As soon as one lands at the Srinagar Airport, one cannot help but notice the smell of rainy European weather in the air: one that borderlines depressing and a living testimony of bloodshed that it has witnessed over the last ninety years. Sandwiched between three nuclear powers, this small piece of land has been the center of dispute for close to three quarters of a century now. Evidences of militarization of the valley can be seen even before you land, when it is announced by the pilot during the descent that photography at the airport is prohibited since the airport is categorized as a military airport. When I first harboured the thoughts of doing an internship in Kashmir, I aspired to do a research on the much debated Armed Forces Special Powers Act and its legality under international law. However I never thought that residing in Kashmir for close to six weeks and not talking with people about the Kashmir conflict, would have been akin to being in New York on New Year’s Eve and not visiting the Times Square when the clock strikes twelve. Eventually, I got so engrossed in researching on the Kashmir issue that my initial research plans got sidelined and the main focus shifted to the conflict.
During the last one month I have met many people in Kashmir in order to understand the “Kashmir conflict” as it is called and the feelings and aspirations of a common Kashmiri. I met former militants who took to guns against the state, or against a foreign state as they like to call it, people from inside the Hurriyat, Hashim Qureshi: the person who hijacked the 1971 flight from Srinagar to Jammu and took it to Lahore, victims of army and police abuse, who survived, they relive the horrors everyday of their life, family of a boy who got selected in under 19 national cricket team but was shot dead in an incident of unprovoked firing by state police a week prior to leaving for the camp, parents who lost their children during the 2010 uprising and are still fighting against the odds and against a hostile judiciary, a former militant and stone pelter who strives to get back to normal life but is unable to, owing to police authorities, commander -in -chief of a former militant group who has since 2004 taken a pacifist mode of demonstrating his protest, a retired Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Jammu and Kashmir Police who is infamous for killing over 300 militants, a sitting Member of Legislative Assembly who is famous in the valley for his unconventional ways of living life, a lady with unimaginable grit who lost both her sons in 1991 and later started the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, journalists engaged with local press as well as national media, human rights activists who remain under the government scanner 24/7, student activists studying in Kashmir University and currently under suspension for holding Anti-India demonstration and the lawyers of the most affected district at the moment: Pulwama, who believe freedom is their birthright that has been taken away by India and the militancy (they get offended if the terminology “terrorist” is used) is simply demanding freedom from oppressive authorities i.e., the Indian State.
It is often said in general parlance that everyone in Kashmir has a story, which is rather true. However, what I learnt during the course of my internship was that everyone has their own opinion too, regarding the Kashmir conflict and its future. The surprising part being that the opinions and aspirations were far too conflicting and divergent. The only thing that was perhaps common amongst all was, the prevailing Anti-India sentiment and the inherent anger towards the Indian Administration.
THE KASHMIR CONFLICT
The Kashmir conflict in the simplest of terms is, that when British India achieved its independence the princely states were given an option to choose their own future. Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state with a majority of Muslim population, ruled by a Hindu king. While the state was still entertaining the thoughts of becoming an independent nation, Pakistan sent its army in the disguise of tribesmen in order to conquer the territory and in order to deter them, the King sent for India’s help. India agreed to send its army to aid him on the condition that he would sign the Instrument of Accession with India. The instrument was signed on the condition that once the situation settles and the army is withdrawn by both the countries, plebiscite would be held which would decide the future of Kashmir. Many eminent scholars believe that this instrument of accession in the first place was wrong as it was coerced and hence void ab initio.
The Indian army was sent and it took back a major part of Kashmir but not before the Pakistani army succeeded in taking a portion of the land which is today known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), or as people here like to call it, Azad Kashmir. It is since the very beginning that the Kashmiris never associated themselves with India as they always believed it to be an independent territory since the very inception, and even historically. The people here hoped that soon India would conduct a referendum in which they would have their say. Things started going downhill from here when the position of Prime Minister of Kashmir which was held by Sheikh Abdullah was changed to that of Chief Minister. With time, frustration kicked in and the final straw that broke the camel’s back was the elections held in 1987 in which the people who are called militants and separatists today, took part and people came out in huge numbers to vote. As the story goes round in the valley and a fact later admitted by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the elections were rigged. The National Conference won the elections and Farooq Abdullah was chosen as the Chief Minister. The Indian Government portrayed the results of this elections as the will of the people stating that people of Kashmir are with the candidates put up by the Central Government and hence no plebiscite would be required now.
That election is seen by the people here as a betrayal by the Indian Government and it made them believe that India would never hear their voice if they go only by democratic means. It was during the same time when the Soviet Union was falling apart and losing its war in Afghanistan that gave the Kashmiris a new ray of hope. News reports of young boys going into Azad Kashmir and Pakistan for training started coming in and violence was increasingly seen as the way forward to grab attention of the Indian administration as well as on an international forum.
A Kashmir University’s law student I met told me how his father often fondly recalls the time when the first boy came back from Pakistan and a crowd had gathered to see him fire his gun as it was for the first time the public was witnessing a person other than the army holding a gun…
Some of the people I met, who are currently in their late 20’s vividly recollect memories of few Afghan people coming in their houses during that period of time.
The elections started a snowball effect which engulfed the valley in coming times. There were a series of targeted killings mainly by the militants to create fear, and it worked. The period from 1989 to 1991 saw government officials and Kashmiri Pandits leave the valley as the insurgency reached its peak. Governor Jagmohan was appointed and the draconian AFSPA was imposed in the state to curb the growing militancy. It was this critical period which completely alienated the people of Kashmir and turned them against the Indian State including many of the pro-independence elements, which converted into pro-Pakistan elements as the hatred towards India grew. Army crackdowns started becoming a regular affair wherein people were asked to come out of their houses carrying an identification card, torture and detention for days together was a normal occurrence and so was enforced disappearances and unprovoked firings by army. Even today, Jagmohan is one of the most hated person in the valley. There used to be mass street rallies and hartals every other week and women too used to come out in large numbers.
Over the last twenty six years the army through its sheer might has been able put an end to the insurgency like situation but the sentiment in a common Kashmiri still remains the same. There have been only two mass agitations in the last two decades, one in 2008 and the other in 2010, during which over 120 innocent youth were killed, many of them below the age of eighteen years. The human rights situation here still remains abysmal and the right wing government at the center has come under severe criticism for curbing dissent and creating an atmosphere where it is difficult for organizations to work in matters which are against the interests of the government. Right since the start of insurgency, the Indian Government has remained extremely secretive with respect to the on ground situation in Kashmir. It was never comfortable with the presence of the United Nations there nor has it allowed the likes of Amnesty International to work freely in Kashmir.
It is popularly believed amongst the Kashmiris that the Indian government stopped all forms of international aid during the devastating floods of 2014 so that no international organization can have a first-hand assessment of the Kashmir situation. The population already in conflict with the state since last several years became all the more agitated and the sentiment of alienation from India grew all the more.
THE MILITANCY: THEN AND NOW
In order to cover all the aspects of Kashmir issue, it was of utmost necessity to meet the biggest stakeholder of the conflict: the militants. My first tryst with a militant was, with a person named Qadir Dar who mobilized a group of close to ten thousand men which went by the name Muslim Jaanbaaz Force and operated during the 90s. He surrendered to the police somewhere in 2003 and after getting out of jail, he started an organization named Voice of Victims which comes to the rescue of people who have been subjected to interrogative torture. During my conversation which revolved around the stories of torture and rise of militancy in 90s, I asked the question I always wanted to ask to a militant and as he got comfortable after about an hour into the conversation, I asked him if it is easy to kill a man and did his conscience get hurt when he attacked an army man? He said it is indeed not easy. He explained to me that the militants do not like attacking and killing army men, his militancy group did not because they too are aware of the fact that the fight is against the Indian State and that particular army person would not be there if not for his own necessities; but since army represent the state in Kashmir, they are the ones who will be the first in line of fire.
However, this breed of militancy is much different than how the current militants operate. The current ones are far better educated and know the cause they are fighting for, whereas in 90s the militancy, many believe had also become a fashion and involved many who were not wholly aware of what they are fighting for; which is not the case now. In 90s it was highly unorganized militancy and there were large scale looting through which militants made huge money sidelining the actual cause and thereby losing public support in the process.
If the elections of 1987 proved to be the reason behind radicalization of many, the turning point for the current breed is the uprising in 2010 in which the police atrocities were at their peak. There are a plethora of other reasons too but this was perhaps one of the major factor. The boys saw children of their own age, their friends and relatives getting killed and harassed by the army and police officials and later in life, took to guns even after having a master’s degree in their hands. This is the story of Burhan Wani, the poster boy of Hizbul Mujahideen who got radicalized after he saw his brother being harassed by the army one day. Currently, Burhan is seen as a new hero in the valley. Another major difference between the current era and the former one is that while in 90s there was a heavy dependence of support from Afghanistan and Pakistan, the current militants are pretty much self-sufficient and better organized.
A senior journalist with a local daily who did not wish to be named said that religion goes a long way in the Kashmir’s war for independence. He believed the religion is nowhere the cause and the cause for independence is entirely political, but religion is used in order to mobilize the youth towards militancy. The current breed is as much against the police and army, as much as it is against the state and if the same question is put to a militant of this era I believe the answer would be different.
While I was in Kashmir, the militancy was peaking up. There were encounters almost every other day and for the first time in six years there was an encounter in Srinagar. Going by the current tide, there is a wave of support for militancy. In recent times when an encounter is underway, people start pelting stones at the police and army and the mosques nearby start playing pro-freedom slogans and songs to keep the morale of the militants high. Recently, when a high ranking Al-Qaeda militant was killed, there were scores of people who gathered to receive the body.
I inquired from everyone if militancy is here to stay in the future or will it die down few years down the lane and democratic process would be adopted by youth to raise their voice for independence. While most believed that the militancy would rise again if the attitude of the Indian state remains the same, there were a few who believed that it has already started dying and just like a dying lion makes more efforts, the militancy in its final stage is making more noises in order to stay relevant to the time. Which theory would prove to be true is for the time to tell.
THE KASHMIRI PANDITS ISSUE
While I was in Kashmir, one of the most forefront issue that was doing the rounds was that of the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits who left the place when insurgency was at its peak in 1990-1991. The right wing government at the center has pressed for this issue for quite a long time now, right from their election manifesto. However, the Central Government and the separatist parties inside Kashmir are at loggerheads with the scheme applied for their rehabilitation. While the Central Government wants separate colonies to be formed where the Pandits could reside, the incumbent state government as well as the separatists contend that they should reside along with the Muslims and other local population and the creation of separate colonies would be retaliated with strong protests. The separatists who usually have different aspirations have this time come together cutting across the party rivalries to respond to this.
This difference of opinion can be traced back to 1990-91 when the Kashmiri Pandits left the place. There are two extremely varied accounts of why this took place. While one side of the story is that owing to increased attacks on the Pandits by Muslims and degradation in the on ground situation, they fled the place in order to go to a safe place and settled in camps in Jammu and Delhi. In a conversation with Mian Abdul Qayoon, president of Jammu and Kashmir Bar Association who also happens to be Man Friday for mainstream Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani since the last three decades, he stated the real reason for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits was something else. It was a conspiracy by then Governor Jagmohan in order to carpet bomb the valley after taking out the Hindus since army brutality was required in order to urgently curb the growing militancy and Jagmohan was not ready to do so as it would results into deaths of even the Hindus. In my discussions with other political leadership and lawyers later on, I realized this is a common sentiment amongst the localities who believe it was practically impossible for the Pandits to mobilize themselves and leave on one single night in times when there was no electronic medium of communication and it could have been done only with the aid of the state authorities.
Having spent considerable years of my life at Ahmedabad and having witnessed the infamous 2002 Gujarat riots and the events following them from a close quarter, I believe the proposition of making separate colonies for the Pandits will be a disaster waiting to happen as this will lead to further polarization. Ahmedabad is rather infamous for having a Muslim ghetto named Juhapura which the locals refer to as “Mini Pakistan”. It has often been termed as a source of eruption for communal violence on many occasions. It is home to both the affluent as well as the poor Muslims. The civic authorities have completely ignored the area in terms of development and the same is being looked after by the local notables and there is an increasing issue of the differentiation between the rich and the poor. The biggest disadvantage of a ghetto is that it is insulated and such confinement leads to a further isolation between the communities. In an already prevalent complex atmosphere in Kashmir which is entangled at many levels, an increase in the conflict on the lines of sect is the last thing that Kashmir would want to further complicate the issue. In the words of Hashim Qureshi, a society which already feels neglected and discriminated against, any incident even if not intentional would be looked upon as an intentional act by the State in favour of one community. Kashmir cannot live hanging on a thread with the risks a “Mini India” would possess.
THE CASE FOR AN INDEPENDENT KASHMIR
One of the most sensitive questions that I had to ask people was what they believed lies in store for Kashmir in future. Such questions are bound to bring in the emotions of the people and majority of them answered they will achieve independence sidelining the practicality of the answer they were giving. People are bound to have different aspirations, especially when it comes to an issue as major as that of independence of a state.
The people who support the cause of an independent Kashmir believe it can survive on three fronts economically: water resources, electricity generation and lastly but significantly on tourism. There is no question of Kashmir not being able to economically survive as an independent nation. There are many nations in Europe which are smaller in size than Kashmir and doing pretty well. The question is with Pakistan on one end and China on the other who is currently expanding its dominance in Asia with controversial activities in South China Sea, how long will Kashmir remain as an independent state. When I put this question to a human rights activist he said that Kashmiris are more worried about India trying to take independent Kashmir back rather than China or Pakistan. The sentiment here is anti-Indian to the extent that few people do not even care if independent Kashmir is taken by Pakistan or China; they just wish to leave India. .An eminent lawyer later told me that during the independence struggle you do not think of what would happen after the independence although it is a very legit issue but the moment there are ifs and buts in a struggle, the independence would never be gained.
A senior advocate who did not wish to be named went on to say that even though he supports the cause of Kashmiri independence, the day Kashmir gets its independence, if at all, he would leave Kashmir and settle in India.The reason that he stated was that it will no longer be a secular territory and Sharia law would be imposed instead. He believed the secular face that the likes of Yasin Malik and Geelani showcase are simply a disguise to hide their real ideology. This was a sentiment not supported by many though.
Within the valley, there exist majorly two kinds of sentiments: the Pro-Pakistan sentiment and the one which supports the cause of independence. Amongst the people who support the cause of complete independence there are many who believe that independence in the current political spectrum would prove to be a disaster as it would lead to an Afghanistan like situation with leaders striving for power. None of them saw Kashmir achieving independence in the coming two decades but they gain inspiration from the fact that India had to struggle for close to 150 years and their struggle is merely three decades old.
THE PRO-PAKISTAN SENTIMENT
Being an Indian it is always a bit tough to digest but, the Pro-Pakistan sentiment does exist in Kashmir and does so significantly. One of the major reasons for that lies in the roots of partition. Many Kashmiris believe the partition was on religious lines and even at the point of independence; they wanted to go with Pakistan which did not take place only because they were being ruled by a Hindu King. Historical texts suggests that under the Dogra rule, there were many atrocities that the Muslims of Kashmir had to undergo and were not particularly happy under their reign. The population wanted to align with Pakistan but Maharaja Hari Singh did not let that happen. The people who want Kashmir to go to Pakistan also admit to the fact that with time the sentiment has faded a bit and it existed more at the time of independence than in the current time.
Another reason for the sentiment lies in the fact that many of the tribal people who reside along the border areas have the same language and culture as that of people from Pakistan and ethnic similarity. Add to this the fact that people have relatives staying across the border when families got separated at the time of partition and it is not hard to understand why Pakistani flags are raised at the time of rallies and protests.
With time however, few people have ceased to support Pakistan after the news of Pakistan doing atrocities in Azad Kashmir came to surface and more importantly after Pakistan sold a piece of Azad Kashmir to China which people in the valley believe Pakistan had no right to. These are the people who now aspire for an independent Kashmir including the parts under Pakistan control (Gilgit Pakistan and Azad Kashmir) and the one which is under the control of China now.
The people who are supporters of Kashmiri accession to Pakistan are well aware of Pakistan’s latent interests too. They knew it right along even when they were taking monetary as well as physical support of Pakistan. The only reason the sentiment still exits is because they believe if not for Pakistan, their struggle would have been buried years ago. Even though for their own interests it is only because of Pakistan that the Kashmir issue is alive today on an international forum, something that they will always be thankful for.
ATMOSPHERE IN KASHMIR UNIVERSITY AND UNDERSTANDING THE NIT ROW
Academic institutions often prove to be the best place to feel and understand the atmosphere of a place especially in conflict zones such as Kashmir. Inside Kashmir University, the most vocal ones are firstly the students of Law and secondly that of Islamic Studies. I met a few law students who had been suspended, taken to jail and tortured in the past for making an Anti-India protest. The student body has been banned here and, there is a heavy curb on any type of student activism. The curb is prevalent to the extent that the day I went to the University Hostel, some students who had protested in the morning regarding the quality of food in the morning were served with disciplinary conduct notice. They said they cannot raise their voice against issues which are not even remotely related to the conflict and pertinent to issues of hostels and food. Such notices they say are served directly from the office of the Governor who also happens to be the Chancellor of the University. The intervention of the Governor’s office they claim is in matters as trivial as the quality of hostel food.
During this time last year, the atmosphere inside the University was boiling after a boy was picked up by the army from inside the campus merely on grounds of suspicion. Bullets were fired at protesting students by police inside the campus and things got out of hands and the University had to be shut down for ten days.
The feeling of Anti-India was always there amongst the students and this further increases when students go outside the state and are ill-treated and they return back angrier than before. “When you come here we treat you as one of us but when we go out there, we are branded as terrorists and often looked down upon”, said a student. It was a fact that I could not deny. Incidents of Kashmiri students and students from North East being beaten up in Delhi University were a regular occurrence a couple of years back. Racism had increased so much that the court intervened and made it a criminal offence to call a person from North East as “Chinki”, a slang often used for them.
A couple of months prior to my arrival here, there was a huge confrontation between the Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students in National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. In NIT Srinagar, the non- Kashmiri students outnumber the locals by a huge margin. On the fateful day India had lost to West Indies in semi-finals of World Cup after which Kashmiri students celebrated the loss in response to which the non-Kashmiri students chanted pro-Indian slogans and tried to hoist the tricolor near the main administrative block which initiated a chain of ugly events thereafter. The students there told me that none of the senior students were involved in the clashes. It was done by the junior students from outside the state who thought that since the numbers are in their favour they would be able to get away with it. As claimed by a student, a non-Kashmiri student slapped a police official on duty which led to the clashes between the police and non-Kashmiri students and had nothing to do with the issue of Kashmir.
People in Srinagar have been supporting the team playing against India since the very beginning and the India-West Indies match celebration was not one off. Way back in the year 1986 when Srinagar hosted a match between India and Australia, the crowd came out in huge numbers to support Australia after which no matches were held in Srinagar. I met a Kashmir University student who had represented India in commonwealth games who believed chanting Bharat Mata Ki Jai in Srinagar by non-Kashmiri students was bound to invite such reaction from the Kashmiri students. Having represented India in commonwealth games he is in possession of many blazers and jerseys of Team India but he said he cannot even think of wearing them inside Srinagar out of the fear of reaction of people.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A COMMON KASHMIRI
In his day to day life, it is not the cause of independence that is on the mind of a common Kashmiri. A person I met said that this is one of the reasons why it has not achieved independence yet because when your struggle for independence is going on, you cannot pursue other things. However, the Anti-India sentiment remains and it is reinforced everyday seeing the heavy army deployment on the streets which indeed feels suffocating even to an outsider like me.
In recent times, the Indian media has portrayed a record number of people casting votes in elections as a sign of change in the valley. However a common man does not see this as a change. He believes that independence is a huge thing and would come with time but meanwhile, they need a government to look after their everyday needs and development. Furthermore the voting percentage is often exaggerated by the media. In one of the areas an MLA won on the basis of 3000 votes whereas in other states a win by a margin of 3000 votes is considered a narrow win.
When I visited Pulwama, which is currently the most disturbed district in Kashmir, a lawyer told me to spend a day with him in order to understand what army atrocity actually is. He asked me to accompany him from the court to his home and not to mention to army official that I am an outsider and see his behavior change towards me. He claimed he is often asked to get out of his car in a rude manner and then searched regardless of the fact that he is with a client or some other person. Such practices are what eventually lead to people who have bright careers in academics choose the path of militancy. In districts such as Pulwama, Kupwara where the situation is worse off compared to other districts, the day to day life is disturbed. They claim that the situation has improved over the last couple of years but prior to that, all the traffic including ambulances would be stopped and allowed to go only after an army convoy has passed and the waiting time would sometime be as long as two hours.
In India when an ambulance is stopped for VIP movement, it makes it to the national headlines and so does the news of rains in Mumbai and Delhi which takes up primetime coverage. In Kashmir the Indian national media ignored the floods a couple of years back, something from which Kashmir has not fully recovered even yet. The freedoms of a civil society that a person enjoys while living in India and of late has even come to take those for granted are lacking in every aspect in the valley. The plight of a common man in Kashmir is hauntingly different from that of a common man in India.
Kashmir is a riddle that is too complex to be understood in a span of one month. There are many theories to each story, different aspirations and too many forces at play in here. Having stayed there for a little more than a month, the only question you are left wondering at the end is how come it is not independent yet if every person inside the valley wants it. Perhaps, one of the answer to this is the lack of a proper leadership. There is a mass following for Hurriyat specially the Geelani faction but then again there are few people who brand Geelani as a Pakistani agent. One student in here told me that the best work that Indian intelligence agencies has done here is that of career assassination of every leader. Every leader is either an ISI agent or a RAW agent. It is often said that in Kashmir, every third person is a RAW agent. It is somewhere this divided leadership which is hampering the cause of independence.
It has so happened in the past that a territory was a legitimate independent state but it was not recognised so under the Montevideo convention since global powers did not recognize that as a state whereas a territory even when not a legitimate country, it was declared so because they had the backing of other countries. In a conversation with a lawyer and human rights activist I brought this issue and asked him if Kashmir gets independence tomorrow does he see any country especially America, Russia and United Kingdom recognizing its independence since that would result in jeopardizing their relations with India. In response he said that it is often joked in Pakistan and Kashmir about how clever Pakistan has been. When the United States was at its peak they had good strategic relations with them and now when China is emerging as a global superpower it has partnered with China whereas India became a partner to the U.S. when the U.S. is in a free fall.He said the day it gets independence, Pakistan will recognize it as a state and China will not be far behind in doing so. Being from India one often wonders why your country has been so brutal at times in here and why the behavior is so contradicting when compared to other parts of the country. Nothing is more saddening than seeing the profession which most respected and looked up to in India does activities that does not befit its dignity.
In the year 1931, a butler by the name of Abdul Qadir made a fiery speech asking people to mobilize against the oppression. He was arrested and large scale protests were carried out against his arrest during which the police opened fire and twenty one people died. In the funeral procession for these people there was further chaos in response to which the government arrested more people. It is eighty six years down the lane, and this vicious cycle sadly continues to be the living story of Kashmir: the paradise on earth.