By Reeta Tremblay*
Spiralling unrest has continued in the Kashmir Valley since the July 8 killing of the home-grown Hizbul commander Burhan Wani by the security forces. More than 75 people have been killed and about 15,000 people—some two-thirds civilians—have been injured (official estimates are 62 killed, of which only 2 security forces personnel; with 7,550 civilians and 5,560 security personnel injured). More than 500 people have lost their eyesight as a result of the short-range firing of pellet guns by the security forces used in handling large-scale mass protests and stone pelleting by young men.
Never before has the Valley seen such unrelenting violence, literally on a daily basis. And never before has the Valley witnessed Kashmiri people from all walks of life and from every corner (in all its ten districts) united against the actions of the security forces and united in expressing demands for ‘azadi’ (freedom). Public expression of grief at the death and injury of their loved ones has been met with anger and frustration by both the Indian and the state governments, including the state police. City streets have become the sites for contestation between the security forces and the resisting Kashmiris on almost on a daily basis.
Day-to-day living has been interrupted by the unrelenting imposition of curfews, by restrictions on mobility and communication including the usage of mobile phones, internet services and by the control over information through the censorship of press (the latter, however, short-lived due to widespread national and international condemnation). With the closure of all educational institutions, children have been witnesses to the incessant violence and grief. The images of people with pellet gun injuries and the frequently resulting loss of vision will remain etched in the memories of this new generation, adding to the previous multiple sets of memories of what Kashmiris perceive as their state of subjugation, both political and religious. The 2008 Amaranth land row and 2010 mass unrest with 112 civilians killed are still fresh in their minds. And, indeed, these memories have been instrumental in making Kashmiri Muslims become increasingly aware of the hegemonic forces, thereby enlarging the possibilities for an active and continuing resistance against the State.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s four visits to the Valley have borne very little fruit in bringing about some sort of normalcy largely due to Singh’s and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) insistence on blaming Pakistan for inciting violence in the Valley and to their treating the mass protest for the killing of Wani as an exclusively law and order problem. Although there has been a commitment made by the government to replace the pellet guns with “less lethal” chilli-based PAVA shells, this gesture has come a bit late in the game. PM Modi’s calming words of mamta and ekta (motherly affection and unity); vikas and vishwas (development and trust) have fallen on deaf ears precisely for the reason that the prime minister has not been able to follow up on his promises made during the 2014 election campaign in the Valley to tangibly deliver and carry forward his commitment on Vajapyee’s Kashmir agenda of Insaniyat, Jamhoriyat and Kashmiryat. While speaking the language of compassion and trust- building, Modi has not refrained from invoking Pakistan with regard to Kashmir violence and taking Pakistan to task for human rights violations in Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan. All this is not sitting well with Kashmiris.
There is no doubt that since 1948, Pakistan has emerged as the most essential emblem of Kashmiri resistance and is revered by Kashmiri Muslims for consistently challenging the Indian state. It is also apparent that Pakistan’s motives in morally and militarily supporting Kashmir are largely self-interested. However, for a Kashmiri Muslim, Pakistan is a symbol of local resistance against India. The raising of Pakistani and Islamic flags is nothing new. This has been going on since the accession of the State to India and during any protest movement when Kashmiris have felt their religious identity or political identity is being threatened.
Although major opinion-makers, concerned with the on-going unrest and mounting toll of death and injuries in the Valley, have shifted the narrative by asserting that the Kashmir issue must viewed as a political problem, this gesture may well have come too late. After a soul searching all-party debate in Rajya Sabha and Modi’s candid meeting with Jammu and Kashmir’s opposition parties, an All Party Delegation (APD) visited the Valley in early September.
Unfortunately, the scope of the talks was circumscribed by the government setting the terms and topics for discussion. There was to be no official conversation with the Hurriyat leaders. On the eve of the APD visit, Mehbooba was to request these leaders, in her capacity as the leader of the PDP and not as the CM, to engage with the APD. But with incarcerated Hurriyat leaders refusing to meet members of the delegation, the visit turned out to be little more than symbolic, conferring to the Hurriyat accrued legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary Kashmiri, increasing its opportunities for anti-state activities and effectively expanding its operational political milieu.
No doubt the immediate catalyst to the 2016 unrest has been the unpopular Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and BJP partnership government formed in March 2015 on the basis of an Agenda of Alliance (AoA). The people in the Valley are suspicious of the BJP’s motives (ultimately to revoke the special status of the state under the Indian constitution). During the first ten months of the coalition government, the AoA remained largely undelivered. From the start of the coalition government, the BJP and other groups adhering to the hard-core Hindutva agenda reacted strongly and negatively to Mufti Sayeed’s thanking the separatists and Pakistan for ensuring a successful electoral process and to the release of Masarat Alam who had played a significant role in the 2010 Kashmir stone pelting rallies. Both were calculated moves on part of Mufti Sayeed to assure the people of the Valley that the PDP remained committed to its soft nationalist agenda and engagement with the separatists groups in the Valley.
An unconscionable ten-month delay in committing financial support to the state toward the rehabilitation of thousands of victims of the 2014 flood created a deep disappointment in the Valley with both India and the State government. One could add to the list of irritants the continuance of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the ‘beef politics’ (some BJP activists’ attempt to enforce an outdated law banning the consumption of beef), and the cancellation of the National Security Advisors (NSA) talks with Pakistan due to the latter’s invitation to meet with the separatist Hurriyat leaders. The result is a huge credibility gap for the Indian State and the ironic unintended consequence of giving a new lease on life to the Hurriyat leadership which had lost much of its relevance in the Valley during the last few years. Hurriyat leaders, under the banner of the Joint Resistance Group, have once again become major actors by mobilizing the Valley by giving calls for continuous protests, marches, whether to the mosques, to martyrs’ graveyards or to Srinagar’s famous Lal Chowk, and, by promulgating a weekly shut down calendar.
Mehbooba Mufti, the new and leader of the PDP-BJP coalition, has been unable to regenerate confidence in her government and as a matter of fact, her inability to handle the present unrest has only succeeded in further alienating the population. Her blaming parents for allowing their children on the street and engaging in stone pelting and arson activities and separatists for using young men as shields in engaging in violence against the security forces has sadly eroded away the last vestiges of the considerable credibility and trust among Kashmiris which she had earlier earned by showing great sensitivity to the loss of life and dignity for the people of Kashmir during the ongoing resistance in the 1990s.
In all fairness to the Modi government, all previous governments must share equally in the blame for numerous, often egregious, policy mistakes in handling Kashmir. Kashmiri Muslims have long remained disenchanted both with chronic governmental failure to deliver on repeated promises of a good governance agenda, and with the perennial non-fulfilment of their identity demands.
Kashmiri demands, ranging from a referendum through autonomy to azadi, are the product of six decades of short-sighted policies of denial of public space to the dissenting political voices, corruption and patronage politics along with the slow and steady dilution of the special status of the state as per Article 370 – the initial entente between the people of Kashmir and the Indian State. What a Kashmir Muslim remembers is the eruption of mass protests followed by state violence, hectic government action to appoint commissions or working groups to bring normalcy back to the Valley, dialoguing with different stakeholders and then doing nothing. The Prime Minister’s Working Group report in 2006 and the Interlocutor Report in 2011 fall in this category. Both made very specific recommendations with a clear suggestion that the bottom line for Kashmiris was to open a dialogue with all sections, especially the azadi groups, to discuss political aspirations that ranged from autonomy/self-rule to independence. As had come to be expected, of course, there was no follow-up.
It would appear that at this time the Modi government’s options are limited – the separatist leaders are not talking, there seems to be no one with whom to engage so far as the youth and the general masses are concerned. The crux of the matter is that, although the Kashmiri youth may have spearheaded the violent protest, the more than two-month old agitation against the state—Indian and regional—is much broader based, inclusive and diverse (workers, trades people, businessmen, men, women, civil society associations, employed and unemployed alike) . Different demand, be they for good governance and/or autonomy within or outside the Indian, irredentist or for association with the Pakistani Islamic state, all have come to coalesce under the single banner of azadi. The Indian state’s dilemma is whom to engage with. Mehbooba, who won her seat with great ease and with the support of the Hurriyat, appears to have lost the popular support; the separatists are not talking; and a very diverse constituency has spontaneous protest leaders with no organized base.
Furthermore, any solution to the peace process is only possible if there is a clear understanding that: a) the Valley’s resistance is complex, fluid, flexible, and multi-sited with interlayered realities; and b) that its key characteristic is scattered and regular everyday resistance to the Indian state by the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim. If the Indian State wishes to better understand the protracted character of the Kashmir conflict, it must pay specific attention to at times habitual (e.g. celebrating Eid only when the Pakistan Mullah declares the holiday), and at times ‘conscious’ actions/resistance of the Kashmiri masses and their dynamic interaction with the organized resistance by groups such as the Hurriyat. What strategy the Valley’s Muslims adopt depends upon how the State reacts to Kashmiri agitation, and this in turn impacts upon the ordinary Kashmiri resisters’ response: whether they will demand good governance or azadi or both, or whether they will join in with the secessionists and nationalists in their collective public protests.
The Indian state needs to understand the fundamental reality of everyday resistance of Kashmiris and model its responses accordingly. Instead of concentrating on the separatists’ leaders or on Pakistan or on the radicalization of Islam in the Valley, the Modi government must present a concrete set of measures which will assure Kashmiris that neither their political nor their religious identity is under siege. This probably involves, to begin with, a full or partial withdrawal of AFSPA; reinforcing the special status under Indian asymmetrical federalism; removal of the inter-regional religious and regional cleavages (which, after the 2008 Amaranth Land row, have given further impetus to the Valley’s Muslims identity-based demands) by implementing as well a degree of autonomy for the two other regions within the state. Unless these steps are taken, the resistance will remain alive. Contexts and situations may change but peace will remain persistently elusive in the Valley, precisely because the resistance acts of ordinary Kashmiris have the potential to undermine any political power at any time.
*Reeta Tremblay is a Professor of Political Science at University of Victoria, British Columbia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]