On May 6, when Kashmiri militant Riyaz Naikoo was killed by security forces, the all-enveloping Covid pandemic ensured the expected eruption of vengeful jubilation across social media didn’t reach the levels seen after Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016. Yet, he was Kashmir’s longest-surviving militant. So a more modest version of the coda duly played out: the first protests in the Valley since August 2019, and on the mainland, “nationalist” channels proclaiming that the “poster boy of terrorism”—indeed, the “virus of terrorism”—had been eliminated. This was preceded by the “martyrdom” of eight security personnel, killed by militants on May 3-4. Kashmir’s reality—for the last three decades—has been characterised by this cycle of retribution. And everytime a bullet hits home, it hits a human: with a history and an alternate possible-future.
But there is a difference in the legibility, so to speak, of the kinds of violence. While the violence of militancy is easily readable, recognisable and condemnable, the nation-state’s belief in violence (internalised enthusiastically by the ‘nationalists’) remains opaque to us. We fail to read violence as the tool deployed to decide Kashmir’s future; the State stays beyond reproach. So while the call for non-violence can easily be made, the structural conditions necessary for non-violence remain absent. The events post-Article 370 are emphatic demonstrations of the fact that the Kashmiri does not figure in the Indian nationalist imagination other than as an object—our goal is precisely to render that figure a passive recipient, rather than a participant. The world’s longest internet shutdown, extending into the cruel denial of 4G even during a pandemic, passes without much comment in the mainstream. So does the preventive detention of thousands of Kashmiri citizens, including those who were pro-India or without links to militancy (and the judiciary’s shocking refusal to entertain habeas corpus petitions, the bedrock of democracy). Startling facts otherwise, we have been collectively lulled into thinking of them as normal—or as natural as sun or rain.
But these are volitional acts of state-making. Extant since 1947, this tendency has only gotten worse under a Hindu nationalist regime, with its intractable logic of a Hindu-Muslim binary, and the triumphal idea of a final “taming” of Muslim-majority Kashmir, its avowed dream. This has consequences for all of us. What this conjuncture has led to is the consecration of violence, both palpable and imperceptible, as the raison d’etre of society—going beyond Kashmir. And there, the State shows no intention of envisaging the restoration of democracy, throwing up moral conundrums about the pathways of resistance.
Absurd false equivalences grip all nation-states and their obsession with territory sans people. India presently has nearly 1 million security personnel stationed in Jammu and Kashmir, which has a population of 13 million: that is 1 soldier for every 13 citizens! Yet, despite governing a part of one’s own nation by sheer military force, the nationalist feels he is the victim. This is similar to what activist Hanan Ashrawi argued in the context of Palestine: “We are the only people on earth asked to guarantee the security of our occupier…while Israel is the only country that calls for defence from its victims.”
To assuage this feeling of endless victimhood, the nationalist is willing to sacrifice an endless number of lives. From the beginning of insurgency, 15,138 civilians, 6,978 security personnel and 25,145 militants have been killed. (The unofficial numbers of civilians killed are vastly higher.) The losses of soldiers the nation has to endure—and the suffering of their families—is turned into a kind of capital, mere trophies or totems of glory that ensure a continuous supply of more bodies.
In which rational universe is this kind of a ratio deemed remotely acceptable? Accepting the perverse fact that the nationalist is not interested in Kashmiri civilian deaths, this is a ratio of one security personnel for every 3.5 militants. Under the present uber-militaristic policy, the ratio had fallen further to 1:2 in 2016 and 2019 (contrary to the halo built up around the present regime through propaganda films like Uri, the lowest number of civilian and security personnel killings was touched under UPA-II: 37, in 2012). The ‘derogation’ of Article 370 was supposedly the death knell for militancy in Kashmir, just as Balakot had taught Pakistan an unforgettable lesson. Yet, in only six months this year, 145 militants have been killed compared to 163 for all of 2019. Not to mention a 69 per cent increase in ceasefire violations by Pakistan so far.
A process of maturation is inevitable for the nationalist imagination if it wants to evolve beyond the cruder forms of hard power. Even thinking within the framework of power, the higher one is that which seeks consent to legitimise itself. That needs conversations, and the obligatory first step for that would be to recognise the incontrovertible fact that the Kashmiri self-determination movement is a political struggle and that Kashmiris are political agents. The second, despite Pakistani state-backed Islamist terrorism and some militant groups seeing it as a jehadist struggle, would be to not reduce the Kashmiri movement to Pakistani machination or what Hilal Mir calls the bogey of Islamist radicalisation.
The State can only, at great peril, close its eyes towards the psychology of dehumanisation perpetrated by what scholar Partha Chatterjee has called “internal colonialism” through “constitutional rules”, human rights-deficient laws like AFSPA and all that it covers up. Kashmiris have long spoken of the everyday structural violence of a three-decade-long military presence in terms of extrajudicial killings, forcible disappearances, rapes and unmarked mass graves, and its devastating consequences on mental health. The acme of anger for the Kashmiri citizen was reached with the removal of Article 370 and the humiliating “shock and awe” manner through which it was achieved.
Even if Article 370 was systematically being corroded over decades under various regimes, it had provided a semblance of independence. But now the sense of threat to Kashmir’s land, religion and culture, the fear of being swamped by a majoritarian India with measures like the new domicile law, is palpable. The latest wave of violence, contrary to state narratives, also happens in the context of (as reports indicate) unprecedented legitimacy for militancy and further loss of legitimacy of the Indian State that the post-Article 370 conjuncture has spawned. The resounding cry for “one solution, gun solution” is its inevitable outcome.
In an ideal world, there cannot be anything other than non-violent struggles to resist oppression. But a theoretical demand for non-violence cannot be made in a vacuum. It might be shocking to many that Gandhi had argued in 1938: “I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting.... But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.”
We forget that there was no violent resistance in Kashmir in the first 40 years. Kashmiri activists have pointed out how even significant shifts from violence to non-violence were crushed with state force. In 2008, during UPA-I, Kashmir became the first conflict-ridden Muslim-majority region in the world to shift to non-violent methods of protest—popular support for it forced even the militants to declare a unilateral ceasefire. But what should have been a landmark moment on the path to peace was met with the killing of hundreds of unarmed protestors, which supplied the rationale for violent resistance all over again.
For the State, militancy again legitimised its use of excessive force. Draconian anti-terror laws are now chillingly used even against legitimate democratic expressions, including against journalists. Every Kashmiri becomes demonised as a potential jehadi—Hindutva, aided by the most Islamophobic mainstream media in India’s history, particularly relishes that narrative.
Critically, militant groups have also killed Kashmiri Muslims—the so-called collaborators, moderates, Communists et al, and poor non-Kashmiri civilians like migrant labour. History is a sad witness to even Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary, “ethical” non-nihilistic violence of the oppressed turning oppressive in many societies. Yet, the tragedy of Kashmir is that whatever spaces remain for democracy and dialogue that can overcome this violence have been almost completely obliterated in the post-Article 370 era. This, catastrophically, pushes civilians to endorse militancy, lending it more oxygen. Also, the long-term communalisation of a political dispute by the State, as Nitasha Kaul argues, has ensured that the narratives of Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus have now seriously diverged, and the present generation does not have the old shared stories of communal coexistence even amidst conflict.
The first step away from this morass is to acknowledge the absolute moral untenability of rule by military might, move beyond the binary of State vs militants, and conceive of justice for every individual. This includes the Pandits, whose tragic, forced exodus is now instrumentally appropriated.
(The writer is with Dalhousie University, Canada. Views expressed are personal.)