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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 35 August 17, 2019

Kashmir: The Stark Reality

Monday 19 August 2019, by Humra Quraishi

The following are excerpts from Delhi-based writer, columinist and journalist Humra Quraishi’s latest book, Kashmir: The Unending Tragedy—Report from the Frontlines, published by Amaryllis (An imprint of Manjul Publising House Private Limited), this year. It is xviii + 309 pages and is priced at Rs 499.

February 14, 2019 saw one of the deadliest terror attacks in J&K when 40 CRPF troopers were killed by a suicide bomber in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. It was shocking and upsetting to see the scenes of death and destruction and loss of human lives. When will the horrifying rounds of violence and counter- violence halt in the Valley?

One is, however, provoked to wonder: Why were pertinent questions connected to the timing of the attack, raised by some very responsible persons in governance, played down? When will politicians stop playing treacherous games with human lives?

Soon after the terror attack, anti-Pakistan war cries started coming out of television studios and could also be heard in the provocative speeches of political rulers. Don’t tell me we have forgotten the devastating impact of two world wars. If we go to war, it may not only compound the human tragedies of the region, but may also turn into another world war, bringing to the fore the vested interests of the international political players and arms lobbies.

Several years ago, during the course of an interview, Noam Chomsky had spoken of the expansionist designs and interests of the United States of America. Today it is obvious that international powers are at work. If war erupts, it would directly or discreetly bring along the combined might of the West and its vested political interests. And that is not to overlook China, which is geographically very close to our region and is already said to be making inroads into our terrain.

Yet another unfortunate offshoot of the Pulwama terror tragedy has been the Hindutva brigades targeting the Kashmiri students and traders and even non-Kashmiri Muslims in Uttarakhand, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and several other States of India. They were hounded and harassed to such an extent that they had to rush back home; return to the very Kashmir Valley from where they had stepped out to either pursue academics or else to earn a living. A large percentage of these targeted Kashmiris were from modest, middle-class backgrounds, so now what happens to their livelihoods and lives? They have been disrupted, if not ruined, on not just the academic front but also on the very survival front. Where do these Kashmiri students go now in the middle of their academic term? Which college or university in the country will give them admission? What will happen to their fees and travel expenditure? Who will take the responsi-bility of their safety and wellbeing? Who will ensure they are not lynched amid the hatred being whipped up by political hawks? Who will tell us why the Right-wing outfits, said to be responsible for the blatant hounding of these Kashmiri Muslims, were not caught by the police machinery?

The tragic circumstances are worse even for the Kashmiri Muslim in the Valley. To quote CPI-M leader M.Y. Tarigami from the statement issued in Srinagar on February 23, 2019, ‘The crackdown and arrests of separatist leaders without any solid legal grounds does not augur well for the State. It has been done before as well in the State, but it has never yielded anything. On the other hand, it just exacerbates the anger and gives rise to further uncertainty. We have always maintained that dissent should always have a place in a democratic society. Curbing the dissent and those holding a contradictory viewpoint is not democratic at all. On the other hand, such sections should be engaged. Moreover, from the last couple of days, rumour-mongering and chaos-type situation is being created in the State which is causing anxiety among the people. The State adminis-tration has failed to assure the people on this. The way it has sought paramilitary reinforce-ments and started issuing “advisories” to the various departments without giving reasonable answers has caused further panic among the people. The State cannot afford more chaos and uncertainty at this juncture.’

The grim situation is getting more compli-cated by the day. On the one hand, the Valley Muslims are finding the going very tough in their home State; and on the other hand, shifting to other States of the country, in this surcharged atmosphere dripping with the obvious strains of communal poisoning, would be nothing short of deep trauma.

For several years now, Kashmiri Muslims in different cities and towns of India have faced severe hurdles in finding jobs, school admissions and rooms on rent. Why? Because we, the masses of this country, have been rather too steadily fed all sorts of prejudices and lopsided propaganda about the ‘Indian Muslims’ and more so about Kashmiri Muslims. The situation has worsened to such an alarming extent that even a Kashmiri student or shawl-seller are not spared—they become victims of severe hatred unleashed by Right-wing brigades. Take, for instance, the provocative comments of Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy calling for the economic boycott of the Kashmiris. This was in the wake of the deadly Pulwama terror attack. What action has been taken against him? None, so far!

Where was the police when goons were hounding Kashmiris? Where were the rulers of the day? Why were the rest of us not asking why Kashmir is students and traders and entire families should be targeted? Why? Surely, they are not ‘enemy’ but our very own citizens. Today, we seem like mute spectators, watching the mess get messier.

One needs to acknowledge though that amidst this extremely grim situation, one little ray of hope stands out. On February 22, 2019, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central Government and eleven States, seeking their response on a plea for its intervention to prevent the alleged attacks on Kashmiri students after the terror attack in Pulwama. The notice was issued to J&K, Maharashtra, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, New Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR). The Court said the Union Home Ministry should issue advisories to all the State governments to ensure the protection of Kashmiris in their respective States. It asked the State police chiefs to ensure the safety of Kashmiris.

The Khalsa Aid also deserve mention for reaching out to hounded Kashmiri students; for rescuing them and helping them in every possible way in the days after the Pulwama attack. The basic aim of Khalsa Aid is to treat every human being as a human being, irres-pective of caste, creed, region or religion. My salaams to its volunteers. May their mission and outreach grow steadily, so that we can live in a better and safer world.

On the other hand, I do sit wondering what happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s lengthy speeches where he had spoken of insaniyat, kashmiriyat, jamhuriyat in the context of the Kashmir crisis? Not to forget his assurances that he and his government would reach out to the Kashmiris!

This government seems to have no clear policy vis-a-vis the Kashmir crisis. I have repeatedly said that it’s time to rethink the use of military and paramilitary forces to crush civilian protests. Political dialogue should begin immediately because only a political solution will settle the mess that has been exacerbated by endless rounds of violence. Ground realities in the Valley cannot be overlooked. The severe alienation of the Valley cannot be contained by bullets and pellets but only and only through a non-violent approach.

Of Failed Politicians

Politicians in New Delhi and in the Valley have evidently failed. Their agendas stand unmasked and their double-speak exposed as never before. It’s about time civil society stepped in to try and restore some degree of connect, and help build an atmosphere where talks and a process of dialogue could take off.

On one of my visits to the Valley several summers back, while I checked into a hotel in Srinagar, I was surprised to see former Foreign Secretary Salman Haider sitting in the packed hall of that hotel. Inquiries revealed he had been invited by a particular ‘peace’ forum. Aren’t politicians invited to address such gatherings, I wondered. ‘No,’ said several in the assembled lot. ‘Our trust in politicians has reached an all-time low. There are so many vested interests around each one of them, now nobody believes whatever they say.’ ‘At this forum, there are no politicians... only the apolitical striving to bring about peace.’

Kashmiris stress on finding a solution through a genuine dialogue process. So who could initiate this series of dialogues? Kashmiri activists and academics mentioned names of several apolitical academics of this country who ought to visit the Valley to grasp what’s really happening.There is no place where an average Kashmiri can go with an appeal to be heard. Imagine the irony of the situation where an innocent citizen has no formal forum or a platform from where he can be heard. He is living under extremely trying conditions but most of us, who are sitting far away in our comfortable homes, seem unaware. The Kashmiri’s fears are mounting, apprehensions are touching an all-time high. To add to all this are the distracting voices from political quarters. Has the rest of the nation ever bothered to find out why the graph is on the rise vis-a-vis unem-ployment, health-related issues, traumatised children, mothers and fathers? To worsen the scenario, there seems to be no intermediary to contain the mess. How many researchers or planners or so-called experts visit the Valley to assess the situation for themselves? Or even interact with the citizens of Srinagar city?

If only one were to travel to the Kashmir Valley and see the actual havoc being wreaked on human rights would one realise that there ought to be demilitarisation. Day after day, in a horrifyingly consistent manner, innocents are ruined in the most ruthless way, in an atmosphere where there’s little transparency and zero accountability.

That vital connect with Kashmiris is essential. Visit the injured in the hospital wards. Visit the graveyards. Go to the orphanages spread across the Valley. See the vacant houseboats and shikaras and realise the plight of the daily wagers who have to feed their families during the curfews and crackdowns.

I have had arguments with people from New Delhi, who insist on coming up with their ‘expert’ opinions without even bothering to actually see and sense the ground realities prevailing in the Valley. They have absolutely no sense of what in actuality is going on there, of the anger and sheer helplessness of the people living there. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that though we have big-bodied commissions for women and children and child rights, these forums and their members have kept quiet even as innocent young Kashmiris got killed in these recent years. Why this succumbing to passive terrorism, this unwarranted silence, and this fence-sitting strategy?

Kashmiris have been living in a conflict zone. Do remember that they get no relief even if they step out of the Valley, moving to the so-called metros. And why? Because we look at Kashmiri Muslims with suspicion. Prejudices have seeped in, deep and well-implanted in our psyches, and we continue feeding them with resentment and vitriolic hatred.

Transparency—The Magical Word

This country should be made aware of the ‘whys’ to this turmoil in the Valley, and to those uncontrollable cries for azaadi.

Barring historians and social scientists, the rest of India or even the world has no clue about Kashmir’s history. Facts have been cleverly buried and perhaps not been allowed to come out in public view. Veteran journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea remarked, ‘People tend to forget that Jammu and Kashmir cannot be treated like any other State. It acceded to India on October 27, 1947 on the condition of being given internal autonomy. Though Muslims were in a majority, they supported accession and helped Indian troops resist Pakistan. But gradual erosion of the State’s autonomy planted the seeds of alienation. Now, of course, the situation is messed up, so much so that what Pakistan couldn’t do in the last so many years, the fascist forces of India have done.’

Kashmir’s history is one that is full of twists and turns. Though it was conquered in turns by the Afghans, Sikhs, Mughals, and Dogras, none of them ever really won over Kashmir. All through the centuries, Kashmiris craved to be on their own, and not be governed by ‘outsiders’. Alas, that was nothing but wishful thinking!

Professor Ram Puniyani focuses on this very basic point in an article written by him in The Milli Gazette (issue May 16-31, 2016): ‘Poet Kalhan of Kashmir, in his classic Rajatarangini, writes that it is only through punya (noble deeds) and not force that Kashmir can be won over. We need to remind ourselves of this profound wisdom of Kalhan while making policies about Kashmir. The role of global politics, the historical baggage of Partition and post-Partition problems, the role of global terrorism propped up by US policy of control over oil resources; its influence on militancy in Kashmir and the role of communal forces in spreading fear also need to be kept in mind while commenting on this tragedy of mammoth proportions.’

Historian G.M.D. Sufi’s two-volume set of books titled Kashmir, Being A History of Kashmir: From the Earliest Times to Our Own (Capital Publishing House) carries insights from Kashmir’s early history to its geographical patterns and even its art and culture. But the second volume ends just before Partition. It’s about time that these books on Kashmir are revised and updated. Sufi is long dead. Young historians should be given this charge. Let me add this forewarning—historians with political affiliations or biases should not be taken on board. Why? For then, there will be every possible chance of facts getting twisted or diluted along political dictates. After all, today, even roads are in the process of getting renamed because for some, too many of them are named after Muslim rulers. Hopefully, the names and surnames of these Muslim rulers will not be taken off books that talk of the history of J&K.

Books with accurate historical facts should be published so that we know the exact history of the State of J&K. If the historical haze gets somewhat cleared, there’d be a better under-standing and connect, and with that, political dialogues would take off. Today, the situation is such that anyone who chants the word ‘azaadi’ is looked at with suspicion, if not booked! I fail to comprehend this. ‘Azaadi’ can mean freedom from just about anyone or anything; be it from an oppressive government or an incompatible mate or even an erring meter reader.

Why don’t we adopt the formula suggested by M.Y. Tarigami—let’s take a peep into PoK. Why not? In fact, Tarigami has been talking of opening the borders for travel and visits of Kashmiris from the ‘Indian side of Kashmir’ to the ‘Pakistan side of Kashmir’. When buses can ply from here to there, why can’t human beings walk across from this side of Kashmir to that side of Kashmir (PoK) to meet their relatives?

According to Tarigami, that would not just help lessen tension in the region but also bring to the fore the ground realities on the other side, which I’m told are tougher than witnessed on our Indian side of the Valley. Those who have travelled to PoK have got back recounting many more horrifying situations and rights violations than what is witnessed in Srinagar and its surrounding areas.

Transparency is the magical word—one that can help in the process of dialogue. To quote Pakistan-based nuclear physicist and activist Pervez Hoodbhoy, ‘It’s true that there is no real change of heart on either side, but it is still good that Pakistan and India keep talking to each other, even if nothing comes out of the talks. As someone said, better to jaw-jaw than fight-fight.’

In a book on the life and times of the late editor Ved Bhasin, Vedji & His Times—Kashmir: The Way Forward (Selected Works of Ved Bhasin), edited by Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal (Kashmir Times Publications: 2017), there’s a chapter titled ‘Jammu and Kashmir: Road Map for Dialogue’, where the veteran journalist listed several confidence-building measures (CBMs), which could help prepare a ground for dialogue to take off. However, there’s also a note of caution. ‘It needs to be emphasised that there can be no “peaceful negotiated settlement” of Kashmir, without the full and active participation of all sections of the people of Jammu and Kashmir living on both sides of the divided line. No solution should be imposed on the people of J&K and it should emerge through a process of multilevel dialogue.’

Of Small Beginnings

It’s about time the establishment re-thought its policy of using military and paramilitary forces to crush the civilian outcry. Political dialogue should begin immediately because only a political solution can clean up the mess that has reached such staggering proportions.The continuing ‘war crimes’ on the civilian population is com-pounded by the impunity provided to the forces under the AFSPA.

While keying in this chapter, I’m reminded of what a former DGP of Punjab, Kirpal Dhillon, who had been posted in Punjab right after Operation Bluestar in 1984—one of the most turbulent phases in that State’s history—told the audience in 2017 at the New Delhi World Book Fair: ‘It is not for the military to be there... in the Valley.’ His rationale was along the strain that because the military is trained to attack and kill the enemy, it should not be deployed amongst the civilian population in the Kashmir Valley.

It is not fair for the jawan to be posted in civilian terrain. He is trained to target the enemy and not fire at the civilians of his own country. One must not forget to realise the sheer trauma that the jawan stationed in sensitive locales goes through. Sitting tight in bunkers in high-alert situations, he is not just tense but extremely vulnerable. Sadly, we don’t even wish to dwell on the plight of a soldier posted in a civilian terrain. Technically, amidst his own, but not really. This in itself is a strange irony of the ‘developed’ times we are living in.

It is about time we addressed the problems in the Valley. And this would automatically include examining the situation as it exists today. To quote the Srinagar-based special correspondent of Tehelka magazine, Riyaz Wani, from his article published in the March 2018 issue, ‘According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), around 45 people have died in Kashmir till the first week of March this year—23 of them militants, 15 security personnel and seven civilians. As is self-evident, despite the claims to the contrary, there has been no let up in the troubled security situation in the State. Nor is there a reason to foresee a degree of stability in the near term.’

Leaving you to introspect. What are we doing in Kashmir? What are we doing to the Kashmiris? How many more will be killed? How long will the boot control emotions? How long can this conflict last? How long will hospitals be able to contain the list of those lying injured? How many more fresh graves will have to be dug? How many more psyches will be bruised for times to come? How long will this disconnect last?

Have we even bothered to be there, in the Valley, to internalise the ground realities? What has changed that the same Kashmiri who welcomed the Indian Army in the 1940s now lives in fear of being searched or being illegally arrested? Why is it that the same Kashmiri—who didn’t let the communal tension that resulted from the Partition affect his land—is now labelled?

Have we bothered to think along the bigger and broader format? Will the havoc in the Valley remain contained to that region or spread out to the rest of the country? Will Kashmir become another Afghanistan or Syria or for that matter any devastated land? Will that scenario drag along new patterns of violence in this subcontinent? Will an invisible super-laced and super-powered and super-armed invading force, which has already intruded into the Middle-Eastern countries, find its way here to establish a base in the subcontinent? Will the arms dealers and war experts hover around the Valley with the latest arms? Will we see the expansionist designs of the United States, under President Donald Trump, play out on our borders? Will Noam Chomsky’s forewarnings about the expansionist strategies of the US and allied forces for this subcontinent hit us too late?

Let the people of the Kashmir Valley live without sorrow. It’s a blessed land. There’s something special to that region. It beckons you. And once you reach there, it doesn’t want you to go any further.

I do wish many more of us would take the trouble of travelling to the Valley and see what exactly is happening there. It is crucial to connect with the people of Kashmir, whom we claim to call our very own. Let these words not remain mere rhetoric!

It’s time to ask loud and clear: what do the Kashmiris want? Isn’t it pertinent to appreciate and understand their exact wants and aspirations in the midst of the severe crisis we have subjected them to?

To me, it comes across as not just bizarre but cruel that the inhabitants of the Kashmir region have been virtually sidelined and bypassed in the midst of the fake enthusiasm shown by politicians about trying to solve the crisis. In all these decades, successive governments have not really bothered to hold a genuine political dialogue with the people of Kashmir. Either we are not serious about trying to solve the crisis, or else, not serious enough.

It is sad and unfortunate that till date camouflage and chaos overrule the genuine dialoguing process. And screechy political speeches try to shut the screams of the hapless. The political climate in the country has only helped in worsening the atmosphere in the Valley. So much so that recently, as I asked my Valley-based Kashmiri friends to comment on the latest developments, they said, ‘Today our situation is probably worse than what it was in the ’90s... and even your situation has worsened. What with the encounters and the encounter-killings taking place in the midst of development cries!’; ‘Didn’t as many as 1142 encounters take place between March 2017 and January 2018 in your one State of Uttar Pradesh? Over 49 persons killed in these encounters in Uttar Pradesh!’

Death and destruction have spread their tentacles as never before. The situation probably reeks of complex political developments not just in the State of J&K but all over the country. In fact, for the last several months I have begun to see a striking similarity between the misery I’ve been seeing in and around Srinagar city and the gloom I’m seeing in and around the capital city, New Delhi... spreading out much further, to other cities and towns and qasbas (neighbour-hoods) of the country.

This gloom has been accelerating ever since demonetisation came into force. Like a demon, it has begun devouring hundreds and thousands of families.

I recall, I had first heard the term ‘encounter killings’ in Srinagar, but today I’m hearing of encounters and killings from the people of my home State, Uttar Pradesh. The same fear and apprehension that I have been seeing in the eyes of the Kashmiris I have begun to notice on the faces of the youngsters in the northern States of the country. A vast percentage of the young, especially those living in the mofussil towns and qasbas, are sitting not just jobless, but in fear of the goon brigadesthe so-called senas that the political mafia has raised to hound and spread terror. One could aptly call it ‘state terror’, aimed at terrorising the masses who have little means but to surrender or else perish.

Many amongst us have begun to start questioning and raising that one basic question—where is the fabled development? If only there was even the slightest trace of development, then perhaps the creases would have somewhat ironed out. Alas! Today there are signs of utter restlessness, not constrained to one particular region, but like a wildfire, spreading from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.

Of course, needless to say, that in Kashmir the situation gets exacerbated as the unrest and the connected havoc has been going on for decades, worsening over the years. The dearth of transparency and the death of accountability adds to the rising numbers of mindless deaths.

As I end this manuscript, I’m reminded of one of my Kashmiri friends taking me from one graveyard to the next—after all, there is no dearth of graveyards in the Valley. Somewhere in between, I heard the piercing wail of a woman, as she sat next to her son’s grave. With tears streaming down her shrunken face, she looked upwards, towards the sky, relaying that he’d gone up there! Others around her chanted ‘sabr’!

I hope we develop the strength to be patient. Patient enough for things to improve—not through violence and counter-violence, but by fearlessly and collectively raising our voices against the ghastly injustice being meted out to the people of Kashmir. Let the facts be told and retold a hundred times so that the masses become aware of the ground realities and are not led astray by politicians and the politics of hatred.

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