May 27, 2020
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A Question Of Identity

The stone pelting young men of the valley who died this tragic summer are not alone in having grieving mothers and sisters. Each soldier and policeman who has died in Kashmir was someone’s son and someone’s brother too.

A Question Of Identity

Future historians may well regard 2010 as the watershed marking the decline and fall of the Indian Republic. The portents are indeed ominous. Large parts of the Indian hinterland remain under the shadow of the Maoist menace, a sporting spectacle designed to showcase an emerging power degenerated into a sordid farce exemplifying graft and incompetence, terrorists strike at will, and now it would seem that the stage is being set for another partition of India. Over the last few months, one has observed the developments in the Kashmir valley at first with concern, and now with a growing sense of dismay and disgust. An all party delegation led by the union home minister visited the valley. This was followed by the visit of the panel of eminent interlocutors appointed by the government of India. The government of India complemented these visits with other measures aimed to assuage public sentiment in the valley but it continues to simmer.  

Thus far the reaction to these moves has been the announcement of another protest calendar by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the unabashedly pro-Pakistani, Islamist, separatist leader. This was accompanied by a countrywide series of seminars to emphasise Kashmiri exclusivism and its essential incompatibility with India that roped in the self proclaimed mobile republic of Arundhati Roy and other professional India bashers, including Maoist ideologues. When one such seminar in Delhi resulted in a criminal case for sedition against Miss Roy and others, it was ironic to see her invoke the writings and statements (albeit completely out of context) of one of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to justify her espousal of the separatist cause. If it was up to her, Miss Roy would have us believe that Nehru engineered the accession of Kashmir to India because ultimately he wanted Kashmir to secede from India. Go figure.

If not for the approaching winter, one could expect another round of mayhem and upheaval in the valley. The sentiment on the streets of Srinagar is that Azaadi is around the corner even as our print media and electronic media have shed copious tears in ink and airtime at the plight of the poor Kashmiri. The villains of the piece, in all these narratives, are the security forces, more specifically the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the CRPF in the recent past, and, more generally, the Indian Army and the AFSPA. The conventional wisdom of our chatterati seems to be that if not for these murderous monsters in khaki and olive green, the Valley would have been a Garden of Eden, seamlessly integrated and absorbed within the Indian Constitution and the Republic it enshrines.

For Kashmiri separatists, who have always looked to Pakistan as their saviour and now increasingly to radical Islam as their salvation, to demonise the Indian state and its security forces is entirely understandable. For so-called mainstream Kashmiri politicians too, who for the last 60 years have proved themselves quite adept at running with the separatist hare and hunting with the nationalist hound, this stance is quite consistent with their existential dilemma. What is disturbing is that our so called civil society, vociferously led by the media, but now with an impressive array of academics, artists and activists joining the chorus to seek justice and dignity for the hapless Kashmiri, has painted the Indian state and our security forces in uniform shades of black. So one sided has been this debate that it seems we might as well be discussing the American invasion of Iraq.

Beginning June this year, over a 100 ‘peaceful’ protestors were killed in clashes with security forces across the valley in almost the same number of days, which is the immediate cause of the present turmoil. With the benefit of hindsight, every arm-chair pundit, every primetime news anchor, including the very innocent and very gullible Ms Barkha Dutt, and every civil rights activist is telling us how senseless and avoidable this death toll have been. They neither have the patience nor the imagination to appreciate the shift in separatist tactics that led to this undoubtedly tragic summer. And not for once have they attempted to describe or engage with the plight of our brave jawans who are deployed in the valley. The constant sense of physical danger along with complete uncertainty about its timing and intensity are the defining characteristics of the worldview of a jawan manning a security outpost in the Kashmir valley. This is not an ordinary law and order duty but a relentless struggle to somehow survive and complete the present assignment of duty with limbs and sanity intact. One simply does not know whether the missile being hurled at you is a bomb, a grenade, a Molotov cocktail or a ‘harmless’ rock. One does not know that an armed mujahideen may be hiding amidst a funeral procession apparently full of grieving women and children, ready to open fire in close proximity. One does not know if a burqa clad woman approaching your check post is simply going about her innocent chores or is a courier ferrying weapons or, worse, is a suicide bomber ready for martyrdom and houris in heaven. 

What is forgotten in this outpouring of sympathy for the oppressed Kashmiri, that this year alone nearly 60 security personnel and about 30 civilians have also been killed in terrorist strikes, as this year’s contribution to a death toll that has reached nearly 6,000 security forces and 15,000 civilian casualties since 1988. These 6,000 dead come from all four corners of the country but we don’t see any scribes and cameramen going to talk to their families, to understand their sense of grief and loss, their suffering and sacrifice for the idea of India. Whether it was the Shopian case last year or the unrest this year, we are quick to assume the worst about our security forces, even when, as in the Shopian case, investigations by the CBI unearthed a sequence of events completely at variance with the popular sentiment in the valley. 

The police leadership has been facing a barrage of criticism from all corners for its supposedly brutal and indiscriminate tactics and its failure to anticipate and respond to public unrest in an imaginative and humane manner. Comparisons are made with crowd control techniques in the West, with emphasis on better training, improved protective gear for the police personnel and use of non-lethal alternatives for crowd control. These suggestions, coming in the wake of the very graphic and distressing images of dozens of young men killed and injured in police action on television, are no doubt inspired by genuine concern and good intentions within our civil society for the plight of the ordinary citizens of Kashmir. However, they are essentially a knee-jerk response with little understanding of the evolution of the Kashmiri separatist movement, from an essentially local movement, based on a sense of ethnic identity and political grievances, to another front in the global Jihad waged by radical Islam, a struggle to reclaim the lost glory of the Ummah. It is not for nothing that both Osama Bin Laden and the Supreme Leader of Iran speak of Kashmir in the same breath as Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a shift we ignore at our peril. No surprise then, that the Palestinian intifada and its reliance on stone pelting hooded young men at the vanguard, is now the new model of struggle for the separatists.   

The movement for Kashmiri independence based on a distinct composite identity betrayed its moral and cultural roots a long time ago when through the early 1990s the Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of the valley in one of the most despicable acts of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century. The subsequent targeting of innocent civilians including foreign tourists, the Taliban style fatwas against western style clothes, TV, films and other elements of mainstream Indian culture, the stain of open association with elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda post 9/11, all chipped away at the domestic and international acceptability of the separatist cause. As things stand today, the two nation theory, unabashedly updated with liberal doses of jihadi ideology has openly become the basis for Kashmiri separatism. The recent shift to supposedly peaceful, intifada style tactics is a clever attempt to reclaim some of the moral high ground. But the troubles of today cannot be allowed to cloud our judgement. The separatist cause is morally, historically, legally and tactically, against the idea of India itself and we lose sight of this fact at our own peril. 

It is no body’s case that the Indian state is always a paragon of virtue in its dealings with the citizens it is meant to serve and protect. Like any other state, it is in many ways a Hobbesian Leviathan that, left unchecked, would happily devour its subjects. However for all its imperfections and failings, this beast was born in its present form of a Constitutional Covenant some 60 odd years ago. The Government of India is the legitimately elected expression of the will of over a billion citizens of India and therefore it has a moral force and legal sanctity that no Lashkar, Hizbul or JKLF could claim to have. It pains and enrages one to see our elected MPs being lectured to and taunted by the self appointed luminaries of the separatist movement such as Geelani, Mirwaiz and Yasin Malik about the injustices perpetrated by India over the people of Kashmir. Four million residents of the Kashmir valley, first intoxicated by the propaganda and promise of Azaadi, an aspiration in itself of questionable historical veracity, hallucinating further on visions of a resurgent global Islamic Caliphate, versus a billion Indians, grappling with their own million mutinies, who thus far have been mostly indulgent towards the exceptionalism provided for Kashmir in the constitutional scheme of things.  

What is the basis for the demand for Azaadi? Is the history and culture of Kashmir so distinct from the rest of India as say Afghanistan or Iran is or is this sense of identity a recent construct? Our civil society takes claims of Kashmiri identity for granted and approaches the issue from a misplaced sense of historical guilt. The Dogra kingdom of Kashmir existed from 1846 to 1948. Going back in history, till 1349 Kashmir was a Hindu kingdom. Then for about 175 years it was ruled by the Swati dynasty begun by Shah Mir. Subsequently, it became a part and parcel of the Mughal Empire till the mid 18th century when it passed into a period of Afghan rule. From 1820 to 1846 it was a part of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom before the Dogras purchased it from the British. So, one can clearly see that for the major part of recorded history, the political and administrative fortunes of Kashmir have been very much aligned with the rest of modern India. Culturally, linguistically and racially Kashmir possesses certain distinctive features but it is no more or less unique than, say, the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of Uttarakhand or the Lahaul-Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh.  

So what then accounts for this persistent demand for Azaadi based on a unique and distinct Kashmiri identity that is supposed to be fundamentally incompatible with any definition of an Indian identity? To my mind, it is ironically the Indian Constitution itself that is the basis of this ahistorical sense of separatism. By giving it a special status in 1948, by denying the citizens of the rest of India the right to permanently settle in Kashmir, by hastily agreeing to the demands of Sheikh Abdullah for unprecedented autonomy, we have created a situation where on one hand a Kashmiri boy can appear for and end up topping the IAS exam, and on the other hand the rest of Indians can’t live or work freely in Kashmir and we even have to bear the indignity of the Pakistani flag being unfurled from Lal Chowk in Srinagar on our Independence day. ‘Peaceful’ protestors can pelt our security forces with stones and missiles, and even try to lynch them at will, while Geelani can launch his Quit Kashmir movement posing himself as a Mandela or a Gandhi even though he has instigated some of the most parochial and rabidly extremist terrorist groups in Kashmir, that have been armed and funded by his Pakistani mentors across the border. Yet we must meet him and humour him as if he were a sovereign power and the supreme legitimate representative of all the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir when the reality is outside the valley the majority of people in other parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir want little to do with Pakistan or Jihadi Islam.    

When people ask why, despite 60 years of expending so much blood and resources, is India unable to assimilate Kashmir there is the usual answer about broken promises and essentially different Kashmiri identity. The real answer is that we have hobbled ourselves, and as long as the present constitutional anomalies continue, the Kashmiri separatist will continue to draw sustenance from the Indian Constitution in his efforts to destroy it. No wonder Arundhati Roy can brazenly invoke Nehru in her defence of her anti India remarks, for he was idealistic and sentimental enough to think that after the contentious and unnecessarily convoluted accession of Kashmir, the further legal and cultural assimilation of Kashmir could take place on its own and in time Kashmiris would be seduced by the goodness of India. Nation building is not an exercise in the poetry of idealism alone; it has to be also backed by the prose of realism. To that extent the present mess in Kashmir is of our own naïve creation.  

The message needs to be sent to the entire valley that it is the repeatedly asserted democratic will of the people of India, expressed through successive generations of Parliamentary resolutions and debates, that Kashmir is an integral part of India and that the separatists, their sympathizers, and the long suffering common citizens of the Valley must understand that four million will never prevail over one billion, either morally or militarily. Speaking on behalf of all of us who are privileged to wear the uniform in the defence of India, both khaki and olive green, to the separatists and their sympathizers in Kashmir, let it be said: Vilify and demonize us to your heart’s content, but we will never accept another partition of India on any grounds. You can choose to happily integrate with the rest of the country and participate in the success of a vibrant, growing economy or you can continue this path of jehad inspired violence and carry on subjecting the law-abiding ordinary citizens of the valley to an unending state of curfew and siege. Kashmir belongs to India and India belongs to Kashmir. Whatever Ms Roy and Mr Geelani and their sympathisers might say, the people of India did not put half a million troops in Kashmir out of a sadistic desire to alienate and humiliate the inhabitants of Kashmir valley. It was the brazen assault on the idea of India, exemplified by barbaric ethnic cleansing (so much for the tolerant Kashmiri identity), and the flirtation with Jehadi Islam and its Pakistani flag bearers, that is the real cause of the long shadows of bayonets and jackboots in the valley  

The international community of diplomats, journalists and academics loves to discuss Kashmir with a rather condescending sense of equanimity. The recent piece by Rohini Hensman is a prime example of this lecturing and moralising. Yes Kashmir is a troubled part of India and yes, as the Government of India’s own interlocutors have acknowledged, there is a dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir, but to call Indian actions in Kashmir genocide as the separatists do, or oppression of a nationality as Hensman does, is to complete abdicate one’s sense of historical and moral responsibility. Genocide is what the Nazis did to the Jews. Oppression of a nationality is what China has done in Tibet. To invoke these terms in the Indian experience of Kashmir either betrays a profound ignorance of history or a desire to act as wilful propagandists for religious and ethnic bigotry. To advocate, as Hensman does, that Kashmir could perhaps become part of a “South Asian union with open borders, based on equality and democracy both within and between its constituent states, would create the possibility of an independent Kashmir that is not cut off from either India or Pakistan” is wishful thinking in the extreme. India and Pakistan are, despite their respective dysfunctional attributes, on totally different trajectories. An egalitarian and democratic Pakistan seems a far fetched possibility, at least in our lifetime. As the Wikileaks expose and other sources acknowledge, the prognosis of an imploding Pakistan is widely shared in the international community and yet India and Pakistan must be dealt with on an equal footing when it comes to Kashmir? A union between a democratic, secular, economically ascendant India, and a military-mullah combine led Pakistan where power is evenly distributed between overlapping clans of feudal landlords, warlords and drug lords, just so that Geelani and his ilk can enact their fantasy of ‘Independent Kashmir’? Thank you, Ms Hensman, but no thank you

The stone pelting young men of the valley who died this tragic summer are not alone in having grieving mothers and sisters. Each soldier and policeman who has died in Kashmir was someone’s son and someone’s brother too. The idea of India is not about to yield to the idea of Kashmir. Every freedom loving citizen of India including myself wants peace and normalcy to return to Kashmir. But it will not happen by holding the rest of India to ransom by the guns of foreign militants or blackmail by stone pelting local youth. So stop pelting your soldiers and policemen with stones, stop flirting with Jehadi ideology, stop harbouring foreign militants and abandon this chimera of Azaadi that is the real cause of your alienation from the rest of India. Despite the 6000 dead and counting, there is no shortage of young men in India who will proudly don the uniform and continue to man the peaks and valleys of Kashmir, ready to kill and die for the idea of an indivisible India.  

A Philosophy and Economics graduate of Oxford University, Abhinav Kumar is a serving IPS officer. These are his personal views.

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