We need to talk about Kashmir

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 21, 2016 07:57 hrs
kashmir

2008, 2010, 2014, 2016.

Most people would remember those as the years of the Euro and the World Cup.

But in Kashmir, those are the years the streets erupted.

They began because of killings that were deemed wrong by the people of Kashmir. And they exploded because the government at the centre denied them the right to protest.

The latest protests began after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani, a ‘social media sensation’ of whom most of the country had not heard until he was killed.

The clashes began soon after – one between the civilians and armed forces in various parts of Kashmir; another on prime time news, where eager anchors started debates and lapped up the limelight, competing for eyeballs against each other.

Every time Kashmir ‘erupts’, as the papers are fond of putting it, it strikes me that there are two kinds of non-Kashmiris in India – those who believe the people of Kashmir are spoiled rotten by the central government and are making outrageous demands and should go to Pakistan if they want it so much; and those who call it ‘Indian-occupied Kashmir’, and believe that the promised plebiscite must be held.

Recent events have shown us how dangerous a popular vote can be. We have seen the UK reeling after the Brexit vote. The outcome of a referendum depends on the mood among the public at the time. When the mood is rage, as it usually is in Kashmir (for no small fault of the centre), it would be very tricky to give in to this demand.

As for whether India has occupied Kashmir or not, the question has to be examined in the context of history. Several countries have fought wars over Kashmir, and no two maps of Kashmir are the same. China holds a portion, Pakistan holds a portion, India holds a portion. If the map with which we grew up translated into political reality, we wouldn’t lose soldiers every year on the Siachen glacier.

Now, let us look at why Kashmiris are angry. It is not because they want to join Pakistan. No one in his or her right mind would want to be ruled by the government of Pakistan. A man who assassinated a governor for being liberal is treated as a martyr. A woman who posted videos on social media is killed by her brother. The Wahhabism that is taking over Pakistan would not take kindly to the Sufi culture that is central to Kashmiri Islam.

But, from the perspective of the average Indian citizen living in Kashmir, how different is India in terms of tolerance? It is not just that the rhetoric of various powerful politicians sounds like hate speech against minorities. It is also that, for decades, the people of Kashmir have not been allowed to feel safe in their own homes.

The first time I went to Kashmir, I did not expect to find people living normal lives. How could you hang out at parties with your friends and drive along the lake and go on picnics and get a haircut when you live in a place filled with police barricades and stone throwers and tear gas shells and militants and random ID checks and curfews? But, as it happens, the Kashmir we see on television – which is all most of India sees of Kashmir – is not the Kashmir on ground. 

People have learned to accept that this is the new normal – boat rides with friends on one day and curfews on the next. You live your life between clashes on the streets.

None of us can pretend to understand what it’s like to live in a conflict zone. What must it be like to get into a bus without knowing whether you’ll be searched and prodded? What must it be like to wake up because you and everyone else in your locality or village has been ordered to march to an open ground for checks? What must it be like to sit down to dinner, not knowing whether you’ll finish it? What must it be like not to be able to look out of the window of your own home, because it may be the last thing you ever see? What must it be like to stay awake through the nights, terrified that a militant may demand your hospitality, because you would then have to spend the rest of your life trying to explain to the armed forces why you ‘sheltered’ a militant? What must it be like to have friends and relatives changed forever by torture on suspicion of being militants?

I can only imagine how scary it must be to live in a place where you can do no right, and I’m glad I have the luxury of having to imagine it.

When militants and the armed forces clash, it is the civilians who suffer most. Non-Kashmiris need to understand that before accusing Kashmiris of threatening the political unity of India. We also need to acknowledge that national integration is a fantasy. We are not integrated. We were not integrated when India was forged. We were a group of kingdoms plundering each other until the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and British plundered all of us. When the last of the colonisers left, they left us united in our misery.

Try explaining to someone in Delhi that South India comprises six distinct languages and a myriad of cultures. Try explaining that the fact that you don’t speak Hindi as a first or second language doesn’t make you less Indian. Hell, try explaining that the Constitution hasn’t sanctioned a ‘rashtriya bhasha’. 

It took more than a month for national television to wake up to the fact that one of the country’s metros was underwater. I would like to know the percentage of ‘proud Indians’ who can name the capitals of the Seven Sisters. I would like to know the percentage of ‘proud Indians’ who even know what the Seven Sisters are. And I would like to know the percentage of ‘proud Indians’ who haven’t used the pejorative ‘Chinky’.

So let us not imagine that Kashmir is a threat to national integration.

We need to understand that civilians are not terrorists. We need to understand that people who are upset with the Army are not anti-nationals.

Soon after Burhan Wani’s death, an officer of the Indian Army, Major Gaurav Arya wrote an open letter that was joyously shared by jingoists on social media. The letter ended on a chilling note: “When you choose to fight against the Indian Army, know this; THEY WILL KILL YOU.”

The Army does not exist to kill people who fight them. The Army exists to protect the people of India. The Army should only kill people who threaten the safety of the people of India.

By the Major’s logic, the Army should have killed the women who walked naked through the streets of Imphal to protest against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in 2004.

Is it any wonder that the people of a region where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in force are upset with the Army and its sweeping powers and the impunity with which its representatives can conduct atrocities?

How is it right for citizens of India to be guilty unless proven innocent?

How can we hail someone who writes in bold capital letters that the Army will kill anyone who “fights them”? Killing must be the absolute last resort. Donning a uniform does not make you the arbiter of someone’s life.

How can we expect people to swear fealty to a government on whose watch their children are being blinded for no greater fault than walking home from school?

In keeping up the jingoistic rhetoric both in the corridors of power and the armchairs of the newsroom, the country is enabling a wave of saffron nationalism that will alienate everyone who believes in independent thought and personal liberty.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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