Keeping Kashmir on the Boil

Ibrahim Wani

During the Kashmir
protests in 2010, more than a 100 civilians
died as a result of police action. When the protests started subsiding, a group
of interlocutors was appointed by the central government, and they held formal
and informal discussions across a wide range of opinion in Kashmir. The
interlocutors’ report was submitted in 2012, and as has been the case in the
past, was summarily forgotten. As the protests of July 2016 displace the
protests of 2010, 2009, 2008, and perhaps of the last three decades in
intensity and scale – the toll for a three week period has already crossed 50
and many thousands are admitted to various hospitals – some cursory talk of
this report has re-surfaced. Even in this hour of crisis, there is little hope
that any of the suggestions of the report will be revisited or put into effect.

More harrowing still is
that power corridors in Delhi and Srinagar are involved in a semblance of a ‘humane
debate’ confined to the choice of weaponry against unarmed civilians; whether
to use pellet guns or some other non-lethal weapon. The profound absurdities of
what may be termed as ‘the sympathetic infliction of pain’ approach are not
lost on a Kashmiri – it has never been the case in the history of the protest
in Kashmir that the introduction of a new weapon has reduced the death tolls.
Each new ‘non-lethal’ weapon, imported or ‘made in India’ has brought with
itself new languages of pain and mourning in Kashmir. From this year, this
would include a new language of blindness, as hundreds of teenage eyes struggle
with the pain of metal pellets.
This struggle with
blindness is not confined to hospitals in Kashmir, but is also being beamed
into millions of homes across India. Kashmir is much more complex then what the
superficial rhetoric on TV news shows to audiences; it isn’t just an object of
a daily dose of spectacular, maximalist and sexed up nationalism.
This ‘Fox TV’ model of
news remains arguably the worst neo-liberal import, one which has fit perfectly
into the skewed systems of hierarchies, exclusions and nexuses in India polity,
society and economy. Through this intrusive news model, pejorative labels like
‘radical’, ‘islamist’, ‘jehadist’, ‘mobs’ or state coined terminologies of
‘crowd control’, and ‘law and order problems’ become part of normalised
everyday talk and comprehension. It is in this discourse, its acceptance and
internalisation as well as in our consent to it, that a stone becomes
intrinsically more dangerous than a bullet. It is here that a stone pelter is
placed in either senile madness or qualified as a violent terrorist. Unfortunately,
this is not just specific to Kashmir, and can be applied to many marginal
contexts in India today – protests against demolition in slums, farmers
protesting against land acquisitions or tribal populations being displaced for
mining projects. Today may be the most urgent hour to question ourselves on
this authoritarian quotidian control, and ask of ourselves
to invoke some sense into our mediatised consenting selves. Yet, is this
consent and legitimisation to events completely new, or has this always been an
uncomfortable social and political reality. Lest it isn’t forgotten, weren’t
large sections of the middle class of the emergency period in consent?
2016! …1953!
The protests of July
2016 are too big in scale to be compared to any one protest period in Kashmir.
While as commentators on Kashmir have been quick to compare the protests to
more recent years occurrences like the protests after a fake encounter in 2010,
to the protests after sexual violation and murder in 2009, or to the 2008 land
transfer to the Amarnath Yatra board, or even to election rigging in 1987, I
choose to draw the comparison to an earlier period.
mark a continuity of the protests of July 2016 to the first large scale
protests against India in Kashmir. It was in August 1953, that Sheikh Abdullah,
the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the autonomous Indian state
of Jammu and Kashmir was dismissed from office on the authority of the central
government. He was booked for sedition and a purge followed in which most of
his supporters in National Conference were arrested and jailed. Along with him,
was dismissed his socialist and secular
manifesto, recognised as most progressive of the time. This was a
government credited with the most ambitious land reforms in South Asia which marked
a profound departure from feudal control; even the Socio-Economic and Caste Census
of 2011 carried out by Government of India states that Kashmir has the least rural
in India and more than 77 % of rural households own land.
I do not wish to
position Burhan Wani in the same league as Sheikh, am sure he himself would not
have liked the comparison, ideologically as well as in the armed path he chose
for himself. What can’t be missed is the comparison in charismatic appeal, more
so in their deaths than in their lives; Sheikh’s death after illness plunged
Kashmir into a long period of collective mourning across the ideological
divides, and so has Burhan’s. Witnesses on the ground are comparing the crowds
at the two funerals, the only difference that the latter’s
was in a strict curfew.
The most profound
question which political parties as well as media networks can’t make sense of
relates to the funeral crowds; ‘Why would hundreds and thousands attend a
militant’s/terrorist’s funeral?’ Partha Chatterjee[2] in
an article published in the Telegraph (Calcutta) provides a comparison to
events in colonial Bengal when crowds thronged the
funeral of a nationalist revolutionary dubbed as a ‘terrorist’ and hanged by
the British after he assassinated a collaborator.
The important question to ask is that even though 3 militants were
killed, why is only one a centre of all attention? I wonder if people across
Kashmir can recall the names of the other two as easily as Burhan’s.
Burhan, in his body and
his appearance, unhidden and in its everyday appeal marked a new turn in the
articulation of Azaadi. In his death,
all articulations of Kashmiri Nationalism, all the Azaadis, bereft of any common symbol till now, found a point of embrace.
The militarisation of land, body, mind and soul had till now successfully
brought to its knees the secular as well as the more religiously inclined local
militancy. It had controlled all avenues and mediums of articulations and
expression through intimidation, negotiation or collaboration, but now committed
a colossal mistake.
 Burhan’s death was probably meant to destroy
the symbolism of his life. Instead, the crude images of his dead body which
were purposefully circulated by those who killed him backfired and instead gave
him a mythical and heroic status. Instantly, these pictures plunged Kashmir
into mourning. What followed was pain and anger – for people he became the
‘one’ who did not sell out, was pure of heart and who did not bow or bend. For
the hundreds of thousands who attended his funeral, I can claim with surety
that a majority had never seen his face or heard of him before his death. Yet
driven by his ‘charismatic’ death, they struggled through blocked roads, broke
curfews, made their way through fields in South Kashmir, slept without shelter
or food, and jostled among the thousands just to ‘be present’ in his final
journey through home into the martyr’s grave.
After decades, an
indigenous icon for Kashmiri Nationalism emerged in this ‘hero’. The last time
Kashmir had come out for a single person was in August 1953, when the Sheikh
Abdullah, termed as the ‘Lion of Kashmir’ was arrested, as referred to earlier.
This time, in Burhan’s death, a new reference to ‘Lion’ has been set, perhaps
for the first time after Sheikh. In the secular Sheikh’s humiliation, people mark
a national humiliation and a continuation of their struggles against the
autocratic rule. Making connection with the systems of humiliation, people do
not ascribe Burhan’s switching over to the gun to his religious belief, ideology
or organisational affiliation but to his personal experience of humiliation –
forced to buy cigarettes for the state armed forces and still beaten up
afterwards. A story everyone in Kashmir can relate to.
His death marks a new
turn in this national solidarity, like it did in 1953 and to events before
that. In a remarkable co-incidence the protests after Burhan’s death bore
remarkable similarity with protests in July 1931, when numerous protestors were
killed in protests against the autocratic rule of the Dogra regime in the
state. When Kashmir observed the Martyr’s day on 13th July, a state
holiday in commemoration of events in 1931, protestors were still being killed,
and new Marytr’s graveyards were being added to towns and villages across
Ultimately, the state
will regain its pervasive control and this period will pass too, added to collective
‘national’ memory in Kashmir, but this may be for the first time tht people in
Kashmir can be heard saying: it is better
to die once than die every day and every year
– something which wasn’t heard
even in the 1990s when militancy was at its peak.
Justice in Kashmir?
Sheikh’s version of
Kashmir’s national realisation was firmly placed in a secular idiom and
practice. For Burhan Wani, the idiom of Kashmir’s national realisation was
placed in a militant organisation which articulates its version of Azaadi in a religious idiom and is no
doubt supported by religiously inclined Pakistan. But everyday life in Kashmir
operates less through reference to political leaders or militant icons, but
through the experience of daily humiliation as well as the elusive search for
justice and closure. People do not need politicians or militants to explain to
them their everyday realities. They live it.
Last year, Burhan’s
brother Khalid was killed. His father who accepts and prides in Burhan’s
choices, laments that Khalid wasn’t a militant. Labelled later as an
over-ground worker by the police, could his killing be justified for being the
brother of a militant? Legitimising killing and not trial of armed militants is
one thing, but can the same ‘treatment’ be meted out to relatives and
acquaintances of militants? Doesn’t this blur the distinctions between the
‘terrorists’ the state claims to be fighting and the state itself.  Can the state action be then not equated to
the action of those who killed more than 200 Kashmiri Hindus, around 1000
non-Kashmiri Hindus and many thousands of Kashmiri Muslims on whimsical
suspicions of being Mukhbirs and
collaborators by association or acquaintance or religious belief?
The sense of justice which the state puts into practice in
Kashmir subscribes to two extreme exceptions and to the uncertain space in
between. The first is one of swift action, where ‘punishment’ pre-empts legal
procedure like the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah as well as Burhan’s encounter.
Another extreme is one
where any legal action is thwarted by impunity and immunity to the perpetrators
of fake encounters, torture as well as sexual abuse.
The uncertain space in between these is one where thousands struggle with law,
go from one police station to another, from one torture centre to another
special army or to SOG operation centre, one court to another and from one jail
to another, from one graveyard to another.  The saddest part of all this is that people
are no longer even looking for justice. They are looking for information on if
the person ‘picked up’ is alive or dead, or for information on police stations/cells/centres
where the person is held, or struggling to come to terms with the number of
cases registered against them or their acquaintances. Most of these turn up
into futile exercises, where even bribing
and sufarish for most end in vain.
To understand this sense
of state’s justice and its associated beneficiaries one needs to ask questions
like: Can an encounter with 3 militants last for just 4 minutes? Why was there
a need to bring special police from Srinagar for the encounter, despite the
presence of special police and army across the width of South Kashmir? Does an
encounter only happen in ‘National interest’? For anyone interested in answers
to these questions, it may be a good exercise to attempt to follow the reward money
trail or the promotion trial. For most people, who are not privy to this
conflict economy, the answers are embedded within the intricate knowledges of
everyday experience. These knowledges are not available in cinema, TV or
newspapers, as well as the burgeoning fiction and non-fiction on Kashmir –
increasingly written now by ex-intelligence or serving police officers.
When people read news
stories about an encounter, they make out that someone was bumped off after
arrest. When people hear police announcements that a mob burned the place of
Burhan’s encounter, they understand that that evidence was destroyed. When they
read that a policeman was killed after his car was thrown into a river, they
read a policeman lost control of his vehicle and the vehicle plunged into the
A system of rewards is
built into the encounter economy in Kashmir – a small part of the larger
conflict economy which is built into the intersections of the formal and
informal across India’s conflict zones, where national interest merges with the
most unlikely anti-national interests. It may not be a surprise if there is
some merit in the rumour mills in Kashmir that someone from within Burhan’s own
organisation sold him to stop his meteoric rise. It is here that criticism must
not be directed against only the state police, army and numerous agencies of
which the state itself may not be sure. It applies equally to militants and
militancy in Kashmir too.
There is no dearth of
examples of assassinations or targeted civilian killings ascribed to organisation
like the one to which Burhan was linked. The civil war between secular
organisations fighting for an independent Kashmir and religiously inclined
organisations fighting for merger with Pakistan or Islamic rule requires
documentation in detail, but is a chapter that everyone may want to forget. Another
example is that of the violence perpetuated against Kashmiri and Non-Kashmiri
Hindus who were forced to flee Kashmir. It is only in the later part that
militancy in Kashmir has become target specific to state police or armed
forces, before this thousands died in cross fire of the earlier periods. If
Kashmir is ever solved and perhaps even before that, all those who perpetuated
these crimes, from all sides, will need to be brought to justice for the crimes
committed for ideology, nation or the state.
and Radicalisation thesis: Do these explain Kashmir?
Alienation is a complex
concept, but I will try to explain the larger contours of its usage with
reference to Kashmir. A thesis picked up in the first half of the decade of
1990s, this understanding roots Kashmir to an economic basis. The thesis is primarily
based on the idea that the ‘fruits’ of development policies of the state were
confined to a small section of the population termed as the ‘nouveau rich’, a
group marked in continues with the religious and the political elite. This
thesis explains that these groups grabbed the Indian largesse in the form of
development which came to Kashmir, resulting in a condition where a large
section of Kashmir’s population was left untouched with the development.
Alienated from the development fruits, this deprived mass of population is held
as one where there were heightened feelings of relative deprivations and
disaffection. Interestingly still, the thesis then links the channelling of
this disaffection by the politicians supported by the same rich class into
anti-India sentiments. Over the years the thesis has gained fair acceptance
with state policy, and to conceptualisation of the problem as developmental. To
this end, the government has sponsored many Economic Task Forces to study
Kashmir, which came up with suggestive reports on the same (eg the Rangarajan
Report of 2006).
One of the primary parameters of this alienation is
presented in a deployment of spectacle of statistics. It is explained to us
that there are hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth in Kashmir who will
benefit from the thousands of new jobs which will be created when millions of
tourists from India will come to Kashmir under their special LTC programs.
These statistics also suggest that the need of the hour is for the Indian
Corporate Sector to arrive in Kashmir and set up base, or give menial jobs to
thousands of Kashmiri Youth. Yet, this thesis has never presented comprehensive
and comparative data sets on economic growth and development in Kashmir.
The contradiction here
is that the resolution of the alienation, seeks to work through the same class
it considers to be the problem in Kashmir; never ever has there been a
suggestion to list the actual amount of money spent on Kashmir in the
development programs, never ever has the money spent been put under scrutiny. Greater
still, the votaries of this thesis can’t explain why relatively well off places
in Kashmir continue to display most opposition to Indian rule or why the state
primarily still seeks to work through dole or patronage networks. The reverse
argument to the alienation thesis has greater legitimacy within Kashmir; this
thesis explains India as well as Pakistan in terms of economic exploiters. The
particular reference here is in terms of hydro-electricity and water resources,
which are mostly under the control of the central government.
The criticism is not just linked to this thesis. The
larger mode of governance in Kashmir is full of contradictions and seeped in
corruption by design. It comes as no surprise that over the last few years all
the issues of protest have emanated from contradictions in government policy
starting with the Amarnath Land Transfer, and continuing up to recent attempts
to further dilute the state autonomy, particularly with regards to land
accusation and citizenship rights. To cover up for its ‘intended’ failures, the
governments at the centre as well as the state have added the radicalisation
thesis to the narrative which seeks to qualify all protest as work of
radicalised and Islamised youth, indoctrinated over the internet.
This marks a perfect
excuse to block, suspend and censor content deemed oppositional by the state.  In fact, in the days preceding the Burhan
killing, one of the major topics of discussion in the traditional as well as
social media in Kashmir related to the criticism of loud speakers being used in
Masjids. Whom the state would want to term as ‘radicalised’ internet youth were
not just critical of the Mosque, they were critical of the religious
establishment in the month of Ramzan.
But this is not to
completely disagree with the fact that right wing political organisations
throughout the world have been very effective at using new media technologies
to their advantage. However, these debates need deeper academic scrutiny, and I
for one am critical of these arguments which operate through a colonial gaze –
here the medium is given greater agency than the ‘senseless’ population. It
must be remembered here that much larger social and political mobilisations did
operate before the advent of internet. It is here that I am also critical of
the Burhan internet thesis which seeks to project him as an Expert social media
propagandist. The many hundreds of thousands who visited his funeral may never
had access to internet in the first place, particularly so if we believe the
alienation thesis.
future in Kashmir?
In the present
condition, Kashmir has come to represent an ‘oppressive’ Indian state; it has
become representative of trigger happy policing and a triumphalist militarism, of
a rigid bureaucracy seeking to govern through siege than free will, and an
aggressive rather than accommodative political class. This India attempts to
create sense of false normalcy in Kashmir, in election percentages and in
tourism statistics, only to be broken by a return to even more intense phase of
protest. I have no doubts that this is a complete anti-thesis of what a
democratic and free India set out to achieve.
A rather pressing
question to ask here is that has there been any change in the Kashmir policy of
successive governments in India.  Placed
in the broader binaries of enmity with Pakistan, little has changed on and in
Kashmir, and it seems that there is a broader political consensus in not just India,
but also Pakistan to hold on to their piece of prized ‘real estate’ by any ‘holy’
or ‘unholy’ means necessary. It is wishful thinking at play when political
actors think that the problem can be wished away by presenting and reinforcing imaginaries
of Kashmir in either tourism, in religious solidarities or in trans-national
frames of terror. It is important to remember here that Kashmir came to
violence in 1987, after four decades of peaceful protests and much before 9/11.
Both India and Pakistan need
to come to terms with the elephant in the room. There is no dearth of
creativity on both sides of the border, and instead of being a bone of
contention Kashmir can become the connecting link between the two countries; I
am sure that South Asia can be a testing ground for new conciliatory models of
state and sovereignty frameworks. But for all this to work out, both countries
will first have to stop treating Kashmir as a piece of land and start treating
it as people.

[2] Chatterjee, Partha.
2016 (21st July). ‘Beyond the crossroads- Democratic nationalism in
Kashmir must get a genuine Chance’, The
: Calcutta.

The author is a research scholar at TISS, Mumbai.