Karachi, Pakistan – At least 80 Kashmiris were killed and hundreds blinded by the Indian security forces after protests broke out in Indian-administered Kashmir last summer after the killing of the popular separatist leader Burhan Wani.
Mirza Waheed is a Kashmiri journalist and author of two novels, both of which are set in Kashmir. His first book, The Collaborator, was nominated for several awards.
He spoke to Al Jazeera during the Karachi Literature Festival to discuss the history of the Kashmir conflict and the rising influence of Hindu nationalism in India.
Al Jazeera: It was expected that last summer’s uprising wouldn’t die down with time, or with the onset of the harsh Kashmiri winter. Where does it stand now?
Mirza Waheed: It’s still the same. Just because people are not coming out in the streets to protest for the ninth month running doesn’t mean there’s no struggle. People have been blinded, people have been killed and maimed in hundreds and thousands. It’s inevitable that this kind of brutal repression will leave a people exhausted.
It seems as if there are seasons of punishment meted out to Kashmiris by the Indian state and its representatives in Kashmir. As if the state says, ‘You dare to rise in protest and oppose our rule, this is what we will do to you. We’ll keep you locked in your homes, snap off all modes of communication, suffocate you. And if you come out to protest we will kill you and blind you.” If you put an entire population under curfew for 100 days, it is clearly designed to crush people, to break them.
The Indian state did not respond like a civilised state, which would see what these people are saying and then to talk to them. Sometimes you hear talk of how the state exercised restraint but there’s no evidence of that. It’s a ghastly joke. By the end of the summer, it left an entire population brutalised, hurt, and fatigued.
Has there been a significant change in the way Kashmir has been handled since the government of Narendra Modi came into power?
The Indian state has often responded with brute force, beginning in the early 1990s when the first armed uprising began and in the following years. Thousands were killed, tortured, raped … all kinds of horrific measures were taken, including what may be war crimes. If you have more than 5,000 unmarked and mass graves in the mountains, that’s not your garden-variety counterinsurgency.
By 2008, the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination transformed into a street-based movement. The state responded with the same kind of force: Shoot to kill.
2016 was the same, and then some more. There was a certain vicious streak to the response. They have deployed new crowd-control weapons to break the protests, which they know have blinded people.
It doesn’t bode well for India itself. It means that there’s a consensus to have an authoritarian, aggressive response to any kind of dissent, let alone a street protest in a disputed region like Kashmir. Room for dissent has shrunk dramatically since this government took power.
In a preface to a new edition of Orientalism, 25 years after its publication, Edward Said wrote about the reductive territorialism of many conflicts in the world. Said also emphasised the urgency of a humanism gone out of fashion among post-modern elites. While he expressly renews his support for Palestinian self-determination, Said makes sure it is at a remove from the “mutual hostility” that has poisoned Israeli-Palestinian attempts to resolve the occupation of Palestine.
I feel the kind of humanism Said talks about is alarmingly diminished in the political imagination now ascendant in India.
State-level solidarity from Pakistan is often met with scepticism by Kashmiris. How do they feel about the support from ordinary Pakistanis?
Kashmiris value the solidarity of ordinary Pakistanis. It makes them feel better that there are people in a neighbouring country who offer sympathy and support. But Kashmiris are a very political people and they can see through the tokenism of a solidarity day or a march on a certain day of the year.
There are ordinary Pakistanis as, indeed, there are ordinary Indians who express solidarity. I would’ve liked to see more Indians express solidarity with Kashmiris and ask their state not to commit murder in their name.
When Kashmiris were being blinded, sections of Pakistani civil society ran an interesting campaign to focus the world’s attention on such a ghastly crime. I hope they have the moral courage to run a similar campaign for the disappeared people of Balochistan.
With regard to the Pakistani state, it’s sometimes opportunistic. When they see that Kashmiris are out in the streets protesting again they use that as a stick with which to beat India.
In recent years, educational institutions have come under attack from Hindu nationalists. How do you view the current rise of nationalism in India? What was it like during your college days?
It was different when I was a student at the Kirori Mal College of Delhi University. For one, it had the best English literature faculty in the country; I was lucky to be taught by some of the finest minds in Indian academia.
I remember being part of a Kashmir seminar organised by the college and it ended up being a hugely successful event. The auditorium was packed and I don’t remember a single instance of someone saying it was anti-national or seditious or why Kashmiris were invited. Students and academics from across the campus came to listen and ask questions, which is what you do in free societies.
Unlike last year’s Kashmir event at Jawaharlal Nehru University [based in New Delhi], which turned into a grotesque spectacle where the state’s agencies and university administrators decided to clamp down on a perfectly reasonable activity, which is to talk. They were branded anti-nationals, traitors, and some of those student activists were then beaten up and hounded. It is extremely worrying, because where does it all go from here? This kind of gradual transition towards a new authoritarianism results in [Donald] Trump. That’s how you get a Trump figure.
Are the various Kashmiri separatist groups on the same page with respect to the resolution of the Kashmir conflict?
There are different shades within the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination. A large section of Kashmiris want independence. A segment of the population wants to join Pakistan. Another segment, because you must always consider Kashmiri Pandits, the people in Jammu and Ladakh, wants to remain in India.
Everyone agrees on one thing, for the conflict, the occupation, to end.
Within what media calls the separatists, there are various formations and they are not a united bunch. They came together temporarily in the dark summer of 2016, but it shouldn’t require bloodshed and mayhem and the blinding of children for them to present a united front. If you look at Palestine, there are various kinds of dissent, various interpretations of how to win statehood for Palestine. Similarly, there are various opinions in Kashmir.
How do you think the Kashmir conflict can be resolved?
They do agree on one thing, an important thing, which is that Kashmir can only be solved by taking into account the aspirations of the people of Kashmir. India and Pakistan sometimes pretend they can have bilateral relations outside of the Kashmir conflict. Who are they kidding? There cannot be lasting peace between India and Pakistan if they do not resolve Kashmir.
Kashmiris are the primary party to the dispute for the simple reason that it is their future. It is they who have suffered most for all these years.
There are, of course, differences within the Kashmiri society on how to get there, how to protest, what kind of dissent is effective, what kind of dissent is more powerful. But they all agree on the basic issue.
Is there a disagreement on armed vs unarmed struggle?
Militancy was dying in Kashmir but then, tragically, with no end to the oppression, with no resolution in sight, young boys thought there was no option left but to take up arms. Equally, some people may not take up arms.
You have to understand why these boys go into this, knowing very well that they will not last very long, knowing well that they will be killed. I assume they very well know the might of the Indian army that enforces India’s immoral rule over Kashmir. And yet some of these boys have decided to fight with guns, and with devastating consequences.
There is still an opportunity for both states. It’s not such a good idea to push another generation of Kashmiris towards militancy. Annual or biannual exhibition of power over a besieged people will not resolve Kashmir. Frequent seasons of unspeakable violence against Kashmiri children will not resolve Kashmir.
Your book The Collaborator brought to focus the precarious lives of Kashmiris living close to the Line of Control, the de facto border with Pakistan. How were you able to narrate those stories so vividly when you have mostly lived in Srinagar city, which isn’t close to the border?
I don’t think I set out to focus on the precarious life of those living on the borderlands between India and Pakistan as much as to write the story of a boy whose life is shaped by a brutal conflict and military rule.
Young lives dramatically transformed by unprecedented violence and state and non-state power was something I’d wanted to explore for a long time and growing up in Srinagar I’d witnessed first-hand the brutalisation of young lives.
I’d seen a little bit of the war in Kashmir and its cruel discontents, so some of those experiences and memories crept into the novel perhaps but the premise, the characters, the setting – a boy forced to rummage through a corpse-laden valley – is all invented.
Your protagonist in the Book of Gold Leaves is an artist. You have also written about your own experience with art while growing up in Kashmir. How big a part of Kashmiri society is art? Have the decades of Indian clampdowns and Kashmiri struggle had an effect on the art industry?
Arts and crafts have been intrinsic to Kashmir’s cultural life for centuries. Kashmir is quite famous for its fine handicrafts and exquisite shawls, carpets, papier-mache and woodwork. Generations have earned their livelihoods from arts and crafts, with the romance of the Kashmir shawl having become something of a legend over the centuries.
Obviously, when a colossal war machine arrives amid such a culture, there will be devastating consequences as well as the transformation of art itself. If you look at the work of artists from Kashmir, you will notice how conflict, militarisation, mourning and defiance have come to influence their work.
A few years ago I was at the Hamilton College in the US for the inauguration of the archives of Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s finest literary export to the world, and I saw a large rug on display. It’s a traditional Kashmiri chainstitch rug but in place of conventional embroidery, paisleys and floral patterns, I saw an A-to-Z lexicon of conflict that Shahid had written for the artist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.