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Kashmir Held to Ransom

Holding people to ransom; criminalizing political space; causing psychosomatic ills; forcing people to develop apathetic attitudes toward the demands of life by immobilizing them; disabling the younger generation from finding healthy ways to channelize their energy; curbing the vitality of Srinagar by reducing it to a garrison in which movement is violently restricted by ugly coils of razor wire; appalling traffic in volatile areas which remains uncontrolled by slumberous policemen; life revolving around the diktats issued by gun-toting men; fleeing tourists with anxiety writ large on their faces; lay people being made to dance to the tunes of a martyrdom seeking octogenarian; a fledgling government that finds it difficult to wade through the murky waters of coalition politics; the culpability of mainstream politicians and separatists who all live with the indulgence of proverbial lotus-eaters.

Gloom is writ large on the faces of young professionals, students, and lay people. A lack of purposefulness; a paralyzing atmosphere of fear and paranoia; a suffering populace whose voice is stifled by those who claim to be ideologically motivated and fighting for a “just” cause; the complicity of state-sponsored agencies with self-proclaimed guardians of religious freedom; the ineptitude of the coalition government which decides its next move according to Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s sudden and unaccountable change of mood; the passionate nature of violence in conflict-ridden Kashmir where politicians need a couple of mercenaries at their beck and call to execute their lop-sided decrees, while turning a deaf ear to popular consent; the debasement of the languages of both nationalism and political Islam; the trammeling of Kashmir by a militarized culture; the benightedness of the territory by reprehensible misgovernance. We, as a people, have been mourning the loss of lives, erosion of democratic institutions and aspirations, destruction of our socio-cultural fabric, deliberate marginalization of our people, all of which have occurred over the past two decades with an unparalleled intensity.

In the Afterword to my book, Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir, political psychologist Ashis Nandy correctly observes, “Everyone [in Kashmir] is bereaved and everyone is a mourner. The casualties include not merely the official and unofficial dead and the incapacitated, but also those who have disappeared without a trace. . . . There is in Kashmir a miasma of depression that touches everyone except the ubiquitous tourist determined to consume Kashmir’s unearthly beauty.” Torture machines have certainly accomplished the task of creating indelible scars, fears, panic, which will not fade with the passage of time. But will this trauma leave us incapacitated to envision a viable political and socioeconomic future for ourselves that would enable Kashmir to become integrated into South Asia as a democratic state? If Kashmir were simply a “political problem” as some mainstream politicians have been reiterating for a while now, the elected civilian government would have no role to play. It is quite possible that the coalition government doesn’t envision a role for itself in the Kashmir imbroglio. Aren’t there more complex aspects to this problem for which the electorate has voted its representatives into office, expecting them to voice people’s hopes in the hallowed halls of their overlords in New Delhi?

The Kashmir conflict is driven by nationalistic and religious fervor, each side pointing to the violence and injustice of the other, each side pointing to its own suffering and sorrow. The distrust, paranoia, and neurosis permeating the relationship between a large number of people of Indian administered J & K and the Indian Union has intensified the conflict. The guerilla war in the state has gone through a series of phases since 1990 but repressive military and political force remains the brutal reality in the State, which cannot be superseded by seemingly abstract democratic aspirations. This conscious policy of the Indian State to erode autonomy, populist measures, and democratic institutions in J & K has further alienated the people of the State from the Indian Union. The systemic erosion of political opposition in J & K has delegitimized the voice of dissent and radicalized antagonism toward state-sponsored institutions and organizations. The exposure of Indian democracy as a brutal facade has instigated unmitigated disgruntlement and antipathy toward Indian democratic procedures and institutions in the State.

Although the insurgency in J & K, which has extracted an enormous price from the people of the state, was generated by the systemic erosion of democratic and human rights, socioeconomic marginalization, relegation of the people’s democratic aspirations to the background, we cannot indulge in lamentation for eternity. While the rebellion may have been incited by India’s political, social, and economic tactlessness, it has been sustained by not just by the belligerence of the Indian army or by the garb of militant Islam donned by some separatists, but by the territorial ambitions of Pakistan and the inability of an elected government to function to its full potential in J & K. During the ongoing insurgency, the Indian military has been granted a carte blanche without an iota of accountability. Paramilitary forces in J & K, as witnessed over the past couple of weeks, are a loose cannon, which even those in positions of political power can question only to their detriment. Paramilitary forces in the state exercise their power with an impassioned fury, a vindictive hatred, the brutality of an occupation force, at odds with the dispassionate nature of modern warfare.

New Delhi’s strategy in J & K was validated by US military operations in Afghanistan, and the deployment of US forces in and around Pakistan to restrain Pakistani aggression. India was assured by the US that it would stall any attempt by Pakistan to extend the Kashmir dispute beyond local borders, which might disrupt its operations against the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Also, deployment of the US military in Pakistani air bases strengthened New Delhi’s confidence that Islamabad would hesitate to initiate nuclear weapons use. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has given its military the prowess it requires to exploit the disgruntlement of the Muslim population of the Kashmir Valley. Pakistan’s military leaders are privately convinced that its daunting nuclear arsenal has dissuaded India from embarking upon a large-scale war. India’s cautious stance is however dictated by multiple factors. Its primary concern is that a limited war will not enable it to accomplish substantive political or military objectives; that such a war might spin out of control and would be impossible to cease according to the wishes of the administration and the military; that India might find itself in disfavour with and spurned by the international community, and that a war might beef up nuclear armament. The impending menace of precipitative nuclearization has been one of the many factors underlining the necessity to maintain a quasi-stable regime in the South Asian region. In effect, one of the ramifications of India and Pakistan climbing the ladder of nuclear proliferation has been a tottering stability, maintained amidst the continuing conflict in Kashmir. The insurgency in Kashmir, India and Pakistan’s ideological differences and their political intransigence has resulted in the eruption of a crisis.

Ironically, mainstream politicians and separatists in J & K haven’t found niches in the upper echelons of decision-making bodies, political, religious, or social. New Delhi is letting them flail their arms and flex their muscles within carefully contained spaces, but, for all intents and purposes, they have no place within India and Pakistan’s bilateral talks. The significant process of nation building and the construction of Kashmiri nationalism isn’t being facilitated by either party. Kashmiri society needs to recognize the terror caused by such predatory discourses that swoop down on the vulnerable, devouring their ideological and experiential strengths. How long will those unfamiliar with the rich history and nuanced culture of Kashmir seek to describe the state of mind of traumatized Kashmiris? How long will those ignorant of the rich heritage of Kashmir seek to write narratives about the political future of Kashmir? A reconstruction of the political space in Kashmir is the need of the day.

Despite the political mobilization of Kashmiris during the upheaval in 1931 and the politically volcanic Quit Kashmir Movement of 1946, their reversion from a substantive public sphere to a brutalized sphere has been rather abrupt. The onslaught of despotism in 1931 unleashed by Maharajah Hari Singh and his platoons awoke Kashmiris from their apoplectic slumber, and induced them to rattle the confining bars of the monarchical cage. Remarkably, lay people in Kashmir, were initiated into political activism and heralded the political participation of the so-called elite. The Quit Kashmir Movement in 1946-7 saw the evolution of Kashmiris into well-informed and articulate protestors, assuming leadership roles in the quest for a Kashmiri nationalistic identity. But vicious attempts to sink the voices of the citizenry in Kashmir into oblivion by have become much more frequent now.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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