Defenseless or armed only with the ammunition of the powerless, the stone-pelting Kashmiri youngsters took on the lethal weapons of India’s paramilitary forces. They surged forward breaking curfew and defying death. Many were mowed down over the summer by the remorseless gunfire of paramilitary forces. One hundred and eight young people—pre-teen as well as teenaged boys–perished between June and September. And as cries of azadi (freedom) rent the air, an initially indifferent New Delhi found itself confronting yet again the demand of self-determination for Kashmir. Summer 2008 had been the last time Kashmir had seen violent suppression on a comparable scale. Later that year, assembly elections that were held in November witnessed higher than expected turnout rates in Jammu and Kashmir. Consequently they were hailed by New Delhi and much of India as a grand success. It was fondly believed that the specter of secession had been laid to rest. The summer’s death toll and the turmoil in which the valley has been plunged since June have put paid to these sanguine expectations. Even as late as mid-September paramilitary bullets continued to claim the lives of Kashmir’s children in full view of the local, the national and international press. And—in the words of an academic expert–Kashmir’s summer of discontent gave way to an autumn of woe.
Once again the time has come to ask if India controlled Kashmir can be retained as an integral part of the Indian Union. A little over two years ago was when this question last presented itself with urgency outside of Kashmir. Back in summer 2008 the valley had risen in massive, non-violent protests. The protests were sparked by the announcement that the State government proposed to transfer public land to a trust which managed an annual pilgrimage to a Hindu shrine in South Kashmir. When the army and paramilitary forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators at least one observer, the writer Arundhati Roy, responded with a resounding No to the question of whether India should hold on to Kashmir. She cited the appalling human right violations—tens of thousands killed, thousands "disappeared", hundreds of thousands tortured– that had been perpetrated since India launched a brutal counterinsurgency operation in 1990 in response to the outbreak of full-fledged rebellion in the valley. She reminded her readers of Kashmir’s continued traumatization from the terror of living in the gun sights of over half a million heavily armed police and military personnel. She spoke of the intolerable demands made on the public exchequer by the cost of maintaining the armed forces in Kashmir and urged that India needed freedom from Kashmir even more than Kashmir needed freedom from India. Counterarguments were also presented. For instance in an Opinion Asia article in which the authors evaluated the case for Kashmiri secession and concluded—among other things–that New Delhi’s dealings with Kashmir had not been murderous enough to justify secession (“Secession in Kashmir: Dejavu all over again,” Opinion Asia, September 2, 2008). The absence of a systematic policy of genocide and extermination in Kashmir was one of their principal reasons for refuting the pro-secession view.
Today, in the wake of the ruthless killing of the children of Kashmir, there is cold comfort in noting that New Delhi’s Kashmir policy has not been genocidal. And despite the unmistakable sentiment in Kashmir in favor of self-determination, India remains unwilling to relinquish the storied land famously hailed by a Mughal emperor as paradise on earth. The pan-Indian desire for Kashmir is evident in even sensitive and sympathetic commentary. This desire can find truly absurd manifestations as in a Face the Nation show (“Should the Government reinvent its Kashmir policy,” August 5, 2010). At its conclusion the show presented the CNN-IBN viewpoint–that the youth of Kashmir are desirous of partaking in India’s economic success. Even though the preceding almost hour long debate provided absolutely no grounds whatsoever for reaching a conclusion that is only all too flattering to the Indian elite’s complacency over the country’s high growth rates . At its worst the tendency to view the Kashmir valley as an Indian possession finds expression in scarcely readable fulminations on the intransigence of the people of Kashmir.
The literature on international conflict has long perceived points of resemblance between the situation in Kashmir and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since the adoption of neoliberal economic reforms in 1991, India’s political establishment has reinforced this perception by abandoning foreign policy from the Nehruvian era and forming progressively closer ties with Israel. These ties have included Israeli help in controlling the rebellious or disaffected population in militarized Kashmir. New Delhi has been hitherto unable to realize that this closeness to Israel is self-defeating when viewed through the lens of India’s Kashmir policy. As was pointed out by the academics Kanti Bajpai and Sumit Ganguly in their Opinion Asia article (September 2, 2008), India’s entitlement to continue ruling Kashmir rests on the fact that genocide was never an element of official Indian policy in the course of the sixty plus years that have passed since Kashmir’s provisional accession to the Indian Union. Will India then undermine her strongest title to Kashmir by allying herself with a state founded on the principle of expulsion and dispossession of indigenous people? Israel has no use whatsoever for its Palestinian citizens or the inhabitants of Occupied Palestine. Never mind that these Palestinians happen to be the indigenous population of territory on which the Jewish state was established. Never mind principles of social and political justice, international law, UN resolutions, or even ordinary human sentiments of sympathy for those at the receiving end of the suffering inflicted by a brutal occupation. What matters is that the survival of Israel as a Jewish state hinges on the destruction of Palestinian life and culture. Hence the slow motion extermination that is being practiced in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. And the humiliating demands that are being made on Palestinian citizens of Israel. India on the other hand needs its Kashmiri population for the purpose of upholding its secular, democratic, and pluralistic credentials. At stake –among other things—is India’s moral and political status. So the Indian state is under absolutely no temptation to emulate Israel and institute policies of ethnic cleansing in Kashmir. India’s rulers should recognize the obvious and cease to look to Israel for lessons in dealing with insurgencies at home.
Historically the Israeli solution has been ruled out in the case of Kashmir. The strong sentiment in India in favor of retaining Kashmir as part of the Indian Union makes the dream of independence unrealistic. So what is left at this juncture is finding a political solution that goes beyond throwing yet another election or another economic package at the Kashmiri people. There is talk in New Delhi of resuming its dialogue with Kashmir’s political leaders and implementing measures to win the hearts and minds of the people. The latter is easier said than done. The Kashmiri people are a perverse lot. They should realize there was never a single moment in their history when they faced the threat of genocide. But instead of appreciating their good fortune they agitate and continue to press their demands. Among the least of their demands are demilitarization of the valley and withdrawal of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). The draconian AFSPA gives the security forces in Kashmir legal immunity for acts carried out in the name of or under the pretext of counterinsurgency. Essentially it opens the door to terrorizing the civilian population with arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, custodial death, rape, torture and related crimes of every stripe. Beyond the demand for demilitarization and repeal of AFSPA there is the even more thorny call for azadi.
Kashmir’s summer of discontent has taken by surprise not only New Delhi but Indians in general. Unfortunately for the people of Kashmir the Indian public’s desire for continued possession of Kashmir is not matched by an informed grasp of the convoluted history and politics of the valley. Most Indians have turned a blind eye to the perfidious inroads made by New Delhi on Kashmir’s autonomy since the state’s provisional accession to India in 1947 and the horrific suffering that New Delhi—and Pakistan’s military establishment—have inflicted on Kashmir in the last two decades. As Basharat Peer, Kashmiri journalist and author of “Curfewed Night,” pointed out in a Democracy Now show, Kashmir has become the litmus test of jingoism when it comes to India. He went on to state that the number of individuals who advocate that India should deal with Kashmir by democratic means rather than brute force are extremely limited. To use his somber measure it’s a number that can be counted on one’s fingers. Does an alternative exist to despair and helpless resignation to the strangulation of Kashmir? It’s obvious that the trauma of Kashmir can be ameliorated only if Indians in sufficient numbers can be brought to see through the propaganda and disinformation on the Kashmir situation. Take AFSPA for instance. AG Noorani, lawyer, constitutional expert and writer, has said that no other Indian law has incurred such odium at home and abroad especially and repeatedly in the United Nations Human Rights Committee (Frontline, September 24, 2010). Observers who have visited Kashmir have borne witness to the appalling militarization of the beleaguered state. The Kashmiri people are said to hate the armed forces. And yet in a CNN-IBN poll (September 16, 2010) 81% of respondents said the army was needed to govern Jammu and Kashmir.
What if anything can be done to counter the betrayal of Kashmir by India’s political class, armed forces, media and other groups? There are no easy answers to this question.
The best that can be said at this time is that a gap which has hitherto existed in the literature on Kashmir has been filled by the appearance earlier this year of the memoir “Curfewed Night” written by Basharat Peer. There is an explicitly stated reason behind the authoring of this book namely a perceived lacuna in the literature on Kashmir—People from almost every conflict zone had told their stories…I felt the absence of the unwritten books of Kashmir. “Curfewed Night” was written for the express purpose of diminishing an existing void. This eloquent account of the Kashmir tragedy is a compelling effort to dispel the artificially created fog surrounding the conflict. It represents an appeal to the conscience of political India and Indians and beyond that the observant world. To read “Curfewed Night” is to be racked with anguish. To say this is not to equate this searing memoir of growing up under the shadow of Kashmir’s military takeover with some tearjerker out of the film studios of Bombay. The moral and emotional complexity of the writer’s perspective and the spare, almost detached prose in which much of the narrative is written preclude such a comparison. On occasion his economical style gives way to lyrical evocations of the beauty and majesty of the landscape of Kashmir. The narrative is far from being uniformly bleak despite its painstaking documentation, years after the actual events, of the fate of the survivors of massacres and torture, the victims and participants of the early years of rebellion and counterinsurgency. In part “Curfewed Night” is a celebration of Kashmiri life and culture. It is the delineation of an Islamic practice that borrowed elements from the Hindu and Buddhist past and even at the height of conflict offered stubborn resistance to Talibanization. Its condemnation of militarization is aesthetic as well as moral. This comes through in the author’s revulsion from military structures and appurtenances—guns, watchtowers, bunkers, armored personnel carriers and so on—and in the description of Pari Mahal, palace of Dara Shikhoh Mughal prince and icon of cultural syncretism, as the world’s most beautiful paramilitary camp. “Curfewed Night” is a narrative of a brutal assault on paradise—of the proliferation of military camps across the valley and of death and fear becoming routine like going to school and playing cricket and football. It is also a restoration through language and memory of the richness of the Kashmiri ethos or Kashmiriyat, the tradition that embraces the values of communal harmony and religious toleration.
“Curfewed Night” should be read as a warning to New Delhi—and India—to salvage whatever remains of pre-conflict Kashmir. To act before all is lost. As it happened New Delhi finally started taking remedial steps after mid-September. An all party delegation was sent to Srinagar to observe the situation on the ground and make recommendations to the Prime Minister. In response, the news channels were beside themselves with excitement over the magnanimity displayed by New Delhi. Speaking over satellite or video link to a separatist leader, a well-known news anchor insisted that the leader should reciprocate now that New Delhi had reached out to Kashmir. The enthusiastic news host seemed to have forgotten that over one hundred children of Kashmir’s conflict had paid the ultimate price in the latest wave of unrest. There is a question they should be asking at cabinet meetings in New Delhi, in television studios and news columns. After a betrayal of such horrific dimensions, what forgiveness will it be possible to obtain in the valley of Kashmir? Forgiveness even if it were granted should not necessitate forgetting. Therefore it is necessary to implement the proposals (e.g. “Saving Kashmir,” Times of India, September 23, 2010) that have been made for a Truth and Reconciliation commission modeled on the one that was chaired in South Africa by Desmond Tutu. The mandate of the commission will be to seek closure by recognizing the tragedy of the last two decades and of those who were disappeared or killed. At the very minimum the dreaded AFSPA and demilitarization issue must be addressed head on. The armed forces are said to have appropriated hundreds of acres of public land for military installations. This land must be restored to its original uses. The time for half-measures elapsed years ago.