States of Kashmir

How to disappear a people

Photo by the author.

State of Siege

Living without uncertainty in Kashmir is like a summer without trees in bloom. A day without a killing is a surprise. So we have learned to live on a precipice, never knowing what could push us over, when the shove would come, or whose hand it would be.

Rumors began circulating early, a week before August 5. There were whispers that Article 370, the Constitutional clause that gave Kashmir its special status, would be abrogated, along with Article 35A, which prevents non-Kashmiris from buying land in the state. Some warned of an imminent, large-scale anti-terror crackdown. More than once I heard that a war between India and Pakistan was about to break out. Still others said that the state would be trifurcated into Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh—the three provinces that constituted the state.

The first rumor is almost always true. Kashmiris have learned that the hard way. The government and the mainstream media worked very hard to cover up what was about to happen. The unexplained urgency with which the government suspended the Amarnath yatra, a pilgrimage to a Hindu cave shrine, sparked off the first wave of fear. All non-Kashmiri tourists and students were then forced to vacate Kashmir because of the vague but alarming pretext of a terror threat.  More than 35,000 additional troops were sent to what was already one of the world’s most militarized zones. Kashmiris knew something bad was in the offing.

Almost as a ritual, Kashmiris stocked their houses with essentials, called their loved ones, and once again reminded one another that this could be the last time they would speak. There were huge queues at petrol pumps, and at ATMs.

With no information forthcoming from the local government, everyone prepared for the worst. Many expected the government to demonetize currency (similar to India’s ill-fated nationwide note-ban in 2016), so we warned each other not to withdraw too much cash at once, for fear it would no longer be valid. Everyone was constantly on the phone. I saw someone biking with his arms full of groceries and his phone lodged between his cheek and his shoulder. “Jung-ha korukh declare,” he urged, “wathhh saamann” (“War has been declared, wrap up your work”). “Eventually, they are going to bomb us anyway, so what’s the point in stocking all this?” I heard someone else say at the local kaandur (baker). Women outside Srinagar’s children’s hospital fought to get appointments with doctors before a curfew was imposed. A friend’s pregnant sister was expected to deliver at any time last week. All he was trying to do during the last few hours of Sunday, August 4, was to arrange to move the family to the house of a relative who lived close to a hospital.

Some friends traveling from Jammu had called to say that they’d seen tanks being brought in to Srinagar, that it was certain that we were going to war. There were legions of military officers everywhere. My village in north Kashmir has about 2,200 people. It was flooded by so many army men that my uncle said if they were distributed evenly among the houses, each house could accommodate at least three of them. A friend who lives 7,500 feet above sea level, in the mountainous Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir, said that a company of armed men had arrived in her village, too. No one understood what was going on or what to expect, so they swung between every worst-case scenario they could imagine, before settling on the sad truth that Kashmir has always been like this.

At around 11 PM on August 4, a company of Indian paramilitary forces gathered in a barren field outside my house in Srinagar. They wore identical jackboots, helmets with face shields, and carried automatic weapons. Each looked alike, instilling fear in anyone who looked at them.

The government denied it was considering any dramatic moves over the constitutional status of Kashmir. Instead it maintained the narrative that they had received intelligence about a massive forthcoming terror attack in the Valley. Governor Satya Pal Malik, the current head of the state appointed by New Delhi, unambiguously denied being privy to any plan of abrogating Article 370 until the night of August 3.

By midnight on August 4, all forms of communication had been suspended, one after the other. There was no internet, no cellular services, no landlines, no broadband, no cable television. A funereal silence gripped the state until the next morning. And then, the rumors came true—all of them, one after the other.

“After abrogation of Art 370, Jammu and Kashmir will truly become an integral part of India,” said Home Minister Amit Shah in a televised address. “It [Kashmir] was heaven on earth and will remain so. . . . Give us five years, and we will make it the most developed state in the country. . . . I want to tell the youth of Kashmir Valley to have faith in the Modi government. Nothing negative will happen. All these (opposition) people are telling you lies for their own politics. Don’t listen to them,” he said.

The words on the television screen describing the revocation of the constitutional provisions brought on a visceral, agonizing pain, like the blade of a sharp knife slowly cutting into your skin as you lay motionless, unable to scream or resist. After days of psychological trauma and mental exhaustion, Kashmiris finally understood what it was they were preparing for. In the end, it was all about the land—the promise of “development” to the exclusion of the lived experiences of 12.5 million people. It was about invalidating aspirations and struggles, snatching away any lingering remnants of hope, dressing up betrayal as a favor.

We watched the Indian Parliament discuss our bright futures: what we supposedly wanted, how joyous we’d be now we were “free.” In the upper house of the Parliament, a two-thirds majority of members voted to dissolve Kashmir’s last legal right to self-determination and protection, and in the lower house—the Lok Sabha—a better than 5:1 majority of India’s popularly elected representatives endorsed the move. The rest applauded the government for having the courage to take such a risk. There was a sinister grin on the face of the Parliamentarians. It wasn’t the smile of pride or satisfaction that one sees on the face of a patriot after doing something for the nation. It was the sadistic grin that emerges after you’ve humiliated a people.


State of Denial

“What do Kashmiris really want?” is a rhetorical question that will resonate with Kashmiris who have managed to step out of the besieged state for education or employment. Those asking the questions are never interested in the replies. The goal is to tell Kashmiris what is good for them, or how they shouldn’t or should feel. The other day a Kashmiri university student in Delhi told me that her teachers and classmates had explained to her that this move was really for her own good. We have grown up listening to explanations and arguments such as these.

After the general elections in 2014, the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies conducted a survey to gauge the opinions of residents of Jammu and Kashmir on how their state should be administered. The sampled respondents were asked what they believed would be the best solution to the Kashmir issue. Nearly half did not answer. Among those who did, a larger number favored more independence than the group who sought less power or autonomy for the state. Only 0.2 percent of the respondents wanted Article 370 amended.

With everyone locked in and their emotions bottled up after the announcement, it’s hard to tell which way the boat will sail. A young student I met after the revocation said, “After all these years of subjugation, what were we expecting? Being showered by flowers? This was inevitable.”

“In a way, abrogating these articles will now give the world a better reflection of the Kashmir reality . . . and finally remove the facade of a democratic state,” said another Kashmiri I spoke with. “You can hoist as many Indian flags in Kashmir,” one man told an AFP reporter in Kashmir, “but you can’t make me an Indian.” Expressions of dissent like this are what India refuses to acknowledge, and why the government in Delhi is doing everything to stop our voices from being heard.

According to internetshutdowns.in, a portal tracking government-imposed internet blackouts, there have been a total of 178 internet shutdowns in the region since 2012—of which 118 have occurred in 2018 and 2019. Apart from the intellectual hand-wringing about violating freedoms of speech and assembly in a supposedly democratic country, for Kashmiris, these shutdowns bring immediate, ordinary worries about how to contact our loved ones within and outside the state.

As I write this, parents are gathering to register their phone numbers at the district commissioner’s office in Srinagar so they can talk to their children outside Kashmir. Elsewhere, people wishing to call their relatives were told to go to the security camps. The calls are painfully brief, since they are cut off by the operator after a minute or even less. People are trying to figure out how to ensure that houses left vacant won’t get occupied by the armed forces. There are rumors that colleges from which students have been evacuated have been taken over by the army. Flipping through the pages of Kashmir’s recent history, this all sounds familiar, and probable.

Beyond the shock of having our political status altered so abruptly and in such humiliating fashion, people are coping with the anxiety of having to navigate a homeland tangled in spirals of concertina wires. There are strict restrictions on movement, people don’t know how to reach hospitals, how to call ambulances in case of emergencies when the phones aren’t in service.

Since August 5, Indian media coverage of the new phase in Kashmir’s political history has been skewed in favor of the government. Even today, broadcasting from empty curfewed streets, reporters on Indian television channels claim that there is peace and calm in the Valley, as if residents have decided to stay inside and nullify their freedom of their own accord.

A local journalist reported in the Deccan Herald that specific instructions had been given to the local administration to deny curfew passes to journalists, thereby ensuring a complete information blackout. After two days of curfew and no internet connectivity, a few Kashmiri journalists managed to write their pieces and send them on USB drives via air passengers on their way to Delhi. Others reported from Srinagar and flew to Delhi to write the pieces. As civilian movement is limited for ordinary Kashmiris, the sources of information have invariably been a bakers (when their bakeries are operational), milkmen, or evening gatherings in mosques or grocery stores.

On the evening of August 5, a government driver from the old quarters of Srinagar—the part of the city under severe lockdown—told me about the killing of a 17-year-old boy, apparently chased down by paramilitary police forces who shot him with a pellet gun. He was found drowned in a river. This news was only reported in Indian newspapers on August 7. The information vacuum meant that many Kashmiris didn’t know what was happening to them even hours after the announcement. Which is perhaps why it took until the fifth day of the undeclared curfew for the civilian pushback to begin. On August 9, a protest took place in Srinagar, with ten thousand marchers chanting slogans of freedom. Several were injured, and unverified reports mentioned a few killings as well. And with this, the cycle of killings in Kashmir started again.

On the other side of this political spectrum in Kashmir, far away from those seeking liberation on the ground, are the mainstream politicians—including two former state chief ministers—who have been detained in hotels, VIP jails, and guesthouses that once served as interrogation and torture centers1. The deafening screams of many innocent Kashmiris echoed not long ago in these same rooms. Leaders like these once signed warrants approving the torture.

At the airport, I briefly met a fledgling politician who looked hassled. “I am trying to hide my face, so that they don’t haul me up as well,” he said. “It’s all over. Kashmir is gone. Nothing is left.” Farooq Abdullah, the face of the National Conference, the party that held the reins of the state for decades, openly expressed his disappointment about being lied to by Modi and governor Malik: “You think I will stay inside my house while my state is being burned? While my people are being electrocuted in jails, punished in their homes? This is not the India I believe in.” These expressions of shock and betrayal could very well be their own form of propaganda, deployed to ensure these local politicians’ survival in the state. What is clear is that within Kashmir, the lines have momentarily blurred between those who believed in the possibility of Kashmir as a state within an Indian democracy, and those who sought independence. One difference between the politicians and ordinary Kashmiris is that the latter aren’t surprised.


State of Amnesia

The certainty about the inevitability of such a brutal reaction from the Indian state has a long, misremembered history. Separatist sentiment has been dominant among Kashmiris since 1947, when Hari Singh, the Hindu Maharaja of the Muslim-majority princely state, joined India after massive raids by guerillas from Pakistan.2 In the negotiations, an agreement of accession was signed with India in October 1947 granting limited powers to the Indian dominion to legislate only on the subjects of defense, foreign affairs, and communications.

Through this arrangement, distinct from that of other Indian states, a special status was granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, specifying that the will of the people would be sought whenever peace was restored in the region. “We do not wish to win the people [of Kashmir] against their will with the help of armed forces. . . . We want no forced marriages, no forced unions,” prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, in his speech to the Lok Sabha on August 7, 1952. A few months later, as quoted by the newspaper Amrit Bazar Patrika on January 2, 1952, he added:

Kashmir is not the property of India or Pakistan. It belongs to the people of Kashmir. When Kashmir acceded to India, we made it clear to the leaders of the Kashmiri people that we would ultimately abide by the verdict of their plebiscite. . . . We have taken the issue to the UN, and given our word of honor for a peaceful solution.

But over the years, India slowly began to erode Kashmir’s autonomy; in the process, Article 370 was emptied of its substantive content. Since the 1980s, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought the dismantling of Article 370 to pave way for a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). After all, if Muslims got Pakistan as the gift of Partition, why did the Hindus get slapped with secularism?

Kashmiris aren’t mourning the loss of Article 370 because it is the string that attached them to India. Kashmiris rue the abrogation because, as the Kashmiri anthropologist Ather Zia noted in a series of tweets, they fear “India’s demographic terrorism and cultural genocide,” and urged that the future course for Kashmiris should be to protect “territorial sovereignty” against “Indian settler colonialism.” Kashmir is the only Muslim majority state in India. And as its citizens have seen in the way the Indian government has treated non-Hindu and tribal people in states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkand, they have every reason to fear they will be treated as badly or worse.

In the past Kashmiris have heard any number of arguments from non-Kashmiri political pundits: what Kashmiris really want, they’ve said, are KFCs and shopping malls; or that unemployment is the source of the region’s terrorism; or that the jobless youth of Kashmir are being misled by Pakistan and ill-served by religious extremism. This time, the government’s official stance is that economic improvement is the cure for “the Kashmir problem.” In the process, the government has, yet again, completely ignored the ordinary human aspirations of a people who have painfully struggled for self-determination for decades.

Those of us who grew up in in Kashmir in the 1990s know the hollowness of words like peace, normalcy, or development. We have realized how exhausting and seemingly futile it is to talk about facts and dates or even the injustices meted upon us. There is no point in pointing out the constitutional violations, or repeating that all international conventions have been broken. “The intellectual battle is already lost,” said one journalist I spoke with. “No one cares, no one is listening. Now, we are just speaking in an echo chamber.”

The predominant narrative in India is now one of hatred against Kashmiris, fueled by the persistent attempts to confuse the political aspirations of Kashmiris with Islamic extremism and Pakistan’s role in the state. This story is used to justify the excesses of the government and the need for security personnel.

Things changed for Kashmir in 1987, when the Indian government rigged a local election, after which Kashmiris lost whatever little faith they had in New Delhi’s talk of democracy. After the election, many Kashmiris, including those who had campaigned and fought mainstream elections, were jailed and tortured. But it was only in 1989 that civil opposition to Indian rule, initially aided by Pakistan, turned violent, with a majority of young people taking up arms in reaction. As the separatist struggle intensified, the state began to use an iron fist to counter it. After 2008, the contours of the conflict changed again, with the reduction of Pakistan-backed militancy. The fight came to be between civilians and the Indian armed forces. Since then, the story in Kashmir has been one of betrayal, broken promises and funerals.


Real Estate and the Real State

It’s hard to explain what Kashmir means to a Kashmiri, hard to explain why all of us are so emotionally attached to our homeland.

Those outside Kashmir who support the abrogation of Article 370 are rejoicing over how they will now be able to buy a plot of land in Kashmir.  For others, the abrogation means not only access to Kashmiri land, but also access to Kashmiri women. Tweets from BJP supporters crowed about how they would finally have the chance to marry “fair Kashmiri women” (Article 35A stipulated that the children of Kashmiri women who married an Indian couldn’t inherit their mother’s property). Two female students studying in Delhi told me that men on the street stared at them and called out: “Ab to tumhe leke hi jayenge” (“Now we will ensure we take you with us”).

Even apart from the self-congratulatory crassness of these arguments and the commodification of the bodies of Kashmiri women that has been embraced with such vigor, the discussion of our fate is treated with wild condescension, with a smirk meant to remind us that India has finally shown Kashmiris their place. It is easy to want to live in a Bollywood-style picturesque Kashmir; it is another thing to live in a militarized zone where your every move is under surveillance from heavily armed, trigger-happy soldiers.

Outside Kashmir, people celebrating now can easily switch to another channel, another tragedy, another reality. India’s liberal elite can move on after expressing dutiful outrage about how this is not the country they were born and grew up in. But no Kashmiri has the the privilege to move on.

The rage that engulfed the region until very recently is not yet visible on the streets yet, but the anger is simmering. The furnace that Kashmir once was, full of embers, may today seem like the burned ash of memory. Only time will tell whether these smoldering emotions are a sign of resignation or a strategic move. Kashmiris have tried every method in the book to ask for their rights – elections, peaceful protests, legal petitions, stone pelting, militancy. But as of now everything seems to have failed, once again leaving Kashmiris helpless. Not only is there a lack of leadership—there is also the sense of hopelessness about whether we will ever get justice. But despite a long history of oppression, Kashmir has always managed to rise again—sometimes in ways that look strange even to those who take part in the struggle.

As I left home for the airport, uncertain of my return, I felt like a mother abandoning a sick child. Or, like a child myself, I was preparing not just to wean myself away from people, but also my land. This time, I knew I wouldn’t have anyone to call when I arrived safely at my destination. I drove through a web of those metal wires, fallen leaves of chinar clinging to them. Olive-green military trucks and gypsies moved past, everyone in a hurry. There were men in uniform scattered like ants. Crossing the lanes and by-lanes in the interiors of the city, I saw the graffiti on the walls screaming We want freedom and Go India, Go Back. Most of these are wiped off using black paint, but for those who understand Kashmir, the writing on the wall is clear.

  1. https://nplusonemag.com/issue-5/essays/papa-2/ 

  2. An alternative history of the dispute locates its origin not in the invasion, but in protests in Poonch and Mirpur, districts where people disenchanted by the Maharaja eventually liberated themselves and formed a government in Azad [Free] Kashmir before the king acceded to India. 

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