For the past sixty 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, raped and humiliated. That kind of rage, once it finds utterance, cannot easily be tamed, re-bottled and sent back to where it came from.
For all these years, the Indian State, known amongst the knowing as the Deep State, has done everything it can to subvert, suppress, represent, misrepresent, discredit, interpret, intimidate, purchase—and simply snuff out the voice of the Kashmiri people. It has used money (lots of it), violence (lots of it), disinformation, propaganda, torture, elaborate networks of collaborators and informers, terror, imprisonment, blackmail and rigged elections to subdue what democrats would call "the will of the people". But now the Deep State, as Deep States eventually tend to, has tripped on its own hubris and bought into its own publicity. It made the mistake of believing that domination was victory, that the 'normalcy' it had enforced through the barrel of a gun was indeed normal, and that the people's sullen silence was acquiescence.
People's movement: Protesters march towards the UN office in Srinagar
The well-endowed peace industry, speaking on people's behalf, informed us that "Kashmiris are tired of violence and want peace". What kind of peace they were willing to settle for was never clarified. Bollywood's cache of Kashmir/Muslim-terrorist films has brainwashed most Indians into believing that all of Kashmir's sorrows could be laid at the door of evil, people-hating terrorists.
To anybody who cared to ask, or, more importantly, to listen, it was always clear that even in their darkest moments, people in Kashmir had kept the fires burning and that it was not peace they yearned for, but freedom too. Over the last two months, the carefully confected picture of an innocent people trapped between 'two guns', both equally hated, has, pardon the pun, been shot to hell.
Flaming chinars: People climb atop trees to hear Hurriyat leaders
But it was too late for those games, the damage had been done. It had been 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. The real blockade became a psychological one. The last fragile link between India and Kashmir was all but snapped.
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? To threaten them with mass starvation amounted to committing political suicide.
Everywhere in chains: But it's no barricade to freedom
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. The leaders, such as they are, have been presented with a full-blown revolution. The only condition seems to be that they have to do as the people say. If they say things that people do not wish to hear, they are gently persuaded to come out, publicly apologise and correct their course. This applies to all of them, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani who at a public rally recently proclaimed himself the movement's only leader. It was a monumental political blunder that very nearly shattered the fragile new alliance between the various factions of the struggle. Within hours he retracted his statement. Like it or not, this is democracy. No democrat can pretend otherwise.
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 chahte? Azadi! We Want Freedom. And, it has to be said, in equal numbers and with equal intensity: Jeevey Jeevey Pakistan. Long live Pakistan.
Goodbye, fear: A police post being dismantled in Srinagar
On August 18, an equal number gathered in Srinagar in the huge TRC grounds (Tourist Reception Centre, not the Truth and Reconciliation Committee) close to the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to submit a memorandum asking for three things—the end to Indian rule, the deployment of a UN Peacekeeping Force and an investigation into two decades of war crimes committed with almost complete impunity by the Indian army and police.
The day before the rally the Deep State was hard at work. A senior journalist friend called to say that late in the afternoon the home secretary called a high-level meeting in New Delhi. Also present were the defence secretary and the intelligence chiefs. The purpose of the meeting, he said, was to brief the editors of TV news channels that the government had reason to believe that the insurrection was being managed by a small splinter cell of the ISI and to request the channels to keep this piece of exclusive, highly secret intelligence in mind while covering (or preferably not covering?) the news from Kashmir. Unfortunately for the Deep State, things have gone so far that TV channels, were they to obey those instructions, would run the risk of looking ridiculous. Thankfully, it looks as though this revolution will, after all, be televised.
She's no terrorist: A woman pelts stones at policemen
Standing in the grounds of the TRC, surrounded by a sea of green flags, it was impossible to doubt or ignore the deeply Islamic nature of the uprising taking place around me. It was equally impossible to label it a vicious, terrorist jehad. 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 community from the Kashmir Valley.
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