Kashmir must have nothing less than freedom

August 23, 2016

Since the extra-judicial killing of Burhan Wani, a Kashmiri independence fighter, by Indian security forces in a village in South Kashmir on July 8, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris have once again taken to the streets in protest. The Indian government has responded with a brutal crackdown in which dozens have been killed and thousands injured. Nagesh Rao spoke with Mohamad Junaid, a Kashmiri activist and Ph.D. candidate at the City University of New York, who was in Kashmir for three weeks during the crackdown, about the current crisis and its context.

IT'S BEEN eight years since the eruption of what we've been calling the new intifada in Kashmir in 2008. What's changed since then, and what is the scale and character of protests this year?

THIS GOES back at least to the late 1980s mass movement for independence, in which thousands of Kashmiris took up arms against the Indian state. India responded by deploying hundreds of thousands of soldiers and imposing a draconian state of emergency in the region.

By the early 2000s, the armed movement was subdued, yet the scale of militarization of public spaces and punitive laws remained unaltered.

Then, in 2008, large-scale nonviolent protests took place, sparked by the government granting land near an ecologically sensitive region to a Hindu religious trust that wanted to erect permanent facilities for tens of thousands of pilgrims who visit for two months each year. The protests morphed into massive rallies in support of independence.

In 2010, extrajudicial killings in Machil near the Line of Control [the de facto border between India and Pakistan] led to a long summer of protests and military crackdowns that left 116 Kashmiris dead and thousands injured.

Kashmiris injured by Indian occupation troops
Kashmiris injured by Indian occupation troops (Kashmir Global)

Ever since, there have been regular protests, small and large, with Kashmiris demanding that the Indian army be withdrawn from civilian areas; calling for justice for victims of sexual assault by state forces; or demanding the return of the bodies of Kashmiri pro-Independence leaders, such as that of Maqbool Bhat, who was hanged in an Indian jail in 1984.

The important thing this time around is that there is not a demand for an investigation [into Burhan Wani's killing] ,nor are the protests simply an outcome of outrage over the killing. The main message the protesters are sending is: "We need to get it done, now or never; India needs to withdraw from Kashmir. We are fed up with you. You need to acknowledge Kashmir as a political question, and give us our right to azaadi [freedom]."

It is not just young people in the streets of Srinagar or other towns, as was largely the case in 2010. This time, the protests started in the countryside and spread to the cities. Young and old, men and women, are coming out on the streets in large numbers, defying state curfews and putting their lives at risk. They are facing bullets and pellet guns; they have been grievously wounded and blinded during these protests.

This level of intensity in protests is new and is a sign of desperation with the unremitting repression imposed on the people. At the same time, while the Indian state has always responded to protests in Kashmir, even the smallest ones, with deadly force, the brazenness of the current crackdown on protests is new.

There is a massive wave of anger against the local government led by the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has allied itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is in power in India. The BJP is a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, which not only wants to keep Kashmir under the Indian jackboot, but advocates change in the region's demography as a permanent solution to Kashmir.

BJP functionaries have for long been publicly talking about population transfer, pushing Kashmir's majority Muslims out to Pakistan, developing sainik [army] colonies, establishing separate cities for Kashmiri Hindus, and abrogating legal hurdles that prevent Indians and Indian industrialists from purchasing land in Kashmir.

Some of these procedures have already been set off. All this has built up a pervasive anxiety among Kashmiris, which forms the background to the uprising that we have witnessed since Burhan Wani's killing.

When the news arrived of Burhan Wani's death, thousands thronged the village of Bumdoor [where Wani was killed] in south Kashmir. The next day, some 300,000 people assembled for his funeral in his hometown Tral. There were many other gatherings across Kashmir.

This level of attendance for the funeral of a young rebel commander is historic, as many people can recall only Sheikh Abdullah's funeral in 1982 or that of the young Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chief Ishfaq Majeed's in 1990 being attended by so many people.

CAN YOU say something about Burhan Wani and why Kashmiris took to the street when he was killed?

BURHAN WANI'S name is among the long list of Kashmiris--young Kashmiris--who have taken up arms against the Indian state's control over Kashmir. In many cases, they have been forced to take arms because they suffered personal injustice or witnessed atrocities against fellow Kashmiris by Indian forces.

During the 2010 protests, Burhan Wani and his brother were beaten and humiliated by local police. Burhan joined armed guerillas. In response to Burhan's growing popularity, the Indian military tortured his brother to death in 2013, although he himself was not a guerilla.

For many people in Kashmir, Burhan was a "pious rebel" dedicated to the struggle for Kashmir's freedom. He had assembled a motley group of young Kashmiri rebels around him, most of whom were locally trained. He had also developed a large following among young Kashmiris who identified with his message of liberation from Indian military occupation. Despite the Indian agencies and media spreading rumors about his character and motives, Kashmiris showered him and his comrades with affection.

Incidentally, the Indian government also contributed to the rise of Burhan as a rebel icon--they continually asked young Kashmiris, "Is Burhan your role model? Or should this new generation of Kashmiris who passed exams to become state bureaucrats be your role models?"

For young Kashmiris, who have seen nothing but state violence and military repression throughout their lives and who long for freedom from India, Burhan was an obvious choice. The Kashmiri response was: "We don't want to become bureaucrats to serve your occupation. We don't have anything against Kashmiri bureaucrats, but don't tell us they should be our role models."

Yet while young Kashmiris looked up to Burhan and admired him, or at least understood his cause, his appeal among the older generation--among men and women and children who don't have access to his pictures and videos on the internet--might appear baffling.

The scale of mourning at Burhan's killing among Kashmiris can only be understood if we recognize that his persona became emblematic of the present moment in Kashmir. This present moment has a long history of injustice behind it, and in the minds of Kashmiris will only end with the rollback of the Indian occupation.

HOW HAS the Indian government responded? Tell us about the crackdown in response to the protests.

THE INDIAN government got unnerved by the scale of the protests and the outpouring of support for Burhan. While they could not prevent hundreds of thousands of people attending his funeral in Tral, they responded to similar funeral meetings elsewhere in South Kashmir with shootings, tear gas shelling and pellet guns. Almost a dozen people were shot to death and hundreds injured in the first few hours of protests.

This violence provoked a lot of people. Any time there is an injury or a death, young people respond by throwing stones at soldiers, which gives the latter an alibi to escalate violence.

During the days, the protesters fight street battles with government forces, and in the nights, Indian police and soldiers enter neighborhoods, arrest and beat people. They damage people's property, vehicles and harass the residents. Then, the next day, the cycle of protests begins again.

In the first few days after Burhan Wani's killing, around 35 people were shot dead and a thousand were injured [a figure which has now reached 70 and over 6,000, respectively]. Many of the dead and injured have been shot with pellet guns--these are not plastic pellets, but hundreds of high-velocity lead pellets that perforate the soft tissue and damage internal organs. Soldiers shot dozens of people in their faces with pellets.

Over the course of the next three weeks, while I was there, close to 100 people had suffered serious damage to their eyes, and at least a couple of dozen among them were permanently blinded, and many more were left with no hope for restoring full vision.

Among the thousands of the wounded, many had bullet injuries above their waist. Shooting above the waist is not part of the standard operating procedure for crowd control in India, but in Kashmir, such tactics are used with impunity. The tangible legacy of this crackdown will be the thousands who will now live with these injuries for the rest of their lives.

Today is the 42nd day of what the Indian government calls "curfews." One has to remember that the curfew in Kashmir is not just a governmental restriction against people assembling for protests or public meetings. In Kashmir, it is more like a military siege. Not only are people forced to stay inside their homes on pain of getting shot or arrested, but a blockade is imposed on essential supplies, like food, medicine and fuel, as well as on communication.

Over the last 42 days, people have suffered from the lack of medicine. They don't have access to food stores. Many, especially children, are under intense emotional and psychological stress. Many people have died from lack of medical care and lack of access to hospitals. These are deaths which are not even accounted for in the official counts of the dead.

There are daily reports about troops barging into hospitals to beat up medical staff and the injured protesters, of soldiers attacking ambulances and shooting ambulance drivers, and even of teargas shelling of emergency rooms where the pellet gun victims are nursing injuries to their eyes.

In the initial days, the intensity of protest was so high that in many places, the curfews were broken. At night, people began moving around and arranged community kitchens at the hospitals. They organized food for impoverished families who didn't have food. And each time, the government forces tried to prevent that from happening.

They basically wanted people to suffer, to defeat the people by attrition. Recently when the Hurriyat, a coalition of all the pro-freedom groups, requested people clean up their neighborhoods and organize common funds for the poor, the government tried to prevent people from doing even that--just to show who has the authority!

The internet was basically shut down around the same time as Burhan's killing. Mobile phones were down first across South Kashmir then all over Kashmir. Newspapers were confiscated and not allowed to be disseminated.

For several days, all the printing presses were locked down, and several journalists were threatened. People who were posting on Facebook about Kashmir had their accounts suspended by Facebook, most likely after Indian government's requests.

So I think this time around, not only have the protests been intense, but there has been a marked escalation on the part of the Indian state to suppress the protests. The silencing of news and the radio silence globally on the violence against Kashmiris allows Indian leaders carte blanche to deal with protests the way they please.

THE DOMINANT narrative in the media is that Kashmir is a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. What do you say to that narrative, and the idea that the solution is going to come through some sort of negotiation between India and Pakistan and some international body?

THE STRUGGLE in Kashmir is precisely about saying that this is not a territorial dispute--that it's a long historic struggle of Kashmiris for self-determination, for their dignity as a people, and for an end to the humiliating conditions of the Indian occupation.

This history goes back not just to 1947, but earlier--to 1931, when mass politics emerged with Kashmiris demanding equality and responsible self-government in a free, sovereign Kashmir.

While Indian nationalists have internalized the myth of a geopolitical continuity of India since ancient times, and see Kashmir as integral to that territorial vision, Kashmiris see both India and Pakistan as rather new entities that only emerged from the ruins of the British empire. Kashmiris see themselves as a people, who have longer political aspirations and cultural memories than the arrangement that was forced on them in 1947.

While there are UN resolutions on Kashmir that call for Kashmiris to decide between India and Pakistan, most Kashmiris want independence. Nevertheless, Kashmiris see UN resolutions as historically important because those resolutions legally acknowledge Kashmiris as a people with valid claims to self-determination, unlike the Indian constitution which denies them that right.

Kashmiris want a referendum in the region to determine a final settlement for Kashmir. They don't see any just solution emerging from talks between India and Pakistan, or under an arrangement where Kashmiris are not acknowledged as the primary party to the Kashmir question.

SOME PEOPLE on the left in India say that we would support the Kashmiris if they were to adopt a secular, progressive set of politics, but we can't support them if they follow groups that are sectarian or Islamist. "What about the Pandits," we often hear--the Kashmiri Hindus who fled the valley and haven't yet returned.

IN SOME ways, the Indian mainstream left's history of not standing with Kashmiris, and instead conniving with the Indian state's suppression of Kashmiri national liberation movement, has actually narrowed the space for left politics in Kashmir.

There is a long history of left, progressive politics in Kashmir, which the Indian state systematically erased. National Conference [the largest political party in Jammu and Kashmir] was a secular progressive movement from the beginning.

The Indian state discredited it, initially by going back on the promise of plebiscite in Kashmir, promoting unscrupulous but pro-Indian politicians to the top, and then by turning them against their own people.

The JKLF, which was secular in its outlook and had started the mass movement for independence in 1988-89, was met with brutal military repression. It's in the wake of that defeat of secular nationalism that the Islamist parties have gained ground. So one has to look at it historically--and the Indian left takes a self-serving, ahistorical perspective on what has been happening.

Second--and this is not an ingenious statement to make--all societies are complex. As the world is shaped today, every society has pluralist progressives and ethno-nationalists, liberal and right-wing fundamentalists, religious and non-religious parties. Kashmir is no different.

India is currently run by a party which advocates Hindu majoritarianism. This has not prevented the Indian left from believing in India as a free country. Why should existence of multiple political formations in Kashmir warrant denial of solidarity with the Kashmiri freedom movement?

Kashmiris as a people are mature. They will be able to determine what an independent Kashmir would look like. And those discussions can truly happen only under a condition where they are independent.

Having said that, there are already so many discussions taking place in Kashmir. It's not that the tehreek [movement] is only led by Islamist groups. There are other forces on the ground. Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region, and there have been frictions, and the question of Pandits and other minorities has been an important one for people.

But what could have been a very productive conversation between Kashmiri Pandits, Kashmiri Sikhs, Kashmiri Christians and other communities with the majority Muslims, has been hijacked by the Indian Hindu right and the Indian government itself, so that Kashmiri Hindus are used as pawns to prevent a conversation on this issue.

Kashmiri Hindus have suffered from having been displaced from their homes, as have Kashmiri Muslims, who live in different states of exile across the world. India cannot be an honest broker on how diverse peoples of Kashmir must negotiate a civil and political contract among themselves.

I trust that Kashmiris will be able to solve these questions once the hypotheticals become substantive issues, once independence is on the table. The Indian occupation is a divisive arrangement. It fractures Kashmiri society and then claims these fractures to be pre-existing.

HOW DO you see this occupation coming to an end? It's been going on for decades now. What forces will bring this about?

KASHMIR HAS always been ready for freedom. There has to be a change within India itself. Much of the Indian discourse is hostage to its own rhetoric. Instead of tackling the question of Indian imperialism in its peripheries, the Indian left used to say the movement in Kashmir was an American ploy to destabilize a socialist India!

Post-1990, India has hardened its position. In 1994, the Congress government passed a resolution in the Indian parliament that termed Kashmir as "an integral part of India," which was in line with similar about-turns in its previous positions. In the beginning, Indian leaders like Nehru had acknowledged, publicly, that the Kashmir dispute would be resolved through a plebiscite.

After the 1971 Bangladesh war, the Indian government took the position that Kashmir was a "bilateral issue" between India and Pakistan (effectively denying Kashmiris a say in their political future), and then, after 1994, the Indian government started saying Kashmir was "non-negotiable."

Most Kashmiris see the Indian presence in Kashmir as a military occupation, akin to a colonial occupation, which must end and cannot be solved or dressed up in any decent way.

And so, I think fundamentally what is needed is an attitude change within Indian society itself. Obviously, the government is not going to suddenly change its perspective. Any government in India will only transform its vision if there is a groundswell of opinion.

I think that despite the assault of the Hindu right-wing government in power and in defiance of the advice from the ossified older left, the manifestations of that change are beginning to appear: in universities, in progressive and young leftist groups, within the radical Dalit movement, there have been shifts of opinion on Kashmir. It's a very welcome change, and I hope the momentum builds.

Secondly, many Kashmiris realize that the occupation will not end abruptly. They don't expect India to suddenly withdraw like the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan.

It has to happen in a way where there is a period of transition. Maybe five to 10 years, where the military is withdrawn, pro-independence parties are allowed freedom of movement and assembly, borders are opened to allow Kashmir on the two sides to interact with each other, and intra-Kashmir conversations under neutral circumstances are allowed over the nature of the post-independence order.

It should be followed by a gradual transfer of power to the freely elected representative bodies of the Kashmiri people. And then, probably after 10 years, Kashmiris should be asked to decide what they want to do, and it doesn't have to be India or Pakistan, or even independence. It can also be some other kind of freely chosen status, within a larger South Asian union or federation: That would be ideal. But I think what needs to happen is a basic change in India.

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