Kashmir’s Silent Suffering
New Anguish in the Midst of an Old Struggle
As I was leaving the verdant environs of Kashmir a few weeks ago, the local and international media had conspicuously begun to gather there. While UN observers and media personnel are frequent visitors to the Pakistan side of Kashmir, their visible presence in the area at this time had an ominous ring to it, given the recent military confrontation between India and Pakistan in February this year when the two countries became the first two nuclear powers in the history of this world to have launched airstrikes against each other. This frenzied activity came to pass because on Aug 5th India suddenly annexed the Indian Administered state of Kashmir and attempted to make the people of occupied Kashmir invisible to the outside world by putting in place a complete a lockdown and a communications blockade, consequently turning the state of Jammu and Kashmir into a veritable open air prison. In the anticipation of certain outrage and resistance, the Indian government arrested countless local politicians and civilians, as it unilaterally revoked Article 370, the constitutional provision guaranteeing autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir. The Indian government further bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir, downgrading it from the status of a state to a federally administered union territory, so that Kashmir would be directly ruled from New Delhi.
In the meanwhile, Kashmir has been placed on a Genocide Watch and the UN has publicly called out India’s “Draconian Blackout” as a “collective punishment” for the people of Kashmir. with numerous people being killed and more than 4,000 people, mostly young men, being arrested and held without recourse under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a controversial law in India that allows authorities to imprison people for up to two years without charge or trial. The Indian government claimed that things were “calm” and “normal” in the region which has fought an armed rebellion against Indian rule for three decades, and the “few preventive detentions” were made to avoid a “breach of the peace”. However, the international media outlets like the New York Times, BBC and Reuters etc, described the situation as a “living hell of anger and fear”, claimed that their cameras contradicted Indian sources and reported about massive unrest and human rights violations, suggesting that due to the large scale of imprisonment, most of the interned had to be flown out of Kashmir to unknown locations because the Kashmiri “prisons have run out of capacity.” Various Indian Human Rights activists and the international media presented evidence to show that even children were being arrested from their homes, often during late night raids, and their parents had no idea where they were being kept.
In the past two weeks News agencies like AFP quoted multiple hospital sources, claiming that at least a hundred people had been hurt during protests, some of them by firearm injuries, tear gas inhalation, pellet guns shots and many were treated at home, because they feared that they may be arrested if they visited hospitals. This is understandable given that the Indian authorities were not allowing hospitals to issue death certificates, so as to show that there are no casualties in Kashmir. Doctors are publicly arrested for speaking to the international media about the emerging humanitarian crisis, due to shortage of medicine and medical aid. Earlier the AFP reported that the police had fired tear gas and pepper shells into residential houses and that even funerals were being attacked by the police, who tried to snatch away protestor’s bodies because they feared more protests. For this reason funerals in different parts of Kashmir were being held under police watch in the dead of night. Indian armed forces are deleting actual footage shot by Kashmiri journalists, while “embedded” mainstream media personnels from Delhi are escorted in helicopters to support the Indian narrative. Interestingly, the Press Council of India has backed these restrictions even as the embedded journalists, publicly defend actions of the Indian establishment as “understandable” and “defensible” while posting instagram style picture collages of fresh apples and scenic lakes to show normalcy in the deserted state.
In the past, Kashmiri civilians have been used as human shields and the use of pellet guns has caused mass blinding among Kashmiri protesters, including among women and children. Most significant among the human rights abuses being carried out by the Indian military and in Kashmir is the physical and sexual violence against women, including mass rapes, which have been extensively archived by human rights groups, local activists and international observers such as the UN OHCHR. This is hardly surprising because Kashmir is one of the most densely militarized regions in the world, with more than a half-million soldiers deployed to counter what the army itself admits, a handful of “terrorists.” In this way, nearly two Generations of Kashmiri’s have grown up under military occupation. and an estimated 70,000 people, civilians, militants and security forces have been killed in the Kashmir conflict by the Indian military with a further 7,000 enforced disappearances. In this sense the Indian security forces act like organized mob that holds Kashmiris hostage in their own land and homes. Given this context, Kashmiri scholars have been making the argument, over the past few years that India-administered Kashmir ought to be recognized as an occupied territory. With more than 700,000 Indian soldiers, paramilitary and police in the region, the most militarized region on earth, they argued that Kashmiris were living under client leaders held firm by the might of the Indian military establishment. As Arundhati Roy pointed out, ‘If there were any doubt earlier it should be abundantly clear by now that the military’s real enemy is the Kashmiri people”.
Creating “Consent” in the Midst of Outrage
In spite of the use of such brute force Kashmir has found ways of protesting by shutting itself down with a “people’s curfew”, a civilian initiative, that is being spread through word of mouth amid restricted communication services. While the Indian government has refuted the possibility of a public-powered shutdown, international media and local residents claim to be mounting a boycott to invalidate the government’s efforts to project “normalcy” in the Kashmir Valley by refusing to go to work, sending their kids to schools or using public transportation, etc. The actual footage of Kashmiri protests, in different parts of Kashmir such as in Srinagar and other urban centers, has been widely circulated by the Washington Post and the New York Times, etc.
These protests are different from earlier ones, as the recent political actions have ended the few, basic “privileges” that were still being enjoyed by the Kashmiri Muslims — as they continue to be the poorest and most undeveloped community in India. Apart from its military occupation in Kashmir however, local Kashmiris point out that the state has been conspicuously absent in terms of social engagement and has made a farce out of any services it has provided. Furthermore, there have been reports that the Indian government has been actively encouraging controversial religious tourism under the garb of development, framing Kashmir as part of Hinduism’s glorious past in the Himalayas and the location for historic shrines and temples. Consequently the recent calls for “development” and “integration” in Kashmir, being described as a “gift of Indian democracy” for the Kashmiri people after the revocation of Article 370, are seen as the latest strategies being used as a form of a civilizing mission employed by the extremist Hindu nationalist agenda of the current government .
In this sense, recent events in India seem to affirm the complete failure of Indian secularism, as India is now being envisioned and reformulated as a “Homogenous Hindu nation” overseen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose bigotry oversaw the most terrible communal bloodletting episodes in India’s recent history, like the2002 Gujarat massacre. In following this path, scholars point out that India is visibly following Israel’s example, as it paves the way for a full settler-colonial project in Kashmir with the next stage likely to involve Hindu-only enclaves, much like Jewish settlements in the West Bank. According to Sumantra Bose, professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “The type of ‘democratic’ state exemplified by Israel – and not Pakistan — is the model for the Hindu nationalist movement, led by its core RSS organization, which aspires to establish in an Indian variant.”
In the face of such realignment, Arjun Appadurai suggests that the current BJP regime’s fantasy of subjugating Pakistan finds expression in “Kashmiristan”, where Kashmir has come to be seen as a stand in for Pakistan for the BJP’s Hindutva nationalism, This seems to be so because for the Hindu Right, all of Kashmir, on both sides of the Line of Control, “stands for Pakistan” in a way that “Kashmir becomes a subjugated Pakistan, and the Partition is partially deleted”. However, Appadurai asserts that while Kashmir is indeed seen as a proxy for Pakistan, the context for the recent action is manifestly new, as a form of retribution for the diplomatic defeat India faced in the aftermath of the failed Balakot strike against Pakistan in February 2019, when the Indian claims of killing 300 militants, destroying a seminary and downing a Pakistani F-16 were categorically refuted by international sources. Consequently, he claims “Kashmir in August 2019 is a blood offering for the BJP military mouse that roared in February 2019”.
Given this context, any indigenous dissent or uprising in Kashmir is immediately labelled as “cross-border terrorism” or “Pakistan-backed terrorism” and presented through the false narrative of Islamist radicalization. The premise for such categorization and “radicalism” is that the Kashmiri youth regularly participate in “anti-India protests”, upload so-called “seditious” posts on Facebook, support the Pakistani cricket team, throw stones, pick up arms or come in between militants and soldiers during gunfights. As a sizable amount of in-depth scholarship from Kashmir suggests, these views are largely based on an ignorance of the religious movements in Kashmir and point out that not a single militant in the recent past has emerged out of any Islamist madrasa movement in Kashmir. In fact, the majority of the militants, who have been killed in recent times had been educated urban youth who have been forced to pick up arms when the state agencies continuously vilified them, turning their lives and those of their families into a living hell for having resisted peacefully against the Indian forces. Currently, the state is confronted by a new wave of civilian protests coupled with “a generation of youth so desperate to pick up arms that they snatch rifles from soldiers and policemen and run to the nearest forest where a small band of militants awaits them.” Kashmir scholars have pointed out that the Indian state and a sizable section of the Indian media have been trying to explain away this phenomenon by obsessively referring to the so-called radicalization of Kashmiri youth over the years and actively creating an “Islamist bogey” in Kashmir. Furthermore, not only do such problematic labels undermine the Kashmiri struggle, they also pre-suppose that a Kashmiri is incapable of articulating any political position unless worked upon by external influences.
Backdrop of the Kashmir Dispute
Kashmir’s political dilemmas are often referred to as the unfinished business of the “Partition”, the physical division of the South Asian subcontinent in 1947, when all “princely states” were given the choice to join either India or Pakistan. Two months after the Indian subcontinent won independence from British rule in August 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, the Hindu ruler of the muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, signed a Treaty of Accession for the state to join India, formalized in Article 370 of the Indian constitution, allegedly against the popular will of the Kashmiri muslim majority (Rai 2004; Rakesh 2018). The then Governor-General and last British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten backed his decision with the understanding that this would only be temporary accession prior to “a referendum or plebiscite.” The Instrument of Accession was therefore meant to be ratified by this referendum to ascertain the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The United Nation was given the mandate by both parties to the dispute, India and Pakistan, to mediate and the United Nations Security Council consequently passed two resolutions, Resolution 39 and Resolution 47, which sought the resolution of the Kashmir conflict through UN sponsored mediation. Contrary to the current Indian regimes public position that Kashmir was an “internal matter” to be decided by New Delhi, such action was affirmed by India’s founding fathers like Nehru, who had claimed that “Ultimately the final decision of settlement, which must come, has first of all to be made basically by the people of Kashmir & secondly, as between Pakistan & India directly.”
However, that promised plebiscite never took place, as India gradually rejected all mediation or international involvement in the matters of Kashmir as its “internal matter”. The premise for the current political actions of the Indian e in Kashmir is that the “Instrument of Accession” provisions were “temporary” and the recent Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act of 2019, branded as a Project of assimilation and integration, unlawfully nullifies the long-standing rights for Kashmir that preceded India’s independence from British rule in 1947. With no avenues available to the Kashmiris to meaningfully register their protest, the Kashmiris feel betrayed for being socially and politically oppressed and kept in isolation from the world. The current lockdown is only the latest in a series of betrayals faced by Kashmiris over the last 70 years, a cycle which started decades ago, when Indian political elites like Nehru and his successors were unable to fulfill a pledge to obtain the Kashmiri people’s consent to be part of India. As Shah Faesal, a young Kashmiri politician pointed out on the BBC, literally three generations of Kashmir have been betrayed by the Indian government. Faesal, who recently asserted publicly that he “refused to be a stooge” for the Indian government, has been subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Kashmir.
In this sense, Kashmir struggle for self-determination has been replete with heartbreaking betrayals by the international community, the Indian establishment and also by the local Kashmiri political elite. Among other factors, one of the major reasons for the failure of the Kashmiris’ struggle and their inability to articulate their concerns regionally and internationally, is the duplicity of the Kashmiri political elite, who have complicity sided with the Indian government for their own self interest and their political survival (Rai 2004; Rakesh 2018) and maintained silence over many tragedies. By colluding with the Indian government to systematically suppress the Kashmiri people’s voices, the “mainstream pro-India politicians” have “carried India’s water through the years of insurrection”, to quote Arundhati Roy. As Roy pointed out in the New York Times recently, the “collaborators” like Farooq Abdullah, his son, Omar Abdullah of the National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party, have been “sold down the river. Now that “the game of smoke and mirrors is finally over” with the Indian government, it comes as no surprise that most Kashmiris have shown little allegiance to or interest in collaborating with these Kashmiri leaders, who they believe operate at the behest of the Indian state.
Bollywood as an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’?
A majority of Indians seem to be celebrating the political status change in Jammu and Kashmir and valorizing the Indian government’s actions, against the visibly absent consent and the will of the Kashmiri people. This is so, as scholars have pointed out, because Kashmir’s long insurgency has also made Kashmiris visibly unpopular across India. This is evident in the way that Kashmiris and Muslims living elsewhere in India are regularly attacked every time there is civilian uprising or an attack on the Indian military in Kashmir.
Furthermore in mainstream Indian popular culture, the Muslim-majority Kashmir has always been India’s Oriental “other,” whose representations are consequently “loaded with fantasies of beauty and cruelty”, which are projected onto its exotic otherness of “fair women,” beautiful mountains, walnuts, and apples” (Kabir 2009; Kaul 2018). Needless to say Bollywood has played a major role in perpetuating these exoticized and essentialized representations of Kashmir as the “playground of love, lakes and mountains”. This is especially noticeable in the portrayal of Kashmiri women in Indian cinema, where Kashmiri women are shown as mindless, voiceless and helpless objects of desire.
As the Indian media emerges as the Althusserian “ideological state apparatus”, these representations emerge through a “mirror maze” created by “a marriage of film and propaganda in Bollywood”, which sustains “a mirage” for the Indian nationalism. Modi’s BJP regime has successfully and noticeably co-opted the country’s media and film industry. Not only is Modi “in” with the Bollywood mainstream he is also aware of Bollywood’s propaganda possibilities, as was visibly explicit in the way he tagged Bollywood actors on Twitter during the Indian elections, using movie dialogues from recent propaganda films like “Uri: The Surgical Strike”, imploring them to encourage young people to vote. Many of the mainstream Bollywood celebrities have been called out by the international media for their bias towards BJP, and their warmongering and hyper-nationalist jingoism in the recent past. Bollywood bigwigs like Priyanka Chopra, a UN GoodWill Ambassador, frequently socialize with Modi and cheer for the Indian military for bombing Pakistani villages, while others like Kangana Ranaut publicly call for “Pakistan[‘s] destruction.” Consequently, every year Bollywood churns out countless propaganda productions based on the fictionalized historical or military victories against Pakistan and Muslim ‘others’, marketed as “true war stories” and geared for hyper-nationalist consumption. It is significant to note that many of the leading Bollywood mainstream stars, who produce and feature in this culture are themselves Muslims, or rather the complicit ‘good muslims’ of Bollywood.
Any form of dissent to this narrative is clearly not acceptable, as was evident in the way an 18 year old Kashmiri actress Zaira Wasim was bullied by the Bollywood fraternity and the media networks. This episode could have led to some meaningful introspection about Bollywood’s alarmingly problematic treatment of women, but instead it whipped up an Islamophobic frenzy accusing Wasim of being “brainwashed by Kashmiri Islamists” and for having the temerity to disassociate herself from Bollywood. As Kashmir suffers from India’s colonialism, women are clearly the biggest victims of the ever present looming threat of violence. Several far-right BJP political leaders, activists, and supporters have publicly expressed their fantasy about the ease of getting “fair Kashmiri women” for Indian men. Recently the MIT Technology Review highlighted racist and misogynistic actions of Hindu nationalists flooding the social media app TikTok with videos declaring they plan to go to Kashmir, get married to Kashmiri girls in order to ostensibly make the contested majority-Muslim region Hindu. These actions came at the heels of an Indian state minister, who said that single Muslim activists “should be happy as they can now get married to ‘gori’ Kashmiri girls,” using the term for “light-skinned”. This is alarming given the history of physical and sexual violence against Kashmiri women by the Indian military in Kashmir (Kabir 2008; Anjum 2018; Kaul 2018). Indian social media is also being flooded with low-budget “patriotic pop” songs about buying land in Kashmir and marrying Kashmiri women.
As critics have pointed out Kashmir is little more than “a film set” for Bollywood, the Indian media, the Hindutva bhakts and the BJP government, as was evident in the first public speech by Modi, after the revocation of Article 370, in which he promised development and blamed all of Kashmir’s troubles as emanating from its autonomy, and predicted a rosy future where not just Bollywood, but international films would be shot in Kashmir. Indeed, war is a profitable business as Bollywood filmmakers are rushing to register titles of films such as Article 370, Operation Kashmir and Kashmir Hamara Hai (Kashmir Is Ours) in the last few weeks. Such actions and rhetoric would be laughable if the lives of 7 million Kashmiris were not at stake on this symbolic film set, where the Kashmiris themselves only have walk-on parts as extras and where they are always represented by others, never by themselves.
Kashmir’s Cyclical Invisibility
Clearly in all the conversations about Kashmir, the Kashmiri’s themselves seem to have no meaningful voice. As scholars point out, the Kashmiris rarely make it into the public discourse as three-dimensional human beings. It is only when tensions flare up between India and Pakistan that Kashmir emerges on the world map, and that too in the context of the dangers of nuclear war between the two countries. In this way the Kashmir issue has therefore been incessantly hostage to the India-Pakistan rivalry. However the need of the hour is to center the Kashmiris struggle, so that the voice of the Kashmiri people’s voice emerges organically for a meaningful engagement and resolution of their struggle. At the moment the Kashmiri’s seem to have no representation on local regional on any international platforms, because India has systematically refused to acknowledge Kashmir as a “disputed territory” by insisting that it is an “internal matter” for India. Furthermore, internally India continues to suppress and subjugate Kashmiri’s to the extent that they are incapable of any form of political expression or solidarity.
However, at the recent United Nations Security Council’s special meeting on Kashmir, held on Aug 16th, the Indian UN representative was forced to publicly accept for the first time in 50 years that Kashmir is an international dispute, which could be discussed bilaterally, as previously the Indians have refused every call for dialogue. In the meanwhile, as the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss Kashmir as an internationally recognized disputed territory and urged a bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan, the Indian Defense Minister casually tweeted about carrying out a nuclear attack on Pakistan, while another prominent BJP leader regurgitated false bravado about conquering Pakistani cities. Subsequently, the Pakistani establishment responded with equally belligerent rhetoric and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan told the NYT a few days ago that “there was no point in talking to India” after India failed to acknowledge or reciprocate earlier peace gestures from Pakistan. Given this context, the prospects of any bilateral talks seem to be non-existential, as does any prospect of an early resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Apart from issuing admonishments and statements for restraint, the UN has been unable to bring India to the discussion table and has visibly failed to generate the international solidarity needed to resolve the conflict. This is unfortunate because while all this violence is localized in the Indian administered Kashmir, the Kashmir issue can be meaningfully framed as a global crisis in the geopolitical context, which could have catastrophic consequences, given the scope and the scale of the conflict. Until there is a consolidated international effort to mediate a resolution to this conflict, the explosive Kashmir issue is likely to be consigned back into the shadows of invisibility once again.
Bizaa Zeynab Ali is a media and culture scholar, currently pursuing a Phd in Sociology, and also an editor at Public Seminar.
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