Mirza Waheed, novelist, journalist and author of The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves shares some thoughts on the current wave of violence in Kashmir and the various forms of brutalities carried out for decades inside one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world
The News on Sunday (TNS): Kashmir has been seething with violence since April 9, when eight people were killed by government troops during clashes on polling day for a seat in the parliament in India. Are such atrocities acquiring a new form of brutality in the valley?
Mirza Waheed (MW): In the broad sense not much has changed. In the 1990s when I was growing up in Kashmir, or subsequently, it was the same. The Indian state responded with brute force to the militant uprising of 1989 which was supported by a mass movement. It was not merely an insurgence by groups that went to Pakistan for arms and training but was a massive popular movement to which the Indian state responded with ruthless force, and soon turned Kashmir into one of the most militarised places on the planet. I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, when there were massacres, killings, torture, extra-judicial killings, rapes… It was a catalogue of a dirty war.
Though by 2000 India had managed to crush the militancy, after the turn of the millennium Kashmiris took to the streets in their struggle for self-determination. Thousands and thousands of people marched down the streets. The movement became more street-based. But the response of the Indian state did not change. It was, once again, a military response; shooting at protestors, mass incarceration, thousands arrested. And, then, there are these dark laws imposed in Kashmir which allow any member of the armed forces to do anything — arrest, detain, kill — without any fear of being charged, without explicit permission from the highest offices in Delhi, which is seldom given.
From 2008 onwards, Kashmiris took to the streets in even greater numbers. The trigger could be anything — a controversial state decision to grant a large swathe of land to a temple trust, two sisters raped and killed in Shopian, three farmers killed in a “fake encounter” in Machhil in 2010, which led to unprecedented protests that the then government tried to crush with unbridled violence, killing at least 120 people, most of them youngsters — the youngest, Sameer Rah, was eight-years-old.
But today, in 2017, I see a certain amount of viciousness, vengefulness to the response of the Indian state and the Kashmiri government. It’s as if the paramilitary troopers, soldiers and the Kashmiri police are told that they can do anything to punish, crush Kashmiris. As much as possible.
So, the response has certainly assumed a ‘brutalitarian’ streak. It seems the message is to crush the people’s spirit in a way that they lose any sense of identity and dignity. But history tells us it won’t work.
I think India is not trying to resolve the conflict. It only tries to shoot its way out of the conflict every time people take to the streets. It has made the situation much worse.
Perhaps unique to this year is the huge student protests, not from one college or university but across campuses in Kashmir. Hundreds of girls have taken to the streets. (Pause) I’m reminded of that iconic picture from last week in which a girl carries a basketball in one hand and throws stones with the other.
TNS: Do you think the rise of nationalist politics under Narendra Modi have impacted the uprising in Kashmir? Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has made her party — Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) — unpopular among the people of Kashmir.
MW: The so-called mainstream politicians practise a certain kind of loyalist politics, which they should be free to practise. Clearly, they want Kashmir to stay in India. However, in Kashmir people don’t vote to solve the Kashmiri conflict, they vote for governance. They vote for roads, electricity, employment etc. Because, while the conflict rages on, somebody needs to fix that road, get a little bit of electricity in the winters, and so on.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party had successfully cultivated a certain middle ground which in sections of Indian press was termed ‘soft separatism’. They fought the election on the plank of anti-BJP. But come elections, and they joined hands with the BJP, a party that is known for its victimisation of Muslims. You have to imagine how a predominantly Muslim region would react to an alliance with a party that has risen in politics using anti-Muslim rhetoric. Many Kashmiris felt a sense of betrayal. Many of them had voted for the PDP to keep the BJP out.
TNS: Mainly because of the troubles in Kashmir, Pakistan-India relations have soured to a point where both countries are accusing each other of espionage and tit-for-tat activities. What can be done to attain normalcy?
MW: I’ve always said that there cannot be peace between the two countries until they solve the Kashmir conflict. India and Pakistan have pretended to do various kinds of nice things, TRACK II and III, napkin diplomacy, the exchange of onions and tomatoes through Wagah, and people-to-people contact — yet Kashmir remains at the centre of India-Pakistan relations.
I sometimes think Pakistan is a wilfully confused state. It has oscillated between sending jihadists into Kashmir and engaging with India in talks. Pakistan never says that it will completely shut down its proxy factories, or perhaps i’ve never heard such a thing. And, let me tell you, the likes of Hafiz Saeed will not help the Kashmiri cause. How will it help Kashmir if militants from Pakistan launch deadly attacks in Indian cities, killing hundreds of innocent people?
The Pakistani state has to have a reckoning too, even though the onus is on India, as a bigger state, to solve the Kashmir problem. India holds Kashmir with the sheer force of military might and commits unspeakable cruelties in the valley.
I like to think India and Pakistan can be infinitely better countries by addressing this chronic conflict. Kashmir is one of the longest running conflicts in the world. Violence is not going to resolve it. Ultimately Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri people sitting together in a room will solve Kashmir.
TNS: Do Kashmiris feel let down by liberal India? What can be the role of liberal India in humanising the Kashmir cause? Can they counter the hyper-nationalist mood with a more progressive/liberal narrative?
MW: Ah! That’s a very big question. Liberal India itself is under siege. The current wave in India goes against many of its foundational principles. Constitutionally India is an egalitarian secular republic. But now the liberal classes are under attack by the rise of the far right. Muslims and Dalits face almsot daily persecution at the hands of vigilante mobs, which are similar to blasphemy mobs in Pakistan. Those with newfound power in india have gone after anyone that has expressed dissent. It has gone after writers, journalists and women who speak their mind. There’s a toxic shift in the discourse in India whereby anyone critical of the Indian state, of the BJP, the RSS or anything which goes against the majoritarian sentiment is branded as anti-national or seditious.
At the same time, many of them are fighting back by way of their writings or activism. Some liberals do show solidarity with the Kashmiris. But I think they’re not many in number. Also, in this scenario, we won’t find many who will march for the Kashmiri cause.
TNS: The Kashmir valley is echoing with slogans of ‘Go India go’ and ‘We want freedom’ raised by young, agitating university students. How would you assess the youth sentiment in the valley? Are they still hopeful about their desire for freedom?
MW: This is a generation of boys and girls that has seen nothing but conflict, nothing but repression, nothing but soldiers colonising their ‘home spaces’. And some of these kids are now going to the forests to become militants. They very well know they are not going to last very long in this theatre of war where there are upwards of half-a-million soldiers. What can a few hundred odd militants do? You see, Kashmiris have tried peaceful street protests, stone-pelting, and all forms of protests but they’ve always been met with the same response which is a bullet or a pellet, essentially, killing, blinding or maiming. Therefore, some of these boys in desperation, perhaps in a state of hopelessness, have decided to take to the gun. But a large majority of young people in Kashmir have not taken up arms.
Imagine this, in 2010 a 10-year-old sees a massive display of power and ruthlessness when 120 people, most of them young, are killed on the streets. That same child who was 10 in 2010 is now 17, and has seen nothing but the blood of his people — mostly shed by the Indian armed forces. Burhan Wani, who was probably 16 in 2010, saw his brother being humiliated in his hometown and decided to run to the forest and take up the gun. Soon after, he became a symbol of resistance against the Indian rule.
This is a population that has in many ways tried to tell the Indian state, and the Pakistani state as well, that we do not accept the status quo. The description of Kashmir as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan is unacceptable. A Chatham House [an international affairs think tank] survey conducted in 2010 revealed that a vast majority, between 74 and 95 per cent of people in the Kashmir valley support independence. Many Kashmiris are grateful for the solidarity of ordinary Pakistani but they do not entirely trust the Pakistani state either. I sometimes see the Pakistani state as opportunistic, as it goes to the UN with diplomatic missions, dossiers etc. when Kashmiris are out in the streets.
My analysis of the Pakistani state is that it pokes India with the Kashmiri people’s sufferings.
Over the years the sentiment for azadi has only strengthened. You see the thing is, in my opinion, the Indian state does not like to acknowledge that generations of Kashmiris have been telling it that you need to solve this conflict. For people born in 1990s, who are in their 20s today, it’s inconceivable to have any love for India. The azadi sentiment today is stronger than ever. Look at the mass protests by university students if you have any doubt. I have seen videos and pictures of hundreds of women from the illustrious Government College for Women, MA Road Srinagar fighting the Indian paramilitaries and police on main MA Road. This is a clear indication that across the valley, across generations, across classes, there’s agreement on one thing — that they do not accept the military dominion of Kashmir.
TNS: Social media, despite many controls, is being used in the valley widely. Take the case of Farooq Ahmed Dar tied to a military jeep, to serve as a human shield against the stone-pelting crowd. And of course other such videos. Do you think such videos are stoking further violence, it’s a war of videos, or are they a battlefield for polarised opinion?
MW: I don’t see this as a war of videos. To say there’s a war of videos suggests a certain war of equivalence. You cannot strike equivalence between a paratrooper being slapped and harassed by some Kashmiris, and it’s undoubtedly reprehensible, with videos of unarmed Kashmiris tortured inside army vehicles. Dar was paraded for five hours after being beaten up. The officer sitting inside the vehicle would throw stones on him if he moaned. Technically there is a degree of equivalence to the videos but only to a certain point.
TNS: In your latest The New York Times opinion piece, you write, “Many news channels decided to whip up hostility toward Kashmiris. The theatre turned sinister”. Please elaborate on what you mean by this.
MW: I did write that (laughs). I couldn’t believe commentators, actors and cricket stars said kill hundreds of Kashmiris. An editor likened Kashmiris to mosquitoes. Okay, let’s put it this way, say, if the highest legal officer, the attorney general of India, defends the use of human shield in Kashmir, what would you call it?
This is an edited version of the article that was published in The News on Sunday on April 30, 2017.