Kashmir’s Real Problem
An eminent journalist warned us of the consequences of incidents like Monday’s killing of a protesting J&K youth by CISF personnel, through one of her tweets- “Don’t forget that the death of a young boy-Tufail Mattoo began a summer of unrest in 2010. Justice must be swift & visible.” She even justified the need for her warning in response to Omar Abdullah’s tweet-“Wouldn’t you agree that it sometimes takes one incident to break relative peace which we so hope doesn’t happen.” Well, the cold fact is that in Kashmir it is likely to take only one incident to break peace. But what is it that makes the situation so volatile that one incident can cause so much unrest and violence? Answering this question is not easy even for the most learned of experts.
In fact, this question can be divided into several sub-questions, each requiring a book to answer. For instance, why does an incident which has nothing to do with any politically sensitive issue or which could have occurred in any other part of the country, like action against protestors demanding power supply, lead to the possibility of violent protests demanding ‘azadi’ ? The answer is simple- it is a matter of perception. Any violence on the part of the State in Kashmir, no matter how well-intentioned and how necessary, could be perceived as an act of oppression by a large section of the people leading to fresh demands for ‘azadi’.
There are several factors that have contributed to this perception. If I have to identify some major ones, they would be –a) propaganda by Pak-backed forces including Separatists on the basis of pan-Islamism and concocted history, and by Separatists and ‘activists’ in the name of human rights; b) avoidable excesses (even if fewer than claimed by ‘activists’) by the armed forces over several years, caused either due to lack of proper training in dealing with civilians or due to prevalent conditions of stress; c) interference with Kashmir’s democratic processes from the Centre under previous Congress dispensations and continuing ineptitude of State & Central governments and d) most importantly, growing alienation and declining familiarity between Kashmiris and other Indians.
The last factor is what I like to touch upon, purely in the current context. It is now a trite historical proposition that Jinnah failed to lure Kashmiris towards his two-nation theory because their cultural mores led them to a natural preference for a secular, diverse, mutli-religious polity. There are several historical factors which contributed to this preference. Suffices to recollect Emperor Jahangir’s famous remark that ‘it is hard to tell a Kashmiri Hindu apart from a Kashmiri Muslim’-ample proof that ‘Kashmiriyat’, a concept which Separatists harp on so often, has nothing to do with religion. ‘Kashmiryiat’, like any regional sub-culture in India, has several unique features.
But the larger thought process that defines the Indian/ Hindu way of life has remained common to Kashmir. Which is why Kashmir was never inherently averse to influence/ control from dominant forces from the Indian heartland. It is also a fact that some of the most oppressive conditions existed in Kashmir under Kashmiri rulers. Adi Shankara called Kashmir the abode of Lord Saraswati. But the cultural bond between Kashmir and the rest of India is not just about religious Hinduism. Buddhist Kings Ashoka and Kanishka made Kashmir a focal point of their efforts to spread Buddhism across the Himalayas. Even when the Mughals ruled Kashmir from Delhi, Kashmiris celebrated Emperor Akbar’s multiple visits to the valley, during which he personally oversaw local administration, participated in local festivals and spent long vacations. The bond is natural. It is not religious. It is a classic example of what Hindutva thinkers mean when they say Hindutva is not about religion. It is about the cultural thought process.
This bond has broken to almost irreparable levels. It is well known that violence unleashed by Pak-backed militants lead to the exodus of the Pandit community which has been an integral part of Kashmir in every sense of the term. An entire generation of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims has lived away from each other. Separatist discourse, especially from the Geelani-kind, is stridently Islamists. If the bond between India and Kashmir has to be re-established, Kashmir has to regain ‘Kashmiriyat’. It has to re-aspire to be a tolerant society with cultural values that go beyond textual interpretations of Sunni or even Shia Islam. The first step to deal with this problem is to relocate Pandits into the valley with full assurance of their safety and rebuild non-Islamic symbols of Kashmiri culture and heritage, especially several temples that are lying in dilapidated conditions.
There can be a large prescription of things that need to change in Kashmir. Mr. Shantanu Bhagwat gives a highly useful list of such changes that should be implemented-. . But this is just one side of the story. How many non-Kashmiri Indians can name one Kashmiri festival or a famous Kashmiri litterateur? What does the rest of India know about Kashmir, its culture, politics, and economics? Of course, there are some Kashmiri specialties that attract attention due to their irrepressibly fine qualities like the shawl or the cuisine. But this is not sufficient. Today, even the once notoriously self-alienated peoples of North and South India know so much about each other that a love-marriage between two residents of these regions can form the topic of a best-seller. The contribution of our media in disseminating information and stimulating cultural familiarities is very significant. This is where a lot more needs to be done with regard to Kashmir.
I fail to understand why journalists from Delhi who built careers on braving bullets and living in bunkers during violence in Kashmir, can’t go there during times of peace and report on serious economic and other problems that the State may be facing. Several news channels have news-round ups from each region of the Country. Rarely does Kashmir figure anywhere. Why should violence be the only news that comes out of Kashmir? One need not look beyond Monday’s incident. Electricity shortage has been a major issue in Kashmir for years. It was a major political issue in the 2008 assembly elections. People have also been protesting on this issue for long. Any action that is taken against such protestors immediately becomes a part of the larger narrative of ‘oppression against Kashmiris’.
Journalist Parwaiz Bukhari, while listing such acts of ‘oppression’, refers to an incident involving protests against power-cuts in June, 2010- “Later, some youth in the same area (Pattan) protested for restoration of electricity supply to their village. While breaking the protest, soldiers of SOG allegedly fired shots at the local electricity supply transformer, puncturing its oil tank to ensure prolonged darkness in the village.” Assuming this to be true, it is worth noting that the possibility of the SOG having damaged the transformer accidentally is not even considered. But that is a part of the larger problem of perception. The basic point is that electricity shortage in Kashmir was becoming, especially in recent months, so serious an issue that it would have been considered ‘reportable’ if it happened in any other part of the Country. In mid-December itself there were protests in several parts of the valley (Example 1, Example 2)
The protests took a particularly violent turn when the state-run Power Development Department (PDD) announced a burdensome electricity-curtailment schedule that would have lead to equally vociferous protests in any other part of the Country, on December 24th. The essentiality of electricity for the Kashmir has to be understood in the context of the severe winter it faces in this time of the year. Even before Monday’s incident in Boniyar the whole valley erupted in violent protests on the issue. This provided the perfect excuse for Separatists, who are quite used to fishing in troubled waters, to step in.
Instead of asking them to stay off, Omar Abdullah not only praised Mirwaiz Farooq for taking up “administrative issues” but also appealed to him to issue a ‘fatwa’ against power-thefts. As an aside, Abdullah’s request also highlights how entrenched the culture of ‘fatwas’ has become in Kashmir. Returning to our basic point; where was the “Indian corporate media” in all of this? Should all of us have been completely oblivious of the happenings in the valley until a young man was killed?
This is just one example. There are several real problems that Kashmir faces, which if addressed will go a long way in mitigating separatist sentiments and violent tendencies in the valley. For example, it was widely reported that several young protesters/ stone-pelters in the 2010 summer unrest suffered from psychiatric problems and drug-abuse issues.
Kashmir’s lone psychiatric hospital reported an exponential rise is the number of mentally ill and psychiatric patients over the last two decades. There is also a serious shortage of psychiatrists and experts to deal with these problems. This is an issue that is directly linked to the growing incidents of violence in the valley. Why are these issues not part of the mainstream discourse of the Indian media? How will they be addressed if they are not publicized? This, for instance, is purely an issue of health-administration. But if left unaddressed it will inevitably be exploited by anti-India forces by giving it a political color.
This is not just about the people living in the valley. How much do we know about the conditions of the Pandits living outside the valley? When does the media report on them? How much do we know about the mental health and living conditions of the Jawans and armed personnel in Kashmir? How much do we know about the large number of goodwill measures our army has undertaken to befriend the Kashmiri people? Why do our journalists need violence from Kashmir to report?