KASHMIR'S SLOW-BURN INTIFADA, which reasserted itself in the summer of 2008, is memorable in part because its style of mass resistance prefigured the development of the "days of rage" in the Middle East, a pre-play of the civil disobedience that toppled dictators.
So a year before footage of Neda Agha-Soltan, shot and bloodied, became the face of Iran's protests, Kashmir boiled over after the death of Shaheed Tanveer, a cellphone salesman whose death throes were captured on mobiles and broadcast over the Internet. While social media in 2011 is said to have launched a thousand demonstrations across the Arab world, Kashmiris had begun posting YouTube videos and creating Facebook pages to document state violence and inspire resistance years earlier.
Although information technology lent an emotional intensity to the protests that had been missing in recent years, what was familiar were the killings. Beneath snowy peaks that sawtooth the cobalt blue skies of Kashmir, English-speaking youth took to the streets with little more than stones in their hands and slogans on their lips. Last summer, 120 died in largely peaceful protests.
But unlike in the Middle East, where dreams of liberty were realised this year, Kashmir remains a hellish place of torture, gun battles and rape. Described by a Mughal emperor as paradise, today it is a nightmare from which its population never wakes.
Srinagar does not look like the capital of a state in the world's largest democracy. It is more army camp than tourist hotspot. Armed soldiers are everywhere: behind sandbags, at roadblocks, in lorries. The truth is the army and the paramilitary forces appear to act with impunity. They cannot be prosecuted without sanction from the Indian government, which is given only in a very small number of high-profile cases.
At best, life for Kashmiris in the Valley is an ordeal of checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and petty harassment. At worst, life is a story of violent death or leads to the limbo of disappearance. Local journalists say that they don't write stories, they write obituaries. The characters and places change, the stories are the same: tearful accounts of misery.
If there is a silver lining to the gloom, in the context of the propaganda war being waged over the region, it is the arrival, in recent years, of the Kashmiri writer as public intellectual. These new critical commentators owe nothing to the Delhi commentariat; those opinion-makers recycle, beautifully, the Indian State's argument—‘Better us than the alternative'—and embroider nationalistic rhetoric with sotto voce apologies for the destruction being wrought and the lives lost.
The capital's opinion-formers on Kashmir long ago traded their integrity for access to the highest officials in the land. For all the eloquence surrounding the issue, but which only helps to obscure it, the justification for using lethal force to subdue seven million people is simple: despotism over ‘barbarians' is better than the Islamist anarchy that would prevail if the people were left to become pawns of the jihadist forces that run Pakistan. The trick here is conflating the Kashmiri demands for self-determination with the obscurantist fanaticism of Islamic chauvinists.
TO COUNTER THIS AND CHALLENGE the Indian State's version of history, Kashmiri voices are seeking to reset the narrative by mixing the personal and the political. They wish to repair the warp and weft of the delicate cultural carpet of Kashmiriyat, which blends the distinct customs and languages of the old princely state of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have shredded this precious tapestry.
These writers, often young, are of humble origins and spent their early lives watching their homeland, their families and their friends being torn apart. For the most part they are those boys who stayed home when their classmates left the Valley to train in militant camps set up across the Line of Control by Pakistani intelligence and army officers. While their friends died, these boys survived to think, to organise their feelings and, finally, to publish.
Their stories were born of decades of Indian misrule. When it all started is a matter of dispute, but no one doubts that in 1987 the state elections were rigged to ensure that a united separatist front did not take power. The new Kashmiri writers chart the beginning of a bloody insurgency in 1989, which resulted in decades of exhausting brutality and a people anxious and uncertain. Today there may be no demonstrations against India in the Valley, but there is no love for it either.
These writers and thinkers have found a ready audience for their poignant stories, which may be tales of the past but retain a freshness simply because readers have not encountered before such authentic voices mixing memoir, reportage and history.
So it appears to be a propitious time for an anthology to chart this generation of Kashmiri thought. Until My Freedom Has Come, the collection of essays and aperçus edited by documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak, features writers, activists, academics, artists and a rapper. It aims to present, from a secular, rarefied viewpoint, a new historiography of Kashmiri freedom, or Azaadi. As Kak, who returned in 2003 to the land of his fathers after 14 years, points out:
"[T]his is no ordinary rejection."
Chapter after chapter in Kak's collage sees the Indian State found guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity: accounts of physical, psychological and sexual abuse litter the book's pages.
Such ultra-violence drives people to the edge of madness: Hilal Ahmad Mir, born in Srinagar's old city but now an editor at Delhi's Hindustan Times, drops all journalistic objectivity in a moving essay on joining youth who were pelting stones at the security forces. "I could have been booked under the Public Safety Act and jailed for two years without a trial," he writes. "I would also have been jobless because no news organization would have a felon on its desk."
The tone is deliberatively judgmental. Basharat Peer, journalist and author of the acclaimed Curfewed Night, writes that "Kashmir remembers what is done in your name, in the name of your democracy, whether its full import ever reaches your drawing rooms and offices or not".
Religion is never far from the surface of discussions about Kashmir. Only Indonesia and Pakistan have more Muslim citizens than India, but this population is a large religious minority in a professedly secular nation of more than a billion people. Indian Muslims often feel under pressure not to antagonise the Hindu majority—an existential anxiety that sets them apart from their coreligionists in Muslim-majority nations.
As suggested by the title of the essay by journalist Najeeb Mubarki, ‘The Islamism Bogey in Kashmir', the so-called Talibanisation of this Himalayan state is simplistic state propaganda intended to denigrate a people. Mubarki, a Kashmiri who works for The Economic Times newspaper, says that people in the Valley adhere to a syncretic, Sufi-like, tolerant version of Islam, and that attempts to undermine it by fundamentalists from Pakistan have met with limited success, and often only under the shadow of the gun. "The drive to seek, invoke, an Islamization of Kashmir", he writes, "is an act of dissolving the Kashmiris and electing the ‘Muslim anti-national'."
The main themes of the essays are that Kashmiris are suffering under a colonial rule, with New Delhi running the state through puppet politicians backed by a marauding occupation force. The suffocating presence of the army establishment—which makes Kashmir the most militarised zone in the world—is explored by Gautam Navlakha in ‘False God of Military Suppression'. Navlakha claims there were 627,000 security personnel posted in Jammu and Kashmir in 2010—many more men and guns than in the better known global theatres of war of Kabul, Baghdad and Benghazi.
Like the army, the Indian government is seen as a corrupting force. The US-based academic Suvir Kaul is a Kashmiri Pandit, high-caste Hindus who Islamic militants tried to ethnically cleanse from the Valley almost two decades ago. He returned in the riot-strewn days of 2010 to find his mother living in a "city of shutters". His contribution—‘Diary of a Summer'—is one of the best in the book. He dryly notes that the state payroll is used to deaden Kashmiri resistance, with tens of thousands of people "at peace with their salaries".
"An astonishing number of Kashmiri men (and some women, of course) are on government payrolls... If nothing else, the Indian state has revenged itself on Kashmiris by teaching them how not to work while still drawing salaries."
The underlying message from the collection of essays is that Kashmiris urgently need a new, indigenous idiom of protest. To do nothing would be demeaning. As Kak's own essay recounts, despite Kashmir drawing "warmth from faraway Egypt", by March 2011 "hope had already been put on notice. With the revolt in the street having exhausted itself, the pressure on the Indian state was missing."
WHY HAS THE INTIFADA sputtered to a halt? One very real obstacle to self-determination is the location of Kashmir in the hearts and minds of Indians and Pakistanis. Both nations lay claim to the whole state. For Indians, Kashmir is not only a beautiful, rugged land, home to both holy Hindu and Muslim sites, but also a test of the country's secularist creed.
Pakistan has refused to acknowledge any notion of Kashmiri independence, insisting that since the state is a Muslim-majority region, it should belong to Pakistan. These tribal instincts, on the one side, and constitutional precepts, on the other, also mask rivalry over a valuable piece of geopolitical real estate. A state once ruled by a Hindu Dogra maharaja is today split between the nuclear-armed nations of Pakistan, India and China.
What this new generation of Kashmiris has to consider is whether their words alone are powerful enough to impact upon history and perhaps alter its course. The need to communicate—to agree, disagree, to be in continuous contact and transact with others—is essential to being human. But in the Indian State, at present, the Kashmiris have no partner in conversation. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes in the first essay in A Tangled Web, a more mainstream collection on Kashmir: "where trust exists, many solutions are possible. Where no trust exists, no solution is possible."
It is accepted that in war, truth is the first casualty. In Kashmir, those who can still afford a sense of humour joke blackly that all that remains today is "trith"—the Kashmiri word for "a tissue of lies". This cynicism is what the state's young dreamers must contend with. For almost 60 years, Kashmiris have been unable to escape from the prison of their identity, unable to be honest about what kind of accommodation with the Indian State they can live with. Not ready to articulate in public what they admit to in private, Kashmiris have sought to reach for the skies while their feet rest in pools of blood.
Politics is the art of the possible. Perhaps it is time for this generation of Kashmiris to temper their idealism with realism—accepting that autonomy might need to be earned in the face of a vengeful, baleful India. Mehta writes that "it is not clear by what authority anyone can give advice. The question is: who will have the political courage to overcome the past, to break this impossible equilibrium, where practical common sense is sacrificed to chimerical abstractions on all sides? But this is a moment of reckoning."
To free themselves of such abstractions requires a new lexicon. King Lear asks: "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" It is a question that implies the answer is moot. Permanently unresolvable and constantly open to reassessment and renegotiation, the human condition needs language—much more than simple words—to wrestle with its existence. Kashmiri thinkers need to create a new lingua franca to converse with the Indian people.
This is why this generation of Kashmiri intellectuals is so important. Unlike the politicians of yesteryear, they have not been co-opted by the State. They still have at their disposable the power of argument—which has yet to have been shrunk by the Indian State's argument of power.
This will not be easy. These intellectuals will need to construct a new notion of what being a Kashmiri is. This will collide with ancient claims of piety, dialect and clan. They will need to find a discourse that will allow them to make the case for a period of coexistence with two colonial-minded nations, India and Pakistan, to enable economic forces to reconnect peoples that have long shared land, culture, history and memories. They will have to drop thoughts of revenge and betrayal—else these will consume their generation, too.
This new, more protean identity will have to encompass Kashmir's many tribes. New Delhi's strategy has been to divide and rule, peeling off the quiescent population at the foothills of the Pir Panjal range from the restive Valley. Eventually, such acts of redivision will carve up the state along religious lines: a Hindu-majority Jammu, a Muslim-majority Kashmir, a Buddhist council for Ladakh—partition by another name. As Rekha Chowdhary rightly points out in ‘Caught in a Triangle' (A Tangled Web), if "Jammu's relationship with Kashmir is not sorted out, it may not be possible to resolve the conflict".
But under whose authority can reconciliation take place? Not the Government of India's alone. As Amitabha Pande, a former civil servant, argues, the "dialogue process will have to be led by alternative institutions in which independent think tanks, civil society groups, non-state organizations play a much bigger role".
Kashmiri thinkers are in a position to expose the lies of governments and to analyse their actions according to causes and motives. They can lift the lid off hidden intentions. But can these youthful ideologists of Kashmiriyat recreate its tolerant society and its forgiving spirit? Just how difficult it will be to create a new political and cultural vehicle for Kashmiris while they live in the shadow of the Indian Army is cruelly exposed by Arif Ayaz Parrey's essay in A Tangled Web that examines the deep fissures in society between pro- and anti-Indian Valley-dwellers.
But these problems shouldn't lead Kashmir's thinkers to disengage from anything resembling practical politics. Those intellectuals who have enough heart for the fight might have to return home to reclaim a private sphere within which to construct a new Kashmiri sense of belonging that is able to withstand the deluge of Sankritisation that New Delhi dumps on people. It is about building a big Kashmiri society in order to nurture a culture that will bind together the disparate people of the state.
Kashmir's writers and academics will need to brace their society for the impact of limited freedom—call it Chhoti Azaadi—and not just seek redress for the murderous acts of state extremism. The rest of the world can help by not standing idly by when those who speak the truth about what's possible and what's not are gunned down. It's all too obvious that moderates are shot so that extremists can prosper in Kashmir. There needs to be a modus vivendi between India and Pakistan that does not involve bullets.
The people of Kashmir have tried the ballot box; they have picked up the gun; they have taken to the streets. They are under no illusion that a mass hunger strike will get rid of military occupation. The region, once a celebrated melting pot, is now unrecognisable as ever having been one. To normalise history, Kashmiris will need to draw deep from within themselves to learn the language of compromise, negotiate a new identity and settle for renewal through the recovery from New Delhi and Islamabad of self-government. To do otherwise will lead to recycling in the future the tragedies of the past.