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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 43, October 16, 2010

Let us Break the Myths — Kashmir Boils Again!!

Tuesday 19 October 2010

by Khalid Wasim Hassan

Kashmir boils again has been the headline carried by the national dailies and TV news channels for more than a month now. Fiftynine people, mostly young boys, including an eight-year-old, lost their lives while protesting on the streets. The Kashmir Valley has been under curfew for the last two months. This year the protests erupted as a result of a fake encounter in which three innocent people were killed by the Army at Machil village and they were labelled as foreign militants. Similarly the last two years consecutively saw protests against the rape and murder of two girls at Shopian in 2009 and in 2008 protests against the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. It is not just the last three years but it has been the same story for the last two decades in particular and for the last six decades in general. Though there have been periods of calm, actual peace has eluded the region. One is confused as to why Kashmir erupts time and again despite its Special Status and the benign policies of the Indian state. The reason for this confusion lies around the myths. The myths that have been created around the Kashmir conflict in recent years by the Indian state about the ‘return of normalcy’ by showcasing elections and developmental programmes, ‘Islamists’ raising the issue of self-determination and no support for azadi. It is these myths which are backed by the print and electronic media and various ‘experts’ writing on Kashmir that form the basis of the common people’s understanding of the Kashmir problem in the present context in mainland India. In order to get a better understanding and the larger picture of the Kashmir conflict it is important to break these myths.

The 2008 election results of the J&K Legislative Assembly were being celebrated not only by the winning parties in Kashmir but also by the PM’s Office, party presidents of national political parties and by the national media. It was being projected as a victory for Indian democracy in a ‘troubled’ State. No one was expecting this much turnout as the Amaranth land-row preceded it when thousands of people were coming out on the streets raising slogans for azadi. The high voter turnout was considered a slap on separatist politics. Even the Congress President went on record saying that “no matter which party won, voting by the people of Kashmir itself is a victory for Indian democracy”. But this overjoy and happiness over the unexpected turnout proved detrimental if one looks at the present situation in Kashmir. The chanting of slogans ‘Hum Kya Chahetay?—Azadi (what do we want?—freedom)’ can be heard not only on the streets of the Kashmir Valley but at different places of India, including Jantar Mantar in Delhi, where Kashmiris protested against human rights violations by the Indian security forces.

The regular election process in India is considered as a scale to measure the success of its democracy, when compared to other South Asian states. The discourse on elections has been also used to bring a region like Kashmir into India’s democratic experiment. The Indian state has always pleaded a case that Kashmiris participating in elections is indication of the acceptance of India’s sovereignty. Elections have been claimed to be equivalent to ‘plebiscite’ as they give the Kashmiri people a political choice to choose their representatives. By considering local elections equivalent to plebiscite which is backed by UN resolutions is not only to make fun of the principle of self-determination but it also displays political immaturity. Now if one looks at the history of elections in Kashmir, election-rigging has been the rule rather than the exception. As such ‘elections’ never posed any challenge to the Indian Constitution or its territorial integrity, but at times it was used to check whosoever challenged Indian sovereignty. On and off there had been installation of puppet regimes that were loyal and served India’s interests, even Nehru’s good friend Shiekh Abdullah was not spared. One of the reasons for alienation of the Kashmiri people is figured out to be the failure of democratic principles, like free and fair elections. It was the rigging of the 1987 elections that was said to have become the ignition point for the present uprising against the Indian state. But the absence of free and fair elections is not the only reason that politicised the Kashmiri people. Does it mean that if there would have been a history of free and fair elections, there would have been no movement for self-determination? The Kashmir conflict is much more than conducting free and fair elections.

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In recent years, one more myth that has gained popularity in the print and electronic media has been a particular frame wherein the ‘secular’ nature of the Indian Government is constantly pitted against the pro-self-determination groups in Kashmir by referring to them as people practising jehadi warfare against India. Most of the stories and articles in the national dallies in India bear screaming titles like Jihad and Kashmir, Kashmiri Terrorism, and Islamists in Kashmir, all of them written by polemicists who are considered the intellectual backbone of India’s Kashmir policy. Accompanying such expertise on Kashmir have been the news channels and hosts of programmes on TV, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalisations to stir up the opinion of common Indians against the just cause of Kashmiri self-determination. It is the stereotypical understanding of the Kashmir conflict and then the reflection of the stereotypical images of Kashmiri Muslims which are presented to the larger audience in India. Whatever happens in Kashmir, it is framed as a religious problem, even if the protests originate from some political or legal problem. The demand of the right to self-determination in the language of religion and articulation of protests through religious symbols appears to the scholars and journalists sitting in Delhi as an Islamist propaganda. The stone-pelting children of the age of nine years, 13 years and 15 killed by the CRPF firing were influenced and used by Lashkar militants—this was what Home Minister Chidambaram said to describe the present crisis. Whosoever stands for the right to self-determination in Kashmir is an Islamist and those who have accepted the Instrument of Accession are secular and democratic Kashmiris. Shiekh Abdullah was a ‘secularist’ as long as he accepted Instrument of Accession, then he became ‘Islamist’ when he challenged the same, and later after the Shiekh-Indra Accord he and his progeny have once again become secularists.

The Indian state also comes out with the argument that those who support azadi are in a hopeless minority in Kashmir. But the opinion poll conducted by CNN-IBN, Dawn and Indian Express and World Public Opinion, the programme on international policy attitudes at University of Maryland, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, showed that a large population in Kashmir supports independence. As per these polls, there is also a changing perspective of Indians and Pakistanis who now accept this as a viable solution, which is an eye-opener to the policy-makers of the two states and the international community. These polls are helpful as many myths which have been built by the two states of India and Pakistan are deconstructed and it tries to bring forth the opinion of Kashmiris which has been unheard for so many decades. The people across the globe get to know that Kashmir is a disputed territory and what the wishes of the people in Kashmir are. The Indian state has always tried to suppress the voice for azadi by branding those who raise the demand as separatists and anti-nationals, an opinion it propagates at the international level. The movement for self-determination of the Kashmiri people was described as proxy war sponsored by Pakistan. But the surveys conducted by the independent agencies do not support this view. Similarly these surveys are surprising for those who are at the helm of affairs in Pakistan as they are over-confident that a majority of Kashmiris favour Kashmir’s merger with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The slogans and waving of green flags with crescent cannot be construed as the people’s choice for Pakistan.

It is the right time to break the myths associated with the Kashmir conflict in order to get a better picture of the reality; otherwise it will be difficult to understand as to why 60 people in the Valley lost their lives in a period of two months. The typical colonial arguments as free and fair elections or aspirations for development cannot be any longer used to replace the larger issue of the right to self-determination. How long can a major chunk of the population be denied a democratic right by labelling them as ‘terrorists’, ‘Islamists’ or ‘fundamentalists’? The aspiration for the right to self-determination does not make the people in Kashmir less eligible for the other democratic rights like elections for local governance or for that matter development. The people of Kashmir require infrastructure, roads and hospitals etc., as any other community in the world, but they have made it clear time and again that they do not want these at the cost of depoliticising them by giving up their right to self-determination.

Khalid Wasim Hassan is with the Institute for Social and Economic Changes, Bangalore. He can be contacted at e-mail: khalidwaseemster@gmail.com

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