The New Normal

Collective amnesia on Kashmir’s history of discontent is dangerous for India

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Either all of us are living in a fantasy world, or as a nation, we have voluntary suspended disbelief. Nothing else can explain the response of the government of India, the entire political class cutting across party lines and the mainstream media to the so-called disruption of ‘normalcy’ in the Kashmir valley.

Expressions of shock, anger and threats have been hurled against Pakistan for fomenting the unrest in the Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016; and surprise, dismay and detached empathy are being expressed towards Kashmiris by the hand-wringing Indian mainstream. They are unable to understand what is wrong with these people. Why are they being ungrateful wrecks, standing with a ‘terrorist’ against the great Indian nation? What inhumanity they display celebrating the martyrdom of patriotic Indian soldiers and mourning the deaths of terrorists? Is it the glamour of weapons? The lure of political Islam? Or the simple business of terrorism being flogged by a handful on the pay-rolls of Pakistan?

No less than a person of Union home minister’s stature spoke in Parliament, raising these questions. He spoke expansively about Pakistan misguiding Kashmiri youth, leading them astray. Both his mannerism and words conveyed that the government has been taken by surprise by the mini-uprising after Wani’s killing and that relentless tumult on the streets was one-off event which will be quelled by the Centre. He assured the nation that the government will do everything in its power to bring ‘normalcy’ back on the streets of Kashmir, with sensitivity and humanity. He may as well have been talking about the rioting Jats of Haryana earlier this year.

Incidentally, taking a cue from him, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, who has inherited the mantle from her father Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, said roughly the same thing to the media in her first interaction since the Wani incident. On July 24, after her meeting with Singh in Srinagar, she told journalists: “The country (Pakistan) that claims they are victims of terrorism themselves, encourages Kashmiri youths to take up guns. Pakistan needs to change this policy of theirs.”

That Mufti was completely out of her depth in the face of the first major crisis of her term was evident when a few days after her first plaintive statement she said that had her government been aware that Burhan Wani would be killed by the security forces, she wouldn’t have allowed the operation to take place. Why? Was he not a terrorist?

The confusion and absolute inadequacy of the state government handling the situation was further exposed when deputy chief minister Nirmal Singh of the BJP first concurred with his chief minister by saying Wani’s killing was an accident, and later retracted his statement to stand by his party’s position.

Accident or no accident, the fact is that a 21-year-old man had, in his death, brought the state to a standstill and exposed the mental vacuum of the state and the Union government as far as policy-making on Kashmir is concerned. No one knew what action would beget what reaction and how it should be dealt with.

Nearly a month after the Wani incident, Mufti continues to be adrift. Addressing a party function towards the end of July, she told her audience, “These children, who have gone, I promise you I will not let their sacrifice go waste.” This was more like Mehbooba, the rhetorical campaigner, than chief minister of a government that depends, for its very survival, on the party that has been calling ‘these children’ anti-national for supporting a terrorist like Wani.

Punctuating her silences with periodic rhetoric, Mufti has failed to notice that the present round of protests has been unprecedented at least for three reasons: for the first time, protests and violence has spread to all districts of the Valley, including the border areas. In the past, including the violent Nineties and the bizarre 2010 (when nearly 120 youth were killed in police and CRPF firings over three months), Kashmir has always had islands of calm unaffected by the chaos elsewhere. Not this time.

Secondly, unlike the past, this time, people have been purposefully marching towards the camps of the security forces and attacking them; they are not merely picketing bunkers or public property. And the rage is directed towards not just the security personnel but all those civilians who are seen to be on the side of the Indian State, including the elected legislators. According to reports in some newspapers, the Kashmiri members of legislative assembly (MLAs) have gone into hiding to escape the brunt of the public anger. So much so, that when PDP’s MLA Khalil Bandh got injured in one of the protests, he could not be admitted in any civilian hospital. He had to be treated in the army’s Base Hospital. Yet another report claims that district level police officers have been issuing statements that they don’t want to fire upon their own children (the street protestors) to escape the wrath of the people. Is this not the erosion of the credibility of the people’s representatives? Who will they now represent in the Assembly?

And thirdly, it has brought together the disparate factions of the Separatists who are now speaking in one voice; they recently issued an appeal to all the hiding MLAs to switch sides. Now, whether this voice is at the behest of Pakistan is immaterial, because unity is strength. Moreover, as long as the Separatists were disunited, the government of India at least had a channel of communication with several of them, whom it called moderate. Not any longer.

The vibrant Lal Chowk wears a deserted look

Yet, instead of understanding the reasons for the current crisis and its consequences, the government has got busy in isolating the present turmoil as one-off event, with no history and no future implications. Indeed, an outsider cannot be blamed for thinking that in the paradise of Kashmir, where birds herald the dawn over the impish waters of river Jhelum and young men in traditional pherans (robe) collect at street corners nursing earthen pots inside their robes as beautiful women, their cheeks red as apples, sashay by, Pakistan has overnight exported some terrorists and disrupted peace and gentle life.

In this grand charade of ‘a brief outbreak in the valley of calm’, the Union government is being ably helped by both the compliance and opportunism of the opposition political parties and complete silence of the state government in Kashmir. This is reminiscent of 1994, when the Parliament unanimously passed a resolution on Kashmir, laying claim to the entire state, including areas under Pakistan (and Chinese) occupation. Of course, it occurred to no one as to how this resolution would be honoured, whether India has the capacity and capability to enforce it.

The idea now, as it was then, is to present a unified front against Pakistan’s perfidy. And that is the sum total of the national response, without thought, reflection or assessment. No one has paused to analyse what exactly is Pakistan’s perfidy? Is it indeed that or something else? Could Pakistan’s interest in Kashmir have gone beyond the Partition agenda of 1947? To what extent has the political and the social landscape of the Valley changed from the tranquil days of 1965 when Kashmiris reported the presence of Pakistanis to the government, thereby thwarting Ayub Khan’s plans? Is China’s expression of concern on Kashmir indicative of its growing stakes in the region? How is the changing geopolitics in the Kashmiri neighbourhood (comprising not just Pakistan and China, but Central Asia as well) influencing the aspirations of the people and where does India figure in that? And, what exactly is the status of the much used and abused term Kashmiriyat in the age of radicalisation and Islamisation of the Valley?

Unfortunately, overwhelmed by the sense of the street, with under half-a-million offering namaz-e-janaza (funeral prayer) for ‘terrorist Burhan Wani’, all that the politicians in Delhi could do was resort to nationalistic rhetoric and slogan-shouting. If only the government had maturity and patience, it would have understood what Wani represented for the people of Kashmir. Of course, he was a radicalised youth who picked up arms against the Indian State because of the atrocities he saw and suffered in his teens at the hands of the Indian security forces. But he was no renegade; by throwing away his mask and revealing his face, he raised the level of his so-called movement. He conveyed to his people that he had both courage and conviction to stand up for his cause; that he was neither a terrorist nor a mercenary. Those who mourn him, do so out of genuine feeling and not because they are being prompted by Pakistan. Perhaps, Pakistan has a role in the subsequent street-protests, but not in the outpouring of grief for Wani, whose only heroic deed was to reveal his face. The government of India killed a local hero; and resurrected a legend. And it doesn’t even realise it.

In response to the government position of heaping the blame on Pakistan, the opposition parties have been quick to accuse the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of spreading sectarianism in the Valley. According to the narrative peddled by the opposition parties, the mass outpouring on the streets of Kashmir is the result of pent-up angst of the local populace because of the government’s attempt at furthering its Hindutva agenda at the cost of the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. The argument further suggests that Kashmiris are protesting in thousands because of what is happening to the minorities in other parts of the country, including vigilantism of the so-called ‘beef brigades’.

Sure, in the story of present-day Kashmir, all the above narratives have a place, but they do not form the entire story. More importantly, the current turmoil is not a flash in the pan caused by some recent extraneous factors as is being made out by the Indian mainstream, both political as well as press; it is just one phase in the 27-year-old insurgency; and 68-year-old discontent.

Conveniently, such meaningless terms as ‘jamhooriyat (democracy), Kashmiriyat (essence of being Kashmiri) and insaniyat (humanism)’ are being bandied about by all, including the home minister, who with complete disregard to history, harked back to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s famous words to reiterate his government’s commitment towards Kashmir.

He chose to ignore that under Vajpayee’s leadership, the first genuine efforts were made to resolve the Kashmir dispute, both internally and externally. Addressing the Kashmiris on 18 April 2003 in Srinagar, Prime Minister Vajpayee extended a hand of friendship towards Pakistan. What’s more, he didn’t stop at friendship. Just before boarding his flight to Delhi, when a journalist at the Srinagar airport asked him whether the talks will be within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, Vajpayee said that he was willing to talk to anyone within the framework of humanity. It was because of this initiative that Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf announced a ceasefire on the Line of Control (LC) on 26 November 2003, which holds even today (despite periodic small/ medium weapons firing on both the LC and the international border in Jammu).

Vajpayee was not talking to Pakistan alone. He also opened a communication channel with the Separatists in Kashmir, people who have now been rendered persona non grata. In January 2004, deputy prime minister and home minister L.K. Advani met up with the representatives of All Party Hurriyat Conference. This meeting was quickly followed-up by another in March, where ice was truly broken. So much so, that there was much breast-beating in Kashmir when Vajpayee lost the General Elections that year. Kashmiris believed that with him at the helm in Delhi and President Musharraf in Rawalpindi, resolution was imminent.

Writing in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, former director Research and Analysis Wing, A.S. Dulat wrote that when Vajpayee asked him to join his PMO as the Kashmir expert, working directly with National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, he told Dulat that he wanted to cut the Gordian knot which has kept the Kashmir issue in limbo. If he wasn’t conscious about the urgency of the dispute on Kashmir, what was he talking about then?

Apparently, it was this history of Vajpayee with which the PDP tried to sell its alliance with the BJP last year to the people of the state. For some reason, it thought that the present BJP government would be able to shed the RSS’ cloak and step into Vajpayee’s shoes. Of course, it thought wrongly as PDP has belatedly realised with decreasing political space in its home territory. In a conversation with FORCE, one PDP leader said as much. “Even if the centre does not want to talk Kashmir with Pakistan, it could have started some engagement with the Kashmiris as confidence building. Instead, they are simply pursuing a divisive agenda, by raking up issues like Article 370, beef, Pandit colonies, Sainik colonies etc. As if these were not enough, they are fuelling the fear of Hinduisation of the Valley,” he said.

According to him, Vajpayee was merely an Indian leader for the Kashmiris, not a Hindu leader. But this is not the case with the present government, which is increasingly being viewed as a Hindu government. “This is fanning the perception of India as a Hindu nation bent upon imposing its diktat over the Kashmiris. By extension, the security forces also have acquired a religious hue. It is no longer the Indian Army, but a Hindu army. Who is being helped by this attitude?” he asked the rhetorical question before offering the answer. “Hardliners like Geelani. People like us who believe in electoral politics, despite threats to our lives are getting marginalised. There is no space left for us to even meet the basic aspirations of the people.”

Kashmir as a region is more complex — both religiously and politically — than is understood by an average Indian, which is why, it is extremely important that the narrative that the State peddles, even if not entirely truthful, is sensible and sensitive.

In religious terms, Kashmir has an extremely rich and ancient history of Hinduism. Over time, Islamic traditions were added to the tapestry to such an extent that it overwhelmed the ancient legacy in sheer numerical terms, so much so, that popular culture in the last few centuries came to be identified as Sufi-Islamic.

Yet, the two co-existed. And despite the efforts by radicals on both sides to sully this amorphous confluence, even Muslim Kashmiri writers and poets of a certain age use Hindu metaphors and imagery in their work as evidence of religious syncretism of the region. For example, the anthem of Kashmir University, referred to as ‘KU tarana’ written by Kashmiri poet Prof. Rahman Rahi draws upon the cultural, literary and historical heritage of the state by harking back to figures such as King Khamendra, poet Bilhana and scholar Abhinava Gupta — even if they have receded from every day conversation — along with Muslim artists.

It is understandable that people with a sense of legacy, as well as Kashmiri Pandits, would want to reclaim and revive this tradition; just as people who feel that they are under siege would try to resist this reclamation for fear of being overwhelmed. But conversation and understanding can overcome these hurdles.

However, when politicians of a certain hue want to be part of the revival exercise, it is bound to lead to conflagration. Ever since the BJP got the foothold in the state as a ruling partner of PDP, it has been trying to do just that. In the midst of growing suspicion over issues like beef (an independent MLA was beaten up in the Assembly by members of the BJP for eating the meat), revival of the debate on Article 370, status of Kashmir, refusal of the government to talk with either Pakistan or the Kashmiri Separatists etc, a group of people tried to organise a pilgrimage, called Abhinav Yatra, in the memory of scholar-saint Abhinav Gupta in June this year. Apparently, Abhinav Gupta entered one mystical cave in the Beerwa area of Budgam and died inside. Muslims of the Valley revere the cave, too, as they believe it to be the prayer haunt of some Sufi who used to go there for meditation.

Protest broke out, as the locals, probably egged on by politicians, feared that if the pilgrimage is allowed once, it would become an annual feature and over time, Hindus would lay claim to the cave revered by the Muslims. As tension grew, the pilgrims who had already reached Srinagar, were persuaded to culminate their visit there itself. Had there been less suspicion and greater understanding, probably this issue would not have been raised at all. After all, both Amarnath Yatra and Kheer Bhawani ritualistic prayer take place in the Valley despite insurgency.

Political complexities are even greater. Without going into the historical details of instruments, accords and agreements, the present fact is that for the longest time India and Pakistan have worked on finding a resolution around the LC because both understand that rhetoric and reality are two different things. Even Kashmiris are reconciled to the idea of permanence (albeit non-restrictive) of the LC. By negating these realities of recent past, the government of India is not only belittling the thinking and policies of its predecessors, but is also exposing the country to grave danger.

By laying claim to larger Kashmir, including areas no longer under Indian control, the government is merely exposing its own limitations; that is, its inability to read the changing geopolitical landscape, which is increasingly becoming adversarial for India. The Chinese are in occupation of substantive parts of north-eastern Kashmir. The famous Karakoram Highway which physically links China with Pakistan runs through Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Kashmir. The planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will run through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Both Indian Army and the Border Security Force have reported presence of Chinese soldiers, as well as engineers and other workers, in Gilgit-Baltistan and POK.

By making grandiose nationalistic claims, is the government of India fooling the people of the country or itself? Perhaps, in its calculations, the government believes that people of Kashmir will tire of protests sooner or later. After all, the State apparatus is too big for them to take on. The army will continue to do what it does and the politicians will continue to do what they do. Even if this new trend of frequent stone-pelting lingers on, a new standard for normalcy will be set and we will simply learn to live with it.

However, it doesn’t realise that within the state of Kashmir, the situation is deteriorating by the day. The people are becoming increasingly restive because they had come so close to a semblance of permanent peace in the halcyon years of 2005-2008. The government of India’s backtracking since then is seen as yet another betrayal in the long history of unfulfilled promises and commitments. Fortunately for us, pan-Islamism hasn’t reached the Valley as yet, but religious radicalisation has. Today, a growing number of Kashmiris do not understand what is meant by ‘Kashmiriyat’. An entire generation of Kashmiris has grown up not seeing a person of another faith without a uniform.

As people, we can be forgiven for our short-term memories but a State adopting a policy of collective amnesia can have disastrous consequences; especially when the external dimension to the dispute is fusing seamlessly with the internal, converting it into a territorial threat. We ignore it at our own peril. Slogan-shouting is not nationalism; safe-guarding national interest is.


Call us