Alright, I’ll straightaway concede that the internet isn’t that big of a deal. People can, and have gotten by, without the internet for centuries. It does help businesses and the education sector, especially at a time when there’s a pandemic raging through the entire world but there’s no denying that there are concerns that far outweigh mere communication. Certain International Organisations and modern civilized democracies might be mulling over the idea of treating the internet as a socio-economic right but I don’t think we are prepared for that conversation yet in India at least.
So, yes, people always find a way to survive and I’m pretty sure Kashmiris will find their way around this as well. They’ve seen enough to not be rattled by restrictions on Internet accessibility. But, the internet cannot be the primary talking point – especially when Kashmir is in question, because the internet is still more or less a socio-economic thing.
In Kashmir, the basic human rights of a Kashmiri are under threat and have been so, not for one year, not one decade but for almost seven of them. Kashmiris know no normalcy. When was the last time a Kashmiri probably went for a ride around town without having to pass through multiple checkpoints? When was the last time a Kashmiri mother or wife spent a day without the fear of the men in her family never returning again? When was the last time Kashmiris spent an ordinary day or a month or a year without a curfew? These are questions we as Indians aren’t willing to ask. Why? Because we’ve already settled for an answer – and that answer is that of a fictional Kashmiri that we’ve conjured in our minds – a Kashmiri who’s apparently a savage. When have we ever visualized an ordinary Kashmiri – one with a family – one who has a mother, a father, a wife or a husband, siblings, cousins, nephews, nieces, children, grandchildren? When was the last time we thought of a Kashmiri as an aspirant – about how it must feel to be a young Kashmiri – to grow up and live in a militarized state? To us mainland Indians, a Kashmiri has always been a fanatic Muslim whose only purpose in life is to conspire against the Indian state.
We seem to have a lot of opinions on Kashmir – how it should be and how the people there are – even though we might not even have spent a day there or even picked up a book to read about the place. But then again, isn’t it true that the strongest and the loudest of opinions come from a place of ignorance? I find it amusing when people act like experts on terrorism even though they’ve spent their entire lives in protected bubbles within the confines of safe cities and towns.
The city dwellers have never experienced terrorism first-hand but they seem to know a lot about it. On the other hand, someone like me, who grew up in the district of North Cachar Hills (now DimaHasao) when the insurgency was at its peak, I still feel I do not know enough.
Despite my experience of growing up in a region infested by two active and violent militias, I still have more questions than answers. I wonder how people reach such absolute conclusions. Do people never ask themselves why it is usually neglected regions like the Northeast, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Chambal where a certain section of the population resorts to violence or even secession? Do people never put themselves in the shoes of the people living there? Do people never even consider what the state’s indifference for a region or a people can do to its youth that sees no hope? Does one fathom how far that can push them? These are complex questions that have even more complex answers – and those are the kind of thoughts we’re not willing to process. We need a one-liner, an ideology summed up in a single sentence or even less – that puts us in a position of power and gives us a moral high ground – where we can perceive ourselves only and completely as victims but not even slightly as a possible perpetrator. We want to be hailed as heroes and to paint everyone who disagrees with us as the villain. This is the binary we’re willing to live in.
Interestingly, ever since the pandemic started and lockdowns were enforced, a lot of people were unhappy with the restrictions put in place – with the mandatory obligation of wearing masks – restrictions on movement – shutdown of public spaces – excessive policing and what not. I was no different. As a libertarian, I object to any government intrusion in public and personal life. Now imagine having to live under such circumstances forever. Not just for a few months, not even for one generation, or two but for three. This temporary curtailment of civil liberties that we cannot stop complaining about is something Kashmiris have had to live with for more than 70 years now.
Imagine growing up in a police state – a heavily militarized zone. Imagine being perceived and treated as a potential miscreant day in day out in your own land. Imagine going out to get some business done and being frisked and checked multiple times on your way there and back. Imagine being dehumanized every day like this. Imagine being picked up, being jailed and being inhumanly interrogated on mere ‘suspicions’. Imagine the fear of never coming back home. Imagine that being the norm. What if your life was like that? Would you ever choose a life like that if it were up to you? You wouldn’t. Probably, you have never even had to think of all this either.
Anyway, before you point it out, let me address the elephant in the room. It’s impossible to have a conversation about Kashmir without someone retorting “What about Kashmiri Pandits?” So, let’s talk about them, and mind you, this is a much-hated liberal speaking, and I assure you that I speak for every legitimate liberal there is. Yes, Kashmiri Pandits were meted out tremendous injustice. Their suffering is inconceivable and irreparable. Yes, many of them were killed inhumanly by separatists and militants. They were driven away from their own land and in many cases, their friends and neighbours even turned on them. Are Kashmiri Muslims owe responsibility and accountability for this? No doubt! Yes, they do, a hundred per cent. They have blood on their hands and there’s no easy redemption for this. They must atone for their complicity or even for their silence.
But, then I ask, is it fair to paint every Kashmiri Muslim that way? There are plenty of stories where Kashmiri Muslims protected and even ensured the safe escape of Pandits. There are stories of Kashmiri Muslims looking after the houses deserted by the Pandits even so many years after they had to flee. But these aren’t stories you’re willing to tell or even listen to. Why? Because it doesn’t suit you politically. Such stories don’t fit the narrative. It takes away from you your much-desired claim to victimhood and doesn’t let you paint an entire community as absolute villains. Probably, you’re not even capable of processing a reality as nuanced as this.
Think about it. How is the mass hysteria that took over Kashmir in the 90s any different from the India that we live in today? As Muslims are dehumanized, lynched, stripped of their constitutional guarantees and threatened to be thrown out of the country, Hindus like me are still fighting for our Muslim brethren. Even in Nazi Germany, there were many Germans who hid and protected Jews at the risk of their own lives. Probably, stories of such resistance and humanity won’t account for much in the larger scope of history and we’ll all be measured by what the majority of us did. But at least, this small effort we make hopefully keeps alive the meaning of being human – to stand up for a fellow human being. This is what keeps us from being animals who’ll probably eat one another up if push comes to shove. I remember this one encounter I had recently with a relative of mine, who had been brainwashed by majoritarian Hindu Nationalist propaganda. In no time, a simple political conversation escalated to a heated argument and the next thing you know, he was questioning me for my inaction and silence on Kashmiri Pandits. I had to remind him that at the time the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits happened, I wasn’t even born – in fact, my mother was in her late teens back then. But he was a young man at the time. So, I asked him why he did nothing back then and has been reminded of this injustice only now. I asked him why his political masters said and did nothing then even though they had the necessary political influence. I asked him why he didn’t go out into the streets and protest. Obviously, he didn’t have an answer and just stuttered randomly for a while. You see that’s how silly whataboutery can get, but it seems to be the only form of debate these days.
One wouldn’t be too wrong to call this the age of nationalism in India. Anything and everything can be a threat to the country these days – even constructive criticism. I wonder if Indians were so aggressively jingoistic at the time of the freedom struggle even. Anyway, for better or for worse, that’s just how things are for now. Love for the nation is something you won’t hear much these days. What’s more crucial is unquestioning loyalty and blind allegiance to the state that requires you to remain silent. Did our founding fathers laid down their lives for a free democratic state so that their grandchildren could be silenced by the majoritarian establishment? I don’t think so but who knows? Anyway, it might seem like I’m digressing but the reason I’m hovering around the initial days of this nation is because I do in fact want to draw reference from that period only, that is around 1947 when the democratic state of India officially came into being.
Now, every British province that had a Hindu majority automatically became part of the Indian Union or the Indian federation of states. There were a few odd princely states as well within the confines of our boundaries which were coaxed into joining the union by the master negotiator Sardar Patel. But Kashmir’s story is different. Kashmir was a princely state ruled by Raja Hari Singh. Its population was predominantly Muslim and led by Sheikh Abdullah. Kashmir didn’t initially accede to the Union of India. The fate of Kashmir was undecided. At the time, Kashmir could’ve chosen to be anything – part of India, part of Pakistan or maybe just an independent state. But it never really got the opportunity to decide for tribesmen from Pakistan had already attacked Kashmir in an attempt to claim it by brute force. Faced with that threat, Raja Hari Singh pleaded with Nehru to come to his aid. Now, Nehru himself was a Kashmiri Pandit and agreed to step in, however only on the condition that Kashmir accedes to the Union of India. Raja Hari Singh capitulated and Kashmir did end up acceding to the Union of India but with certain conditions – a flag and a Constitution for themselves. In exchange, India would get to control the defence, external affairs and communication. That was the deal and Abdullah – representative of the Kashmiri masses was part of this consensus.
The reason I going on this trip down memory lane because this history is more or less lost on us – maybe because we only like to hear what falls in line with our beliefs. But, the undeniable truth is that Kashmir didn’t become part of India unconditionally. It was clear about what it expected when it got into this. This is why secession in Kashmir or their demand for autonomy – a flag – a constitution isn’t the same as any other state. Bear in mind that I don’t intend to justify it any way whatsoever. I am just pointing out the difference. (Gosh! Who could’ve thought a day would come when one would have to be so careful with non-abusive words and ideas in a so-called free country?)
The truth is that Indians are yet to comprehend the idea of people’s right to self-determination. I’m pretty sure plenty of people reading this piece have come across this term for the first time. And it’s not their fault, it’s our leaders’ who failed to create the kind of political consciousness necessary in a modern civilized democracy. The right to self-determination was part of the Atlantic Charter that led to the formation of the United Nations post World War 2. This is the very concept that got India freedom from the British. This is in fact the very concept that made colonialists leave many nations that they had colonized. As beneficiaries of this very idea, we must have upheld it. But if one is to look at Kashmir, it is pretty evident that we’ve long forgotten and discarded it. In fact, would it be too far of a stretch if I said that we’ve been following the footsteps of our colonial masters? As they say, “You become what you hate.” You know what I mean.THE ROLE OF PAKISTAN
One might accuse me of cutting Pakistan a lot of slack and ignoring their exploits. Truth be told, the blood is equally or more so on Pakistan’s hands as well. Had Pakistan not charged in to invade Kashmir and had it given the state the time to decide for itself, things would have never come to this. Even after the agreement that was reached at the UN, if Pakistan had receded and let the promised plebiscite happen, Kashmiris would’ve had their shot at choosing the fate of their land. In fact, it’s not like India has kept Kashmir militarized for the heck of it. No reasonable Nation would squander money to keep a state heavily militarized for no reason. That money can be better spent elsewhere. But India has never been able to do so because Pakistan just won’t relent. Their Nation is falling apart in every way possible, they’ve been living off scraps thrown by the US and China, yet they still find it viable and logical to spend their resources on trying to acquire more territory. In 1947, India and Pakistan both set off on the path to building democracies, but India had left Pakistan way behind in this race long back in every way possible, until recently when India decided to change course. Truth is until Pakistan relents, peace in the valley seems like a distant dream.
Not just Pakistan, even the Hurriyat (the separatists) or the Hizbul Mujahideen are responsible for the ordeal that Kashmir has been enduring. These are not some progressive fronts fighting with principle for their right to self-determination. These are ruthless revolutionaries who know no humanity. A revolution is worthless if it requires you to kill innocents or to be complicit in atrocities perpetrated on them. A vengeful revolution never succeeds. This is one thing we’ve learnt from the Communists who ended up destroying every Nation they ever took control of.
However, for people like me, blaming only the BJP is just lazy and convenient. Congress and every other political party that ever held power at the centre is to blame equally. So are all Indians who gave their tacit approval to whatever has been done to Kashmir in the name of Nationalism. Nationalism cannot justify injustice – ever.
Exactly one year back, the Indian government headed by Narendra Modi changed the status quo of Kashmir. It was a tectonic shift in approach to fix the Kashmir problem as well. Whether this change in strategy will achieve what it intends to remains to be seen. Now, I’m not amongst those who make claims about the glorious and successful future that lies ahead, much like fortune tellers. It might work, it might not. Even though I might not agree with the ruling dispensation on most things but I still hope for peace to return to the valley, even if I have to be proven wrong for that. That is the kind of humiliation I’d more than happily accept. But as a reader of history, I am not sure as to what the future holds for Kashmir. Why do you ask? Let me give you an example. Why do you think America, the most powerful nation in the world – both militarily and financially, lose the Vietnam War? Or Afghanistan for that matter. Even Iraq – the US might have invaded the nation and overthrown Saddam Hussain but could it bring peace to the land? No. And why is that? Because, if there’s one lesson you can learn from history and mind you that history is like this old tape that keeps running over and over again – it’s that that you cannot win a war, however noble the cause be unless the people you fight for are on your side. You cannot just shove democracy down people’s throats. Enforcing and imposing ideology is something totalitarian states do. That’s the thing – with majority approval, even a democracy can behave like a totalitarian state. If you ask me if you want to win Kashmir, try and win the hearts of Kashmiris first, and the rest will automatically follow. Trust me, labelling them all as fanatics, fundamentalists, Jihadis – and dehumanizing them, disrespecting their sentiments and culture, ignoring their voices and aspirations won’t help.
Conversations don’t always lead to solutions, I’m not so delusional to assume so, but it always helps build bridges. If you ever want to understand a person whom you disagree with, try to put yourselves in their shoes. It might not resolve anything but it will definitely give you a more balanced perspective.
I’ll say it again. Internet is definitely important, but it’s not everything. There are things way more important than fast internet that Kashmiris haven’t had in decades. And I speak for both the Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. Kashmiris haven’t had their freedom – their dignity – the right to assert their identity – the safety to return to their homes for long enough now.
I’m reminded of this popular legend, the veracity of which can always be questioned. But the words do strike a chord. (The following quote is ascribed to Khusro as well.)
“Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zaminast, haminast-o haminast-o haminast”, the Mughal emperor Jahangir said, mesmerized by Kashmir’s beauty – meaning, if there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this. But truth be told, Kashmir hasn’t felt like one in decades.
Even a year after the historic decision, not much has changed. Kashmir is still a militarized territory and unrest in the valley still prevails. It’s just that you don’t hear from them anymore, you only get to hear conveniently soothing stories from state-sponsored media. One thing that restoration of high-speed internet can change is the control of the narrative. At least, the Kashmiris will be able to speak for themselves.
Nationalists – both moderates and radicals, welcomed the August 5thdecision to abrogate Article 370 last year with the assertion “Kashmir humara hai”. I wonder why they never say, “Kashmiri humare hain”. Much of the conversation and jubilation was about being able to buy property in Kashmir. I find myself thinking – is it only about the land, and not the people?
To the innocent people who fell, on their side, and ours as well.