One evening in October 1999, coming home from an orchard in the hills, I had my first encounter with an Indian soldier. He spotted me across the stream that ran by our village. Cussing, enraged, squinting through the dark, he summoned me to him. “Where are the militants hiding in your village?” he screamed. “Do they come to your house?” “I don’t know where the militants are,” I blurted out. I was five years old at the time. He grabbed me by the collar, slapped me, and shoved me down on the cold ground. That night I cried myself to sleep. I never returned to the orchard.
I saw such harassment all around me growing up in the Kashmir Valley. Nearly everyone I know—classmates, friends, neighbors—has been assaulted by a soldier at some point. As I write this, images of arbitrary beatings, sexual harassment of young girls, and humiliation of the elderly return to my mind. I recall a group of women being chased off their rice fields by an army platoon. They reached home heavily panting, scarcely able to speak, traumatized. They didn’t sleep properly for nights after and soon stopped walking around alone. Their fields are now occupied by soldiers—grabbing Kashmiri property is common practice—who sit their futilely, growing nothing.
Beatings and land expropriation are only the tip of the iceberg. Over the past three decades, the Indian armed forces have unleashed a reign of terror on Kashmiris, partaking in torture and sexual violence, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances, and, of late, blinding protesters with pellets. These experiences make up the collective suffering of Kashmir, where people continue to live with everyday tragedies, where despair is the norm, the present lies in ruin, and the future exists only in hope.
The notion that Kashmir—and Kashmiris—are somehow an “integral part” of India is embedded in the average Indian psyche.
Yet you would know none of this from following the Indian media. The coverage of Kashmir in India’s newspapers and websites (to say nothing of its grotesque, twenty-four-hour television stations) is partisan to a degree that is hard to fathom. Journalists discuss the “conflict”—no one says “occupation”—through the lens of the state, obfuscating facts and voices on the ground, depicting Kashmiris as “misguided youth,” “stone pelters,” and “terrorists,” never as democratic protesters, let alone freedom fighters. Shouting jingoistic banalities over flashy images of violence, television anchors suppress critical thought, fostering hatred and bigotry in its place. In a way, this is more effective than state propaganda.
I wonder if this is partly why Indians display such little empathy towards Kashmiris. At Delhi University, where I was a graduate student, the prejudice against Kashmiris was rampant. It was not only right-wingers, who of course saw Kashmiris as “Muslim separatists,” or liberals, who knew little of substance about the conflict but worshipped the idea of a “united India,” but even those on the left. An activist of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party, used to aggressively pick on my social media posts and even labeled me as a Pakistani “loyalist.” I realized then that such shameless nationalism cuts across the political spectrum. The notion that Kashmir—and Kashmiris—are somehow an “integral part” of India is embedded in the average Indian psyche.
Where does the belief come from? In one sense, it goes back as far as India’s independence. In August 1947, the All India Congress Committee stood by a resolution promising residents of the erstwhile kingdom of Kashmir a say in their own political future. But an October 26 raid by tribal militias from Pakistan set off a dispute between the two countries over the status of the region. In response, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru unctuously promised Kashmiris a plebiscite which he then indefinitely delayed, despite repeated warnings from the United Nations. During this period, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, the founder of the local National Conference party tried to “negotiate” with the Congress hoping that Nehru would preserve the region’s autonomy. But in failing to take a hard stance on Kashmiri independence, he turned into a collaborator in the eyes of the Kashmiri people.
For some six years, Abdullah served as “Prime Minister” of Kashmir, which was accorded a special status in anticipation of the promised plebiscite. He passed sweeping agrarian reforms that favored the Muslim peasants over their erstwhile Hindu landlords, enraging certain sections in New Delhi, prominently the right-wing Jana Sangh (later to become the Bhartiya Janata Party), whose leader S.P. Mookerjee led a major campaign against Abdullah in the state. In Indian eyes, Abdullah was thus transformed from a useful collaborator to a suspect and a traitor. In 1953, an angered Nehru made an abrupt volte face on the plebiscite, sacking Abdullah, and putting him and his colleagues behind bars for twelve years on charges of sedition. This warrantless incarceration of Kashmiri political leaders would become a pattern.
The mounting popular resistance to Indian control that followed these events was the clearest proof that Kashmiris wanted independence. Rather that accepting as much and conducting the scuttled plebiscite, the Congress learned a different lesson. Dropping all pretense of democracy, it instead used the smokescreen of “separatism” to gradually militarize the valley.
All through the insurgency, there was scarcely a “liberal” journalist or public intellectual who spoke out against the atrocities being committed by the “liberal” government in power.
In his 2012 book The Indian Ideology, Perry Anderson puts his finger on the paradox that shapes the Indian state’s occupation of Kashmir. Like Nagaland, a predominantly indigenous state in the north east of the country, Kashmir is home to a largely non-Hindu population; culturally and socially, it shares little with the caste-based society of mainland India. The infusion of Hinduism into Indian politics has meant that such regions are held inherently in suspicion. Yet at the same time, the liberal Congress under Nehru was loathe to let them secede. Instead, it has followed a policy of simultaneous othering and integration, demarcating these regions as “troubled” zones that have to be brought into the Indian (that is, Hindu) fold—through violence if necessary. In the mid-1950s, the Naga National Council, a political party led by Angami Zapu Phizo, launched an armed struggle—known as the Naga Insurgency—to form a separate ethnic state. In response, Nehru introduced the monstrous Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), enabling Indian soldiers fighting the insurgents to operate with full impunity, under immunity from prosecution for human rights violations. Three decades later, an armed insurgency kicked off in Kashmir. Frustration with the Indian government had reached fever pitch in 1989, when state elections were rigged at levels that were extreme even in the context. As thousands of protesters took to the streets in violation of government curfew, Indian soldiers took to firing into crowds, killing two hundred in Srinagar in January 1990 and sixty more in Hawal several months later. These massacres set the spark for an armed uprising, led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, with thousands of youth going “underground” to get combat training. Soon enough AFSPA was imposed in the region, ushering in the reign of impunity that persists till today. “The hand of AFSPA has fallen where the reach of Hinduism has stopped,” Anderson trenchantly puts it.
Narendra Modi has simply radicalized this approach, presenting India as a Hindu nation where minorities live at the mercy of the majority religion. That he has been allowed to do is an indictment of India’s liberal intelligentsia and political class, long complicit in Kashmir’s occupation. All through the 1990s, during the heights of the insurgency (and military bloodshed), there was scarcely a “liberal” journalist or public intellectual who spoke out against the atrocities being committed by the “liberal” government in power. As recently as 2015, the liberal writer and politician Shashi Tharoor could be heard unabashedly denying the on-the-ground realities of the occupation—routine torture, total impunity, land grabs, and so forth—in a conversation with British political journalist Mehdi Hasan. The problem, he said, was actually the “nature of the Pakistani state,” which forced India into all kinds of strong actions. Indian academics are hardly better than politicians, tending as they do to dismiss the occupation as a “complex issue.” In his big book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen consigns Kashmir to a single footnote. All this has contributed to making Kashmiri agency invisible.
In the absence of any alternative narratives, Kashmiris in India have been alienated, stuck on the receiving end of belligerent middle-class nationalism. Discrimination against them pervades every aspect of civic life. In his memoir Curfewed Night, the journalist Basharat Peer recounts struggling to find housing in Delhi; nobody wanted to rent out a room to a Kashmiri. I have similarly heard of Kashmiris struggling to secure apartments, set up businesses, or even simply rent hotel rooms. University campuses have become sites of violence and intimidation. In the wake of the Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019, a frenzied mob of Hindu students violently barged into the rooms of Kashmiri students and beat them up in the north Indian states of Rajasthan and Haryana. Perhaps most ludicrously, there have been several instances in which Kashmiri students were charged with sedition for supporting the Pakistani cricket team against India.
Since his first term, which began in May 2014, Modi had his eyes set on Kashmir. In February 2015, in a calculated move, the BJP struck a deal and formed a political coalition with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), one of the two regional political parties. But this “marriage of convenience” was short-lived. The troubles began to appear in early 2017, when the two sides blamed one another for rising militancy and low voter turnout in parliamentary special elections, a conflict which ended with the BJP withdrawing support from the government on June 19, 2018. Soon after, PDP Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was stripped of her power, and governor’s rule was imposed in the state. Once again, Kashmiris became victims of political buffoonery of their local leaders. The ease with which Mufti was manipulated by Modi-Shah duo recalls Sheikh Abdullah’s relationship with Nehru.
Even today, one year later, when the world is moving toward 5G services, the internet in Kashmir runs on a slow 2G network.
India’s military occupation of Kashmir reached its logical conclusion on August 5, 2019, with the abrogation of Article 370, the guarantor of the state’s special status. This constitutional change was accompanied by the imposition of the world’s longest lockdown, a complete communication blackout, and arbitrary arrests of Kashmiri political leaders and protesters. There has been an acute rise in mental health cases in the lockdown’s aftermath, and a complete collapse of economic and social life. This debilitating effect on ordinary Kashmiris led the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) to call for the lifting of restrictions in October 2019.
That month, I received the first phone call from my mother since July; she had walked to a makeshift telephone booth set up nine kilometers away from my home. In the intervening months, I had undertaken many assignments to the valley (I work in television) but never managed to meet my family. It hurt to see friends and colleagues freely connect with their loved ones. Even today, one year later, when the world is moving toward 5G service, the internet in Kashmir runs on a slow 2G network, the only means of connection it has to the rest of the world. All this has been done behind the lofty rhetoric of “development,” “peace,” and “security.”