When I was a teenager about 35 years ago and in my final year in college in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, the movie “Battle for Algiers” was a big hit. It captured my imagination as well as that of my classmates, one of whom approached me a few days later and asked if I would commit myself to the liberation of Kashmir. Yes, of course, I said, reading a typed sheet my friend took out from his coat pocket. “Bear Arms against a Sea of Troubles,” I remember the title said.
“This is our manifesto,” my friend said as I read the aims and objectives, which included blowing up bridges and the local radio and telephone buildings, ambushing army convoys and killing soldiers. The text said nothing about where we would get arms and ammunition, the number of members in the group, how we would organize, who our leader was or when we would execute our plan.
However, I remember the manifesto was long on the why, with each point emphasized in the present tense: Our cause is freedom. India promised us a referendum on our future, but fails to keep its promise. Prime Minster Nehru, the last Englishman to rule India, has kept our popular leader Sheikh Abdullah in jail for over 15 years. To the extent that India denies us our fundamental rights and subverts its own constitution, to that extent, India is not a democracy.
It was great stuff for my impressionable mind. My friend had energized me. If the Algerians could do it, so could Kashmiris. I read the typed manifesto again before signing it with a flourish.
A few weeks later that teenage flirtation landed me for 11 months in Srinagar’s Central Jail, where I met 12 of my classmates who had also signed the manifesto. (The college Principal had been somehow alerted to the plan and called the police.) Subsequently, India announced that it had cracked a dangerous gang of terrorists trained in Pakistan. There was no trial. We were just locked up and forgotten, until one beneficent pro-India sycophant in Kashmir was replaced by another, who ordered an amnesty. Soon after, I fled to the future of other continents.
The passage of 35 years hasn’t dimmed my memory. My passion for Kashmir’s freedom is undiminished, despite the horror of the last ten years during which anywhere from 35,000 to 80,000 mostly civilians have been killed. Maddened by merciless Hinduization of Kashmir’s Muslim culture, the lack of career opportunities and India’s repeated betrayals during the past 50 years, a rag tag army of young Kashmiri men took on the third largest army in the world.
To obtains arms, those young men crossed the Line of Control that divides Indian from Pakistani- administered Kashmir, rode in buses to Kabul, where armaments supplied by the CIA to the Mujahideen were readily available after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. India calls those Kashmiri youth “cross border terrorists” and blames Pakistan for supporting them. Pakistan, which has competing claims on Kashmir, calls them freedom fighters. Many Kashmiris I know simply say, a plague on all your houses, which, of course, includes my adopted home-I know it’s politically incorrect to say it- the United States.
Many young native Kashmiri men who took up arms against a sea of troubles are dead or languishing in India’s jails. The fighting now is being mostly done by foreign mercenaries, recruited by the elusive Mr. bin Laden, whose so-called martyrs have changed the tenor of Kashmir’s legitimate struggle to that of an Islamic Jihad against Hindu India.
“See, we told you so,” India is screaming, “Kashmiris are terrorists.” India has fueled Western fears of resurgent Islam, propagandizing the militancy as fundamentalist, which in turn enables India to flout all international codes of conduct in Kashmir. If all Kashmiris are terrorists and must be smoked out of the Himalayas by 500,000 Indian troops stationed there, then let us at the very least agree on a working definition of terrorism which must include both the unofficial and official variety.
But, wait. Let’s be honest. Prior to the militancy, India portrayed Kashmir as the model for secularism in India, as the warp of her pluralist democracy. What has propelled Kashmiri society seemingly overnight from a model of secularism to deranged fanaticism?
Under the present ultra right wing regime, Indian society is becoming increasingly intolerant and absolutist. There is a profound disturbance within Mother India. Many Indians I know think of India as a super power next only to the United States. I will believe that when Kashmir, the source of five great rivers, gets a basic sanitation system and an unrestricted flow of electricity the Kashmir valley itself generates.
Kashmiris have been enslaved for generations. The West is finally taking note of the fact that regional conflicts have a global reach. Nothing is remote anymore. It never was. Now we must do whatever is necessary to win the hearts and minds of alienated peoples such as the Kashmiris. Restore their dignity. Fulfill longstanding promises, and watch how swiftly Kashmiris sign a manifesto to honor democracy in a world that has changed literally overnight after nine eleven zero one. Indifference will make Ground Zero seem like a Boy Scout’s bonfire gone awry.