By the turn of the century almost everyone in India from the bit politician to the deep state, the military establishment to political pundits, the local collaborator class to fly-by journalists, was convinced that Kashmir’s story was over, that indeed it had come to a happy conclusion. Kashmir had been India’s big story for a while, a national challenge and an international theatre. The story had begun with the partition of the subcontinent itself, but never assumed as much urgency as with the outbreak of the militant armed rebellion challenging India’s sovereignty over the territory and its inhabitants, sparked by the rigged elections of 1987. By the next decade, the popular armed movement had consigned a generation of Kashmiris to the graveyard. India’s response to the insurrection was hard and successful. Different estimates put the number of those killed during the armed conflict at anything between 60,000 to 100,000. Thousands were forcibly disappeared, often by the state’s military establishment.
A new beginning, however, had allegedly arrived by the 2000’s. With the armed militancy crushed, it was assumed that the Kashmir question was now dead and buried, along with those that had risen to fight for it. The new narrative in its place was of roses and fresh breeze, of snow capped mountains and shikaras leisurely strolling on the waves of Dal. Nationally and internationally, Kashmir was given a makeover as an Edenic tourist destination. Peace had returned and with it development and tourism. To be fair, this belief wasn’t altogether unwarranted.
India’s post-colonial nation state inherited a multitude of “nationalities” from the departing British empire, further consolidated territory by annexing princely states like Hyderabad, and coerced Junagadh into submission. Kashmir itself was taken over through military action in a melee of partition violence. The Instrument of Accession, signed by the fleeing Dogra autocrat against whom Kashmiris had themselves raised the Quit Kashmir banner not long ago, merely rubberstamped the reality on ground. Nagaland and Manipur (both with significant Christian populations) were similarly brought under India’s rule, despite resistance. This formative territorial consolidation was achieved under the helm of her great conquistador, the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawahar Lal Nehru. Nehru’s lasting legacy among India’s liberal sections as well as internationally, ironically remains that of a great peacemaker, a principled socialist leader of the third world and a primary architect of the anti-imperial Non-alignment Movement – all despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Aside from the annexation of Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir and appropriations of Christian majority Nagaland (and Manipur), thorny challenges to Indian territoriality were raised in Sikh majority Punjab and in the Hindu majority Assam. The familiar pattern in these various insurgencies and rebellions for national self-determinations was decisive military action by the Indian state, giving little or indeed nothing away in the form of resolutions. Once the first waves of these armed movements were decisively crushed, in turn little else followed that had the same intensity of mass revolt to challenge India’s claim of sovereign authority. Even as a history of sub-nationalisms and dual-nationalisms marks these fractured terrains, and the long duree of historical judgment awaits culmination from Manipur to Punjab, military victories had indeed been decisive for India in the immediate past. The script was supposed to follow this familiar pattern in Kashmir.
A shifting global landscape also left its imprint on the region. Post-9/11, Muslims became the global ‘other’, and Kashmir was not immune. Common discourse from streetside conversations to newspaper articles impressed on the local population that the ‘world had lost patience with all violence’. In the eyes of the global community the fait accompli of a Muslim majority population fighting an armed rebellion for national self-determination against a secular and democratic India was bound to be that of a terror movement, to be crushed without sympathy or remorse.
Against the backdrop of these two shifts – the crushing of the armed rebellion of the early 1990’s and the fate of the post-9/11 Muslim world – it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that Kashmiris engaged in a quiet dialogue and a coded conversation about the future of their struggle. This intermediate period of reassessment and reformulation of the early 2000’s was misread by the sundry and the ‘experts’ as the final culmination of the Kashmir question. Not to be, however; for even before the decade was out the ‘peace’ lull of the 2000’s birthed yet more popular uprisings and revolts, only growing in intensity with each new iteration of the same demand – Aazadi, Freedom. The placebo prescription of the New Kashmir of roses and breezes failed to cure Kashmiris of this collective desire. To recapitulate the failure of this prognosis of the post-militancy era, we turn the clock back to the last decade of protests and rebellion in Kashmir beginning with the ‘Amarnath Land Row’.
Pilgrimage and Blockade
Kashmiris have long been convinced or suspicious that India’s final solution to Kashmir would be something between demographic change and settler colonialism. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution had offered some protection from this denouement, effectively foreclosing non-Jammu & Kashmiri citizens of India from becoming either permanent residents or owning property and land in the state. On May 26th 2008 the local state government allocated about 99 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), a recently constituted autonomous body meant to oversee arrangements for the annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir. Apart from raising issues of ecological sensitivity, the SASB land transfer was seen as an attempt at violating Kashmir’s national identity by undermining its demography, one unassuming stitch at a time. Peaceful protests that broke out to demand revocation of the land transfer soon escalated.
Despite eventually revoking the permanent transfer of land, the state government lost its majority and Congress Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was forced to resign. By early June control of the state of Jammu and Kashmir was passed to the new Governor, Mr. S.K Sinha, a direct appointee of the central government at Delhi – seen as a reversion to the tumultuous 90’s when the state was ruled directly from the centre. As disquiet grew in Kashmir, the revocation of the SASB land transfer led to counter-protests in the Hindu-majority Jammu province, demanding that the land be restored to the SASB, culminating in a call for an ‘economic blockade’ of Kashmir valley by the Jammu-based Sangharsh Samiti (Committee for Agitation).
There is a single precarious mountainous route, at places only as wide as a narrow tunnel, that connects India to Kashmir making the movement of people and goods possible. As the Jammu agitation called for blocking this route, it meant that Kashmiris might soon end up without essential stocks of goods, food and oil, among other things. The pro-freedom leadership countered the attempted blockade with a call of “Muzaffarabad Chalo” (March to Muzaffarabad – the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir). As people from across Kashmir joined the march to Muzaffarabad, a welcome was prepared for them by the people of Muzaffarabad by marching to the Line of Control in anticipation of the protestors’ arrival.
India responded by firing directly on the marchers. Reports suggested up to 150 were injured in the firing, and the massacre also claimed 7 lives, including that of prominent Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz. By now, scores of protestors had already been killed in India’s military response to the civil uprising. Other measures including imposition of curfews and restrictions on movement were beginning to be employed to break its momentum. But the biggest protest of 2008 was yet to come.
The Eid Gah March of 22nd August, called by the pro-freedom amalgam, was joined by an estimated million people. The next march, scheduled for about a week later, was to Lal Chowk, Valleys’ commercial hub as well as an important administrative area, housing the civil secretariat, the state legislative assembly complex, the local high court and other important administrative departments. The ‘fall of Lal Chowk’ could have been precipitous, perhaps – like Bastille for the French revolution, or a potential Tahrir square, well before the Arab Spring had rolled. India responded to this potential threat ruthlessly.
No movement was allowed, with curfews and restrictions stretching for weeks. People ran out of essentials, medicines, children cried for milk. No further marches and protests were allowed and could be taken out. Over months of siege the momentum was broken, the protests curtailed and Kashmir was returned to ‘normalcy’. By the end of the protests of 2008, some 70 civilians had been killed by Indian forces, thousands injured and a new generation of Kashmiris forged in the furnace of rebellion had earned its pedigree.
The emotional surfeit produced by the protests of 2008 is firmly preserved in popular memory for Kashmiris in the image of a dancing-protest, a rhythmic agitation of a collective ‘supra-body’, in which men and even often women huddled into circles, interlocking their arms to jump and stomp on the ground at a hurriedly drawn map or flag of India, to the brief pulsating slogan of “Ragdo-Ragdo”, often attributed to have been first brought to life by a group of transgender protestors – “Stomp! Stomp! Stomp at India!” A brief plebiscite of dancing Kashmiris voting with their feet because they weren’t allowed to vote with their hands remains a poignant memory and a lasting legacy of the peaceful mass protests and demonstrations of 2008.
Stones and Pellet Guns
In 2009 Kashmir would again be gripped in a circle of protests, curfews, strikes and killings, this time precipitated by the ‘double-rape and triple-murder’ case of Shupiyan. On 29th May 2009, Neelofer (22) and Asiya (17), sisters-in-law, went missing and were found later, as per locals, raped and dead in a nearby ravine that was running parched in the summer. The third victim of the triple murder case was Neelofer’s unborn child, killed in her mother’s womb. The family of the deceased and locals alleged that the crime had been committed by Indian forces camped in the area. The local government established an inquiry commission that concluded the two women had been raped and murdered, but its findings were soon undermined by further inquiries conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a central government agency, that concluded that the women had drowned to their death in the knee-deep waters of the stream. Kashmir’s instinctive distrust of the Indian judicial system was yet again confirmed. The cycle of protests and curfews continued for months, again extending into passionate calls for Azadi from India.
By the summer of 2010, these calls were often accompanied with stones launched from clenched fists. On June 11, seventeen-year-old Tufail Mattoo was killed when a gathering of civilians was protesting the latest staged encounter by Indian forces (who claimed to have apprehended militants from Pakistan – in fact, the murdered men were neither militants nor Pakistanis). Tufail’s killing, whose skull was shattered open by a tear gas canister fired at his head by the state police, shocked Kashmiris more than many other such killings, indignities and brutalities. Tufail, a little boy just about to grow into adulthood, triggered a summer of unforgiving rage in Kashmir. At this point in time, all of history came to weigh on the unjust murder of a young, innocent schoolboy.
Since the mass protests of 2008, the Indian state had learnt that peaceful uprisings were too dangerous to be allowed to develop. With marches and political gatherings banned, the pro-freedom leadership detained and curfews imposed, kani jung (stone-wars) assumed centre-stage as a response.
Mostly young men and boys, but not infrequently women too, assembled in lanes and by-lanes, targeting India’s military presence of convoys, platoons on area dominance exercises, street-side bunkers and camps, to relentlessly pummel them with stones, demanding that they return to their country and leave Kashmir to Kashmiris. Anonymity, a handkerchief to cover their faces, was their only means of self-defence. Against the absurdity of nuclear death made likely by the inability of sufficiently advanced polities to respect peoples’ right to their life and history, Kashmiris evolved an art-form as a war-protest from something as prehistoric a weapon as a bare hand with a stone; a restoration of ordinary earthly sense against the blitzkrieg of a possible intelligent nuclear holocaust.
By the time summer was over and Kashmir had exhausted its last reserves of rage and anger, over a hundred of these children had been killed. Indian forces responded to the stone-wars by firing live ammunition and, increasingly, the pellet gun at the protestors. Pellet guns are not non-lethal, but they allow forces to kill fewer and mutilate more. Hundreds of Kashmiris, protestors and non-protestors, have by now lost their eyes to this weapon of mass-blinding. Others carry this monumental suffering in their faces, skulls, jaws, spines, arms and legs.
In 2016 the killing of Burhan Wani, a young, new-age militant commander of the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen (who was more familiar to Kashmiris for daringly appearing on their social media than for his military exploits) sent Kashmir yet again into an open revolt against India’s occupation. Yet again, nearly a hundred civilians rebelling against the State were killed, and yet again scores were blinded, and thousands injured and incarcerated. The protests were once more broken down with familiar tactics of month-long sieges, curfews, with soldiers on doorsteps and legal and punitive violence of PSA’s and pellet-guns.
The Second Annexation
Each wave of protests over the years beginning with 2008 through to 2016 has been bolder and stronger than the one that preceded it. Over the years Kashmiris and the state have both adapted and refashioned their tools. Kashmris are willing to lose lives and limbs and India is willing to kill and maim. Like all great battles are, this one too is an unequal one. With the growth and triumph of Modi’s Hindutva-nationalist BJP, the social-political body in India has moved further to the right. Its decimation of lndia’s liberal fragments and figments is more or less complete. Modi’s great coup, the feather in his cap, remains the second annexation of Kashmir.
On August 5, 2019 India’s parliament unilaterally – and arguably illegally – abrogated Article 370, the last vestigial organ of Kashmir’s autonomy. Since then the state has been partitioned into two, with Ladakh now a separate entity, Jammu and Kashmir further downgraded to a Union Territory that is currently under the authority of a Lieutenant-Governor, a direct appointee of the central government. The fears of demographic change that initiated the protests of 2008 are beginning to be realised as the provisions for becoming permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir are now made available to Indians by and large, and the process is already well underway. Modi’s triumph of Kashmir is perhaps more formal than substantial. Credit where it is due, the content of India’s victory in Kashmir, as elsewhere, – beginning from the first stage of primitive accumulation of territory and followed up with the backbreaking work of eliminating militancy and snuffing out mass protests without conceding an inch, the task of murder and torture, was all carried out diligently by the blue blooded secular-liberal class of India’s leadership, for whose return, even in the name of Kashmir, India’s current crop of Modi’s opponents pines achingly.
To achieve this era-defining move successfully, Modi’s government turned Kashmir into a garrison. A military siege that lasted for three months was immediately launched, with internet cut-off and mobile phones permanently jammed. After a couple of months landlines were eventually opened up, under intense international pressure. It is unclear how many were arrested or variously detained from time to time to keep the valley under the boot, but the number is likely to be in the high thousands, if not more. No major protests broke out with this final denouement in Kashmir, except for some solitary last stands. This time, on the whole, Kashmiris decided to patiently out-wait the state instead. There’s no good prognosis for Kashmir even as there is dignity in her beleaguered refusal. From protests to mass revolt to patience and silence, Kashmir keeps its struggle going, and its’ mad heart beating.
Image Credits: Mir Suhail, Al Jazeera