"The colonel, dictating, turns around. My lost friend Vir! Srinagar is his city, too, he wouldn’t have ordered its burning. It’s not him. Someone else with a smile just as kind, the face of a man who in dreams saves nations. Or razes cities."
Agha Shahid Ali, “Some Vision of the World Cashmere.”
Once more: Kashmir. The pictures are familiar. Hordes of Indian soldiers block streets and fire into crowds. Young men, in particular, some with faces covered throw stones and run through the congested alleyways. This could be the late 1980s, when the azaadi (freedom) movement first emerged. It could well be any of the years between then and now, when sustained clashes took place between Indian armed forces and the people of the Kashmir Valley. Violence sits at the edge of each day. There are well over half a million Indian soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir – one for every eight Kashmiris. In the Valley, not a corner is left without the presence of the army. It is hardly a symbol of benevolence.
Burhan Muzaffar Wani, killed by Indian Army at age 22, on 8th of July 2016
On 8 July, Indian troops killed Burhan Wani, a division commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani was twenty-two, a seven year veteran in the insurgency campaign. In Tral, his home in the southern Kashmiri district of Pulwama, the funeral was crowded despite attempts by the Indian forces to block the town. Wani was popular. When he was 17, he posted a picture of himself holding an AK-47 on Facebook; it went viral. It was Wani’s social media use that put him at the top of Indian intelligence’s hit list. His savvy use of social media helped Hizbul Mujahideen draw in other educated youth from across Kashmir. He had become a useful recruitment tool for a demographic not seen before in the ranks of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani’s popularity through social media – rather than that of Hizbul Mujahideen itself – accounts for the statewide outrage at his death. It also accounts for his death.
Over thirty people have been killed by the Indian forces, which have treated the unrest after Wani’s death as an uprising that needs to be quelled with violence. Dangerous scattershot bullets have scarred protestors and bystanders, sending many to hospital with serious eye-damage. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society says that the army has blocked access to hospitals and attacked ambulances. Such behavior was documented during the unrest in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Victims of the violence fear a visit to the hospital because they say that the army will arrest them there. Alienation of the population is the general condition.
Like other seemingly intractable conflicts, the images fail to evoke anything other than exhaustion. It is the repetition that makes one want to change the television channel, to avoid listening to the competing narratives, to hide from reality itself. But for the Kashmiris, there is no escape. These punctuated bouts of violence define their lives. Gunfire is followed by funerals, which become demonstrations where the guns fire again, producing more funerals. Kashmir, as my friend the poet Agha Shahid Ali once said to me, ‘is a graveyard.’ Such a beautiful place, such a complex history, such terrible conflicts.
Kashmir is not a commodity
What does one do to understand the conflict in Kashmir? Go back to 1948 and re-read the articles of accession to India that defined its role in the partition by the British of the Indian sub-continent? Look south to New Delhi, where the political elite myopically believes that this massive military occupation will somehow win over the hearts and minds of the population? Glance across the border at the aspirations of the Pakistani establishment to absorb the state within its own fragile frontiers? Read the story of Kashmir as the victim between two neighbors – India and Pakistan – whose avarice defines the future of the Kashmiri people? Bemoan the growth of the Indian military in the Valley and the gunmen of extremist groups that dart between Pakistan and India? History is essential to an understanding of this conflict, but it is not enough. History can become a burden that shields one from the essential truth: that the Kashmiri people have not been allowed to breathe, to produce their own destiny.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, said on 6 July 1951, ‘People seem to forget that Kashmir is not a commodity for sale or to be bartered. It has an individual existence and its people must be the final arbiters of their future.’ This is a lesson that Nehru himself did not keep at the center of his policies. Frustration in Kashmir comes because of the acute sense of betrayal by politics in general.
Is there a way forward? Can there be a referendum on the way ahead for Kashmir? UN resolutions are now largely null and void since the UN removed Jammu and Kashmir from its list of disputed territories in 2010. Little international support for such a referendum is available. But surely the status quo is untenable?
The current Indian government – led by the Hindu Right – does not have the temperament to give the Kashmiri people confidence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a high-level meeting on the crisis, but neglected to have any Kashmiri voices in the room. This is the attitude of the Hindu Right. It has long used Kashmir as one more weapon in its anti-Muslim arsenal. Within India, only the Left and some smaller political parties as well as NGOs, have strongly condemned the state violence and ask for calm towards a political process. The hope for a solution within the Indian republic is measured.
Image by Orijit Sen
A regional solution is needed, one which takes into consideration the alienation of the Kashmiris from all the states in the region – not just India, but also Pakistan.
India’s media covered Brexit with delight. There was an element of scorn in the coverage of Britain’s convulsions over its membership with the European Union. Scotland might break away, Northern Ireland might join with its southern neighbor and Wales could very well make its own moves towards independence. Little England would be left alone, scarred by the growth of jingoism. But is it enough to mock England? What about South Asia? At least Europe attempted a serious union, which would – with better leadership – have produced a condominium within which regional disputes and tensions could have been managed. Scotland was willing to remain with England if both were to be part of the European Union. Despite its capture by the tanks (NATO) and the banks (European Central Bank), the European Union was a progressive idea.
Such a South Asian Union could very well provide breathing room for the Kashmiris and reduce the immense – almost sacred – pressure on national boundaries. Can we imagine a South Asia where the borders between India and Pakistan are not the focus of their politics, but merely the demarcations where one state’s limited jurisdiction ends and another’s begins? Imagine a South Asia where Kashmiris do not have to decide between states or even for independence (which would – in practice – mean becoming even more a proxy playground between India and Pakistan)? Kashmiris need to be able to see a future where their own ambitions can govern their present and future. That imagination cannot be build through the scope of a rifle. It has to be built with historical generosity and an adherence to the basic norms of the UN Charter. Who among us is willing to face up to that challenge – to stop having the same old tired conversations and start our discussion with the Kashmiris front and center?