Friday, August 5, 2016

Keeping Kashmir on the Boil

Ibrahim Wani

During the Kashmir protests in 2010, more than a 100 civilians died as a result of police action. When the protests started subsiding, a group of interlocutors was appointed by the central government, and they held formal and informal discussions across a wide range of opinion in Kashmir. The interlocutors’ report was submitted in 2012, and as has been the case in the past, was summarily forgotten. As the protests of July 2016 displace the protests of 2010, 2009, 2008, and perhaps of the last three decades in intensity and scale – the toll for a three week period has already crossed 50 and many thousands are admitted to various hospitals – some cursory talk of this report has re-surfaced. Even in this hour of crisis, there is little hope that any of the suggestions of the report will be revisited or put into effect.

More harrowing still is that power corridors in Delhi and Srinagar are involved in a semblance of a ‘humane debate’ confined to the choice of weaponry against unarmed civilians; whether to use pellet guns or some other non-lethal weapon. The profound absurdities of what may be termed as ‘the sympathetic infliction of pain’ approach are not lost on a Kashmiri – it has never been the case in the history of the protest in Kashmir that the introduction of a new weapon has reduced the death tolls. Each new ‘non-lethal’ weapon, imported or ‘made in India’ has brought with itself new languages of pain and mourning in Kashmir. From this year, this would include a new language of blindness, as hundreds of teenage eyes struggle with the pain of metal pellets.

This struggle with blindness is not confined to hospitals in Kashmir, but is also being beamed into millions of homes across India. Kashmir is much more complex then what the superficial rhetoric on TV news shows to audiences; it isn’t just an object of a daily dose of spectacular, maximalist and sexed up nationalism.

This ‘Fox TV’ model of news remains arguably the worst neo-liberal import, one which has fit perfectly into the skewed systems of hierarchies, exclusions and nexuses in India polity, society and economy. Through this intrusive news model, pejorative labels like ‘radical’, ‘islamist’, ‘jehadist’, ‘mobs’ or state coined terminologies of ‘crowd control’, and ‘law and order problems’ become part of normalised everyday talk and comprehension. It is in this discourse, its acceptance and internalisation as well as in our consent to it, that a stone becomes intrinsically more dangerous than a bullet. It is here that a stone pelter is placed in either senile madness or qualified as a violent terrorist. Unfortunately, this is not just specific to Kashmir, and can be applied to many marginal contexts in India today – protests against demolition in slums, farmers protesting against land acquisitions or tribal populations being displaced for mining projects. Today may be the most urgent hour to question ourselves on this authoritarian quotidian control, and ask of ourselves to invoke some sense into our mediatised consenting selves. Yet, is this consent and legitimisation to events completely new, or has this always been an uncomfortable social and political reality. Lest it isn’t forgotten, weren’t large sections of the middle class of the emergency period in consent?

Precedents: 2016! ...1953!

The protests of July 2016 are too big in scale to be compared to any one protest period in Kashmir. While as commentators on Kashmir have been quick to compare the protests to more recent years occurrences like the protests after a fake encounter in 2010, to the protests after sexual violation and murder in 2009, or to the 2008 land transfer to the Amarnath Yatra board, or even to election rigging in 1987, I choose to draw the comparison to an earlier period.

I mark a continuity of the protests of July 2016 to the first large scale protests against India in Kashmir. It was in August 1953, that Sheikh Abdullah, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the autonomous Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir was dismissed from office on the authority of the central government. He was booked for sedition and a purge followed in which most of his supporters in National Conference were arrested and jailed. Along with him, was dismissed his socialist and secular Naya Kashmir manifesto, recognised as most progressive of the time. This was a government credited with the most ambitious land reforms in South Asia which marked a profound departure from feudal control; even the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011 carried out by Government of India states that Kashmir has the least rural landlessness[1] in India and more than 77 % of rural households own land.

I do not wish to position Burhan Wani in the same league as Sheikh, am sure he himself would not have liked the comparison, ideologically as well as in the armed path he chose for himself. What can’t be missed is the comparison in charismatic appeal, more so in their deaths than in their lives; Sheikh’s death after illness plunged Kashmir into a long period of collective mourning across the ideological divides, and so has Burhan’s. Witnesses on the ground are comparing the crowds at the two funerals, the only difference that the latter’s was in a strict curfew.

The most profound question which political parties as well as media networks can’t make sense of relates to the funeral crowds; ‘Why would hundreds and thousands attend a militant’s/terrorist’s funeral?’ Partha Chatterjee[2] in an article published in the Telegraph (Calcutta) provides a comparison to events in colonial Bengal when crowds thronged the funeral of a nationalist revolutionary dubbed as a ‘terrorist’ and hanged by the British after he assassinated a collaborator. The important question to ask is that even though 3 militants were killed, why is only one a centre of all attention? I wonder if people across Kashmir can recall the names of the other two as easily as Burhan’s.

Burhan, in his body and his appearance, unhidden and in its everyday appeal marked a new turn in the articulation of Azaadi. In his death, all articulations of Kashmiri Nationalism, all the Azaadis, bereft of any common symbol till now, found a point of embrace. The militarisation of land, body, mind and soul had till now successfully brought to its knees the secular as well as the more religiously inclined local militancy. It had controlled all avenues and mediums of articulations and expression through intimidation, negotiation or collaboration, but now committed a colossal mistake.

 Burhan’s death was probably meant to destroy the symbolism of his life. Instead, the crude images of his dead body which were purposefully circulated by those who killed him backfired and instead gave him a mythical and heroic status. Instantly, these pictures plunged Kashmir into mourning. What followed was pain and anger – for people he became the ‘one’ who did not sell out, was pure of heart and who did not bow or bend. For the hundreds of thousands who attended his funeral, I can claim with surety that a majority had never seen his face or heard of him before his death. Yet driven by his ‘charismatic’ death, they struggled through blocked roads, broke curfews, made their way through fields in South Kashmir, slept without shelter or food, and jostled among the thousands just to ‘be present’ in his final journey through home into the martyr’s grave.

After decades, an indigenous icon for Kashmiri Nationalism emerged in this ‘hero’. The last time Kashmir had come out for a single person was in August 1953, when the Sheikh Abdullah, termed as the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ was arrested, as referred to earlier. This time, in Burhan’s death, a new reference to ‘Lion’ has been set, perhaps for the first time after Sheikh. In the secular Sheikh’s humiliation, people mark a national humiliation and a continuation of their struggles against the autocratic rule. Making connection with the systems of humiliation, people do not ascribe Burhan’s switching over to the gun to his religious belief, ideology or organisational affiliation but to his personal experience of humiliation – forced to buy cigarettes for the state armed forces and still beaten up afterwards. A story everyone in Kashmir can relate to.

His death marks a new turn in this national solidarity, like it did in 1953 and to events before that. In a remarkable co-incidence the protests after Burhan’s death bore remarkable similarity with protests in July 1931, when numerous protestors were killed in protests against the autocratic rule of the Dogra regime in the state. When Kashmir observed the Martyr’s day on 13th July, a state holiday in commemoration of events in 1931, protestors were still being killed, and new Marytr’s graveyards were being added to towns and villages across Kashmir.

Ultimately, the state will regain its pervasive control and this period will pass too, added to collective ‘national’ memory in Kashmir, but this may be for the first time tht people in Kashmir can be heard saying: it is better to die once than die every day and every year – something which wasn’t heard even in the 1990s when militancy was at its peak.

Understanding Justice in Kashmir?

Sheikh’s version of Kashmir’s national realisation was firmly placed in a secular idiom and practice. For Burhan Wani, the idiom of Kashmir’s national realisation was placed in a militant organisation which articulates its version of Azaadi in a religious idiom and is no doubt supported by religiously inclined Pakistan. But everyday life in Kashmir operates less through reference to political leaders or militant icons, but through the experience of daily humiliation as well as the elusive search for justice and closure. People do not need politicians or militants to explain to them their everyday realities. They live it.

Last year, Burhan’s brother Khalid was killed. His father who accepts and prides in Burhan’s choices, laments that Khalid wasn’t a militant. Labelled later as an over-ground worker by the police, could his killing be justified for being the brother of a militant? Legitimising killing and not trial of armed militants is one thing, but can the same ‘treatment’ be meted out to relatives and acquaintances of militants? Doesn’t this blur the distinctions between the ‘terrorists’ the state claims to be fighting and the state itself.  Can the state action be then not equated to the action of those who killed more than 200 Kashmiri Hindus, around 1000 non-Kashmiri Hindus and many thousands of Kashmiri Muslims on whimsical suspicions of being Mukhbirs and collaborators by association or acquaintance or religious belief?

The sense of justice which the state puts into practice in Kashmir subscribes to two extreme exceptions and to the uncertain space in between. The first is one of swift action, where ‘punishment’ pre-empts legal procedure like the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah as well as Burhan’s encounter.

Another extreme is one where any legal action is thwarted by impunity and immunity to the perpetrators of fake encounters, torture as well as sexual abuse. The uncertain space in between these is one where thousands struggle with law, go from one police station to another, from one torture centre to another special army or to SOG operation centre, one court to another and from one jail to another, from one graveyard to another.  The saddest part of all this is that people are no longer even looking for justice. They are looking for information on if the person ‘picked up’ is alive or dead, or for information on police stations/cells/centres where the person is held, or struggling to come to terms with the number of cases registered against them or their acquaintances. Most of these turn up into futile exercises, where even bribing and sufarish for most end in vain.

To understand this sense of state’s justice and its associated beneficiaries one needs to ask questions like: Can an encounter with 3 militants last for just 4 minutes? Why was there a need to bring special police from Srinagar for the encounter, despite the presence of special police and army across the width of South Kashmir? Does an encounter only happen in ‘National interest’? For anyone interested in answers to these questions, it may be a good exercise to attempt to follow the reward money trail or the promotion trial. For most people, who are not privy to this conflict economy, the answers are embedded within the intricate knowledges of everyday experience. These knowledges are not available in cinema, TV or newspapers, as well as the burgeoning fiction and non-fiction on Kashmir – increasingly written now by ex-intelligence or serving police officers.

When people read news stories about an encounter, they make out that someone was bumped off after arrest. When people hear police announcements that a mob burned the place of Burhan’s encounter, they understand that that evidence was destroyed. When they read that a policeman was killed after his car was thrown into a river, they read a policeman lost control of his vehicle and the vehicle plunged into the river.

A system of rewards is built into the encounter economy in Kashmir – a small part of the larger conflict economy which is built into the intersections of the formal and informal across India’s conflict zones, where national interest merges with the most unlikely anti-national interests. It may not be a surprise if there is some merit in the rumour mills in Kashmir that someone from within Burhan’s own organisation sold him to stop his meteoric rise. It is here that criticism must not be directed against only the state police, army and numerous agencies of which the state itself may not be sure. It applies equally to militants and militancy in Kashmir too.

There is no dearth of examples of assassinations or targeted civilian killings ascribed to organisation like the one to which Burhan was linked. The civil war between secular organisations fighting for an independent Kashmir and religiously inclined organisations fighting for merger with Pakistan or Islamic rule requires documentation in detail, but is a chapter that everyone may want to forget. Another example is that of the violence perpetuated against Kashmiri and Non-Kashmiri Hindus who were forced to flee Kashmir. It is only in the later part that militancy in Kashmir has become target specific to state police or armed forces, before this thousands died in cross fire of the earlier periods. If Kashmir is ever solved and perhaps even before that, all those who perpetuated these crimes, from all sides, will need to be brought to justice for the crimes committed for ideology, nation or the state.

Alienation and Radicalisation thesis: Do these explain Kashmir?

Alienation is a complex concept, but I will try to explain the larger contours of its usage with reference to Kashmir. A thesis picked up in the first half of the decade of 1990s, this understanding roots Kashmir to an economic basis. The thesis is primarily based on the idea that the ‘fruits’ of development policies of the state were confined to a small section of the population termed as the ‘nouveau rich’, a group marked in continues with the religious and the political elite. This thesis explains that these groups grabbed the Indian largesse in the form of development which came to Kashmir, resulting in a condition where a large section of Kashmir’s population was left untouched with the development. Alienated from the development fruits, this deprived mass of population is held as one where there were heightened feelings of relative deprivations and disaffection. Interestingly still, the thesis then links the channelling of this disaffection by the politicians supported by the same rich class into anti-India sentiments. Over the years the thesis has gained fair acceptance with state policy, and to conceptualisation of the problem as developmental. To this end, the government has sponsored many Economic Task Forces to study Kashmir, which came up with suggestive reports on the same (eg the Rangarajan Report of 2006).

One of the primary parameters of this alienation is presented in a deployment of spectacle of statistics. It is explained to us that there are hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth in Kashmir who will benefit from the thousands of new jobs which will be created when millions of tourists from India will come to Kashmir under their special LTC programs. These statistics also suggest that the need of the hour is for the Indian Corporate Sector to arrive in Kashmir and set up base, or give menial jobs to thousands of Kashmiri Youth. Yet, this thesis has never presented comprehensive and comparative data sets on economic growth and development in Kashmir.

The contradiction here is that the resolution of the alienation, seeks to work through the same class it considers to be the problem in Kashmir; never ever has there been a suggestion to list the actual amount of money spent on Kashmir in the development programs, never ever has the money spent been put under scrutiny. Greater still, the votaries of this thesis can’t explain why relatively well off places in Kashmir continue to display most opposition to Indian rule or why the state primarily still seeks to work through dole or patronage networks. The reverse argument to the alienation thesis has greater legitimacy within Kashmir; this thesis explains India as well as Pakistan in terms of economic exploiters. The particular reference here is in terms of hydro-electricity and water resources, which are mostly under the control of the central government.

The criticism is not just linked to this thesis. The larger mode of governance in Kashmir is full of contradictions and seeped in corruption by design. It comes as no surprise that over the last few years all the issues of protest have emanated from contradictions in government policy starting with the Amarnath Land Transfer, and continuing up to recent attempts to further dilute the state autonomy, particularly with regards to land accusation and citizenship rights. To cover up for its ‘intended’ failures, the governments at the centre as well as the state have added the radicalisation thesis to the narrative which seeks to qualify all protest as work of radicalised and Islamised youth, indoctrinated over the internet.

This marks a perfect excuse to block, suspend and censor content deemed oppositional by the state.  In fact, in the days preceding the Burhan killing, one of the major topics of discussion in the traditional as well as social media in Kashmir related to the criticism of loud speakers being used in Masjids. Whom the state would want to term as ‘radicalised’ internet youth were not just critical of the Mosque, they were critical of the religious establishment in the month of Ramzan.

But this is not to completely disagree with the fact that right wing political organisations throughout the world have been very effective at using new media technologies to their advantage. However, these debates need deeper academic scrutiny, and I for one am critical of these arguments which operate through a colonial gaze – here the medium is given greater agency than the ‘senseless’ population. It must be remembered here that much larger social and political mobilisations did operate before the advent of internet. It is here that I am also critical of the Burhan internet thesis which seeks to project him as an Expert social media propagandist. The many hundreds of thousands who visited his funeral may never had access to internet in the first place, particularly so if we believe the alienation thesis.

The future in Kashmir?

In the present condition, Kashmir has come to represent an ‘oppressive’ Indian state; it has become representative of trigger happy policing and a triumphalist militarism, of a rigid bureaucracy seeking to govern through siege than free will, and an aggressive rather than accommodative political class. This India attempts to create sense of false normalcy in Kashmir, in election percentages and in tourism statistics, only to be broken by a return to even more intense phase of protest. I have no doubts that this is a complete anti-thesis of what a democratic and free India set out to achieve.

A rather pressing question to ask here is that has there been any change in the Kashmir policy of successive governments in India.  Placed in the broader binaries of enmity with Pakistan, little has changed on and in Kashmir, and it seems that there is a broader political consensus in not just India, but also Pakistan to hold on to their piece of prized ‘real estate’ by any ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ means necessary. It is wishful thinking at play when political actors think that the problem can be wished away by presenting and reinforcing imaginaries of Kashmir in either tourism, in religious solidarities or in trans-national frames of terror. It is important to remember here that Kashmir came to violence in 1987, after four decades of peaceful protests and much before 9/11.

Both India and Pakistan need to come to terms with the elephant in the room. There is no dearth of creativity on both sides of the border, and instead of being a bone of contention Kashmir can become the connecting link between the two countries; I am sure that South Asia can be a testing ground for new conciliatory models of state and sovereignty frameworks. But for all this to work out, both countries will first have to stop treating Kashmir as a piece of land and start treating it as people.

[2] Chatterjee, Partha. 2016 (21st July). ‘Beyond the crossroads- Democratic nationalism in Kashmir must get a genuine Chance’, The Telegraph: Calcutta. Source:

The author is a research scholar at TISS, Mumbai.

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