashmiris down. In its negotiations with the leaders of Kashmir, India has been more willing to recognise the ‘politics of their struggle’ (who represents what voice, can be played off against whom to what effect) as opposed to their essential ‘political struggle’.

The demand of the Kashmiri people is ‘Azaadi’. Freedom. Freedom to be themselves, to choose their national destiny. We are not Indians. We are Kashmiris. We have a history, a language, a culture that demands recognition.

Instead of recognising this gut-wrenching, existential cry of the Kashmiri people, the Indian state sends in more guns, more troops, more rolls of barbed wire, more bribes, more bullets. When this does not work and the Kashmiris scream ‘Go India Go’, they send in a battery of words – Development, Employment, Infrastructure, Laws, Training, Security, Curfew. The big words fall flat and disappear without trace between the folds of the pheran, in the wrinkles on the face, on the marks on the graves, and in the flow of Kashmiri blood.

Here’s a valid question to ask Indian political leaders, bureaucrats, army chiefs, right-wing extremists, the ignorant layperson: Are you blind? Can you not see that we want a recognition of our identity as a people?

Burn your Bollywood movies. Come to Kashmir. Walk through our cities. The bridges. The ruins. The graves. Look at what we eat. Look at our buildings. Our shrines. Our architecture. Our speech. Our history. Speak to us. See how we live. We are not you. We have never been you. We don’t want to be you.

Freedom cannot be finally denied. Nations do sometimes let territories go. Borders do sometimes get realigned. Small states can manage to survive in the middle of large ones (I am in one: Bhutan). 

For over 50 years, every schoolchild in India has been fed lies – shown an incorrect map of Kashmir that they only recognise as being false once they see a map printed outside India. 

What do Indians know about Kashmir anyway? 

1. Exotic tourist version / Kashmir the beautiful (from holiday photographs)
Kashmir is a picture postcard beautiful land crowned by the lofty Himalayas and marked by clear running streams. Old romantic ruins, walnut trees, apple orchards, wood houses and rare flowers populate the region. There are people huddling with cups of almond kahwa over the kangri embers in winter, reflections of red Chinar leaves on the Dal lake in autumn, bustle in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk in summer, and some landslides when it rains. The children are excited for months before the big festivals and pretty women in embroidered pherans are everywhere. There are shikaras and houseboats, unrivalled wood carvings, intricately decorated Papier-Mache boxes, and of course, the shahtoosh, cashmere and pashmina woollens.

2. Security problem version / Kashmir the cruel (from media photographs)

The place on maps with the name Kashmir is a conflict-riven divided territory where bloodshed has not ceased for decades now. In the name of separatism, insurgency, militancy, freedom-struggle, territorial integrity, occupation or terrorism, this bloody valley has seen people dying, endless grieving and lost orphans. Kashmir is the name for a problem – like Palestine. Curvy newsprint alphabets indifferently remark the deaths in the Valley; some number shot by soldiers, shot by militants. People read and often forget.

The political and public perceptions of Kashmir vary at the levels of the Indian state and the Indian individual. For most Indians, Kashmir is an exotic place, unreal and wholly imaginary. In the time-honoured manner of stereotyping, the Kashmiris are not seen as real people, they are ‘the other’; represented to suit the self-image of mainstream Indians. In the pendulum swing between Bollywood movies and Islamophobia, typically, Kashmir is either filled with an entire assortment of enchanting people and precious things (rosy-cheeked fair girls, apples, walnuts) or a dangerous place filled with a repugnant, ungrateful, and violent Muslims and almost-Muslims. For the last two decades, it has largely been the latter.

But this ‘wrecked paradise’ of Kashmir is inhabited by real people with real lives and aspirations. The longer India occupies Kashmir instead of understanding what the people there want, the more it will pave the way for the influence of hard-line intolerance in the Valley (already a land with famous women poetesses like Lalla Ded and Habba Khatoon is becoming known for women like Asiya Andrabi, the head of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of the People, which seeks to promote compulsory veiling for women and attempts to enforce rigid Islamic values hitherto alien in Kashmir’s syncretic culture). 

Protests by stones and phones

Nearly half of those killed in Kashmir in recent weeks were teenagers, one butchered on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. Another eleven year old killed as I write. The wider world, especially the West, is ‘careful’ in how it reports Kashmir, always stressing that the police were ‘provoked’, that the protestors were ‘anti-national’. Far away from the raw fury of Kashmir, commentators in Delhi muse on twitter “NOT condoning death: but WHY wd parents allow 11yrolds to protest”. Why would parents allow a child to protest? I want to ask the stranger back – Have you ever been to a war zone? The rules of normal life are suspended in a place where brutality abounds. Middle-class parents in comfort zones 'allow' their kids action in line with what is good for them. In Kashmir where bullets zip past and people endure daily humiliation, children too (as in Palestine) become cannon fodder. By the time you read this, more will have died. What image does the Indian state have of these children and teenagers - child terrorists? child soldiers? Or, brutalised young people who only have the weapon of the defenceless, a stone? 

Kashmiris are not allowed to protest, denied freedom of assembly, even as they are under occupation by a democracy. When they shout ‘enough’, they are shot by ‘security’ forces. The Indian state announces that it will create jobs, sends in more troops, announces a billion rupee propaganda fund, places political leaders under house arrests, mulls over ‘non-lethal ways of crowd control’ and intelligence gathering in local languages. It does everything that confirms it as an occupying force – it will spend money, it will send moles, but it will not recognise the basic reason why people are fed-up to the extent of throwing stones: their need for freedom.

Of course, the people of Kashmir are economically deprived, there’s poor infrastructure, and the lack of even basic necessities like electricity (routine prolonged power cuts in severe winters). On this latter, the standard Indian answer is that there’s a lot of power-theft in Jammu and Kashmir, but as a poet humorously wrote, burning dinner is not incompetence but war, there are reasons why disenfranchised people don’t pay bills (for example, the lack of identification with the authorities, as in the case of apartheid South Africa).

But, the experts analyzing Kashmir in terms of the development critique forget that a prinked cage is still a cage. If a people have been alienated over decades and truly yearn for freedom, then they cannot be bought with promises of jobs.

By focusing on the stone in the hands of the Kashmiri protestors (for an exception, click here), the Indian media manages to erase the brutality of the pointed gun in the hands of the soldiers who face them. The extreme methods of repression that India is trialling in Kashmir will gradually find their way into the standard procedures for dealing with protestors elsewhere too.

Moreover, the protestors of today have a way to document the atrocities perpetrated on them – youtube, twitter, facebook. The world may not be twitter-trending #Kashmir at the moment, but someday it might. In the meantime, there are hundreds of videos and pictures online that show exactly the kind of attitude the Indian forces have towards the residents of Kashmir – charging at women, beating up children, damaging private property, and being very violent towards young men.

It is an irony of the ‘security situation’ in Kashmir today that the security forces who are supposed to ‘secure’ the people, stand barricaded behind razor wire rolls and camouflaged walls (adorned with slogans like ‘Help us to help you’) wearing body armour. 

Who are these soldiers? The average face of Indian terror in Kashmir are uniformed men of the security forces who hail from poorer economic classes of towns and villages in the plains of India – they have to serve in the tough conditions of a Himalayan valley where theyare the face of the occupation. They live under rough barricaded conditions, feel hemmed in by the mountains; the food, climate, society is nearly entirely alien to them. They have little knowledge of Kashmir’s history, language, or culture (the wisdom of Indian defence seems to be that soldiers who are able to empathise with people in the areas in which they serve, cannot be effective). Many of them are devout Hindus (some posted at a temple in Kashmir complain they are pelted with stones, temple bells are unfastened, land is encroached). They are ill-informed about the objectives of the Indian state or the grievances of the Kashmiri people. Quite a few of them turn hostile to the local population under such circumstances.

On a recent visit to Srinagar, I was talking to an Indian CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) soldier at a prominent civic location in the city who lamented to me that: ‘Kashmiri people are dogs. We do so much for them and they are ingrate curs’. I disagreed, later mentioning that I was Kashmiri myself. He was a young man, far from home, trapped by circumstances, who dreamt of a place called Italy. Periodically, in the middle of conversing, he or one of his colleagues would randomly shout at local Kashmiri passers-by; rudely, brusquely, asking them to stop, search them, call them names, shoo them away. The interaction was obviously power-laden and inhuman; the Kashmiris around him were nameless, faceless bodies. Soon after I left, I read in the papers that there had been a blast at that site in which a soldier was also killed. I always wondered whether he had been the same man I had spoken to; the one who could not wait to get out of Kashmir. 

In Delhi, earlier this year, a Kashmiri Hindu stood posted at the gates of the ‘Kashmir Expo’ (a handicrafts fair selling Kashmiri clothes) and confidentially whispered to me that he was there to ‘keep an eye’ on the Kashmiri Muslim sellers inside. Elsewhere, in Srinagar, in the midst of playing cricket, small Kashmiri boys belted out slogans about ‘azaadi’, reminding me of East Jerusalem or Ramallah. Daily workers at neglected archaeological monuments rued their fate about not being made permanent by the centre in their job for decades because of their religion as Muslims. An elderly craftsman uttered the precise and profound loss of the ‘Kalam’, the pen – writing, but also perhaps what it enables: story, art, tradition.

Nostalgia for the Future

Kashmir is daily witnessing an attrition of its culture, literature, architecture, psychology. At the centre of Srinagar is Lal Chowk (mark the meaning, ‘Red Square’, renamed by Sheikh Abdullah), and at the centre of Lal Chowk is the ruin of the Palladium Cinema; the once thriving cultural buzz of Kashmir has been decimated in the wake of the last two decades of mindless violence and cultural repression (the last surviving cinema in IOK is under threat of closure). This destruction of cultural objects in wars is continuous throughout the history of the world (see Robert Bevan’s ‘The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War’). On the first day of new year 2010, when the aeruginous near-full moon rose over the Zabarwan mountains at night, very few Kashmiris were out to see the copper-coloured miracle. There were no public celebrations at midnight. The city has been ghosted by oppression, violence, and terror perpetrated by the military/militants.

The Kashmiri Muslims being killed, raped, tortured, maimed in Kashmir are my fellow country people. The Kashmiri Hindus displaced in India are my fellow country people too (even as they classify me for my Kashmiri Pandit Hindu surname ‘Kaul’ and curse me for expressing the views I do). Other non-Kashmiri Indians insinuate treachery when I call myself ‘Kashmiri’ instead of Indian. Never mind. I am Kashmiri. I belong to Kashmir: my fatherland narrated to me by a father now dead. My ancestral home by a river is a carved wooden house with many floors and stairs leading up to an attic in a street named after a fifteenth century Sultan who could read Sanskrit, Persian, Tibetan. The meta-narratives of big states have eaten up my history, my identity, my notion of a 'home'. And it the same for every Kashmiri. I am alive, and for now, away. Those Kashmiris dehumanised and dying in the Valley do not have the luxury of reflection.

Indians should stop firing at those who pelt stones. Instead of the task force on crowd control, they might think about the meaning of the endlessly gathering crowds, the message in the parched heart of each stone. Any political movement always has multiple strands within it, multiple aspirations, which is where leadership comes in, no doubt partly manipulative. But the freedom of Kashmiri people to elect political representatives into power was the most dangerous thing to tamper with in a democracy. The ten percent turnout of the 1996 election goes back to 1987 and the lack of trust before that even. The elections in Kashmir in 2008 were interpreted in India as a conclusive vote in favour of development and India. Yet the design of the electoral mechanism might have been salient too; ‘staggered elections’ (such as the one in 2008) are recognised in the scholarly literature as being prone to ‘bandwagon effects’. Some believed that the violence in the Valley prior to these elections (June to August 2008) was deliberately engineered by Indian intelligence to ‘vent’ anger prior to the elections (in November 2008) and ‘test’ the strength of separatist sentiment in Kashmir. Messy political accommodation may delay, but will not cure, the raw fury of the Kashmiri people who, at the moment, face indoctrination or liquidation.   

Every year in the middle of the month of August, on Independence Day, Indians repeat the momentous 1947 midnight freedom speech of Nehru:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly, or in full measure, but very substantially…A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history… when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.

Let these magic words be true for the nation of Kashmir too. Redeem the pledges, if not wholly and in full measure, then very substantially. 

Understand Kashmiris instead of attempting to ‘solve’ or ‘resolve’ Kashmir. Conventional strategists don’t always know best: demilitarise Kashmir. Repeal the draconian laws. End the mistrust of the Kashmiri people. Work with Pakistan and China to open borders and make the nation of Kashmir a reality for Kashmiris. Freedom cannot be realised without the capacity to conceive of the freedom of others.

 


[1] I recommend Andrew Whitehead’s recent article ‘The People's Militia: Communists and Kashmiri nationalism in the 1940s’, Twentieth Century Communism, 2: 1 2010, pp. 141-168; it discusses the radical ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto of 1944 and the drastic land reforms, the ‘Quit Kashmir’ [note not ‘Quit India’] cries of 1946, the Kashmiri women militia of 1940s who were the first women in India trained to use rifles during the late 1940s, and the subsequent worries about the spread of communism in Kashmir, both in India and beyond. Whitehead quotes the diplomat Josef Korbel’s words from the 1954 book Danger in Kashmir: “Kashmir might eventually become the hub of Communist activities in Southern Asia”. Let me add that Korbel was the father of Madeleine Albright and the mentor of Condoleezza Rice, both ex-US secretaries of state

[2] His main achievement there was renovating the ‘Vaishno Devi’ Hindu shrine; in 2010 he’s currently selling a book with the title ‘Reforming Vaishno Devi and a case for Reformed, Reawakened and Enlightened Hinduism’, and being favourably reviewed in some media with the words, “among the many reasons I admire Jagmohan, the former BJP minister who sadly, seems to find no place in his party these days, is because he has no hesitation in talking about Hinduism”.

About the author

Dr Nitasha Kaul, Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, is an economist, and writer. She is the author of the book Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference (Routledge, 2007).