The Summers of Discontent
Tunisia has fallen, and Egypt’s dictator is on trial. The Libyan ruler’s reign is over; the Syrian regime seems to be the next one to fall. We have our eyes set on Syria, looking and hearing for every abuse of human rights, amplifying the last moans of the dying and demanding justice for the unarmed civilian protestors. Media coverage of the Arab Spring is on the side of protestors, broadcasting the hopes and aspirations of the powerless and oppressed, and against those in power. The American government injected itself to help the people topple the dictators. But who decides what battles to get into and which ones to let fester, which people to view as humans and which to ignore as statistics, and which causes to champion and which to ignore? Indian-administered Kashmir has been embroiled in a conflict for over half a century. Recently, Kashmir entered a new era of promise, where freedom from occupation enters the realm of what is possible.
Kashmiris have seen the successful independence of Kosovo and Southern Sudan, and more recently, the toppling of various regimes in the Arab world. These historic events, including a Kashmiri shift towards non-violent protest against Indian occupation, have given Kashmiris the hope that their freedom could also become a reality. If the world, especially America, would examine Kashmir’s grievances instead of dismissing the conflict under the umbrella of Islamic terrorism, Kashmir, too, would be given its chance at liberation from Indian occupation and Pakistani influence. But the disputed territory, nestled between the powers of India, China and Pakistan, remains invisible – embroiled in its own silent struggle against an Indian state that utilizes special powers to violently suppress Kashmiris’ aspirations for freedom.
For three consecutive summers before the non-violent mass protests that shook the Arab world, Kashmir was out on streets shouting for freedom from oppression, but no one chose to hear. Kashmir burns in the distance without oil wells and satellite feeds. And as the media ignores this place, the world ignores it too; and so do we, insensitive to the fact that those who have been long waiting for us to help, to take notice of their plight, could one day turn against us.
To me Kashmir is a hologram that alternates between a beautiful Shangri-La with lush green valleys, beckoning streams and idyllic pastures, and a grotesque molten cauldron of the raped, killed, disappeared, maimed, orphaned and abused. It all depends on what angle you look from, or rather what you choose to look at.
I look at Kashmir from the small space left between India and Pakistan’s competing histories. India calls it an “integral part” and Pakistan its “jugular vein.” I have heard these alternative narratives from a young boy on a broken bridge who showed me a cavernous scar on his head from anti-riot pellets, a mother mourning the loss of her son to an Indian soldier's bullet on a candle-lit evening, in their suddenly dark home, and a family who is desperate for information on the decade-old disappearance of a loved one. The stories that collectively make up this narrative abound in Kashmir; from the cut-off valley of Doda to the besieged town of Kupwara, from downtown's intricate lanes to the meadows of Islamabad, the narrative of Kashmir's freedom refuses to die.
In the 1990s Kashmir’s pain always affected me tangentially, through stories about torture and extra-judicial killings. In the U.S., the small Kashmiri-American community held demonstrations outside federal buildings and other locations, to promote awareness and with hopes that the government would take notice of the carnage unfolding in its homeland. We were the luckier ones, those who had escaped the pain physically, who wouldn't grow up with lash marks on their backs and scars on their memory. We were unsure whether we were free in L.A., in Washington, in New York, when our uncles, cousins, and grandfather’s lives were under the spell of a dark curfew. On my summertime visits back to Kashmir, I endured immense boredom and the feeling of captivity in the open-air-prison-like environment of curfewed days and nights. I got a sense of the fear that my cousins live with; I saw the humiliation and anguish and anger every Kashmiri male from13 to 60 endures during ID checks and questioning by armed forces. Those forces seemed to occupy every street corner under sandbagged bunkers with their fingers eerily close to the triggers. One of my earliest memories of Kashmir was arriving at a solemn Srinagar airport on India’s Independence Day. As we drove to my uncle’s home, armed forces lined the street. Every shop was shuttered, an annual protest to Indian rule. The soldiers had tables laid out with cups of juice for the public. No one drank.
The contemporary conflict erupted shortly after the Indian Government rigged an election in 1987 in favor of the National Conference, who had been losing to a newly formed party that had come together to change the political scene in Kashmir. A mass armed uprising backed by Pakistan shook the foundations of Indian-rule in Kashmir. Then, India sent 700,000 soldiers to the valley, letting loose a reign a fear and death, rape and tortur. The armed movement began to die down. After September 11th, Kashmiris distanced themselves from the gun, skeptical of it its use in the achievement of their goals while ceasing to see Afghan and Pakistani militants as allies in their originally secular movement. Since 2008, a non-violent struggle has blossomed; people have used slogans and stones in place of guns and grenades. In Kashmir, 70,000 people have been killed since 1989, mostly falling to the bullets of Indian armed forces, the police, and the counter-insurgents, who worked under the Army's direct protection. The war left behind an estimated 30,000 orphans and 10,000 disappeared persons, who were picked up by the Army or were arrested from the streets and never returned home. The statistics are overwhelming and with every death we strip life of dignity. In these numbers, the real meaning of the conflict and its dynamics remains hidden along with the aspirations of the people.
In 2008, I came to Kashmir as a reporter and was fortunate enough to witness a people’s movement, an eruption of discontent on the streets, and a longing for freedom that I had heard in my mother’s stories and in her voice. I was surprised at the sudden and large-scale protests against the Indian rule after 99 acres of land were unconstitutionally (contradicting Kashmir's constitution) transferred over to a board that governs Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave. The spark of the controversy stemmed from the fact that thousands of acres of land had already been occupied by Indian forces in the form of cantonments, military barracks and housing.
My surprise remained when I saw Kashmiri Muslims setting up free food (langars) and essentials for the stranded Hindu pilgrims. I learnt that Kashmiris were extremely mistrustful of India and very sensitive about the sale of their land— fearful of the Palestinian experience of land usurpation and settlement building as domestic policy. Thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding revocation of the order and in a few days, half-a-million people walked together on the streets demanding freedom. The utter scale of the upheaval took everyone by surprise, even the separatist political parties and their leadership. It was the new generation leading from the front instead of following a separatist leadership that had long since fractured and fragmented the land. The Amaranth land transfer controversy relit the Kashmiri desire for freedom with a new fervor. It continued for two consecutive summers, reignited by the rape and murder of two sisters in 2009 and the killing of a young protestor in 2010.
The conflict in Kashmir is old, at times seemingly ancient, and every tool of resistance has been used. India, to deal with militancy in Kashmir, imposed draconian laws like Public Safety Act (PSA) and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that allow Indian soldiers to act with impunity, without fear of reprimand and accountability by the courts of law. AFSPA allows forces to arrest or shoot persons on the grounds of suspicion. Arrested individuals can be held in jail for up to two years without trial under the PSA. The Indian Army and police claim the number of militants in Kashmir is only around 200, yet impunity remains for 700,000 forces stationed in Kashmir.
Those who were born after the 1989 rebellion against Indian-rule took to the streets in 2008, picking up stones instead of guns, hurling slogans instead of bullets. It was a generation of Kashmiris who had grown up in the world’s most militarized zone and knowing little else but occupation, they led this rebellion. I felt the palpable reverberations of their anger on the streets. All segments of society participated in the resistance, sending a collective message to the Indian state. Mass protests enveloped Srinagar, in towns and villages alike. The police and the Central Reserve Police Force responded in kind with their own volley of arching teargas canisters and rocks, occasionally firing shots into the air, and into the horizon. From May to August of that year, over 70 people died. I called a friend back in the States only to find that he had not seen anything on the news about Kashmir.
For as long as I can remember my Kashmiri relatives would ask me, “When is America going to help us?” In my youth I never had an answer. I still don’t. A decade later when Obama won the presidential election, Kashmiris believed they had a reason for hope. They hoped that a person from an oppressed people would understand the merits of their own struggle and believed that Obama would surely strive to strike a solution. After all, pictures of Gandhi and Martin Luther King adorned the walls of Obama’s Senate office. Was this not proof that Obama would not tolerate unarmed deaths of Kashmiri protestors? Candlelight vigils were held after Obama’s election and Kashmiris thought their decades of pain had not been in vain; his campaign of “change” had also meant something to Kashmiris. Hopes were again raised in January of 2009 when Obama said a task of his administration would be to “to get a special envoy in there to figure out a plausible approach.” But by the end of the month those same hopes vanished when the late American envoy and career diplomat Richard Holbrooke was appointed as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan or Af-Pak. India, hence Kashmir, was not on the table for Holbrooke’s mission. Kashmir was “not in his mandate,” as one State Department official remarked. Kashmir was in no one’s mandate.
In 2010, for five-months, Kashmir was shut down. Perpetual curfew blanketed the valley and people defied curfews once again to protest against Indian-rule after a seventeen-year-old boy returning from a tutoring session was killed by an Indian soldier. The protests and curfews punctuated with death were to continue with a fervor not seen since the early 90s. I was in Kashmir again to witness the events unfold. Diabetics were unable to get their medicines, women gave birth in buses and life came to a halt, for months. Baby food was a luxury that no one could suddenly afford or find. But no statement from the United Nations condemned the excessive use of force. The killings were presided over by a so-called democracy and not by a so-called dictator. Three months prior to the Arab Spring that captured the world’s attention, indiscriminate fire by armed forces on protestors left 110 dead and thousands wounded. Under the banner of the world’s largest democracy and a soaring GDP, India has managed to avoid human rights issues and negative press that most countries face in conflicts of similar magnitude.
This year so far, Kashmir has been buzzing instead with tourism and trade – India calls it peaceful, equating a surface of normalcy with tranquility. But to me it is merely a fatigued people’s attempt to gain back strength. The last six decades are a testament to how fragile ‘peace’ is in Kashmir. They will rise up again in a cyclic motion of rebellion that does not yield anything except destruction on oneself - to a world that refuses to listen. Among journalists and analysts in Kashmir, there is a fear that when the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban will not only fight from their rugged terrain, but seek fresh ground to spill blood upon, and in all possibility Kashmir will be their target, as it had been once before. The Kashmiri people, whose hearts vacillate between despair and anger, might make a choice, returning to armed resistance, deciding that a violent death shouldn’t be their destiny alone. But before their voices drown in the sound of gunfire yet again, we must hear their demands.