Kashmir: From Orient to the State of Exception



Historically the global imagination has often reflected on Kashmir, the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom, through scenes of colonial idyll, wilderness, and romance. This imagery was fine tuned through works like “Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance” a poem written in 1817 by the English poet Thomas Moore. Photographs from the bygone era are replete with soft verdant valleys, majestic peaks capped with snow, white water rivers forcefully rushing down the mountains, wild flowers, gazelles and gentle lambs. An odd native or two may be seen lurking, but they are shown in service of the Sahibs, an honorific title for Englishmen. Kashmir has always been a tragic beauty. When the star of Western colonial power was in full ascendancy, Kashmir was being handed over from one tyrannical rule to the next. In 1846 the British colonists sold the valley along with its sprawling provinces to the Hindu Dogra kings. The Dogras remained in the British protectorate and were annually required to present the crown with one horse, twelve shawl goats, and three pairs of the finest Kashmiri shawls. This historic treaty included the sale of not only the land but also its people. The hundred years of Dogra rule were ruthless. While the colonial travellers eulogized Kashmir’s rejuvenating natural beauty, leisure-inspiring environs, and deep solitude, the natives who were mostly poor and broken under tyrannical rule were amply admonished for their primitiveness and general aura of servitude. But the Kashmiris, even when burdened by centuries of de-facto slavery, also had the hallmark resilience of people fighting for identity. By the early 19th century, while India was fighting to oust the British, Kashmiri’s were fighting to overthrow the Dogra monarch, which by 1944 congealed into the famed Quit Kashmir movement. And that was then.

Kashmir, the Colony ///

After the end of British rule in 1947, when Pakistan and India came into being, the princely state of Kashmir was simplistically forced to choose either of the two dominions. According to the partition logic independence was not an option, and as a Muslim-majority state, Kashmir would go to Pakistan. The Dogra monarch, a Hindu, was famously plied by India even when he had signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan. He ended up drawing a treaty of accession with India, the authenticity of which continues to be disputed. The monarch fled Kashmir, after which a full-scale war between India and Pakistan ensued over the territory.

Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime Minister, took the issue to the United Nations in January 1948. In the complaint India reiterated its pledge of a conditional commitment to a “plebiscite or referendum under international auspices” to settle Kashmir. The United Nations brokered a “cease-fire line,” splitting the region into two. This line has since been renamed the Line of Control (LOC). The one third of the territory became a semi-autonomous entity within Pakistan known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The other two thirds of the region, including the valley of Kashmir, was taken under Indian control. The United Nations deployed a military observer group in India and Pakistan and promised to hold an internationally monitored plebiscite to decide the fate of Kashmir. Kashmiris strongly demanded that Independence be added as an option to reflect their desire for nationhood; a desire which, they say, is older than India or Pakistan. The plebiscite was never held.

Kashmir, the Postcolony ///

The years that followed the beginning of the Indian administration in Kashmir can at best be called a “management” of what most Kashmiris call “Jabri-qabza” (occupation or forced possession). A mix of dubious electoral politics involving rigging, installing pro-India administrators, quashing opposition, incarcerations, and heavy militarization has kept Indian governance afloat in Kashmir. In 1965 an armed struggle for liberation known as the Al-Fatah movement started, but was swiftly suppressed by India. After years of repression against the pro-freedom political resistance, Kashmir again rose in an armed struggle against India in 1989. It was a popular indigenous movement supported by Azad Kashmir and Pakistani patronage. In the last 33 years, India has increased its troops to over 700,000 in the region. Emergency laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) have been implemented in order to tighten the Indian military’s grip. There is roughly one Indian soldier for every eight Kashmiris, making Kashmir one of the most densely militarized zones in the world. Human Rights organizations claim that up to now, more than 70,000 Kashmiris, both combatants and non-combatants have been killed, and over 8,000 have disappeared.

The AFSPA has given the Indian troops a power that facilitates arbitrary arrest and detention as well as extrajudicial executions. A state of siege exists in Kashmir where every civilian is under as much surveillance as any armed militant, if not more. Bunkers, look-outs, army camps, patrol units, and mine resistant armored vehicles have become part of the landscape. Under the AFSPA which the Indian army considers a holy word the troops can “arrest without warrant, any person who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest.” Almost everyone in Kashmir is always under “reasonable suspicion,” hence never far away from being shot, “disappeared,” incarcerated, raped, or beaten. These have become common stories, which every Kashmiri household bears as painful legacies.

Kashmir, the State of Exception ///

Since 2008, armed militancy has receded and the pro-freedom movement has taken a major turn towards civilian uprisings, including public demonstrations. A new genre of protestors has also emerged: they are known as the Sangbaaz (those who throw stones). These protestors engage in pitched street battles with Indian troops, armed with nothing but rocks. These Sangbaaz are just boys-next door with no special combat training whatsoever. Their qualifications at best include being able bodied and having an utter fury over the Indian hegemony. While the rock throwing has been called the Kashmiri Intifada, alluding to Palestinian protests, this mode of combat is not new in Kashmir. Folklorists trace the origins of rock throwing to the period when, in the 16th century, Mughal rulers from Delhi annexed Kashmir. At that time, bands of Kashmiri men called dilawars (bravehearts) would fight the Mughal soldiers by throwing rocks at them.

This summer, over 500 years later, Kashmiris are once again fighting to liberate their homeland from yet another protracted foreign rule, this time again operational from Delhi. As of this writing on September 22, 2016, this is the 76th day of government-imposed curfew and extreme military force that has been used against people. Street protests, stone battles, and demonstrations continue unabated. People are singular in their demands for freedom from India and self-determination. This fresh uprising began on the evening of July 7, 2016 when, along with the much-needed rain breaking a hot summer, the news came that Burhan Wani, a popular militant, had been killed by the Indian forces. Burhan, as a mere 15-year-old, had joined the militancy in 2010 in the aftermath of a major uprising. Over the last six years, Burhan became the face of the indigenous Kashmiri movement for self-determination. He was idolized amongst the younger generation, and fan pages in his honor had sprouted all over social media. Burhan had become the face of the digital age of the Kashmiri freedom movement.

Burhan’s death unleashed a volcanic angst against India. Historically, India has been given to labeling the pro-freedom protests as a “law and order” situation. The political demands of Kashmiris have often been sidelined by the disaffections of unemployment, or alienation. The Indian political apparatus also subsumes the pro-freedom movement for Kashmir into the global terrorism debate, thus continuing to ignore a serious dialogue on self-determination with the Kashmiris. Between July and September, more than 80 people have been killed, over 11,000 injured, and over 500 youths have been made vision-impaired or blind. The Indian government has authorized the use of pellet shotguns, originally made for hunting animals as non-lethal methods of crowd control. The pellet guns have caused massive injuries to the eyes and faces of protestors, as well as mortal fatalities. International human rights organizations have denounced the disproportionate use of force against protestors who are usually unarmed, or at the most bear rocks. The degree of lethal force used on both  protestors and non-protestors is so extreme that the UNCHR is persisting in its demand to enter Kashmir to investigate the human-rights abuses committed by the India forces.

In September, two months after Burhan’s killing, as the curfew and protests entered their third month, 15-year-old Sayar Shiekh, became one more casualty in what has been called India’s “war on the people.” The events preceding Sayar’s killing are telling of the everyday tragedy that Kashmiri lives have become. Sayar’s parents say that he rose early to take a bath, and then wore new clothes because he had finally decided to join what turned out to be his first and last protest. A ninth grader, a prodigy at mathematics, Sayar had long dreamed of laying down his life for Kashmir’s liberation from India. On September 7th, he got his wish. Sayar’s dream and legacy are symbolic of the extent to which the Kashmiris, both old and young, have been pushed to the wall by the Indian excesses and the deep neglect of their demand for independent nationhood. Like Sayar, many young Kashmiris today dream of being martyred for Kashmir’s liberation. They do not care if they are unarmed or only bearing rocks. These Kashmiris have full knowledge that their protests will be quelled with disproportionate force by the Indian authorities. Their struggle for self-determination under UN auspices continues.