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.
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.
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 Islamic militant uprising in the Valley coincided with the spread of virulent Hindutva in the Indian plains, the number of pilgrims began to increase exponentially. By 2008, more than 5,00,000 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 and police firing, while the Hindutva publicity machine charged Kashmiris with committing every kind of communal excess, the 5,00,000 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 senior separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani 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. The army was called out to clear the highway and allow safe passage of trucks between Jammu and Srinagar. But incidents of violence against Kashmiri truckers were being reported from as far away as Punjab where there was no protection at all. As a result, Kashmiri truckers, fearing for their lives, refused to drive on the highway. Truckloads of perishable fresh fruit and Valley produce began to rot. It became very obvious that the blockade had caused the situation to spin out of control. The government announced that the blockade had been cleared and that trucks were going through. Embedded sections of the Indian media, quoting the inevitable 'Intelligence' sources, began to refer to it as a 'perceived' blockade, and even to suggest that there had never been one.
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.
This time around, the people are in charge. The armed militants, who through the worst years of repression were seen carrying the torch of azadi, are content to let people do the fighting. The separatist leaders are not leaders so much as followers.
Not surprisingly, the voice that the Government of India has tried so hard to silence in Kashmir has massed into a deafening roar. Hundreds of thousands of unarmed people have come out to reclaim their cities, their streets and mohallas. They have simply overwhelmed the heavily armed security forces by their sheer numbers, and with a remarkable display of raw courage.
Raised in a playground of army camps, checkposts 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. They're in full flow, 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? What threat does it hold? Who should know that better than the people of India who won their independence in the way that they did?
The circumstances in Kashmir being what they are, it is hard for the spin doctors to fall back on the same old same old; to claim that it's all the doing of Pakistan's ISI, or that people are being coerced by militants. Since the '30s onwards, the question of who can claim the right to represent that elusive thing known as "Kashmiri sentiment" has been bitterly contested. Was it Sheikh Abdullah? The Muslim Conference? Who is it today? The mainstream political parties? The Hurriyat? The militants? This time around, the people are in charge. 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—the National Conference, the People's Democratic Party—feted by the Deep State and the Indian media despite the pathetic voter turnout in election after election 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 to be content to take a backseat and let people do the fighting for a change.
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.
What will free Kashmir be like? Will the hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits living in exile be allowed to return, paid reparations for their losses?
That sound reverberates through the Valley like the drumbeat of steady rain on a tin roof, like the roll of thunder before an electric storm. It's the plebiscite that was never held, the referendum that has been indefinitely postponed.
On August 15, India's Independence Day, the city of Srinagar shut down completely. The Bakshi stadium where Governor N.N. Vohra hoisted the flag was empty except for a few officials. Hours later, Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of the city (where in 1992, Murli Manohar Joshi, BJP leader and mentor of the controversial "Hinduisation" of children's history textbooks, started a tradition of flag-hoisting by the Border Security Force), 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 3,00,000 people marched to Pampore, to the village of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz, who was shot down in cold blood five days earlier. He was part of a massive march to the Line of Control demanding that since the Jammu road had been blocked, it was only logical that the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad highway be opened for goods and people, the way it used to be before Kashmir was partitioned.
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.
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. For the first time in eighteen years, the police had to plead with Hurriyat leaders to address the rally at the TRC grounds instead of marching right up to the UNMOGIP office which is on Gupkar Road, Srinagar's Green Zone where, for years, the Indian Establishment has barricaded itself in style and splendour.
On the morning of the 18th, 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 twisted logic of a country that needed to commit communal carnage in order to bolster its secular credentials. Or 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 to Hazratbal, Batmaloo, Sopore 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 a 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, the enemy, 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 ilaha illa llah. What is our bond with Pakistan? There is no god but Allah. Azadi ka matlab kya? La ilaha 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.
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.
As the crowd continued to swell, I listened carefully to the slogans, because rhetoric often clarifies things and holds the key to all kinds of understanding. I'd heard many of them before, a few years ago, at a militant's funeral. A new one, obviously coined after the blockade, was Kashmir ki mandi! Rawalpindi! (It doesn't lend itself to translation, but it means—Kashmir's marketplace? Rawalpindi!) Another was Khooni lakir tod do, aar paar jod do (Break down the blood-soaked Line of Control, let Kashmir be united again). 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). Jis Kashmir ko khoon se seencha, woh Kashmir hamara hai (The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood, that Kashmir is ours!).
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 bhookha are—and have been—complicit in complex and historical ways with the cruel cultural and economic systems that make Indian society so cruel, so vulgarly unequal.