Month: March 2014

Land and freedom

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Kashmir is in crisis: the region’s Muslims are mounting huge non-violent protests against the Indian government’s rule. But, asks Arundhati Roy, what would independence for the territory mean for its people?

  • Arundhati Roy

For the past 60 days or so, since about the end of June, the people of Kashmir have been free. Free in the most profound sense. They have shrugged off the terror of living their lives in the gun-sights of half a million heavily armed soldiers, in the most densely militarised zone in the world.

After 18 years of administering a military occupation, the Indian government’s worst nightmare has come true. Having declared that the militant movement has been crushed, it is now faced with a non-violent mass protest, but not the kind it knows how to manage. This one is nourished by people’s memory of years of repression in which tens of thousands have been killed, thousands have been “disappeared”, hundreds of thousands tortured, injured, and humiliated. That kind of rage, once it finds utterance, cannot easily be tamed, rebottled and sent back to where it came from.

A sudden twist of fate, an ill-conceived move over the transfer of 100 acres of state forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board (which manages the annual Hindu pilgrimage to a cave deep in the Kashmir Himalayas) suddenly became the equivalent of tossing a lit match into a barrel of petrol. Until 1989 the Amarnath pilgrimage used to attract about 20,000 people who travelled to the Amarnath cave over a period of about two weeks. In 1990, when the overtly Islamist militant uprising in the valley coincided with the spread of virulent Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) in the Indian plains, the number of pilgrims began to increase exponentially. By 2008 more than 500,000 pilgrims visited the Amarnath cave, in large groups, their passage often sponsored by Indian business houses. To many people in the valley this dramatic increase in numbers was seen as an aggressive political statement by an increasingly Hindu-fundamentalist Indian state. Rightly or wrongly, the land transfer was viewed as the thin edge of the wedge. It triggered an apprehension that it was the beginning of an elaborate plan to build Israeli-style settlements, and change the demography of the valley.

Days of massive protest forced the valley to shut down completely. Within hours the protests spread from the cities to villages. Young stone pelters took to the streets and faced armed police who fired straight at them, killing several. For people as well as the government, it resurrected memories of the uprising in the early 90s. Throughout the weeks of protest, hartal (strikes) and police firing, while the Hindutva publicity machine charged Kashmiris with committing every kind of communal excess, the 500,000 Amarnath pilgrims completed their pilgrimage, not just unhurt, but touched by the hospitality they had been shown by local people.

Eventually, taken completely by surprise at the ferocity of the response, the government revoked the land transfer. But by then the land-transfer had become what Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the most senior and also the most overtly Islamist separatist leader, called a “non-issue”.

Massive protests against the revocation erupted in Jammu. There, too, the issue snowballed into something much bigger. Hindus began to raise issues of neglect and discrimination by the Indian state. (For some odd reason they blamed Kashmiris for that neglect.) The protests led to the blockading of the Jammu-Srinagar highway, the only functional road-link between Kashmir and India. Truckloads of perishable fresh fruit and valley produce began to rot.

The blockade demonstrated in no uncertain terms to people in Kashmir that they lived on sufferance, and that if they didn’t behave themselves they could be put under siege, starved, deprived of essential commodities and medical supplies.

To expect matters to end there was of course absurd. Hadn’t anybody noticed that in Kashmir even minor protests about civic issues like water and electricity inevitably turned into demands for azadi, freedom? To threaten them with mass starvation amounted to committing political suicide.

Not surprisingly, the voice that the government of India has tried so hard to silence in Kashmir has massed into a deafening roar. Raised in a playground of army camps, checkpoints, and bunkers, with screams from torture chambers for a soundtrack, the young generation has suddenly discovered the power of mass protest, and above all, the dignity of being able to straighten their shoulders and speak for themselves, represent themselves. For them it is nothing short of an epiphany. Not even the fear of death seems to hold them back. And once that fear has gone, of what use is the largest or second largest army in the world?

There have been mass rallies in the past, but none in recent memory that have been so sustained and widespread. The mainstream political parties of Kashmir – National Conference and People’s Democratic party – appear dutifully for debates in New Delhi’s TV studios, but can’t muster the courage to appear on the streets of Kashmir. The armed militants who, through the worst years of repression were seen as the only ones carrying the torch of azadi forward, if they are around at all, seem content to take a back seat and let people do the fighting for a change.

The separatist leaders who do appear and speak at the rallies are not leaders so much as followers, being guided by the phenomenal spontaneous energy of a caged, enraged people that has exploded on Kashmir’s streets. Day after day, hundreds of thousands of people swarm around places that hold terrible memories for them. They demolish bunkers, break through cordons of concertina wire and stare straight down the barrels of soldiers’ machine guns, saying what very few in India want to hear. Hum Kya Chahtey? Azadi! (We want freedom.) And, it has to be said, in equal numbers and with equal intensity: Jeevey jeevey Pakistan. (Long live Pakistan.)

That sound reverberates through the valley like the drumbeat of steady rain on a tin roof, like the roll of thunder during an electric storm.

On August 15, India’s independence day, Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of Srinagar, was taken over by thousands of people who hoisted the Pakistani flag and wished each other “happy belated independence day” (Pakistan celebrates independence on August 14) and “happy slavery day”. Humour obviously, has survived India’s many torture centres and Abu Ghraibs in Kashmir.

On August 16 more than 300,000 people marched to Pampore, to the village of the Hurriyat leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, who was shot down in cold blood five days earlier.

On the night of August 17 the police sealed the city. Streets were barricaded, thousands of armed police manned the barriers. The roads leading into Srinagar were blocked. On the morning of August 18, people began pouring into Srinagar from villages and towns across the valley. In trucks, tempos, jeeps, buses and on foot. Once again, barriers were broken and people reclaimed their city. The police were faced with a choice of either stepping aside or executing a massacre. They stepped aside. Not a single bullet was fired.

The city floated on a sea of smiles. There was ecstasy in the air. Everyone had a banner; houseboat owners, traders, students, lawyers, doctors. One said: “We are all prisoners, set us free.” Another said: “Democracy without freedom is demon-crazy.” Demon-crazy. That was a good one. Perhaps he was referring to the insanity that permits the world’s largest democracy to administer the world’s largest military occupation and continue to call itself a democracy.

There was a green flag on every lamp post, every roof, every bus stop and on the top of chinar trees. A big one fluttered outside the All India Radio building. Road signs were painted over. Rawalpindi they said. Or simply Pakistan. It would be a mistake to assume that the public expression of affection for Pakistan automatically translates into a desire to accede to Pakistan. Some of it has to do with gratitude for the support – cynical or otherwise – for what Kashmiris see as their freedom struggle, and the Indian state sees as a terrorist campaign. It also has to do with mischief. With saying and doing what galls India most of all. (It’s easy to scoff at the idea of a “freedom struggle” that wishes to distance itself from a country that is supposed to be a democracy and align itself with another that has, for the most part been ruled by military dictators. A country whose army has committed genocide in what is now Bangladesh. A country that is even now being torn apart by its own ethnic war. These are important questions, but right now perhaps it’s more useful to wonder what this so-called democracy did in Kashmir to make people hate it so?)

Everywhere there were Pakistani flags, everywhere the cry Pakistan se rishta kya? La illaha illallah. (What is our bond with Pakistan? There is no god but Allah.) Azadi ka matlab kya? La illaha illallah. (What does freedom mean? There is no god but Allah.)

For somebody like myself, who is not Muslim, that interpretation of freedom is hard – if not impossible – to understand. I asked a young woman whether freedom for Kashmir would not mean less freedom for her, as a woman. She shrugged and said “What kind of freedom do we have now? The freedom to be raped by Indian soldiers?” Her reply silenced me.

Surrounded by a sea of green flags, it was impossible to doubt or ignore the deeply Islamic fervour of the uprising taking place around me. It was equally impossible to label it a vicious, terrorist jihad. For Kashmiris it was a catharsis. A historical moment in a long and complicated struggle for freedom with all the imperfections, cruelties and confusions that freedom struggles have. This one cannot by any means call itself pristine, and will always be stigmatised by, and will some day, I hope, have to account for, among other things, the brutal killings of Kashmiri Pandits in the early years of the uprising, culminating in the exodus of almost the entire Hindu community from the Kashmir valley.

As the crowd continued to swell I listened carefully to the slogans, because rhetoric often holds the key to all kinds of understanding. There were plenty of insults and humiliation for India: Ay jabiron ay zalimon, Kashmir hamara chhod do (Oh oppressors, Oh wicked ones, Get out of our Kashmir.) The slogan that cut through me like a knife and clean broke my heart was this one: Nanga bhookha Hindustan, jaan se pyaara Pakistan. (Naked, starving India, More precious than life itself – Pakistan.)

Why was it so galling, so painful to listen to this? I tried to work it out and settled on three reasons. First, because we all know that the first part of the slogan is the embarrassing and unadorned truth about India, the emerging superpower. Second, because all Indians who are not nanga or bhooka are and have been complicit in complex and historical ways with the elaborate cultural and economic systems that make Indian society so cruel, so vulgarly unequal. And third, because it was painful to listen to people who have suffered so much themselves mock others who suffer, in different ways, but no less intensely, under the same oppressor. In that slogan I saw the seeds of how easily victims can become perpetrators.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani began his address with a recitation from the Qur’an. He then said what he has said before, on hundreds of occasions. The only way for the struggle to succeed, he said, was to turn to the Qur’an for guidance. He said Islam would guide the struggle and that it was a complete social and moral code that would govern the people of a free Kashmir. He said Pakistan had been created as the home of Islam, and that that goal should never be subverted. He said just as Pakistan belonged to Kashmir, Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. He said minority communities would have full rights and their places of worship would be safe. Each point he made was applauded.

I imagined myself standing in the heart of a Hindu nationalist rally being addressed by the Bharatiya Janata party’s (BJP) LK Advani. Replace the word Islam with the word Hindutva, replace the word Pakistan with Hindustan, replace the green flags with saffron ones and we would have the BJP’s nightmare vision of an ideal India.

Is that what we should accept as our future? Monolithic religious states handing down a complete social and moral code, “a complete way of life”? Millions of us in India reject the Hindutva project. Our rejection springs from love, from passion, from a kind of idealism, from having enormous emotional stakes in the society in which we live. What our neighbours do, how they choose to handle their affairs does not affect our argument, it only strengthens it.

Arguments that spring from love are also fraught with danger. It is for the people of Kashmir to agree or disagree with the Islamist project (which is as contested, in equally complex ways, all over the world by Muslims, as Hindutva is contested by Hindus). Perhaps now that the threat of violence has receded and there is some space in which to debate views and air ideas, it is time for those who are part of the struggle to outline a vision for what kind of society they are fighting for. Perhaps it is time to offer people something more than martyrs, slogans and vague generalisations. Those who wish to turn to the Qur’an for guidance will no doubt find guidance there. But what of those who do not wish to do that, or for whom the Qur’an does not make place? Do the Hindus of Jammu and other minorities also have the right to self-determination? Will the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits living in exile, many of them in terrible poverty, have the right to return? Will they be paid reparations for the terrible losses they have suffered? Or will a free Kashmir do to its minorities what India has done to Kashmiris for 61 years? What will happen to homosexuals and adulterers and blasphemers? What of thieves and lafangas and writers who do not agree with the “complete social and moral code”? Will we be put to death as we are in Saudi Arabia? Will the cycle of death, repression and bloodshed continue? History offers many models for Kashmir’s thinkers and intellectuals and politicians to study. What will the Kashmir of their dreams look like? Algeria? Iran? South Africa? Switzerland? Pakistan?

At a crucial time like this, few things are more important than dreams. A lazy utopia and a flawed sense of justice will have consequences that do not bear thinking about. This is not the time for intellectual sloth or a reluctance to assess a situation clearly and honestly.

Already the spectre of partition has reared its head. Hindutva networks are alive with rumours about Hindus in the valley being attacked and forced to flee. In response, phone calls from Jammu reported that an armed Hindu militia was threatening a massacre and that Muslims from the two Hindu majority districts were preparing to flee. Memories of the bloodbath that ensued and claimed the lives of more than a million people when India and Pakistan were partitioned have come flooding back. That nightmare will haunt all of us forever.

However, none of these fears of what the future holds can justify the continued military occupation of a nation and a people. No more than the old colonial argument about how the natives were not ready for freedom justified the colonial project.

Of course there are many ways for the Indian state to continue to hold on to Kashmir. It could do what it does best. Wait. And hope the people’s energy will dissipate in the absence of a concrete plan. It could try and fracture the fragile coalition that is emerging. It could extinguish this non-violent uprising and re-invite armed militancy. It could increase the number of troops from half a million to a whole million. A few strategic massacres, a couple of targeted assassinations, some disappearances and a massive round of arrests should do the trick for a few more years.

The unimaginable sums of public money that are needed to keep the military occupation of Kashmir going is money that ought by right to be spent on schools and hospitals and food for an impoverished, malnutritioned population in India. What kind of government can possibly believe that it has the right to spend it on more weapons, more concertina wire and more prisons in Kashmir?

The Indian military occupation of Kashmir makes monsters of us all. It allows Hindu chauvinists to target and victimise Muslims in India by holding them hostage to the freedom struggle being waged by Muslims in Kashmir.

India needs azadi from Kashmir just as much as – if not more than – Kashmir needs azadi from India. 

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PROF BUTT URGES PAKISTAN, INDIA TO SETTLE KASHMIR DISPUTE

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In occupied Kashmir, senior APHC leader and the President of Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, Professor Abdul Ghani Butt, has urged Pakistan and India to demonstrate realism and resolve the Kashmir dispute as per the recognized international principles for ensuring permanent peace and stability in South Asia.

According to Media sources, Professor Abdul Ghani Butt addressing a meeting of his party activists in Behama area of Ganderbal said that both the countries had fought wars over Kashmir in the past that affected their bilateral relationship, so the dispute needed to be resolved on priority basis.

He said that in the context of global changes, particularly in South Asia, all nations in the world must adopt policies of protecting human rights to guarantee peace, prosperity, stability and development.

Professor Abdul Ghani Butt termed accumulating of nuclear weapons by the two countries as a threat to South Asian peace and said that if the Kashmir dispute remained unresolved, the nuclear weaponization of both the countries would bring destruction in the region. He called upon both the countries to initiate meaningful dialogue, with seriousness, wisdom and will for the peaceful settlement of the dispute. 

IOK AUTHORITIES SHELVE PROBE INTO 2010 CIVILIAN KILLINGS

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In occupied Kashmir, depicting sheer inaction on civilian killings and non-seriousness in punishing the guilty, the puppet authorities have shelved the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) ordered into the killing of youth in the firing of Indian police and troops of paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force during the 2010 mass uprising in the territory.

According to Media sources, the puppet administration had ordered the CoI into killings of 17 youth out of about 128 civilians killed by the police and troops during pro-freedom protests in 2010. The CoI headed by Justice (Retd) Syed Bashir-ud-Din was tasked to complete the probe in three-months up to October 2010. The CoI, with Justice (Retd) YP Nargotra as member, had recorded statements of witnesses into the killings and even the involved cops and troops.

Justice Bashir-ud-Din in an interview said that he had written to the Law department of the occupied territory seeking extension for the Commission to enable them to finalize the report. However, he said, there was cold response from the other side and finally, the CoI was shelved.

“Our report was based on statements of witnesses, circumstantial and scientific evidences. We had indicted police and paramilitary CRPF personnel in these cases and recommended measures to prevent such incidents in future, but the report could not be made public due to shelving of the CoI,” he said. 

STATUS-QUO ON KASHMIR IS DANGEROUS: INQILABI

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In occupied Kashmir, the Chief Patron of Jammu and Kashmir Mahaz-e-Azadi, Muhammad Azam Inqilabi, has said that status-quo on the Kashmir dispute is fraught with dangerous consequences.

According to Media sources, Muhammad Azam Inqilabi in a statement issued in Srinagar appealed to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, to organize a conference of representatives of China, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to press for peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He said that in the conference strategy to settle the dispute should be chalked-out. 

INDIAN POLICEMAN INJURED IN PULWAMA ATTACK

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In occupied Kashmir, a constable of Indian police was injured when some unknown gunmen attacked a police party in Pulwama district.

According to Media sources, the gunmen fired upon the police personnel in the busy market of Kakapora in the district, injuring a constable, who received a bullet in his leg.

Panic gripped the area after the incident and people rushed to safer places. Later, Indian police and troops reached the spot and started a manhunt in the area to nab the assailants. 

SEHRAI CONCERNED OVER PLIGHT OF KASHMIRI DETAINEES

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In occupied Kashmir, Hurriyet leader, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, has expressed serious concern over the plight of illegally detained Kashmiri Hurriyet leaders and activists languishing in different jails of India and the territory.

According to Media sources, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai in a statement issued in Srinagar said that the detainees were not being provided with basic facilities and treated inhumanly due to which their health was deteriorating with each passing day.

He said that in Srinagar Central Jail, the health of detainees, Manzoor Ahmad Wani, Abdul Latif Dar, Muhammad Younis Butt, Pir Fayaz, Daud Ahmad Alai, Ashfaq Ahmad Wani, Tauseef Ahmad Wagay, Muhammad Yasin Itto, Fayaz Ahmad Talaq and Muhammad Munsif Wani had deteriorated to an alarming proportion because they were not provided with proper medical care.

Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai urged the officials of the prison to treat the detainees according to the jail manual so that their health could be saved from further worsening. He said that the jail officials would be responsible if anything untoward happened to the detainees. 

ASHFAQ WANI, OTHER MARTYRS REMEMBERED

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In occupied Kashmir, Hurriyet leaders went to Mazaar-e-Shuhada at Eidgah in Srinagar, today, and offered special prayers for Ashfaq Majeed Wani and other Kashmiri martyrs.

According to Media sources, Hurriyet leaders including Muhammad Yousuf Naqash, Muhammad Iqbal Mir, Muhammad Yaseen Atai, Bashir Ahmad, Bilal Handoo, and the Chairman of JKLF-R while commemorating the martyrdom anniversary Ashfaq Majeed Wani paid glowing tributes to him.

They said that Ishfaq Majeed Wani and others martyrs offered their blood to break the shackles of slavery, which had entangled the Kashmiris. They said that for last 65 years the people of Kashmir had offered unparalleled sacrifices. They said that the martyrdom anniversary of Ashfaq Majeed Wani had injected a new passion for freedom into every individual of the territory.

The Hurriyet leaders said that Ashfaq Majeed Wani, while following the path of his leader, Muhammad Maqbool Butt, invalidated the versions and the ideologies of those who believed in the vote politics.

Paying rich tributes to Advocate Jaleel Ahmed Andrabi, Shabir Ahmad Siddiqui and Dr Abdul Ahad Guru, they said that the Kashmiri intellectuals and scholars had also offered great sacrifices in the ongoing liberation movement.