The global limelight is now on Kashmir
0 comments | by Shekhar Gupta
'The Kashmir issue has become internationalised after nearly half a century. ‘India, not Pakistan, has done so pro-actively,' says Shekhar Gupta.
Does the world care about Kashmir?
They know that it is part of the subcontinent, over which India and Pakistan keep trading blows, mostly at a level inconsequential to the rest, and only occasionally racketing it up to the nuclear-threat level so everybody has to go scampering searching for an atlas. Each significant nation, by now, has its own equivalent of what might be a spiral-bound primer of Kashmir FAQs. Donald Trump might not be the best example. Not when he is supposed to have famously asked what is 'Button' and 'Nipple' (for Bhutan and Nepal) in the course of a briefing on the subcontinent.Still, his comment at his July press conference with Imran Khan, where he described Kashmir as this most beautiful place where bombs were going off all over the place, was significant. He has a mind uncluttered with detail, and institutional memory and his GK aren't exactly the UPSC level. In that comment, therefore, he made it evident that the first time Kashmir figured 'bigly' on his mind was when Pulwama happened in February. That, if you check back the records, was the only bomb of some size to have gone off in Kashmir for almost his entire tenure yet.
What does this tell us? That from India's best strategic and political interest, no news on Kashmir is good news. In the 30 years since this round of insurgency began in Kashmir, the only time the issue caught the world's conscience was in 1991-1994, when P V Narasimha Rao launched that unforgiving counter-insurgency, and got every international human rights organisation and the first Clinton administration furious. He put down that trouble and then made some amends, essentially to assuage global opinion by opening up Kashmir to international media, and setting up his own National Human Rights Commission in 1993. In the 30 years since this round of insurgency began in Kashmir, the only time the issue caught the world's conscience was in 1991-1994, when P V Narasimha Rao launched that unforgiving counter-insurgency, and got every international human rights organisation and the first Clinton administration furious. He put down that trouble and then made some amends, essentially to assuage global opinion by opening up Kashmir to international media, and setting up his own National Human Rights Commission in 1993. Since then, his effort was to let Kashmir slide to the back-burner. Otherwise, he played down Kashmir as a strategy. In a published interview with me, to a question on what he foresaw in Kashmir, he simply said, "Bhai, they will do something, we will do something, what emerges will be the net of it." He said it, weaving his finger in the air as if writing an arithmetic sum, including the two parallel lines at the bottom and indicating the 'net' between them. That's only as far as he would go.
Over the decades after the Simla Accord, Indian prime ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, pursued a strategy of playing down Kashmir. All questions about Pakistan, including during the near-war situations (Kargil, Op Parakram), were limited to terrorism. Kashmir was never allowed to become the issue. For a long time, this had worked neatly. Even when the Pakistani 'Miltablishment' got its mojo back after 9/11 as the Americans returned to pamper them, there was no talk of Kashmir.
If at all, the US and allies counselled calm on Pakistan even if it got restless. They didn't want the distraction. On the other hand, India mostly used the new situation deftly: Keep your spoilt child in control, or don't blame us if we ruin your plans which entirely depend on Pakistan. Three consequences emerged. First, the world started to believe that the two countries had found their strategic balance, and troubles will remain at the tactical level. Second, that Pakistan, with its doddering economy, and India, with a booming one, had both acquired a new vested interest in the status quo. And third, that the two countries were progressing towards accepting the Line of Control as the real border. A formal settlement, to borrow the words Deng Xiaoping famously spoke to Rajiv Gandhi, could be left to a wiser generation. In fact, among the most significant lines I had heard in the course of my coverage of the Kashmir crisis of the early 1990s had come from then US assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robin Raphel, who was seen here as hostile. Soon after her remark questioning the Instrument of Accession had caused a storm, she had said somewhat philosophically, 'Kashmir is only India's to lose.'
India under the Modi government has made a departure from his predecessors' serendipitous Kashmir strategy and broken the status quo. It follows, that the onus now is on Pakistan to threaten war. Which it did for some time, but gave up. It saw its military limitations, and nobody in the world was amused. Please check out that video clip of Imran Khan's press conference in New York, where he asks in exasperation: So what else can we do besides what we are doing? We can't attack India.
So far so good. Then, complications begin.
Accept it or not, the Kashmir issue has become internationalised after nearly half a century. India, not Pakistan, has done so pro-actively. If you take a partisan view, it is encouraging for India that no country barring China and Turkey has contested its position that the August 5 changes were its internal affair or demanded a return to the pre-August 5 status. But the picture is far from perfect.
Enough countries, including the US, are concerned about what happens in Kashmir next. Nobody believes Imran Khan when he says there is a genocide going on. Neither does anyone take much comfort in drone pictures of Srinagar showing 'normalcy'. The valley is seen as being under a draconian lock-down and thousands detained without charges or trial, and global patience with this will soon run out. The UN week came and went. There will be celebrations of “diplomatic victories” and how Pakistan was isolated. On balance, Narendra Modi returned from New York with more positives than negatives. India's old 'Kashmir is our internal affair' line has by and large gone unchallenged. Trump, even in the White House readout of his meeting with Modi, asked him only to restore normalcy and fulfil his promises to the Kashmiri people, not put the clock back to August 5. But rather than isolate it further, the new turn in Kashmir has given Pakistan a chance to return to global attention, playing victim and underdog.
If Kashmir being acknowledged as India's internal affair is a diplomatic achievement at the end of this particularly acrimonious version of the annual India-Pakistan tu-tu/main-main in New York, the key to its future and India's supreme national interest also lies here. It is now two months since the communication lockdown. It has already gone on for too many weeks too long. The delay in opening up is increasing the Kashmiri anger. The longer it takes, the graver will be the danger of a blow-out, violence, and bloodshed. Such situations can often go out of control. The world is not reacting to Kashmir, but it is now sensitised. To that extent, the issue has been internationalised. In 2016, at least 140 persons were killed in the week following Burhan Wani's killing. Now just one death, of teenager Asrar Wani, is a matter of contention. The global limelight is now on Kashmir. It will be perilous to take the post-August 5 lockdown to be the new normal or the new status quo. Shekhar Gupta is an Indian Journalist and author. He is the founder and the current editor-in-chief of The Print. He is also a columnist for the Business Standard and pens a weekly column which appears every Saturday
India: Intimations of an Ending – Part II
The rise of Modi and the Hindu far right.
On August 5, 2019, the Indian Parliament unilaterally breached the fundamental conditions of the Instrument of Accession by which the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir agreed to become part of India in 1947. It stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and its special status—which included its right to have its own constitution and its own flag. The dissolution of the legal entity of the state also meant the dissolution of Section 35A of the Indian Constitution, which secured the erstwhile state’s residents the rights and privileges that made them stewards of their own territory. In preparation for the move, the government flew in more than 50,000 troops to supplement the hundreds of thousands already stationed there. By the night of August 4, tourists and pilgrims had been evacuated from the Kashmir Valley. Schools and markets were shut down. More than 4,000 people were arrested: politicians, businessmen, lawyers, rights activists, local leaders, students, and three former chief ministers. Kashmir’s entire political class, including those who have been loyal to India, was incarcerated. By midnight, the Internet was cut and phones went dead.
The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of an all-India National Register of Citizens, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya—are all on the front burners of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions, all they need to do is to pick a villain from their gallery and unleash the dogs of war. There are several categories of villains—Pakistani jihadis, Kashmiri terrorists, Bangladeshi “infiltrators,” or any one of a population of nearly 200 million Indian Muslims who can always be accused of being Pakistan-lovers or anti-national traitors. Each of these “cards” is held hostage to the other, and often made to stand in for the other. They have little to do with each other, and are often hostile to each other because their needs, desires, ideologies, and situations are not just inimical, but end up posing an existential threat to each other. Simply because they are all Muslim, they each have to suffer the consequences of the others’ actions. In two national elections now, the BJP has shown that it can win a majority in parliament without the “Muslim vote.” As a result, Indian Muslims have been effectively disenfranchised, and are becoming that most vulnerable of people—a community without political representation, without a voice. Various forms of undeclared social boycott are pushing them down the economic ladder, and, for reasons of physical security, into ghettos. Indian Muslims have also lost their place in the mainstream media—the only Muslim voices we hear on television shows are the absurd few who are constantly and deliberately invited to play the part of the primitive Islamist, to make things worse than they already are. Other than that, the only acceptable public speech for the Muslim community is to constantly reiterate and demonstrate its loyalty to the Indian flag. So, while Kashmiris, brutalized as they are because of their history and, more importantly, their geography, still have a lifeboat—the dream of azadi, of freedom—Indian Muslims have to stay on deck to help fix the broken ship. (There is another category of “anti-national” villain—human rights activists, lawyers, students, academics, “urban Maoists”—who have been defamed, jailed, embroiled in legal cases, snooped on by Israeli spyware, and, in several instances, assassinated. But that’s a whole other deck of cards.) The lynching of Tabrez Ansari illustrates just how broken the ship is, and how deep the rot. Lynching, as you in the United States well know, is a public performance of ritualized murder, in which a man or woman is killed to remind their community that it lives at the mercy of the mob. And that the police, the law, the government—as well as the good people in their homes, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who go to work and take care of their families—are all friends of the mob. Tabrez was lynched this June. He was an orphan, raised by his uncles in the state of Jharkhand. As a teenager, he went away to the city of Pune, where he found a job as a welder. When he turned 22, he returned home to get married. The day after his wedding to 18-year-old Shahista, Tabrez was caught by a mob, tied to a lamppost, beaten for hours and forced to chant the new Hindu war cry, “Jai Shri Ram!”—Victory to Lord Ram! The police eventually took Tabrez into custody but refused to allow his distraught family and young bride to take him to the hospital. Instead, they accused him of being a thief, and produced him before a magistrate, who sent him back to custody. He died there four days later.
In its latest report, released earlier this month, the National Crime Records Bureau has carefully left out data on mob lynching. According to the Indian news site The Quint, there have been 113 deaths by mob violence since 2015. Lynchers, and others accused in hate crimes including mass murder have been rewarded with public office and honoured by ministers in Modi’s cabinet. Modi himself, usually garrulous on Twitter, generous with condolences and birthday greetings, goes very quiet each time a person is lynched. Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect a prime minister to comment every time a dog comes under the wheels of someone’s car. Particularly since it happens so often. Here in the United States, on September 22, 2019—five days after Modi’s birthday party at the Narmada dam site—60,000 Indian Americans gathered in the NRG Stadium in Houston. The “Howdy, Modi!” extravaganza there has already become the stuff of urban legend. President Donald Trump was gracious enough to allow a visiting prime minister to introduce him as a special guest in his own country, to his own citizens. Several members of the US Congress spoke, their smiles too wide, their bodies arranged in attitudes of ingratiation. Over a crescendo of drum rolls and wild cheering, the adoring crowd chanted, “Modi! Modi! Modi!” At the end of the show, Trump and Modi linked hands and did a victory lap. The stadium exploded. In India, the noise was amplified a thousand times over by carpet coverage on television channels. “Howdy” became a Hindi word. Meanwhile, news organizations ignored the thousands of people protesting outside the stadium. Not all the roaring of the 60,000 in the Houston stadium could mask the deafening silence from Kashmir. That day, September 22, marked the 48th day of curfew and communication blockade in the valley.
Once again, Modi has managed to unleash his unique brand of cruelty on a scale unheard of in modern times. And, once again, it has endeared him further to his loyal public. When the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill was passed in India’s parliament on August 6 there were celebrations across the political spectrum. Sweets were distributed in offices, and there was dancing in the streets. A conquest—a colonial annexation, another triumph for the Hindu Nation—was being celebrated. Once again, the conquerors’ eyes fell on the two primeval trophies of conquest—women and land. Statements by senior BJP politicians, and patriotic pop videos that notched up millions of views legitimized this indecency. Google Trends showed a surge in searches for the phrases “marry a Kashmiri girl” and “buy land in Kashmir.”
It was not all limited to loutish searches on Google. Within days of the siege, the Forest Advisory Committee cleared 125 projects that involve the diversion of forest land for other uses.
In the early days of the lockdown, little news came out of the valley. The Indian media told us what the government wanted us to hear. Kashmiri newspapers were completely censored. They carried pages and pages of news about cancelled weddings, the effects of climate change, the conservation of lakes and wildlife sanctuaries, tips on how to live with diabetes and front-page government advertisements about the benefits that Kashmir’s new, downgraded legal status would bring to the Kashmiri people. Those “benefits” are likely to include the building of big dams that control and commandeer the water from the rivers that flow through Kashmir. They will certainly include the erosion that results from deforestation, the destruction of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem, and the plunder of Kashmir’s bountiful natural wealth by Indian corporations. Real reporting about ordinary peoples’ lives came mostly from the journalists and photographers working for the international media—Agence France-Presse, the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the BBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The reporters, mostly Kashmiris, working in an information vacuum, with none of the tools usually available to modern-day reporters, travelled through their homeland at great risk to themselves, to bring us the news. And the news was of night-time raids, of young men being rounded up and beaten for hours, their screams broadcast on public-address systems for their neighbors and families to hear, of soldiers entering villagers’ homes and mixing fertilizer and kerosene into their winter food stocks. The news was of teenagers with their bodies peppered with shotgun pellets being treated at home, because they would be arrested if they went to a hospital. The news was of hundreds of children being whisked away in the dead of night, of parents debilitated by desperation and anxiety. The news was of fear and anger, depression, confusion, steely resolve, and incandescent resistance.
But the home minister, Amit Shah, said that the siege only existed in peoples’ imaginations; the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Satya Pal Malik, said phone lines were not important for Kashmiris and were only used by terrorists; and the army chief, Bipin Rawat, said, “Normal life in Jammu and Kashmir has not been affected. People are doing their necessary work.… Those who feel that life has been affected are the ones whose survival depends on terrorism.” It isn’t hard to work out who exactly the government of India sees as terrorists. Imagine if all of New York City were put under an information lockdown and a curfew managed by hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Imagine the streets of your city remapped by razor wire and torture centres. Imagine if mini–Abu Ghraibs appeared in your neighbourhoods. Imagine thousands of you being arrested and your families not knowing where you have been taken. Imagine not being able to communicate with anybody—not your neighbour, not your loved ones outside the city, no one in the outside world—for weeks together. Imagine banks and schools being closed, children locked into their homes. Imagine your parent, sibling, partner, or child dying and you not knowing about it for weeks. Imagine the medical emergencies, the mental health emergencies, the legal emergencies, the shortages of food, money, gasoline. Imagine being a day labourer or a contract worker, earning nothing for weeks on end. And then imagine being told that all of this was for your own good.
The horror that Kashmiris have endured over the last few months comes on top of the trauma of a 30-year-old armed conflict that has already taken 70,000 lives and covered their valley with graves. They have held out while everything was thrown at them—war, money, torture, mass disappearance, an army of more than a half million soldiers, and a smear campaign in which an entire population has been portrayed as murderous fundamentalists. The siege has lasted for more than three months now. Kashmiri leaders are still in jail. The only condition under which they are offered release is the signing of an undertaking that they will not make public statements for a whole year. Most have refused. Now, the curfew has been eased, schools have been reopened and some phone lines have been restored. “Normalcy” has been declared. In Kashmir, normalcy is always a declaration—a fiat issued by the government or the army. It has little to do with people’s daily lives. So far, Kashmiris have refused to accept this new normalcy. Classrooms are empty, streets are deserted and the valley’s bumper apple crop is rotting in the orchards. What could be harder for a parent or a farmer to endure? The imminent annihilation of their very identity, perhaps.
The new phase of the Kashmir conflict has already begun. Militants have warned that, from now on, all Indians will be considered legitimate targets. More than ten people, mostly poor, non-Kashmiri migrant workers, have been shot already. (Yes, it’s the poor, almost always the poor, who get caught in the line of fire.) It is going to get ugly. Very ugly.
Soon all this recent history will be forgotten, and once again there will be debates in television studios that create an equivalence between atrocities by Indian security forces and Kashmiri militants. Speak of Kashmir, and the Indian government and its media will immediately tell you about Pakistan, deliberately conflating the misdeeds of a hostile foreign state with the democratic aspirations of ordinary people living under a military occupation. The Indian government has made it clear that the only option for Kashmiris is complete capitulation, that no form of resistance is acceptable—violent, nonviolent, spoken, written, or sung. Yet Kashmiris know that to exist, they must resist. Why should they want to be a part of India? For what earthly reason? If freedom is what they want, freedom is what they should have. It’s what Indians should want, too. Not on behalf of Kashmiris, but for their own sake. The atrocity being committed in their name involves a form of corrosion that India will not survive. Kashmir may not defeat India, but it will consume India. In many ways, it already has. This may not have mattered all that much to the 60,000 cheering in the Houston stadium, living out the ultimate Indian dream of having made it to America. For them, Kashmir may just be a tired old conundrum, for which they foolishly believe the BJP has found a lasting solution. Surely, however, as migrants themselves, their understanding of what is happening in Assam could be more nuanced. Or maybe it’s too much to ask of those who, in a world riven by refugee and migrant crises, are the most fortunate of migrants. Many of those in the Houston stadium, like people with an extra holiday home, probably hold US citizenship as well as Overseas Citizens of India certificates.
The “Howdy, Modi!” event marked the 22nd day since almost 2 million people in Assam found their names missing from the National Register of Citizens.
Part III is being published in next LISA issue
Arundhati Roy is an Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things (1997), which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. She is also a world famous political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes