Mourning and Resistance in Kashmir

5166832834_4b629a8586_z

Protest in Kashmir in 2010 (courtesy of Kashmir Global via Flickr).

In Kashmir, the killing days are here again. In 2010, Indian forces shot and killed more than 135 unarmed civilians. Nearly half of them were teenagers, and the youngest was eight years old. This year, using “non-lethal” pellets fired into the face at close range, Indian paramilitaries are blinding them as well. The death toll stands at 50. The number of those critically injured or blinded by the pellets is over 150, and the total number of the injured is in the thousands. The youngest victims this time are three- and four-year olds.

Indian soldiers have stopped and attacked ambulances carrying the wounded to hospital, and have broken into hospitals and attacked doctors and patients, smashing windows and cutting IV tubes. The Indian government has cut mobile, Internet, and local cable services in Kashmir. It has stopped water and electricity services, and a curfew has been in effect for over two weeks. Indian soldiers patrol the streets, smashing parked cars and threatening residents with regular gunfire. Police have raided offices of Kashmiri newspapers and arrested the staff.

The spark for this round of protests was the Indian army’s killing of the Kashmiri pro-freedom militant Burhan Wani. Twenty-one years old, Wani represents the new generation of militants who took up arms against the Indian occupation and its continuing violence against the civilian population. Tens of thousands of people attended Burhan Wani’s funeral in his village in Tral, despite a ban by the Indian army on public gatherings. Road blocks, curfew, and shutting down all means of transportation did not deter the mourners from walking miles to attend the funeral. The popular support and love displayed at the funeral gives the lie to the Indian claim that the militancy is due to Pakistani interference.

Roots of Conflict

The causes of the militancy, as many observers have pointed out over the years, are rooted in the Indian denial of the right to self-determination to Kashmir and the decades of political repression. For over 70 years, India has evaded all efforts to solve the conflict through peaceful negotiations. Pakistan did not create the insurgency but has supported it to a limited extent. At the same time, it has also tried to get the UN involved and to live up to its responsibility to bring a negotiated resolution to the conflict.

With the waning of the militancy from 2000 onwards, some observers hoped that India would move towards a political settlement. The number of militants was never higher than 2-3,000, and by the start of the millennium it was down to 70 or 80. There was no corresponding drawdown in the Indian military presence, which has remained at over half a million. There was no let up in the military violence against the civilian population, including such abuses as torture, disappearances, rape, and extra judicial killings.

The continued repression and lack of a political settlement led to the resurgence of the movement for Kashmiri independence, in the form of mass mobilizations that recalled the large-scale protests of the early 1990s. In the summer of 2008, mass protests centered around the transfer of land to non-Kashmiris along the route of the highly militarized Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath. One of the aspects of the autonomy the Indian Constitution guaranteed to Kashmir is the prohibition of land sales to outsiders. The pilgrimage itself began in the mid-19th century and Kashmiri Muslims managed it in harmony for over 100 years. By the mid-1990s, the combination of intense Indian militarization of the valley and the advance of Hindu nationalism across India made the Amaranth pilgrimage the focus of aggressive theatricals by assorted Hindu militants, backed by the army. The pilgrimage grew in size and duration, going from 12,000 pilgrims in 1989 to over 4,00,000 in 2007, and from 15 days to two-and-a-half months.

The consequences for the fragile mountain environment have been devastating. The entire pilgrimage route is lined with trash several feet deep, and the river is choked with filth. By contrast, another Hindu pilgrimage to Gangotri, the source of the Ganges, in the central Himalayas in India, is carefully controlled and limited to 150 pilgrims a day to avoid burdening the environment. When Kashmiris protested against the transfer of the entire pilgrimage route to a “Shrine Board” packed with Hindu nationalist supporters, army and paramilitaries opened fire on the protests, killing at least 60 people. A two-month blockade of the national highway leading into Kashmir by Hindu nationalist supporters in the Jammu region cut off the only supply line to the valley since the closing of routes westward to Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan, in 1947. The resulting shortages of food, medicines, and fuel were intended to “teach the Kashmiris a lesson.”

In 2009, two young women in Shopian in central Kashmir, Aasiya Jan and Nilofer Jan, went to work in the family orchard and didn’t come home in the evening. A desperate search led to the discovery of their bodies in the floodlit security zone surrounding one of the massive army camps in the area. They had been raped and tortured before being killed. Protests against the double murder grew rapidly across the valley and the mass movement for independence was reborn.

The conflict generation, teenagers and twentysomethings who had grown up under Indian military rule, led the uprising of 2010. They were also the largest demographic among the victims of Indian paramilitaries, who opened fire on the unarmed protestors. Burhan Wani was 15 at that time, and a few months later he picked up a gun. This was after an incident in October of that year, when he was out for a bike ride with his brother and a friend. The army stopped the boys, forced the boys to buy cigarettes for the soldiers, and then beat them up. Burhan and his friend managed to escape but his brother was detained and tortured.

This was not an easy choice. As Arundhati Roy writes, when young Kashmiri men take up arms to fight for azaadi or freedom, they do so knowing that they will die young. Unlike earlier militants, Burhan did not try to conceal his identity. He actually maintained a social media presence and would upload pictures of himself and his fellow militants. Also unlike the earlier generation of militants, Burhan and his associates did not cross the Line of Control to Pakistan for arms and training. As their numbers were decimated, he found shelter and refuge in the homes of ordinary people. And it was the ordinary people of Kashmir who came out to mourn his killing by the army.

Repression 2.0 and the Response

Burhan Wani was not the only one of his generation to witness torture, random arrest, and extrajudicial executions. Since 2010, Amnesty International has released several reports documenting the illegal detention and torture of minors and even schoolchildren. Many observers have noted that India deliberately attempted to push the peaceful protests in the direction of militancy, which it then uses to justify the refusal to negotiate.

Another turning point was the execution in February 2013 of Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri accused of planning the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. Guru was denied a fair trial, forced through torture to sign blank papers on which the police composed his confession (which he retracted when brought before a magistrate), and sentenced to death in 2006. The sentence was upheld through two appeals: although sentencing him as a conspirator the courts acknowledged that there was no proof that he had any connection to militant organizations. No one bothered to ask: then with whom did he conspire? His execution and burial in total secrecy created a mood of despair, another point of no return.

The new militancy is different in its scale and composition. Two-thirds of an estimated 130 are Kashmiri natives and the rest are outsiders. Outsider here means people from across the Line of Control that divides Indian-administered Kashmir from Azad Kashmir, which is now part of Pakistan. Only this arbitrary divide makes them outsiders. The number of Indian troops has never gone below half a million, and most observers put the figure at 7-800,000. These troops are stationed not only on the border with Pakistan but in every village and hamlet, in towns, cities, on every street corner – in short, one soldier on the ground for every 10 Kashmiris.

The return of militancy, even on a small scale, is no surprise in these circumstances. What is perhaps surprising is the emergence of new bases of solidarity in India for the Kashmiri struggle. Although still limited, these have produced protests and marches against the killings in major cities like Delhi, Kolkata, and Kannur in Karnataka. More are planned for Chennai and Mumbai, and one in Bangalore has been banned.

Potentially even more enduring and transformative is the support for Kashmiri independence among groups like the Tamils., Sikhs, and Dalits who are all too familiar with the repression and violence of the Indian state. This kind of solidarity is probably the Indian state’s worst nightmare, while being the best hope for a truly democratic future. In some ways, these incipient alliances represent the road not taken in 1929, when the Indian National Congress arrogated to itself the sole power to speak for India in negotiations for self-rule with the British. Diverse ethnic and religious groups—Muslims, Sikhs, Nagas, Dalits—that contested this claim were branded with the pejorative tags “anti-national” and “communal,” as were autonomous political discourses.

Kashmir in an Age of Referendum

The scale of the violence against the civilian population in Kashmir has made it clear that Indian rule there has no political legitimacy and relies solely on military force and terror. The legal basis of the Indian claim to Kashmir is dubious, resting on an Instrument of Accession signed by a tyrannical and unpopular leader as he fled a popular uprising in 1947. Historians believe the document to be a forgery. The UN continues to consider Kashmir a disputed territory though it does practically nothing to try and resolve the dispute, backing down repeatedly in the face of Indian intransigence.

Over the decades India has tried unilaterally to annex Kashmir and refused internationally mediated negotiations, claiming that it is “an internal matter.” The autonomy supposedly granted to Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was a fake from the beginning: the only autonomy Kashmir has ever enjoyed is to be exempt from the privileges, such as they are, of Indian citizenship. And the only lesson Kashmiris have learned over the years is that if they want to avoid being swallowed by the upper caste Hindu majoritarian state, they must continue to resist, no matter the cost.

Despite the spiraling violence in Kashmir, and within India against Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, tribals, journalists, students and academics, Western media show few signs of ending their love-fest with “Modi the reformer.” The silence of progressive media on the killings matches or exceeds that of the mainstream. Even the little reported in The New York Times outdoes Democracy Now and NPR.

To the censorship practiced by the Indian state we can now add another layer. Since the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru in February this year, people posting on Kashmir on Facebook are having their posts removed and accounts blocked. Kuffir Nalgundwar, who manages the site Round Table India, dedicated to empowering young Dalits, has his post in support of Kashmir removed. So did Dibyesh Anand, who heads the department of political science at Westminster University in London.

Censorship and repression are not new to Kashmiris, and they have been applied in recent years to those seeking to break the long silence on Indian abuses there. Writer Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition in 2010 for pointing out the simple historical fact that Kashmir has never been part of India. In 2011, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan was attacked in his office by the extremist Hindu nationalist outfit Shiv Sena, and his office was trashed after he expressed his support for the Kashmiri right to freedom. Following her work in the discovery and documentation of mass graves in Kashmir, anthropologist  Angana Chatterji faced threats, intimidation and a sedition charge while working in Kashmir. In 2010, her partner, Richard Shapiro, was denied entry into India. Ominously close to these events, in 2011, Chatterji and Shapiro were dismissed from their positions at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Radio host David Barsamian was deported from India in 2011 for reporting on the mass graves. Civil rights advocate Gautam Navlakha has been “deported” from Kashmir, which India claims is its “integral part.” Kashmiris trying to protest in India are likewise “deported” back to Kashmir.

The police or the Hindu nationalist student union ABVP routinely shut down film screenings and talks on Kashmir on the grounds that they are “anti-national.” And yet, despite the violence, threats, and sedition charges, the silence on Kashmir—the history, the abuses, the solutions—has been broken. Kashmiri and Indian writers, filmmakers, artists, cartoonists, musicians, journalists, academics, and civil rights advocates have made it impossible for the Indian state to put the genie back in the bottle.

For anyone wanting to learn about this chronicle of grief and resistance, the place to start is by listening to voices of the conflict generation. Fahad Shah’s book Of Occupation and Resistance is essential reading, as is Malik Sajad’s graphic novel Munnu, a Boy from Kashmir, The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed, Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer, and the edited collection Until my Freedom is Come by Sanjay Kak fill in the history and lived experience. The cartoons of Malik Sajad and Mir Suhail and the dreamlike artwork of Rolli Mukerjee bring life and death into stunning clarity. A couple of films are currently available for online viewing: Sanjay Kak’s Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom) and the deeply moving Take It in Blood with the young rapper MC Kash exploring the conflict through his own experience and his meeting with Parveena Ahangar, one of the mothers of the disappeared in Kashmir who has founded a movement for justice. Parveena Ahangar and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons are also the subject of a film by Iffat Fatima Khoon Diy Baerav, Blood Leaves a Trail.

Though the full story may never be told, through these efforts, the outlines of the conflict, of Kashmiri suffering and resilience, and the need to implement the Kashmiri right to self-determination as the only possible solution, are known. It remains for the world to act. In an age of referendum, when direct democracy is used to settle crucial questions in a democratic manner, Kashmir cannot continue to be the exception. India cannot claim to be “the biggest democracy in the world” while refusing to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir. If Scotland, Catalonia, and Crimea can vote to decide their own futures, so should Kashmir.

Shubh Mathur is an anthropologist whose work concerns sovereignty, violence, human rights, nations and borders, the death penalty, environmental ethics, and South Asia. She is the author of two books, The Everyday Life of Hindu Nationalismpublished by the Three Essays Collective Press, and The Human Toll of the Kashmir Conflict: Grief and Courage in a South Asian Borderland published by Palgrave Macmillan. She has also edited a special issue of the journal Race and Class on Kashmir.