Kashmir: The communalisation of a political dispute

The Kashmir issue was always a political one until interested parties pushed for a communal conflict.

The Wider Image: Kashmir''s stone-pelters face off against pellet guns
Women walk past police during clashes with stone pelters in Srinagar, Kashmir [Reuters/Cathal McNaughton]

On January 19 this year, as I left a snow-clad Srinagar, steeped in the absurd simultaneity of hope and despair that characterises the Kashmir Valley under Indian rule, the date resonated in my mind. Twenty-seven years ago, this was the date that marked a significant fracture of the people of Kashmir along communal lines.

An entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims within the Valley has since then grown up under the shadow of violence and the killing, volatility, anxiety, indignity, humiliation, suffering, fraught choices and pain it brings.

The Kashmiri Hindus who fled in fear and terror, amid killings and threats, in the wake of anti-India armed rebellion, have grown up in a perpetually deferred nostalgia, without knowing what home feels like, adapting instead to the India that has itself undergone a striking political transformation brought about by the rise of Hindu chauvinist power.

A hundred days later when I returned to the Valley in spring, the city was garlanded by a profusion of roses that burst through the suffocating embrace of razor wires at every corner. Every day life in the Kashmir Valley goes on resiliently in the face of military vehicles that snake through its roads day and night, soldiers who stand with guns along the highways or the uniformed policemen encircling the Boulevard around the Dal Lake at the heart of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.

The local People’s Democratic Party government struggles to hold on to power in a coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, amid the worst violence in decades.

With the predictability of sine waves, the summers witness a ratcheting up of violence, when the lives of Kashmiri men and women, demanding freedom (“azaadi”) or attending funerals of those slain, are again sacrificed to the Minotaur of military occupation.

Masked students hurl stones at Indian policemen during a protest outside a college in Srinagar on May 23, 2017 [Reuters/Danish Ismail]
Masked students hurl stones at Indian policemen during a protest outside a college in Srinagar on May 23, 2017 [Reuters/Danish Ismail]

Plurality of Kashmiri histories

Almost every narrative on Kashmir is landmined with vested interests. The histories of different Kashmiris, like prison sentences, run concurrently and in parallel. Different tellers will conjure different histories out of the magical mists of time.

Like metamorphic rock, histories of Kashmir are layered with differences of political identity, region, religion, class, caste; lines of enforced powerlessness mark the cleavages.

The communal faultlines were present long before the 1980s, as is evident from the legacy of enduring caste privileges, the 1947 massacre of Muslims in Jammu or the hardline Hindu politics against the Muslim majority on the “Kashmir question” in the early years of post-independence India.

Over the decades until the 1990s, the sacrifice of popular sovereignty, secular politics and plebiscite promise (a 1948 UN Security Council resolution agreed by India and Pakistan recommended holding a plebiscite in the region which was never carried out) at the altar of territorial control and competing visions of India to-be, resulted in the betrayed alliances and the unrepresentative politicians who paved the way for what was to come.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti from the PDP salutes at the martyrs' graveyard during an event to mark Kashmir's Martyrs' Day in Srinagar, July 13, 2017 [Reuters/Danish Ismai]
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti from the PDP salutes at the martyrs’ graveyard during an event to mark Kashmir’s Martyrs’ Day in Srinagar, July 13, 2017 [Reuters/Danish Ismai]

The resort to extreme violence and communalisation emerging as the primary prism of viewing the politics of Kashmir on the part of outsiders and many Kashmiris themselves since the late 1980s, is a victory for denying the essentially political nature of the Kashmir imbroglio.

On the other side, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the Interim Constitution stipulates that the elected politicians have to serve the cause of accession of the entire disputed territory to Pakistan and that the office holders be Muslim. Given that Pakistan-administered Kashmir claims to be liberated, the message it sends out is that religious minorities will have to accept the dominance of Muslims.

What I see today in the Valley and in India are deep-rooted histories of personal resentment of Kashmiris belonging to different communities at failure of the state, Indian and Kashmiri both, anger at the ostensibly offered choice of freedom/human rights or economic development while being denied both options.

The trap of ‘us versus them’ narratives

There is a widening chasm between the narratives, especially of Kashmiri Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) and Kashmiri Muslims, that serve the purpose of Hindutva ideologues in power in India, pro-India Kashmiri politicians in Srinagar, and strategic interests of Pakistan.

The tearing apart of any pan-Kashmiri identity along communal lines has been neither natural nor inevitable. It has been engineered over time to serve a whole array of vested interests relating to electoral advantage, weaponry, war, militarisation, tourism and media that gain significantly from the indifference, ignorance, vengeance, resentment and domination of divided Kashmiri communities.

Undoubtedly Kashmiri society has its conservative elements, and the resistance includes Pakistan-backed Islamist militants, but this is not the mainspring of Kashmiri rage against Indian occupation.

Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri student during a protest in Srinagar April 24, 2017 [Danish Ismail/Reuters]
Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri student during a protest in Srinagar April 24, 2017 [Danish Ismail/Reuters]

Decades of Indian oppression (massacres of protesters, enforced disappearances, blanket emergency powers, extrajudicial torture and mass rapes, pellet-blinding of youth) in Kashmir, faced by the majority population who are Muslim and are often targeted and treated in this way because they are Muslim, have resulted in this communalisation of a political dispute.

Though an earlier generation of Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims remember what it was like to coexist, even if on often unequal terms owing to the caste and class privileges of the Hindus, today’s youth often lack the precise means to access that past and its history.

If you are a Kashmiri Hindu who has grown up in a refugee camp or come of age in a searing post-Babri Masjid India, or a Kashmiri Muslim who lost friends and family members to the brutality of a war against an unjust India, your response to the name Burhan Wani (immensely popular slain commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen armed group) is a shibboleth that generally defines not just your politics, but your identity.

One can convert a former torture centre into a chief minister’s residence, but the scars of history are not erased without the acknowledgement and redressal of pain and traumatic memories. Until this happens, the anger will keep claiming its triggers and its targets.

I have interacted with a fair number of Kashmiris in the Valley. Few would unreservedly approve of voting when the electoral machinery offers no hope for freedom and justice.

If you speak to some of the young persons who throw stones, as I did, the reasons for their actions become clearer; in a vastly compromised and corrupt political landscape, there is no space to accommodate their voice, whether agreeable or not. Even the smallest orphan in a Srinagar orphanage knew not just about the killing of Sabzar Bhai (Sabzar Ahmad Bhatt, HM commander after Burhan Wani) but also referred to the “zulm” (oppression) that they had inherited as Kashmiris.

Thus, it is a question of Kashmiris being trapped in us-versus-them (India versus Pakistan, Muslim versus Hindu, Indians versus Kashmiris) narratives, and being denied political rights and representation that aims to create a genuine reconciliation and compromise which would realise their aspirations.

Truths and reconciliations

I write this on the first anniversary of Burhan Wani’s killing. The summer of 2017 that lies ahead brings a whole host of worries for the pain that the people in the Valley might undergo again.

The clashes between protesters and armed forces are ongoing, and news recently emerged of the killing of several Hindu Indian pilgrims on the annual pilgrimage called Amarnath Yatra. When I spoke to people in the Valley earlier this year, this was my greatest fear, because what has come to pass will further polarise the communal narratives and create a chorus of voices in India for an even more brutal onslaught against the Kashmiris.

Hindu pilgrims flock to Pahalgam town in south Kashmir's Anantnag district to visit the Amarnath cave shrine [Reuters/Danish Ismail]
Hindu pilgrims flock to Pahalgam town in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district to visit the Amarnath cave shrine [Reuters/Danish Ismail]

Just a few days before I was to leave Srinagar this May, when the Indian army “neutralised” Sabzar, and as the city and Valley started to shut down in protest, the shop shutters started to come down, and people rushed to buy things and get home, there were tourists unhampered by any of this at the Botanical Gardens, and a visit to the Zeeshtha Devi temple revealed an entirely different atmosphere of calm and remove.

The temple bells rang, birds flitted across the skies that changed colour on the mountains; beyond the shared frustrations, Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims inhabit their experience as unbridged islands, though their many worlds exist within each other, like Russian dolls.

Within hours, the mobile phones in everyone’s hands became useless little plastic boxes. Because, you see, that’s how arbitrary power works: in an unaccountable, undemocratic and irresponsible way. An entire population can be collectively punished, newspapers and television channels can be banned, activists can be imprisoned. Someone once told me that Kashmir Valley is controlled by India by three “switches” that could be manipulated at any time – the Banihal tunnel (a major transportation link connecting the Valley to the rest of India), the internet and phone switch, and the de facto Line of Control that divides the disputed region into India and Pakistan.

The Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim elders who have known each other on familial terms in the past are able to interact with each other on a humanist, even friendly, basis. The individual Kashmiri Muslim of a certain age will generally lament the loss of the Valley’s minority Hindu population, speaking of the effects of this, particularly on education (many were taught by Kashmiri Hindus they still fondly remember). Many mourn the loss of a Sufi syncretic Kashmir.

Those young Kashmiris who have seen none of this coexistence in the Valley think of Kashmiri Hindus as a right-wing brigade of Hindutva irritants (exactly as projected by the Indian media) or as an irrelevant distraction from the real struggle (as projected by those resistance fighters who mirror the Indian narrative of seeing this only as an Islamist insurgency).

Activists of Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi against the killing of seven Hindu pilgrims in a gun battle that erupted in Kashmir in July [Reuters/Adnan Abidi]
Activists of Hindu nationalist group Vishva Hindu Parishad shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi against the killing of seven Hindu pilgrims in a gun battle that erupted in Kashmir in July [Reuters/Adnan Abidi]

While those outside the Valley who have no access to a non-communal Kashmiri identity think of Kashmiri Muslims en masse as violent terrorists (again as projected by the Indian media), or as always already suspicious people because they are Muslims (as projected by the Islamophobic Hindutva hijackers of the Kashmiri Pandit experience). These stereotypes are self-reinforcing and performative; what is more, they benefit the hardliners on every side.

Today, there is an echo chamber of voices that call for the killing of all Kashmiri Muslims as terrorists. Although a twentysomething rebel, Zakir Musa, spoke of Kashmiri resistance as an exclusively Islamist struggle, and was criticised heavily for it, many Indians ignore similar hate speeches of seasoned Hindu leaders from the far-right organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, who call for “a carpet-bombing of the Valley”, or who justify the lynching of Muslims, or call for secular dissidents to be sent to Pakistan, and who see the very Kashmiri Muslim identity as an existential threat to be overcome, through subjugation and killing if need be.

On the larger scale, Kashmiri communities or collectivities are held hostage by larger post-colonial nation-states of India and Pakistan that compete to claim them in the name of religion and nationalism. These narratives need to be complicated, challenged and changed.

The smallest reality of Kashmir is one’s own experience, but the biggest reality of violence holds all within it. What happens when the suffering of another cannot be seen by those who know or should know? Is it because the witness doesn’t recognise the pain of the sufferer because it is not hers? Or because the witness thinks that the sufferer deserves that pain as punishment? Or because the witness derives satisfaction from the sufferer’s pain because it accords with a hitherto unexpressed but deeply held view about the essentially unworthy nature of the sufferer?

What is the way out of a Gordian knot of such magnitude?

What else, but truths and reconciliations, recognition of the pain and suffering of each other as Kashmiris, solidarity and creation of processes to speak to each other in order to realise a future of peace and freedom, multiplying the representation of voices within a framework of trustworthy mediated dialogue, honouring of principles of human rights and self-determination, move towards alternative media that allows for honest understanding of issues in all their complexity, growing of the voices that speak for justice and humanity, and the writing of many, many stories that can be heard by those who need to empathise.

Dr Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmir novelist, economist and an associate professor in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster in London. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.