Kashmir Politics

Kashmir quagmire: How to interpret the worsening situation?

In October 2010, a 15-year old class 10 student, Burhan Wani, suddenly disappears from his home at Sharifabad, a nondescript village in the remote Tral area of Kashmir one fine day. This happens after he and his brother Khalid were intercepted and thrashed by the Indian security forces when they were on their way to some place. Earlier that year in summer major protests were held throughout Kashmir amidst enormous clampdowns by the government forces. About 117 people were killed in Police firing and many more injured. Numerous arrests were made, many of them random and vindictive in nature. There were allegations of the police exacting money from the families of the arrested youth, threatening of slapping the Public Safety Act upon them unless they paid huge sums in bribes. In many cases the youth were allegedly released only to be arrested again.

Five years later, in 2015, Wani makes a dramatic appearance on the social media, posting pictures and self-recorded YouTube videos. Posing in army fatigues, sometimes with a bunch of friends and peers of more or less his age, mostly from the same area as him, the young man becomes a heart-throb for many young Kashmiri boys. These are children of conflict, born and raised in and after the 1990’s, vulnerable to influences from radical forces and ready to be used as cannon fodder by Kashmir’s conflict industry which survives and thrives on instability and on the abuse of power by the state forces.

In June 2016, Burhan appears in a video, surrounded by weapons, boasting of a kārvāyi (‘action’) “last month in which our men targeted the army and the police personnel,” threatening of more such kārvāyi “without any warning” as the latter had not acted as advised, he says. Apni banduk ka rukh India ki taraf kar do (‘Turn your guns at India’), he directs the local police in a matter-of-fact tone. While he makes a statement assuring the “protection of the Amarnath Yatris” (because “they are our guests,” he says), he also adds a warning against the formation of the proposed colonies for sainiks (‘soldiers’) and “composite colonies” for the rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits – proposals which many Kashmiri Muslims, especially the separatists, saw as an attempt to “turn Kashmir into an Israel-like occupation in Palestinian territory.” Recall that much hullabaloo and paranoia was created after the newly-formed state government announced the two proposals which have since been set aside.

In yet another video footage that appeared later, Wani is seen with five other young boys in black-n-white kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads video-taping themselves during a private moment in a forest near Kolgam – a scenic village of Kashmir located at a distance of 68 km from Srinagar. In the footage which is more pretentious and comical in nature than it is terror-inducing in character, the friends are seen hugging, joking and calling each other names like “hato, Lashkar waalyah” (‘Hey, Lashkar man’). One of them, in a boyish way, turns: “You videotape me and I will videotape you.” Towards the end of the amateur video, Wani makes a reference to Rajauri being “very close” and maintains “Pakistan is on the other side of (a nearby) “baagh’ (‘garden’)”. Among the group, Wani is the most good-looking and soft-spoken one. He could very well be an actor from a cheesy Bollywood movie or perhaps a prospective fashion model.

Soon after the videos appear, the mainstream Indian media pounce on the opportunity to turn Wani, an otherwise non-entity who hardly anyone knew before, into a most-wanted and dreaded terrorist – khunkhār ātankvādi is how a national television channel describes him.  Though he never crossed the border nor reportedly conducted any operations himself, he is introduced as a “commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen”, a terrorist outfit based in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A bounty of Rupees ten lakh (i.e. Rs. 1000,000) is soon announced as a reward for any information leading to him. A similar coverage is given to several other youth, including Zakir Rashid Bhat (also “Zakir Musa”) of Nurpura (Pulwama). Recall that Zakir had just joined the ranks of Burhan in a dramatic way: at the end of a vacation in Pehelgam and Gulmarg with his college friends from Chandigarh where he was pursuing a degree in civil engineering. “Don’t try and look for me. Jihad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris,” Zakir wrote in a note for his father before he disappeared.

This was a time when the rise of the Indian right was being discussed in heated debates on the national television. In Dadri, a village in Uttar Pradesh, a 50-year old Muslim man, Muhammad Akhlaq, was mercilessly lynched by an angry mob inspired by the right wing RSS ideology after a rumor spread that the family had eaten beef. In a similar incident, Zahid, a trucker was attacked on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway with petrol bombs on suspicion that he was carrying “cattle for slaughter”. On his death, the murderer of Akhlaq received a hero’s funeral, wrapped in the tricolor. Several such ruthless killings took place in the name of “religious sentiments” since and the rise of the Hindutvavadi forces continued across the country mobilizing into vigilante groups and cracking down upon various groups and vulnerable populations on one pretext or another.

“Why is (Kashmiri) Muslim youth knocking at the doors of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen?” — Harinder Baweja of the Hindustan Times took up the question in December 2015 and traveled to Pulwama inquiring about the “Tral boys”, Naseer Ahmad Pandit, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, and Afaq Ahmad Bhat. Nasir Pandit, a young Jammu & Kashmir police constable, Baweja maintains, was the “first to cast his vote” (in the assembly elections) and “among the few who cheered for India during an India-Pakistan (cricket) match” that had been held in the recent past. Yet, one fine day in 2015, Pandit disappeared along with his service weapon. In a press release, Pandit was “claimed as a trophy” by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. His father referred to the incident of the trucker burnt alive on the Jammu-Srinagar highway as one of the possible reasons behind his decision. In fact, Burhan’s father too made a reference to the two incidents related to the beef controversy as some of the reasons behind his son and boys of his age joining “Jihad”. “Beef is halal for Muslims,” he says on camera, “pehle khuda, phir bet̩a, Islam hamein yehi sikhata hai (‘First God, then the son; that is what Islam teaches us’).”

Wani was gunned down by the forces on July 8 2016 in what they called an “encounter”. An ocean of people attended the militant’s funeral. The dead body was carried without a shroud, his wounded face visible through his bloodied clothes and his uncovered feet on the wooden pyre as mourners attempted to touch him on all sides before his final rites. It was a spectacle. His brother Khalid had been killed in yet another “encounter” only a year ago when he went to meet Burhan at his “hideout”. But he wasn’t even a militant we were told. “Then how did they carry out an encounter of his brother?” people wanted to know.

Reit ki deewaar ko ek dhakka aur do; BJP sarkaar ko ek dhakka aur do (‘Give another push to the wall of sand; give another push the BJP government’) slogans such as these reverberated in the streets of downtown Srinagar in July 2016. The rise of the right wing parties in the Indian mainstream had made many people nervous about the “special status” of the state and the status and future of Article 370, which the BJP openly advocated to abrogate – a slogan it sort of relied its victory upon in the Jammu province. The newly formed PDP-BJP alliance didn’t go down very well with many Kashmiri Muslims, including PDP’s support base, who saw the alliance as a “sell out”, a “stab in the back”.

The role of the media in covering the situation in Kashmir has been pretty dubious throughout, providing only a murky picture for two parallel discourses have served different audiences. While heart-wrenching images of teenage boys and minors – dead, injured or blinded in firing by the security forces, wailing mothers and sisters, graphic images of injuries – took the front pages of the local newspapers in Srinagar, the national media generally glossed over much of the details of the ground situation in Kashmir, often not even covering it at all. Instead, they focused on such trivial issues like whether or not a certain Pakistani actor should be allowed to stay in India because they had “not condemned the Uri attack.” While the separatists and their supporters, including some valley-based newspapers, used exaggeration and hyperbole in whipping up sentiment in the valley, the mainstream Indian media would rather downplay the police atrocities on the citizens. At the same time, many nationalist Indians, chose to put the blame on the victims themselves, feeding into the discourse of hatred against Kashmiris, calling them “jehadis”, “Islamists” and “terrorists” on social media.

Close to a hundred young lives were silenced and many more injured in firing by the police and security personnel during protests and processions in Kashmir in the 2016 uprising. Many received life-changing injuries, and the majority of those affected were youth, including several minors. A large number of people, many of these youths indulging in violent stone-pelting protests and also many government employees and separatist leaders were arrested during the unrest, causing much outrage in various circles. “A state of anarchy” was how a senior journalist based in Srinagar described the situation when I talked to him on phone during the third week of my six-week long visit to Kashmir last summer.  Not to mention the enormous losses incurred by the endless shutdowns.

The 2016 unrest had the undertones of the uprising which took place in the aftermath of the notoriously rigged 1987 elections when the Muslim population of Kashmir felt disenfranchised and many young men crossed the border in a state of frustration and deceit. “Entire ballot boxes were thrown out the window,” a Srinagar-based senior journalist said in an interview to researchers at the Kashmir Oral History project. Many activists of the otherwise winning party, the Muslim United Front (Muslim Muttahida Mahaaz) ended up crossing over to Pakistan for arms training to protest against what was an outrageous failure of the democratic process.

Fast forward to early 2017. While more and more incidents of atrocities by vigilante forces continue to take the headlines of newspapers and television screens at the national level amidst a sense of fear among the minorities which was confounded by the outcome of the legislative elections in India’s biggest state (Uttar Pradesh), a parliamentary by-election in April triggered another spat of violent protests in the Kashmir valley. Voting machines smashed by the protesters, dozens of incidents of stone-pelting and several more young lives lost in retaliatory action by the paramilitary forces. Youth locking soldiers in polling booths and the soldiers using civilians as human cover against angry mobs — sentiments have been high and so have tempers.

In May 2017, Sabzar Bhat, who had succeeded Burhan Wani as the “Hizb commander”, was killed in a similar “encounter” followed by massive funeral processions and calls for Azadi and Nizam-e-Mustafa. More recently, we have seen attacks by militants on the police forces killing many, buildings set on fire by the soldiers after more “encounters” with the militants, and soldiers posing next to charred bodies of the slain militants in photo ops. We have also witnessed an angry mob lynching a lonely policeman mercilessly to death outside the grand mosque of Srinagar on what ought to be the night of prayers and value during the holy month of Ramadhan.

Again Kashmir is shrouded in grief. Every other day is yet another day of violence and uncertainty. More and more youth are on a suicidal path romanticizing militancy and gun culture, occupying places of worship and instigating violent protests, and cracking down upon institutions of learning and intellectual growth. Strengthening their grip on to symbols of a radical ideology, many of these “freedom fighters” are advocating a homogeneous society under the aegis of an Islamic state and the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic governance), thus shaking the very foundations of the syncretic culture that the Kashmir of yore boasted of. With a worsening situation at the hands of the vigilante groups elsewhere in India, the space for Kashmir’s liberals and secularists is fast shrinking. So what has really been achieved over the years and where are we heading? Some food for thought…

 

That Fable of Kashmiri Cultural Ethos

It is 18th of May 2013. A beautiful morning in Texas! I wake up to a message in my mailbox: “Hi! I must tell you this! Just a while back I was hosting you and your little girl in my Kashmir home. It was so real…. You are in a reddish sari looking really pretty and I bump on to you in our driveway. First, I pass by you without realizing that it is you, but in a few minutes we recognize each other and hug, etc. Then I see your cute daughter. I hug her too and invite you inside. My mother starts cooking [making] some nice snacks and then I wake up. I had to tell you this because the scene is still playing in front of my eyes.”

I read the message twice and respond: Oh! That is SO SWEET. Soon after I feel a strange kind of uneasiness gripping my soul deep within and my eyes burst into tears. Perhaps the dream would not have been as disturbing had I been the host and she the guest. I wish she hadn’t seen the dream. And why did she see me in a sari? That is not how I dress in Kashmir! I speak to myself. The message keeps bothering me, embarrassing me for hours before I sit down and grab a pen to write about it. The message is from a Facebook “friend” I have never met before; a “friend” who lives thousands of miles away and yet there is a strong and invisible connection between the two of us. I do not know a lot about her, but what binds the two of us together is a profound longing to reconnect with our roots, our homeland where we do not live any longer. Yet there is a stark difference that sets us apart. I am a “Kashmiri Muslim” and she is a “Kashmiri Pandit”. This religious identity, whether by personal choice or by default through inheritance from our parents and forefathers, is what makes us very different individuals when it comes to our personal experiences, our history and our connection with that dreamland, that “paradise on earth” we all, almost irrationally, continue to fancy about in great nostalgia — KASHMIR. It is that Kashmir which is so exceptionally “beautiful” and “serene” in our imagined reality that all the worlds’ beauties put together are rendered pallid in comparison.

Namrata lives in Delhi, only an hour long flight to Srinagar, and I live all the way across the globe in Texas in the United States of America. Yet she feels she is far more removed from the “homeland” than I am. While I visit Kashmir every year and stay with my family there, if Namrata wishes to go she must find a hospitable “host” or stay in a hotel like any other tourist in a place, which was once her hometown and where she grew up and spent her entire life until that fateful day when her family and her relatives had to leave Kashmir not knowing they would never return.

A friend of mine in Kashmir said one day, “Kashmiri Pandits should come back. We will welcome them wholeheartedly.” But the story on ground is quite different and disappointing. Only a week earlier, I called my father back home to arrange for a room for rent for another Kashmiri Pandit friend of mine. Ajay has a research project to work on in Kashmir. He needs to stay over an extended period of time. I try to look for an affordable place for him to stay before I arrive the following month. My father says to me on phone: I will do my best, but it is difficult. You know the situation here. If I cannot find a room, he is more than welcome to stay with us but at his own risk. This is Downtown, you know.

I am disheartened and decide to call one of my uncles who lives in another part of the city. The room is not a problem but the food, I mean….. I think my family may object to a Hindu eating with us in the kitchen. If he can cook his own meals……..ummm…… I tell him I would call again and disconnect. When Ajay finally arrives, like any other foreign visitor to the valley, he puts up in a guesthouse near Dalgate.

Ajay has an old ancestral house somewhere in Pulwama — a far-flung area in Kashmir. The house has been “taken care of” by some of his distant family who chose to stay back in those times of mayhem in the early 1990’s. Ajay and I visit the village, Sirnu (Siryun in Kashmiri) and his ancestral house a few weeks later and take pictures as souvenirs. We meet the Pandit inhabitants who tell us stories about their survival, their well-being and their times of struggle in what has become a largely homogeneous society.

Chuni Devi, an old lady of wit and humor, likely in her late 60’s, is eager to show us around. I take a picture of her standing in the doorway – she is defiant and confident. As Ajay meets some of his old family, Chuni Devi and I walk through a very narrow passage and cross over a barricade of jumbled outgrowth of bushes into her little vegetable garden across the corner. Fresh yellow blossoms adorn an array of huge green prickly leaves on the branches of squash hanging from over a prop. The witty lady shows me into the house of one of her close family and introduces me with the womenfolk. Most of them are housewives and spend their time largely at home. A young boy in his early teens comes in. I ask him about his school and his friends. “I don’t have many friends,” he tells me. He is probably the only Pundit boy in his classroom.

Later in the day, we are set to visit the village temple. Chuni Devi is the caretaker of the temple. She has also been actively involved in local village elections. Though there are only a handful of families there, she is steadfast in fighting for the minority rights in her area. As we move around, people of the neighborhood keep wondering, “Who are they?”

As we arrive near the temple premises, we see children of the locality bathing in a natural spring while Lord Shiva stays silent by the side in the muggy water. A small, old and dilapidated temple stands locked, facing the newly built mosque nearby. I ask Chuni Devi to open the door and she does. She shows us the remnants of the temple paraphernalia that had been vandalized many years ago and are still in the same condition. Mushtaq (another friend) and I exchange a few sad glimpses of embarrassment over the plight of the temple. We take some pictures and leave.

As I write about these experiences, I am deeply perturbed. It seems to me perhaps we have reached a point where cultural and religious harmony is a misnomer in Kashmir. Kashmiri society has become so homogeneous that it is hard to fathom a situation with a truly pluralist culture in the near future. This blatant fact manifests itself in more than one way. No doubt there are handfuls of Pandit (and other minority) families living in various neighborhoods, including some remote areas, but they live in considerable social isolation, with a degree of fear and suspicion. There is limited social and cultural contact even with neighbors and friends, and quite a few have sought police security. The only places where people of different religious backgrounds are to be seen in substantial “harmony” are tourist resorts, hotels and rental apartments, and some posh areas of the city, such as Rajbagh and surroundings. It seems the idea of cultural pluralism in Kashmir has largely relegated itself to memories and mementos as of now. Let’s hope it won’t stay that way.

© Sadaf Munshi

 

 

Casualties of the “Freedom” Struggle

It was April 1990. Everyday life in Kashmir was under siege. Schools and colleges were closed most of the time. I spent my days tending to the household work in the kitchen with my mother and my sister or reading in my room. We hardly went outdoors during those days, and when we did, we were apprehensive. There were militants and armed forces everywhere. Even sitting in the garden or basking under the sun was not acceptable anymore, especially for girls. People killed time chatting with neighbors, reading newspapers, or making plans for the grocery. In the evenings, we sat diligently in front of the television to listen to the news — everyone’s daily obsession and one of the primary sources of information about the incidents happening in town besides listening to BBC radio and the hushed gossip of friends and neighbors. It was one of these days when everyone in the family was alerted as my father came in after a neighborhood chat. A neighbor’s car had been stolen.

That evening, like every other day, we switched on the television for the news. “Professor Mushir-ul-Haq, the Vice Chancellor of the Kashmir University has been kidnapped by unknown gunmen.” Everyone was shocked to hear the news. “His personal secretary, Abdul Ghani, and an orderly were accompanying.” The incident happened on a Friday, when the VC was leaving for his prayers in a white ambassador car. A group of four armed men had stopped the trio at gunpoint as the white ambassador was turning towards (now) Sir Syed Gate of the University. The men forced their way into the car and ordered the driver to move as directed. When they reached a certain place in the old city, the gunmen shuffled the kidnapped into a standing red Maruti.

Four days later, on April 10, the bullet-ridden bodies of Professor Haq and his secretary were found near a canal on the roadside at a place near the Airport Road. The entire academic community was shocked. My uncle was the Public Relations Officer of the university then. We had heard a lot of things about Professor Haq which he would share with us. The student wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the gruesome murder. Haq’s body was quickly flown to his hometown in New Delhi where he was buried.

Later that year, our neighbor Waheed, the owner of the red Maruti van, was arrested from his house during a nocturnal crackdown. While the neighborhood was asleep, the security men “barged into their bedroom from the window. The couple was in bed at the moment.” Everyone was in total awe for many days. There was no news of Waheed for months. About six months later, suddenly Waheed came home, a completely different person. He looked withered and old, and his hair had turned gray. “They had to pay money to rescue him. You think they would free him otherwise?” somebody said. Waheed had been tortured in custody. “His kidneys were damaged due to the physical torture during the interrogations,” said a family member.

In 1991, when militancy and the sentiment for azādi (“freedom”) were at their highest peak in Kashmir, I took my Higher Secondary Part I (i.e., Class 11th) exams amidst extreme tension and turbulence, like many others of my generation. My school, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Soura, had been burnt down and many of our classes were held out in the open or in makeshift rooms. I still remember the charred logs and wretched beams and the deadly cold winters. Our hands would freeze while writing in absence of any heating arrangement. Right before the exams we were warned by somebody that there was “no need to study this time”.

On the first day of the exams, when the question papers and answer sheets were distributed, one of the examiners came forward and said: taamath bihivu ithay paeth, pata bihiv raundas manz ikwatta ‘Sit properly like this for now, in a little while you can make a circle together’ – words that resound in my memory in the same order even after literally two decades. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when she instructed the girls to bring their notes and materials from their bags so that they could copy their answers in the answer sheets. A handsome young man was standing guard at the entrance to the examination hall holding a pistol. Tears fell from my eyes, perhaps not at the state of affairs that had unfolded but because I could not bear the fact that the girls who barely managed to pass in the previous examinations might receive a higher score than I could possibly make despite having worked very hard. My friend turned to me, “You are insane! Why don’t you do what others are doing?” I kept quiet and wrote my answers half-heartedly.

The next few years of school and college were no better. With a large number of teachers from the Kashmiri Pandit community having fled the valley, we had to make-do with the leftover teaching staff complemented by ad-hoc staff. A number of quick hirings were made at gunpoint or at sifaarish. Besides the hundreds of lost school days, the quality of education offered deteriorated drastically. Consequently, a monstrous private-tuition industry propped up and flourished, while the burning of educational establishments continued over the years.

I still remember the day when my college was partially burned. It was a cold winter night of February 6, 1996. We were watching a local television channel when I suddenly stopped at the horrific news about a “mysterious” fire that had broken at the Government Women’s College, M.A. Road. As I saw the footage of the flames on the television screen, tears began to roll down my cheeks. “Two cylinder blasts,” someone said. The Old Science Block and the Auditorium were gutted down after the blasts were heard. I wasn’t able to visit my college until after the winter vacations in spring. “Why educational institutions?” was a question that bothered me just like many other people, but there was no answer.

A huge number of educational institutions were sacrificed for the “freedom” struggle in the coming years. Although many non-government establishments were also attacked, the main targets were the government-run colleges and schools. In fact, not only were a large number of schools and colleges burnt down, many government buildings, bridges, museums and libraries were also targeted as part of the “freedom” struggle. When the Islamia College of Arts and Sciences was put to flames in the October of the fateful year of 1990, I saw tears in the eyes of some of my neighbors, my uncles, and my older cousins who had received their education in the college. It was a catastrophic fire that engulfed the entire college complex. A monumental structure in the heart of Srinagar by the foothills of Hariparbat, the Islamia College had housed some of the rare books and manuscripts. “Everything was burnt to ashes; nothing was left,” said people who were able to visit the college campus later.

Incidents were also reported about explosive devices planted or set-off in Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson schools. Attempt to set ablaze the Burn Hall School was reported earlier on March 17 of 1990. In the same year, Srinagar’s famous D.A.V. (Dayanand Anglo Vedic) School at Rainawari was burnt down. “My high school was burnt with petrol stolen from the cars of our village. We never attended school during rainy days; there was no room with a roof,” a friend from Anantnag narrated to me many years later in December 2012.

I also witnessed multiple attempts to burn a local boys’ government high school situated just a block away from my home at Shri Bhat. During the first few attempts the locals succeeded in dousing the flames as soon as the fire had started, but in the final attempt a heavy amount of petrol and probably also kerosene in big cans was used before the school finally burned down to ashes. We saw the flames from a second storey window facing the school. It took many years for the government to build a replacement.

On July 5 2004, the historic Islamia School situated near Rajouri Kadal (the area and its surroundings were renamed Shahr-e-Khaas in the later years) was also set on fire by “unidentified gunmen”, possibly by the use of petrol. I was doing fieldwork in Srinagar and also working as a columnist and sub-editor for the daily Kashmir Observer.

The loss in education was an irreparable damage; it took a heavy toll on our society. While a number of voices of dissent were either warned from time to time or even silenced, a lot many people chose to leave the valley in pursuit of education and for jobs and never returned. Hartals and shutdowns became a norm crippling all of our civil institutions – education, economy, and healthcare. Often we were forced to stay indoors for months at a stretch as schools and colleges were closed. My peers and I lost two precious years of school during a five-year period in the 90’s. Consequently, many of us started looking for opportunities outside the trouble-torn valley. Few of those who left found a path to return.

Looking back today, it seems our next generation is going through exactly what my generation did. The cycle of loss is simply getting repeated over and over again with very few dividends. A blind leadership of a limping struggle isn’t really leading us anywhere; it’s only making circles amidst a façade of a “movement” which is making rounds without making any advances. The cycle must break so we can determine a path of progress and prosperity for our children, our future generations. This is what wisdom asks of us, and this is something we really owe to our future generations.

——–
Published in the daily Rising Kashmir on November 18, 2016: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/casualties-of-the-freedom-struggle
http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/EPaper.aspx?2Nl0G3Vctbmk9_ppHjlNSLDg_ep_ep
Reproduced in the Pakistan Observer on November 20, 2016:
http://pakobserver.net/casualties-of-the-freedom-struggle/

No Lessons Learned from the Past?

Will New Delhi continue to resort to procrastination or has the past experience offered any hopes for a lasting solution to the Kashmir imbroglio?

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

A continuing cycle of seemingly endless killings by the security forces, public protests against human rights violations, unending shutdown calendars put in place by the separatist groups, and unjustifiably severe restrictions on people’s movement and communication imposed by the government in response – words fell short of describing the situation in Kashmir in summer 2010, which was no less than chaotic. It was the third consecutive year that Kashmir had erupted again – each time in response to a unique incident, leaving many critics dumbfounded. The situation deteriorated every passing day and the valley turned into a virtual prison where people were literally crippled indoors. While indefinite curfews were in place, killings and protests continued. The use of disproportionate force by the police and security forces to “control the protestors and unruly mobs” resulted in more and more deaths and further protests, with ordinary people being unnecessarily harassed, bashed and beaten.

Given the immediate consequences of the 2010 crisis and the immense psychological stress resulting from continued hadtals and clampdowns, the situation was almost on the brink of turning into a humanitarian crisis. The problem, however, was not merely a law-and-order situation resulting from human rights violations or growing unemployment among the youth, as the then government initially tried to project it, but a complex interaction of the political problem of Kashmir and the failure of the administration in addressing political issues in a timely manner. A total of at least 117 people were reported dead and several hundred injured in police firing in summer 2010. A majority of those killed were students and youth including at least two minors aged 8-9 years and a young girl in mid twenties.

Fast forward to July 2016, we find ourselves in an exactly similar, or perhaps worse, situation given the intensity of happenings of the past many days and the severity of the restrictions. As I write this piece, over 45 civilians are confirmed dead and hundreds injured, including many minors in a matter of ten days. No words of criticism shall suffice to condemn the atrocities by the police and armed forces nor the authoritarian and oppressive measures of the government where the common people have literally been subject to the worst kind of psychological torture one can imagine in the modern world. With complete information blackout and almost all modes of communication snapped for so many days on the pretext of “public safety”, the government yet again demonstrated its utter incapability in opening up any possibility of effectively addressing a political crisis. Beyond any doubt Kashmir feels like a prison where the entire population is at the mercy of different agencies attempting to outdo each other at their incompetence in dealing with the political problem. Calling the government response to the non-stop shutdown calls by the separatist elements “counter-productive” will be an understatement.

To any naïve spectator, it has been a senseless ideological contest between the administration on the one hand and the separatist agencies on the other as to who wins the game or who succumbs first. In total frustration at its failure to contain public anger and protests, the state government’s response has merely been reduced to countering the hartal calendars by curfews, thus keeping the entire population of the valley literally under arrest causing much frustration and inconvenience. By disabling private mobile and Internet services, the government has demonstrated an utter disrespect for people’s fundamental right to access information and to freedom of communication. This is in addition to the restrictions or excesses on press, print and local news media, which are the only alternative outlet under such circumstances. Such desperate actions on part of the government reflect its failure in safeguarding the democratic rights of the very population it claims to represent.

Recall in 2010 that a total of 71 days of government-imposed curfews were reported at one point against 65 days of hartals. Amidst continued killings, protests, hartals and government clampdowns, the situation had turned to a point where there was a complete breakdown of communication between the administration and the people of Kashmir. Owing to an absolute disregard for public opinion or expression and complete apathy to people’s sentiment and suffering, the government totally distanced itself from the masses then, and it is doing the same this time over. Amidst such circumstances, the ordinary people have suffered enormously. As a result of strict curfews and continuing shutdowns, people have had very limited access to basic amenities of life such as food and medicine, ailing people have been unable to seek medical help in time, hospitals are running out of staff and medication, educational institutions have been defunct, and daily-wagers, laborers and small business owners have been deprived of their fundamental right to make a living.

It has been 27 odd years that Kashmir has been burning. We have seen different phases of instability and different means of expression of public opinion, dissent, and dissatisfaction, which include the re-emergence of militancy, and this time, homegrown. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost over the years and half a million people displaced or emigrated; no need to comment on the psychological loss incurred on the people of Kashmir. It is high time that all the concerned parties shun their dirty politics and work for a lasting solution rather than avoiding it for eternity and passing the problem on to generations. In order to initiate the process and regain credibility, the government must take the first steps sooner than later – both short-term and long-term. For the short-term, it must immediately relieve the population out of the severe restrictions on movement and communication. And for the long-term it must take a number of bold confidence-building measures in practice rather than on paper, which include: performing fast-track, unbiased and fair investigations of a number of pending cases and excesses, removing the Army and CRPF from the civilian areas, removing or amending the draconian laws such as AFSPA which have resulted in gross human rights violations, and refraining from the use of mean political tactics aimed to evade responsibility.

Just saying that “Kashmir is an integral part of India” at the top of your voice on national television channels does not necessarily make it so; you must prove it in action by treating the people of Kashmir with empathy, dignity and respect. One of the most crucial measures that need to be taken by the government is an absolute stop on the use of brutal force on unarmed civilians, which have resulted in many fatal or life-changing injuries. The next important step is the initiation of a sustained dialogue with the people of Kashmir while simultaneously reaching out to the various sections of the population; any procrastination or misstep at this critical juncture will lead to further alienation of people of Kashmir from New Delhi, causing enormous damage to the measures that have been taken up in the past. Can this be done without further delay and without indulging in cheap digressions as seen on the national television channels? If not, the government of India cannot and should not expect any change of stand or sentiment on part of the people of Kashmir.

 

(This article was published in the daily Rising Kashmir, July 23, 1016. Available at:

http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/no-lessons-learned-from-the-past )

India using an iron fist in Kashmir

Why are Kashmiris doing this? Let us all walk the path of wellbeing! This was the statement of an old friend of mine from the Indian mainland in response to the prevailing political crisis in Kashmir. I looked at her in silence and hopelessness. It was August 15th and I was in New Delhi, on my way back to my adopted home, the United States of America, after a month-long harrowing experience in Kashmir. I had left during the wee hours of the 14th morning in an attempt to avoid any “untoward incident” on my way to the airport in Srinagar.

Today is August 22nd. After over 44 days of senseless killings, there seems to be no let up in the political crisis. While the two South Asian nuclear powers India and Pakistan mince no words in flexing their muscles and bellowing at each other claiming their rights on the fated land, over 66 civilians are killed and thousands injured in different parts of the Kashmir valley since July 8, 2016. Scores of youth and many minors have received dangerous injuries from pellets impairing their vision. While any violent protests by public cannot be condoned, no words of criticism suffice to condemn the excesses by the police and armed forces. Amidst the authoritarian and vindictive measures of the government and the police forces, common people have literally been subject to the worst kind of psychological torture one can imagine in the modern world. Kashmir feels like a prison where the entire population is at the mercy of different agencies attempting to outdo each other at their incompetence in dealing with the situation. Calling the administration’s response to the non-stop shutdown calendars of the separatists “counter-productive” and “insensitive” is an understatement.

In total frustration at its failure to address public anger against the many killings the government’s response to the situation has been reduced to countering the senseless hartals by stringent curfews and restrictions. By disabling private mobile/Internet services, and more recently extending the curfews to nighttime, the government has demonstrated an utter disregard for people’s fundamental right to access information and to their freedom of movement and communication. Such desperate actions only reflect the government’s failure in safeguarding the basic human rights of people and ought to be condemned in the strongest terms.

But this isn’t the first time that this happened. A continuing cycle of killings amidst enormous protests against human rights violations, unending shutdowns, and unjustifiably severe restrictions – words fell short of describing summer 2010. It was the third consecutive year that Kashmir had erupted – each time in response to a unique incident, and I was to witness each of these uprisings firsthand. The situation deteriorated every passing day turning the valley into a virtual prison for three months. The use of brutal force by the police and the security men to control angry protestors and stone-pelting youth resulted in many deaths, with ordinary citizens being unnecessarily harassed and beaten, and public properties destroyed. At least 117 people were killed and several hundred injured in police firing. A majority of those killed were students, including two minors.

Given the immense psychological stress resulting from stringent clampdowns, the situation is again on the brink of turning into a humanitarian crisis the political consequences of which could be far more devastating than the previous years. Rise of homegrown militancy and increasing public sympathy for slain militants is only one such consequence. Continued and unchecked abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is one of the primary factors contributing to the further alienation and radicalization of youth. Any attempt to justifying its use at the pretext of the “worsening situation” is naïve, if not dishonest, and utterly disturbing. And far more disturbing is the criminal silence of the country’s Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi who has offered few words of sympathy for the families of the victims in the current spate of violence and unrest. Under such circumstances it is hard to imagine if things will move in the right direction any time soon in Kashmir.

August 22, 2016.

(Published in Rising Kashmir, August 25, 2016. http://epaper.risingkashmir.com/EPaper.aspx?0vzqKVqakSdx1ArOcaTYaA_ep_ep )

India’s AFSPA – A License to Human Rights Violations

Dr. Sadaf Munshi

India’s extremely controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a cruel, repugnant law used in Jammu & Kashmir since 1990 and in the Northeast since 1958  – permits, according to its critics, a localized form of de facto emergency rule. The provisions of AFSPA include the power of the armed forces to make preventive arrests, to search premises without warrant, and to shoot and kill civilians. The Act gives legal immunity to the armed forces implicated in a wide range of criminal activities.

Torture, brutalities, arbitrary staged killings, enforced disappearances, sexual assault and rape have become an ancillary to the “security” concerns associated with AFSPA. The Act was initially passed by the Indian Parliament on September 11, 1958 in response to the continued unrest in the Northeast, specifically Assam and Manipur, amidst the demand for a “Free Sovereign Naga Nation”. Ironically, AFSPA has its roots in the British Indian Empire’s Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942, which was promulgated on August 15, 1942 in order to suppress the Quit India Movementa civil disobedience movement that started around the same time in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance). The legal framework for the implementation of the AFSPA is provided by another colonial Act, the Disturbed Areas Act.

In Retrospect: Fake Encounters and Other Civilian Killings in Kashmir    

Because AFSPA provides a protective cover and complete immunity against trial for various kinds of (otherwise) criminal activities (including rape and sexual assault), fake encounters have been fairly common in the Indian administered Kashmir over the last many years. Technically, a “fake encounter” is a staged shootout operation, an intentional and organized killing of citizens — nationals or foreigners — by the armed forces. There are different motivations and incentives for such extra-judicial killings — procurement of awards, medals or promotions, vigilantism, targeted assassinations, and orders from the higher-ups (the latter perhaps in an exercise to demonstrate “action” in response to any previous terrorist activity). The modus operandi associated with such “encounters” include:

  • Picking up of victims surreptitiously from a certain place and killing them elsewhere in a far off place where the residents are unable to identify them; this helps to present innocent civilians as “foreign militants named X, Y, Z”,
  • Pretending as if the act were part of a standard “security” operation,
  • Planting weapons, arms and ammunition against the dead bodies in an exercise to presenting them as threats and justifying the killings,
  • Changing the clothes of the victims and even burning the dead bodies to make identification difficult,
  • In certain cases, explaining the discrepancy in police records that show that the individual was in custody at the time of his “encounter” by stating that the suspect had “escaped”.

Let’s take a look at a few organized “encounters” we have seen in Kashmir valley in the last fourteen years and some of the consequences related to them:

On 25th of March 2000, five innocent civilians were killed in a staged shootout by the Indian security forces at Pathribal — a village in the Anantnag District of Kashmir. The forces had claimed that the men were the “foreign militants” responsible for the massacre in which 35 members of the Sikh community had been murdered earlier that month on March 20th at Chattisinghpora – another village in Anantnag. After massive protests, the bodies of the slain men were exhumed and an investigation began. In 2006, five officials of the Rashtriya Rifles 7th Battalion were indicted and held guilty of “cold-blooded murder” of the five men after an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). A chargesheet was filed in a designated court in Srinagar (the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir) against Brigadier Ajay Saxena, Lt Col Brajendra Pratap Singh, Major Sourabh Sharma, Major Amit Saxena and Subedar Idrees Khan. The five civilians had been allegedly abducted and killed in a staged encounter.  This was followed by many years of a legal battle, with the CBI pressing for the trial and the Army seeking immunity under AFSPA.

The specter of fake encounters continued to be repeated over the years. One of these happened in early 2010. On April 30th that year, bodies of three men were exhumed in the Kupwara District. The slain youth had been reported missing from a village Nadihaal in Rafiabad immediately after they had gone with an ex-Special Police Officer allegedly “in touch with the Army” (Hindustan Times, May 28, 2010). The killings took place at Machil, and were followed by protests and more civilian deaths. Earlier, in February 2010, a 16-year-old boy was killed in a bullet injury while playing cricket near a tourist place; this killing also had triggered massive protests. The following months in the summer of 2010 saw a bloodbath, which led to the loss of about 118 more innocent civilian lives in Police firing. The whole episode was accompanied by stringent curfews and a complete breakdown of communication between the government and the public. The entire population of the valley was literally held hostage in their houses for a period of three months.    

Only three years later, in September 2013, four people were shot dead by the Central Reserve Police Force at Gagran in south Kashmir’s Shopian town. The men, initially claimed by the Police to be “militants” belonging to the terror group “Lashkar-e-Taiba”, later turned out to be civilians with no prior records or association with any known militant organization. Given major discrepancies and gross violations such as these one is bound to suspect any new arrests and allegations by the government forces. 

Is There an Effective Strategy in Place to Resist AFSPA?

In 2011, Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, started a campaign to have the AFSPA withdrawn from the state, but his pleas largely fell  to deaf ears. One of the ensuing debates in this exercise was whether to repeal the Act (while keeping the Armed forced in the concerned areas where their presence is seen as a necessity by the government incapable of “dealing with the situation” which it claims to be “still worrisome”) partially from some areas that are deemed to be ‘safer’ or more peaceful than others or from all the regions altogether.

On August 8th 2011, in what appeared to be a “toughening” of its stand against extra-judicial killings, the Supreme Court of India said that those responsible for fake encounters should be given death sentence and hanged. Nevertheless, this was more talk and little action. Recall that in 2006, the CBI had sought trial for “exemplary punishment” of the accused officers in the Pathribal killings. In 2012, however, in a significant deviation from its 2011 position, the Supreme Court granted the Army involved in the Pathribal “encounter” two options for conducting the proceedings: through a civil court or through its own Court of Inquiry. Of course, the Army chose the latter. In January 2014, the Army’s Court of Inquiry (CoI) declared the matter of the death of the five civilians killed at Pathribal as “closed” claiming immunity under the AFSPA. Of course, in December 2013, an Army court did order “court martial” proceedings against six people (one colonel, one major and four others) in connection with the 2010 Machil fake encounter case. This, however, would only pass as a token gesture, and given what followed in the context of the Pathribal case too little and too late.

 

Conclusion

India has a record of brutality and injustice in scores, even hundreds, of cases throughout the country. One notable example is the 2001 case of a bakery worker of Jaunpur killed in Mumbai, allegedly in response to “Sten-gun wielding terrorists firing on the police from the terrace of the bakery”; notably, the 17 policemen who raided the bakery and an adjacent “madrasa”, found no terrorists or Sten-guns. Scores other cases where innocents were picked up on “suspicion” and languished in jails for years without a fair trial. Some of these were held for over a decade before they were released for “lack of evidence”. Amidst such a grim state of affairs it is only hoping against the hope that justice will ever be delivered.

(Jan. 5, 2016)

Let Me Be Clear

 

Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
                                                                                                                            (Albert Einstein)

Senior separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani in an interview that was published in Rising Kashmir blamed the people of Kashmir for “failing their leadership” and applauded the youth for once again taking up guns“for their rights”. The two statements generated a lot of heated debate between the critics on the one hand and the devoted supporters of the octogenarian on the other. Note that, the support group exhibits the same kind of hero worship as was expressed by the hundreds of thousands of supporters of Jenab Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah many years ago, whose fate after his demise is not unknown to many a Kashmiri. Many articles appeared in several dailies of Kashmir in relation to the interview – both by people differing with his views and by the supporting lobby against the criticism. In fact, I also wrote a quick response to the interview in which I attempted to highlight some of the drawbacks of the separatist movement and hurdles in the path of a resolution. Today, I would like to present my responses to some of the objections made by the supporters of Mr. Geelani against the criticism:

One of the predominant positions justifying his allegation of “people failing the leadership” (honestly, that sounds funny, if not very awkward) refers to the “fickle-mindedness” of the people of Kashmir in having participated in the elections and chosen “bijli, pani, sadak” over azadi (whatever that means) in response to calls for the election boycott. That is a brazen lie. It is not the fickle-mindedness of the common people, but the lack of insight on part of the so-called leadership, particularly Mr. Geelani, that was a major setback to having achieved some kind of solution to the conflict. And I have explained that at great length in a number of articles published from time to time.

For decades people of Kashmir diligently and devotedly followed the anti-people hadtal calls and the boycotts, no matter how unsuccessful they were in achieving any political objectives – this, even at the cost of their personal freedoms, hoping for a solution. Recall that it was only after the failure of the separatist leadership to forge a joint alliance in 2008, which led to the population feeling deceived and disowned. And it was then that the people overwhelmingly participated in the upcoming elections later that year. For those who cannot remember, it was a statement by Mr Geelani, in front of tens of thousands of people gathered at Eidgah after the Amarnath land row, in which he decided to first settle his personal agenda of claiming the “one-and-only leader of Kashmir” role at a decisive moment when India was literally at its knees. This blatant disregard for the political differences that have existed from the very outset of the “separatist” movement (or prior to that) is not naïve but utterly foolish on part of a person who claims a leadership role.

Recall that it was also, Mr. Geelani who stood in the way of Parvez Musharraf’s four-point formula in 2007. The formula (which proposed a gradual withdrawal of troops, self-governance, no changes to the region’s borders and a joint supervision mechanism) was not only a doable solution but also well received by a majority of stakeholders. Unfortunately, it was outright rejected by the one and only Mr. Geelani in favor of his rigid and unchangeable demand for self-determination citing UN Resolutions.

Now here is the problem: under the UN resolutions, there are only two options available for the people of Jammu & Kashmir – either India or Pakistan, and no third option. Given the multi-religious, multi-ethnic composition of the region, it is practically impossible to arrive at a bloodless solution should there be a plebiscite; the gory history of the Partition is a testimony to the fact that the two-nation theory was an ultimate failure.

Although I completely agree that the people of Jammu & Kashmir have a right to choose their destiny, I have some reservations. I feel that a proposal for plebiscite is inherently defective in our context. It is good only for a region with considerable homogeneity in terms of its population make-up. Keeping the demographic realities and the uneven political aspirations of the different groups within the region into consideration, a proposal for self-determination is bound to lead to new disgruntled populations, and hence, a continuous political destabilization in the region. In this sense, therefore, Geelani’s rigid position on self-determination should not be treated as a “commitment to the cause” but as an inability to see through the imminent fallout of the proposal. That Mr. Geelani is unwilling to budge an inch from his political position is, in reality, not his strength, but a stark weakness. His grudges with the moderate factions of the separatist leadership, therefore, are ill founded.

Furthermore, it is not only unfortunate but also outrageously irresponsible on part of the senior leader to say that it was “good” that the Kashmiri youth were again taking up arms. As a responsible human being and a mother, I completely disagree and strongly condemn such irresponsible statements that could lead to the loss of more innocent lives. It is not good on any counts to use violent means in pursuit of human rights and justice unless in certain extremely unique and exceptional circumstances such as a civil war, etc., where violence is thrust upon people and is the only way to defend innocent lives. Every single human life is precious and we have no reason to lose more lives to mindless violence.

Finally, my criticism of Mr. Geelani does not amount to opposing a political solution or undermining the efforts of those who are perhaps honestly working towards peace, but to only highlight the drawbacks of a particular position so that a consensus towards achievable political goals can be built and eventually worked upon. There is no solution to Kashmir conflict except on the negotiating table but that cannot be done unless we involve representatives from all the different factions of the stakeholders capable of forging a strong alliance. In this exercise, the role of the Indian and Pakistani establishments in addressing one of the very important aspects of the conflict – the people-to-people contact – is paramount to peace making efforts in the region. Making borders irrelevant is not only a positive step in this direction but the need of the hour.

© Sadaf Munshi
Dec. 17. 2015.

(Published in the daily Rising Kashmir: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/let-me-be-clear/ )

Where Did We Fail?

This article was inspired by a number of letters which have recently appeared in several Kashmir-based dailies in response to some totally bizarre statements made by Syed Ali Shah Geelani in an interview published in the daily Rising Kashmir in which he blames the people of Kashmir for the failure of the separatist movement while completely absolving the separatist leadership. Shockingly, even after the loss of so many innocent lives in this ding-dong struggle, he does not have any qualms in yet again advocating violence as the means to attain freedom. An utter naivety is revealed in the claim that no unification between various separatist factions was required to achieve any political goals. However, it is heartening to see young minds come forward and question such handicapped ideas. As much as the population of Kashmir is aware of the facts on ground, the leadership ought to be accountable for their own failures. Such criticism and questioning is a sign of the churning necessary for the intellectual growth and progress of a society. I would like to add a few lines so as to give a broader context to the failure of the separatist movement.

There are several reasons why the separatist movement has failed (and if anyone believes to the contrary, I suggest talking to a common man on the street, or an illiterate housewife to get a better idea of the situation). The first and foremost blunders which acted as a great setback in pursuing the cause of “independence” was the use of religion as a mobilizing force for attaining political goals. This was expressed in the form of targeting, isolating and victimizing minorities, including women who were subject to intense public humiliation for not complying with the extremist demands, especially in the 90’s. In fact, women’s role in the “movement” was only relegated to that of portraying them merely as victims of Indian oppression, thus, denying them a platform or visibility in the public arena as equals of men, while at the same time curtailing their individual freedom. Using religion as a political tool, the separatists utterly failed to take the non-Muslim populations of Jammu & Kashmir on board. The outcome of this in the long run was that the very idea of “freedom” became a casualty of radicalization and communalism. That a sizable population of Kashmiris is still living in exile and no serious attempts towards reconciliation and resettlement have been made so far is a testimony to the fact that there is nothing “secular” in the “movement” and that the non-Muslim populations of the state have no stake in it. This is an irreparable damage to the Kashmiri ethos of composite culture and a permanent hurdle in attaining a political solution.

The second major drawback to the “movement” was the fact that hadtals (shutdowns), street protests and stone-pelting became the primary mode of protestation and resistance after the failure of the armed struggle, and this to the extent of exhaustion and fatigue. The same futile exercise, which hardly ever produced any concrete results, was repeated for decades at the cost of the everyday needs of people, impinging on their very basic right to make a living or pursue their individual dreams (Note that such basic needs as water, electricity, healthcare and roads were dismissed as unimportant by the same people who had no qualms in enjoying these facilities themselves over prolonged periods of time in more comfortable housing, receiving better healthcare in other parts of India). That even education was to be sacrificed for the “cause” (when the kith and kin of the privileged lot were getting educated outside Kashmir), besides the banning of artistic and creative activities at the outset of the armed struggle — the very basis of intellectual growth of a society, is beyond one’s imagination, a matter of utter stupidity and lack of vision.

The third factor that contributed to the failure of the separatist movement was the complete absence of a strategy, absence of a concrete agenda. That many of the separatist leaders, just like the mainstream politicians, were more interested in serving their personal agendas, were in pursuit of power rather than the betterment of the society, was indicated by the many different divisions and factions in the separatist lobby which found it impossible to come together and forge a unified, justifiable agenda under the umbrella of one single leadership. On the contrary, more and more stringent divisions and splinter groups made the relevance of the existing leadership unimportant, creating a chaotic situation where people were confused as to which particular faction to follow when. That one of these 26 or more odd member organizations of the Hurriyat Conference, JKLF, has dozens of “leaders” in many different countries, each claiming to be its “founding member” who do not see eye-to-eye against each other, is just one example. Another example is the quashing of opportunities like summer 2008 which had the potential of being a turning point in Kashmir’s recent history.

Despite these revelations in the more recent years, it was in the early 90’s that these drawbacks of the “movement” were apparent and I, a mere young adult female then, like many others, understood that it was an exercise of hollow promises aimed towards political power with little prospects of translating into actual freedom, of creating a path towards the attainment of human rights and justice. It was then that I realized that the “movement” was built on the foundations of sacrificing individual freedoms, intellectual growth and rational thought where freedom of expression became a casualty. And I realized that the freedom struggle was not taking us anywhere because the very means that were employed to attain it were flawed to the core, unjustifiable on various fronts.

The real enemy of Kashmir today (as elsewhere in South Asia) in my view is corruption — corruption in politics and in every other walk of life. Both the separatist movement and the governing bodies of Jammu & Kashmir have helped embolden corruption by creating a culture of laziness and unaccountability. Unless and until we fight corruption in all its forms, we cannot attain real freedom, no matter what the political boundaries or nationalities; it just won’t happen. But corruption cannot be dealt with unless we allow intellectual progress. Though intellectual progress could be obstructed by corruption — a vicious cycle indeed, there is no alternative to it for only intellectual progress can help us grow as a powerful society and provide a pathway to real freedom.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an Associate Professor in the College of Information at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(Note: This article was originally published on December 10, 2015 in the daily Rising Kashmir and can be accessed at: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/where-did-we-fail/)

Perils of Destructive Politics

By: Dr. Sadaf Munshi 

“Kashmiri people follow Geelani, believe in JKLF ideology and pin hopes on Mirwaiz”

The statement quoted above was an observation made by a scholar from the United Kingdom during a Kashmir visit in 2010 when over 116 young lives were lost for nothing. In the past few days, the situation in Kashmir is taking a similar turn but lets hope nothing close to 2010 is on cards. I have learned that Kashmir politics is a kedgeree too many players, too many cooks. At the latest developments, I was reminded of a phone call I made to my father about two years ago asking about the “situation” in the aftermath of the sectarian tension in 2012. Father had turned to me like this: “kehin nay, yim karaan shuyr kharyil” (‘Nothing, it’s just these kids playing mischief’). It was a relief to see that he hadn’t lost his sense of humor even in that tense environment. My father further added: “ath habyin wanaan Kaakun haaput; ba hay traavahan magar yi traavyam na kehn” (Lit. ‘This is called “Kaka’s bear”, my dear; I would let go of it but it won’t let go of me’).

We have seen time and again that a common Kashmiri’s right to live, move and breathe is at the mercy of the moods of politicians, administrators, separatists and some invisible “agents”. Only a few months ago, Kashmir went through one of the most devastating floods in its history. Schools and educational institutions were closed down for a prolonged period of time. The entire infrastructure was badly damaged. There is a lot to catch up, a lot of reconstruction work to be done. Despite an interval of seven long months, majority of the flood-affected people are yet to receive relief. Many people spent a long harsh winter in makeshift shelters and were only looking forward to a ray of hope with the arrival of spring. The intervening elections and the unprecedented delay in the government formation had only added to their woes. As if all this were not enough, there comes politics on the scene and the common man continues to suffer.

Over a week ago, a huge controversy was started over the government’s announcement of a “plan of rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits”; this came even before any actual action plan or conversation on this topic was made with the concerned people. Within a matter of hours, separatist leaders came forward with severe criticism and their supporters went berserk agitating on the streets of Srinagar on the following day. The leader of the JKLF even announced a 30-hour long symbolic “hunger strike” against the proposal of “separate townships for KPs”, which the government did not even endorse. “We will not tolerate any division of Kashmir based on communal lines”, the leader had belched. As if it wasn’t clear enough that the division of the state on communal lines already existed. Perhaps it would have been more judicious and ethical to explain what stopped the separatist leadership from reaching out to the Pandit community during more than two decades. As far as the state administration is concerned, it could not take any brownie points on their announcement of the “plan” either. We have just seen how the only KP member of the PDP was shown the door when his campaigning role was over; the resignation of Dr. Sameer Kaul right after the government formation is an indication of how seriously the government is taking the issue of the “reintegration” of Kashmiri Pandits. The untimely announcement of the “luxurious bus services for tourists” before any developmental plans for the people of Kashmir or relief for the flood victims was yet another foot-in-mouth blurb that the new government could have avoided.

Now, here is the icing on the cake. After spending his annual winter vacation in the cozy warm plains of the capital of the “enemy” India while the flood-affected people of Kashmir were reeling in cold weather, Mr. Seyyid Ali Shah Geelani makes a salubrious comeback on the Kashmir’s political scene. Alongside a recently released hardliner separatist on his side (who by the way would have been a non-entity but thanks to the Indian media for lionizing him), a couple thousand people gave the octogenarian a warm welcome. Flags of the neighboring country, whose role in the Kashmir conflict is well known, were hoisted in the demonstrations and “jeeve jeeve Pakistan” slogans were reverberating in the air, while the “moderate” faction was dumbfounded and sidelined by the media glamour the hardliners attracted. At this scene, I was reminded of the tens of thousands of aspiring youth waiting with their job applications for a mere fifty positions in the police/armed services.

Calling for regular shutdowns and “idhar chalo”, “udhar chalo” is an approach, which has taken a high toll on Kashmir’s economy, development and intellectual growth. It has yielded nothing but destruction and loss of precious human lives. Inciting anger, throwing rocks at people on the other side and raising mash’als in the air in nocturnal demonstrations is only an easy recipe for more violence, deaths and destruction. Those people who indulge in instigating youth to violence are equally responsible for the loss of precious lives that take place in violent demonstrations, as are those who fire bullets at them. Both the public and the police need to observe restraint and behave themselves.

Kashmir’s civil society has a moral obligation to come out of their closets and speak vehemently against any overt or covert abuse of teenage schoolboys for the purpose of political gains; they also have an obligation to reject all extremist forces that are hell-bent in taking this society back to stone age. Finally the callousness of the Police in dealing with volatile situations needs a very serious attention by the government. The police forces need to be trained in how to communicate with public in a humane and respectful way; use of disproportionate force on unarmed people is totally unacceptable and unjustified.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the College of Information at the University of North Texas. For feedback, she can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.
———
Originally published in the daily Rising Kashmir (April 23, 2015):http://www.risingkashmir.com/perils-of-destructive-politics/

The Return of the Kashmiri Pandit

By: Dr. Sadaf Munshi 
“The Return of the Kashmiri Pandit” – this phrase has come to sound like that famous 1985 horror movie-cum-black comedy The Return of the Living Dead. Given that we Kashmiris are so hypersensitive that a slight tinge of satire may stoke unwanted emotions, I hope being candid does not lead to my being misconstrued. The analogy is admittedly a bit absurd, but the popular response generated by any government offer to rehabilitate the displaced Kashmiri Pandits gives an impression as if the KP community would have a comeback as the horde of hungry zombies out to devour the unsuspecting Muslim population.

Today, many separatist leaders and commonplace Kashmiri Muslims are nervous that the proposed “townships” offer for the Pandits might be very “dangerous” for the majority (Although it seems that the government had to clarify that the offer did not really imply “isolated” colonies but an attempt to “reintegrate” the displaced KP community). Some people even went to claim that the proposal might lead to an “Israel-like situation” in which the majority will eventually be replaced by the minority. Honestly, I do not know what to call this kind of attitude if not extreme paranoia.

First of all, Kashmiri Pandits are not some foreigners trying to grab the “rightfully inherited” land of Kashmiri Muslims. Secondly, we do not see any imminent population explosion in the KP community, which might result into a situation where they could outnumber the Muslim community any soon (But, wait a minute! Doesn’t this remind us of the mindset warning the Hindu India of the “increasing” Muslim population?). Thirdly, out of the 62,000 displaced KP families, how many are actually likely to return? The affluent and lucky ones, who have dispersed and settled in many foreign lands with better employment and educational prospects, would be least interested in a comeback, just like the many Kashmiri Muslims settled elsewhere. Finally, how many of them do we strongly believe will return willingly and stay there for good? More than one state government has made promises to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits. We have even seen attractive job packages being offered in the past. Unfortunately there have been few takers so far. In fact, we have heard reports of people leaving soon after they had joined these jobs. Why? Let’s think about it!

In the summer of 2013, I visited the remote area of Shopian in Kashmir with some people as part of a project documenting Kashmir oral history. We were greeted by several ghost houses, ruins of the foundations of razed buildings once inhabited by the Pandits who had fled in terror many years ago in the 90’s. Despite witnessing arsons and attacks on their neighbors, a single Pandit family had decided to stay back. We met them. They prepared lunch for us – chicken, mutton kofte, and yogurt drinks. An elderly woman looked at me with great affection as we listened to the story her husband narrated. I returned her gesture with the same warmth. The woman gave me a tight hug and showed me around. After the lunch we stepped outside and took a closer look of the neighborhood. The house stood amidst an array of giant trees and ruins of the burnt down houses of which only the worn down foundations remained. It was a quiet, isolated place; not a single neighbor was within sight. “It is scary,” I turned to my companions. The elderly man, in his 90’s, said in a reassuring voice:

We have become used to it now. We are not scared any more. The policemen guard our house and property at night. They come around 10:00pm everyday and leave in the morning. We wish we had some neighbors, some relatives around here that we could share our joys and our sorrows with.

We may brag about our “composite culture” and our “shared past”, or take pride in the much-hallowed notion of “Kashmiriyat”, but the reality on ground says a slightly different story. We have turned into an exclusivist society in which people belonging to other religions or ideologies do not quite fit. Except for a few isolated elite colonies (I would call them “sophisticated ghettos”), there are few neighborhoods in the valley, which can boast of being truly “composite” in nature.

Setting aside the endless debates and conspiracy theories on who or what was responsible for the KP exodus, let’s be honest in admitting the fact that both the state government and the majority community have so far failed to facilitate the return of our “Pandit brothers”. The miniscule population of Kashmiri Pandits, just like other minorities, cannot be a threat to the majority. Conversely, it is this population that has been continuously vulnerable; the many migrations of KPs are a testimony to this fact.

If the representatives of various schools of thought are really sincere in wanting the displaced community back, it’s high time they put a full stop to knee-jerk responses and insensitive statements that cause further alienation of the KP community. A well thought out plan for the rehabilitation and reintegration of the interested members by the government in consultation with various people, which will not expose the community to any vulnerable situation, is the need of the hour.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the College of Information at the University of North Texas. For feedback, she can be reached at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.
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Originally published in the daily Rising Kashmir (April 9, 2015): http://www.risingkashmir.com/the-return-of-the-kashmiri-pandit/