By Ajaz Ahmed
The year 2016 ushered in a new vortex of death and destruction in Kashmir. It was a new edition of a recurring tragedy that effectively superseded the previous editions. But the contents of this new edition remained the same: thwarted aspirations of a subjugated people, protests followed by brutal repression and killings, more protests followed by even more brutal repression and killings, finally followed by a period of comparative normalcy. It was essentially the same in 2008 and 2010. Only the precipitating cause varied and in some aspects the response as well.
The tragedy of Kashmir in its latest edition starts with 1947 when the subcontinent was cleaved into two nation-states a further cleaving would increase the number to three subsequently. It was Kashmir that remained the unfinished agenda, however. The tragedy actually goes even further into the past with interwoven chapters, each chapter giving rise to a future chapter of misery and suffering.
Prior to ‘47 also the history of Kashmir is replete with misery and subjugation of its people as they suffered the worse form of serfdom under the yoke of a monarchy that was fostered on them when the British, in order to reimburse their expenditure on wars, sold the Valley of Kashmir to a mercenary warlord. This ignominious business deal was to hold the people enslaved for a century and it also laid the framework of its present miseries.
With this background, which is so well documented that any reiteration seems superfluous, it is easy to understand the reasons behind the resistance movement in this land. It has been there from the very beginning, but the nineties ushered in a new dimension by turning the rebellion into an armed one. The authorities were caught unawares and there was total collapse of the administrative machinery. It happened to be an opportune moment of history as well, the communist bloc was crumbling and the nations which had laboured under repressive regimes were finding their voice and liberation. In most parts of the world the roads were teeming with exuberant multitudes seeking freedom and liberty and political rights and actually getting it all.
It was a jumble sale of freedom and liberty, and an inspired Kashmiri population bulwarked by an armed rebellion also took to the roads. The tide soon turned however. The stunned authorities snapped out of their stupor and a brutal and systematic repression followed. The concerted efforts of New Delhi bore fruit for it especially as the struggle was found lacking in organization. Schisms in the various groups as well as allurements to which humans, even if they are supposedly fighting for a cause, are not immune gave New Delhi recruits from within the ranks of the armed rebels. A State-backed counterinsurgency along with a security apparatus with unbridled power soon had the mass movement disintegrating and the armed rebels on the run.
In the meantime the season of freedom and liberty in the west had petered out and a new world order was in place. Subsequent events in the western world led to a paradigm shift in the policies of the west. ‘Global terrorism’ became the catchphrase and provided a convenient label for the suppression of even genuine and justified struggles for freedom and political rights. Repression became even worse and Kashmir too faced the brunt of this change. Fate had once again cheated the Kashmiri people and as is true of most thwarted struggles their struggle too degenerated into frustration. It continues to be that only as can be easily seen from the way it is carrying on.
Up against a formidable opponent, made even more formidable in recent times by the rise of the extreme rightwing political ideology in India as well as the arrogance stemming from its increasing relevance in a changed world order, coupled with lack of any coherent external support the Kashmiri struggle has not been able to gather any successes. Failure not only leads to frustration but also creates a hypersensitivity to criticism, both of which are evident in the Kashmiris’ struggle. Any criticism of the manner in which the struggle is being carried out stands the risk of being labelled as calumny and subversion. This assumes even graver tones as more blood continues to be shed in the way of the struggle. However that makes the need for stock-taking and introspection even more important. The first step towards attempting to find a proper direction is to admit that one is lost.
The struggle as it is continuing now seems to have fallen into a predictable pattern. 2016 brought to fore the phenomenon of well-educated tech savvy militants from well-off backgrounds, pioneered by Burhan Wani, who made their presence felt on the social media. Another component of this pattern is that whenever there is an encounter between the militants and the government forces, the local population comes out in large numbers to protest near the encounter site braving bullets and pellets. Invariably there are casualties, the grossly outnumbered militants subjected to heavy artillery fire get killed most of the times and there are further casualties among the protesters or in the very least scores of them are maimed for life by pellets. Subsequently, the rest of the population pitches in with protests and shutdowns, which may be confined to a particular area or involve the whole Valley and may last for days altogether.
How does one explain all this? The conversion of a faceless guerrilla fighter into a viral presence on the social media, a youthful figure with barely sprouting beard in camouflage fatigues toting a gun challenging the might of a huge and ruthless military power. Droves of frenzied men and women, youth and children, converging at the site of the encounter to ‘rescue’ the trapped militants, fighting against bullets and pellets with bare hands or stones. Is this strategy or mere desperate defiance? Can ‘martyrdom’ and ‘sacrifice’ have any meaning without a well defined goal and a strategy towards that goal? If these two are not a means to an end does it not reduce them to mere tokenism and symbolism, a ritualistic ‘suicide’?
The instalments of violent death are a payment towards what? Are these calculated to create shock and awe? For whose benefit? The world at large seems hardly bothered. Is the death of individuals a means to keep alive the struggle of the multitudes? The blood being shed fuel for keeping the flame of freedom burning in the hearts of people? But then if a ‘sentiment’ needs repeated tragedies to keep it alive what does that say about the sentiment itself? Then again are not the shutdowns that follow just another form of ritualistic suicide? What purpose do these shutdowns serve? What is the ‘gain’ with this ‘investment’ of crores of rupees of loss? Rather than heralding a deliverance does not this stratagem deliver the ‘oppressed’ further into the very arms of the ‘oppressor’ by crippling the economy, by paving way for increased dependence rather than self-dependence and independence?
Whenever there is criticism of hartals in terms of their futility and their being a self-inflicted injury, often the response is a rhetorical challenge that ‘if not hartals then what’ the implication being that since there is no apparent alternative to hartals it is heresy or in the very least presumptuous to be criticising these. Is not this, however, asserting a paradox, like saying that if one is not able to find food one should consume poison as a substitute to food, as a means of sustenance in order to survive?
The shutdowns or for that matter the convergence of people near the encounter sites may be a form of vicarious participation in the encounters but that just makes it part of the tokenism that has replaced a proper movement. What lends further credence to all this being mere tokenism is that this whole pattern is sporadic with no connecting threads in between.
The communal expression of grief and rage peters out to nothingness, the frenzied crowds that surround the martyrs’ biers disappear and the family momentarily highlighted in the reflected glory of the martyr soon plunges into the lonely darkness of oblivion as the camaraderie of the masses ends with the funeral rites.
The bloodletting seems to assuage the ‘independence itch’ and the multitudes move on with the business of life and the mundane takes over till it is time for the next session of blood-letting. The plight of those injured and maimed during the process is even worse; they invariably end up queuing for ‘relief’ from the ‘oppressor’! The camaraderie is high on transitory emotion but low on memory, it has never been able to translate itself into sustainable support.
The loss ‘invested’ by the Valley in the 2016 shutdown was reportedly 16000 crore rupees. It never occurred to anyone to ‘invest’ even a 10000th part of it as succour for the shattered families of the dead and the maimed. The only use for the dead, the maimed and the debris they leave behind seems to be to showcase the miseries of a subjugated population to an unresponsive world. But then if the world at large is apathetic the ‘subjugated’ masses are no less apathetic themselves.
Nothing has changed for Kashmir and this ‘nothing’ includes the people of Kashmir themselves. Any sort of ‘gain’ remains a far-fetched fantasy and meanwhile the losses continue to pile up.
—Ajaz Ahmad is a columnist and writer
This article was published in Kashmir Narrator’s June edition. To subscribe to print edition of Narrator, please call +91-7298102560 or mail at [email protected]