Of Silences, Suffering and Solidarity: Facing South Asia’s “Original Sin”

We shall meet again, in Srinagar, 
by the gates of the Villa of Peace, 
our hands blossoming into fists
till the soldiers return the keys
and disappear
–Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmiri poet 

For us, Azadi (independence) means not just getting rid of foreign occupation of our beloved motherland but also to remove hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease and to overcome economic and social deprivation. One day, we shall achieve that Azadi
—Maqbool Bhat, founder of JKLF, hanged by Indian authorities in Tihar jail in 1984


In April 2008, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a Kashmiri human rights group, which had for the previous 14 years been seeking to know from Indian authorities the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared family members, came out with a startling report, Facts Underground, which claimed that their kin may have ended up in the thousands of unmarked graves that dot Indian-controlled Kashmir. In the summer of 2011, after it became too hard to deny in the face of piling evidence, those fears were partly acknowledged by the Indian government’s State Human Rights Commission (SHRC)when it announced the finding of close to 2,730 unmarked graves in Kupwara, a border district. A further 3,000 unmarked graves were found in Poonch and Rajouri districts, while reports suggest that many more such graves would surface in Kashmir if the inquiry were expanded. APDP claimed that between 8,000 and10,000 Kashmiris have disappeared at the hands of Indian military forces over the last two decades of armed insurrection against Indian rule in the region. The Indian government, however, continues to refuse to acknowledge either the fact of forcible disappearances or that the people in the graves are Kashmiris. Instead, the hackneyed official lines claim that the graves are of those of “foreign” fighters, regardless of the fact that the SHRC report contradicted this claim by identifying hundreds of bodies as those of local Kashmiris. 

Death, deception and denial have been a norm in Kashmir under military occupation. Over the past 21 years, more than 70,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands injured, mostly at the hands of Indian security forces. Although, India keeps the number of forces deployed in Kashmir classified, conservative estimates point to a staggering 700,000 soldiers. It is believed that for every 15 unarmed Kashmiris there is one Indian soldier, making it one of most militarized places on the planet. 

The architecture of military occupation in Kashmir is deep and dense. Indian army and other counter-insurgency forces have taken over the best lands in Kashmir. They occupy forests and orchards, hills and mountaintops, hospitals and colleges, meadows and lakes, roads and playgrounds. Effectively, they choke Kashmiri people’s everyday life, and stifle their decades old demand for independence—facts now well acknowledged by even some top Indian leaders, like L.K. Advani, who recently stated matter-of-factly that it is Indian military presence that keeps Kashmir with India. Moreover, Indian soldiers have a ‘free hand’ in Kashmir—they are free to kill, injure, and arrest anyone they deem suspicious, or burn houses they feel could be used by militants because they are protected from civil prosecution by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It is sobering to remember then that since the last several years the number of armed militants in Kashmir has never been more than a few hundred, and this is according to the Indian government’s own estimates.      

The report on mass graves, like so much other evidence of Indian military abuses in Kashmir, has not gained much attention in India or elsewhere and it has not been followed in a sustained manner in the Western media which otherwise tends to highlight human rights violations by a number of nations, usually identified cynically as “rogue” or “evil.” Could the carefully manufactured image of a vibrant and shining India, the prospects of a hugely potential lucrative market for Western investments, and the strategic uses of such an increasingly compliant democratic ally ready to be used against its “evil twin” Pakistan as well as China, prevent Western censure of Indian atrocities in Kashmir? Could it be that acknowledging the inhumane character of occupying Kashmir through military might and its attendant violations of dignity, life and livelihood of Kashmiris would expose the hollow core of India’s claim to be a global player with hoary democratic credentials? To redeploy Faiz in this postcolonial context, “There are signs of blood everywhere…the executioner’s hands are not clean…the ground is stained…blood is written in history.” All despite attempts to make them vanish. 

photo by: kashmiridibber

Verily, these are the sounds of silence of the intellectual and middle-classes who wax eloquent about India’s democracy in the face of deepening suffering and sacrifice at the altars of the market, hegemony and nationalism. This silence is not simply double standards, but a carte blanche on human rights abuses rewarded through multi-billion dollar defense contracts. India is after all now not only the “world’s largest democracy,” but also the largest importer of weapons in the world. A number of these weapons, from Israeli-made Tavor guns to US-made Taser guns and pump action pellet rifles, find their way onto Kashmiri streets and the countryside where they are used against unarmed Kashmiris. Last year alone, 115 young Kashmiri men and women, including children as young as 8, were killed by Indian soldiers.       

In an age of unprecedented mediated realities, it is not surprising that in India, the mainstream national media has been complicit in misrepresenting the Kashmiri struggle for independence as a “Pakistan-sponsored Islamist” movement, creating a nationalist hysteria in India around the Kashmir question. Instead of acknowledging the democratic right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people, Kashmir, in the popular Indian imagination, is to be territorially assimilated even without reference to the wishes of its people. For long India has now been unilaterally totting the line that Kashmir is an “integral part” of India, which not only goes against a series of UN resolutions passed in this matter, but also the assurances that erstwhile leaders like Nehru made to Kashmiris about holding plebiscite. These assertions, based on false constructions of history and mythic-nationalist narratives, run aground because an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris haven't reconciled to the dominative “idea of India” that is being imposed on them, and have repeatedly demonstrated that they don’t want to be part of it. 

While Indian nationalist narrative effaces Kashmiris from Kashmir, instead locating the main ‘instigator’ behind the movement in the Pakistani military establishment, Kashmiris are not passive, far from it; they are the principal force behind their struggle for self-determination. Kashmiris see themselves as the primary and the only legitimate voice when it comes to deciding the future of Kashmir. In this light, territorial claims of India (or for that matter those of Pakistan) on Kashmir are not only ahistorical, but also anti-democratic. 

In such a tragic context, the reference to “original sin” in the subtitle serves as a reminder of the fundamental and multiple contradictions that impede the emergence of the category South Asian as a powerful counter to national chauvinist and imperially-shaped identities: the sin at birth by the two independent nations of South Asia to deprive Kashmir of its independence, the sin at birth of coveting, the sin at birth of reneging on the UN resolutions, and the impact of this sin that gets transmitted to successive generations. The invocation of such a religious metaphor is only to make the larger point that unless the original sin is addressed by the two nations, nothing is redeemable in South Asian life. 

Such is the challenge of liberation and it is good to remind ourselves that no counter argument for Kashmiri azadi has any moral standing: it is almost always made (by both Indian and Pakistani ruling classes) and repeated (until it becomes popular prejudice), on strategic grounds that themselves derive from imperial assumptions. For, Kashmir never belonged to either Pakistan or India; yet the hawks on both sides routinely assume Kashmir as their “natural possession,” much like colonial masters. 

By their very nature, states engage in spinning national mythologies that seek to entwine and entrain their populations in the everyday task of reproducing the legitimacy of the state. The questions we hope to have highlighted in this short essay are: What are the costs of the selective silence on the part of Indians and Pakistanis about the ongoing sufferings of Kashmiris and their rights to self-determination? What does it mean to suffer when the world refuses to see or acknowledge this as a fact? How can Indians and Pakistanis be at peace when they make Kashmir their terrain of war?

South Asians need to rise in solidarity with Kashmiris to set a new foundation for democracy and decency. If we cease to mistake Kashmir as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, and instead understand it accurately as a ‘national question’ of Kashmiris, a way emerges toward a solution. Kashmir is a key to resolving militarisms and potential conflicts in South Asia. From a bone of contention, Kashmir can become a bridge of peace. For an effective, longing peace, both India and Pakistan need to not only demilitarize Kashmir but also ensure a free, independent Kashmir through internationally guaranteed agreements. Removal of AFSPA, freeing of political prisoners, and demilitarization (perhaps under international supervision), constitute the first steps in such a process. Kashmiri leadership, freely and fairly chosen by Kashmiris for the express purpose of Kashmir's independence, must be recognized by both India and Pakistan as well as internationally, to negotiate this outcome. 

In the film Slumdog Millionarie, Jamal (the protagonist) correctly answers questions based entirely upon his experiential knowledge growing up in Mumbai slums and his prodigious memory which serendipitously leads him to the right answers. Tellingly, Jamal’s experiential knowledge did not allow him to correctly guess the answer to the second question, which the uniformed inspector brutalizing Jamal was convinced that “any five year old” could be expected to know. That question – which Jamal answered using the audience as his “lifeline” – concerned the inscription that proudly underscores India’s national emblem, its national motto if you wish-satyameva jayate, or, Truth Alone Triumphs. How long will the experiential knowledge of the bulk of South Asia’s population remain at odds with nationalist mythmaking of its state and ruling classes? 


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Thanks Shivam for your comment. The questions you pose need much elaboration, but unfortunately due to my tough schedule at present I will take the route of brevity. It is not wrong to pose the "what if" questions. Often these questions help destabilize our mistaken faith in the inevitability of the present order. I think Kashmir would have been a much better place, had the events in the subcontinent not overwhelmed the processes that were unfolding in Kashmir. Look at the New Kashmir document of the National Conference at that time, or the intense politicization of the Kashmiri peasantry. The aspiration for a New Kashmir as a free, socialist nation could have become a beacon of hope for South Asia's struggling peoples. And of course then we wouldn't have to procure weapons from anywhere. Militarist thinking and the race for arms is deeply connected to the logic that sought to impose India and Pakistan on the diverse peoples of South Asia. Establishment of India and Pakistan, in my view, spelled a disaster for the the entire region--its peoples, its cultures, and its histories. Since this establishment is umbilically tied to the decisions that were made between imperial authorities and South Asia's elites, most peoples of the subcontinent cannot expect this arrangement to work in their interest. Least of all Kashmiris for whom the decision became intrinsically connected to the perpetual confinement of their freedoms. We often forget that Partition did not only create Pakistan, it created India as well. It is only retrospectively that Indian nationalists (and even those who don't claim to be so) have naturalized the "idea of India", as if it existed as a nation-state since eternity. So when one says "subnationalist movements in South Asia" we need to be careful, for aren't we assuming that there is a supra-nationalism, ostensibly some authentic one, whose "sub-" parts the rest of the movements represent? Is Indian or Pakistani nationalism more authentic than Balochi or Naga? Personally, I don't believe in nationalism, either as an ideology or as an 'imagined' collectivity. Yes, I do believe in movements of freedom, of collective liberation from external rule (or even any form of rule that doesn't have the real democratic consent of the people), even if these movements take the appellation of being 'national', or religious. The expectation about reciprocity of solidarity from the people of Kashmir is a valid one, but often not well thought out. You know for so many years now Kashmiris have stood up in solidarity with the people of Palestine (and rightly so), since days when Indira Gandhi proclaimed Yasser Arafat as her brother and PLO never uttered the word Kashmir in return. Indian establishment has disconnected different sections and classes and regions from each other, truncated possibilities of communication between peoples of the subcontinent. Imagine, they have managed to make a country of billion people believe in their lies about Kashmir (of course not all of them care about Kashmir). Within Kashmir they have fragmented our society, poisoned our politics, destroyed relations of trust. In this situation when one looks for reciprocal solidarity, the question comes as a slightly mistimed one, one a bit too early. But yes creating those connections is the responsibility of all those peoples who hope to overthrow foreign rule or an oppressive order. This question of "making borders irrelevant" is alright but I believe that these borders are not just demarcation lines between South Asian states, but also those lines that are replicated within the societies between castes and classes. Otherwise, capitalist logic or imperialism also wants to make borders irrelevant--that way can only help commerce and big business, and the cultural elites, but not solve questions of domination and control. There is also a beauty in maintaining certain boundaries, the uniqueness and specificity of places, and not roll them over to flatten all difference in the name of homogeneity. (I am only speaking here for myself. But perhaps Murli would agree with me).
Thank you for this thought provoking article. Three questions. I could not agree more with you about the "original sin" of South Asia. No one can deny that the question of nationalism in South Asia remains unresolved, and not just in Kashmir. No one could disagree that nationalist identities in South Asia have been shaped by imperialism, just that it is in incomplete statement, because they are also shaped by other historical factors such as anti-colonial movements, religion-based identities, linguistic identities (Bangladesh) and so on. This original sin is often referred to as Partition. My question is: had there been no Partition - and I know questions of 'what if' are speculative by definition - what would have Kashmir's history post-1947 been like? This speculation is not out of the blue if one considers the anti-monarchy movement in Kashmir at the time, and which for many seemed to coincide with the democratic if and federalist impulses at the time. That question is of course not specific to Kashmir but also to other sub-nationalist movements in South Asia, from Tamil Eelam to Bangladesh and Chittagong to the Madhesi movement in Nepal to the ethnic ones in the north-east and even as far west as Balochistan. There is little doubt that Partition and the resulting creation of Pakistan has shaped these movements. What, for instance, would Balochistan's politics be like if Pakistan had not been created? And if there had been no India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir who would the Kashmiri rebel be procuring arms and international diplomatic support from? My second question is specific to Kashmir. The authors write, "South Asians need to rise in solidarity with Kashmiris to set a new foundation for democracy and decency." One could only add to that and say the entire world should do so. But we know that solidarity is not a one way street, and for the people of Balochistan or Nagaland to rise in support of the democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people, the least it would take is similar solidarity from the people of Kashmir on both the Indian and Pakistani sides. Have there been signs of such solidarity yet? Also, what forms would such solidarity take? Lastly, given the above questions, what do the authors think about the role of nationalism in the Kashmiri movement against occupation? Given that the original sin affects not only Kashmir but many regions and communities in South Asia, what are the authors' thoughts on making borders irrelevant in South Asia as a means of setting, to use their words, "a new foundation for democracy and decency" - not just for Kashmir but also, in the spirit of South Asian solidarity they invoke, all of South Asia. best shivam

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