Two years after the abrogation of Article 370, Kashmir is still under siege. Curfews continue to be declared as a security measure. Security from whom? Kashmir is the most militarised region with a force of 700,000, and yet, in 2019, the government deployed over 35,000 forces for the safety of a people already under its control. An administration spokesperson claimed, “We decided to protect lives, some liberties may have to be compromised.”
The state, asserting itself for the past 70 years, has acquired more teeth with the revocation of Article 370. The government celebrated its anniversary last year with “Ek Bharat, Ek Atma” (One India, one soul); in June this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to leaders in the state about bridging the gap — “Dilli ki doori” (distance from Delhi) and “Dil ki doori” (distance from the heart). The onus is on Kashmir to respond to this mainstreaming melodrama.
For all its heart-and-soul talk, the BJP government moved tourists and pilgrims out of Kashmir before taking over. Removing Article 370 is part of its project to reclaim Bharat from the “other”. In this, it is assisted covertly or unwittingly by local leaders and liberals, too.
Soft-focus concerns and adventurism with concertina wires is a skilful diversion from any acknowledgement of the Kashmiri right to decide its own fate.
Can Kashmir be seen through the Indian nationalism prism? If “Kashmir hamara hain” (Kashmir belongs to India), how invested is India in Kashmiris? The government reneged on a signed and sealed promise to Jammu and Kashmir. They put political leaders, activists, businessmen, and civilians behind bars or under detention, they took away the rights of 8 million people, their flag, and a say in their own future. The media called it a “lockdown” and not the "occupation" it was.
The Armed And Harmed Forces
And now, on August 1, the police issued an order “denying security clearance for passport and other government services to those involved in subversive activities”. The passport is a sign of belonging, and withholding it denies that. Besides, subversive activities is a blanket indictment.
A young villager was once picked up on suspicion for attending a protest march: “Once they realised I was innocent, they wanted me to name a stone-pelter. I told them I don’t know anyone. So, they continued beating and electrocuting me.”
Stone pelters can, at best, be a nuisance. But in Kashmir, they are treated as terrorists. The Army has the power to treat civilian areas as a war-like zone under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Yet, in 2017, Major Leetul Gogoi tied a man to a jeep, paraded him in the streets, ostensibly to shield people at a polling booth from stone-pelting locals. Farooq Dar, who was used as a human shield, was not a stone pelter, but a shawl weaver. The message was clear: the state on nationalistic steroids views every Kashmiri as an enemy. Major Gogoi was given a special commendation soon after for “sustained counter-insurgency efforts”.
Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat had said in defence of this episode, “This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war … You fight a dirty war with innovations.”
This leaves no doubt as to how the Army, even today, views Kashmiris. The General’s combativeness was less about maintaining “the morale of troops” and more about adhering to a political agenda to whip up patriotic sentiment: “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us … Then I could do what I [want to do].”
A Perpetual State Of 'Insurgency'
The Army has always done what it wanted to do — shot civilians dead, sometimes “by mistake”, blinded people, including children, with pellet guns, by barging into homes. Kashmiris live in fear. The soldiers may be living in fear too — the fear to perform and gather enough “kills” to meet a goal set by their superiors.
Kashmir has always been in a state of ‘insurgency’, with the disappearance of many, with unmarked graves of “unidentified militants”, and with war crimes such as mass rape and third-degree torture. These crimes were not committed by infiltrators but by the authorities, who have used youth and created renegades to assist them. They target the young physically because that is one way to wipe out a people, and not just their protests.
Each day is a struggle. As Kashmiri writer Mirza Waheed put it, the children “must grow, and try not to die”.
The supposedly sympathetic section of the Indian media that projects itself as “honorary Kashmiris” retains a proprietorial patriotic tone. One rarely gets to hear the voices of Kashmiris from the state. Those who try, suffer. A journalist who interviewed militants was accused of “harbouring known terrorists”. It is almost three years since Asif Sultan was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The Political See-Sawing of Kashmiri Leaders
Where are the Kashmiri leaders? They, too, have played a role in kowtowing to the Indian state.
The Modi government parades suited-booted foreigners riding a shikara on Dal Lake to show all is well; Omar Abdullah as Chief Minister used to project the tulip gardens as development. After his recent outing on a TV show, he has managed to become the pivot of dissent merely by quoting facts. These facts were about projects, not the figures of the dead and the arrested. Among the privileged, he is seen as a victim-hero because he was denied access to newspapers for five months and had to grow a beard. In the real world, the police pulled at the beard of a villager arrested on “suspicion” and tried to set it on fire.
The elitist perception of Kashmir is rather clubby. Unfortunate as the house arrests of Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti were, let us not forget they had joined forces for opportunistic reasons with the BJP, which has always considered Kashmir its “atoot ang” (inseparable part).
In 2012, when Rahul Gandhi told a delegation of panchayat leaders from the erstwhile state that he wants to understand their pain deeply, an emotional Farooq Abdullah responded, “We are Indians and we will die as Indians. No power can separate us from India. A day will come when children of Rahul and Omar will see fruits of steps taken by us.”
Mehbooba Mufti’s first tweet after the abrogation of the Article 370 was, “Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy. Decision of J&K leadership to reject 2 nation theory in 1947 & align with India has backfired.”
Interestingly, they were arrested under the Public Safety Act (PSA), promulgated by Omar Abdullah’s grandfather Sheikh Abdullah. Why did Kashmiri leaders need to keep the state safe from its own people? With their see-sawing allegiance to Indian democracy, can they represent the struggles of Kashmiris, whose alienation is tangible?
An All-Pervasive Anger
The anger on the streets should not be surprising. The people have been taunted for not being grateful to the Army that helped them during the floods, they’ve been taunted about living and earning “from us”. Local sentiment has been vocal about not wanting to have anything to do with India. “Azaadi” (freedom) is their anthem. The “Go back, Indian dogs” graffiti on walls, the stone-pelting, were reactions to the daily harassment of being stopped in the streets to identify themselves in their own homes.
Agha Shahid Ali wrote, “Everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.” Only an understanding of their right to — and desire for – self-determination provided for in the Indian Constitution can decide whether our empathy will matter.
(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)