Distrust, Discontent and Alienation: Kashmir During the Modi Years

The Modi government has done little to stem disaffection in the Valley, but a fair amount to intensify it.

Sorting out some papers, I came across an old essay in an obscure periodical on a topic of contemporary relevance. Published in December 1973 in the Sarvodaya journal Bhoodan-Yagya, it was written (in Hindi) by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, the pioneer of the Chipko andolan and, arguably, of modern Indian environmentalism itself. However, the essay I speak of was not about the major themes of his work, environmentalism and sustainable development – rather, it dealt with politics and society in what was then, and what is now, a very troubled part of India.

It was in April 1973 that the Chipko movement began in the Alakananda valley under Bhatt’s leadership. In November of that year, he went with a fellow Garhwali named Karim Khan to the Kashmir Valley, ostensibly to study the condition of the forests and the rights of villagers in their produce. As it turned out, the account of his journeys did not mention forests at all. For he had entered the Valley at a time of deep discontent, with students protesting in the streets against the policies of an unpopular state government. In the bus that Khan and Bhatt took to Srinagar, they were advised to sit in the aisles, lest a stone thrown by an angry demonstrator break the windows and injure them. It was also suggested that, as a Hindu and a Muslim respectively, they eat in separate restaurants.

No sooner had they entered the capital of Jammu and Kashmir that the Garhwali travellers came across a crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans. This is how Chandi Prasad Bhatt described (in my inadequate English translation) the scene in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk:

Taxis, cars and buses lay stalled on the road, their tyres punctured or their windows shattered. The police were there in force but they looked on idly, perhaps not wanting to mess with the demonstrators. As the day proceeded the violence intensified. At about four in the afternoon, the crowd decided to attack and destroy a hotel as well as a printing press. Scattering a hail of stones, this crowd then proceeded to the Amir Kadal crossing. As they walked they shouted slogans in favour of Pakistan. When they reached Amir Kadal they tried to set a bridge on fire. They were prevented from doing so by the arrival of a platoon of the Central Reserve Police Force, which also succeeded in dispersing the protesters.

Later in the evening, while walking through the mohalla of Ganpatyar, the visitor came across what he sardonically described as a ‘majedar tamasha’, namely, women standing on roof-tops raining down stones on the police.

Niraja Gopal Jayal
Re-forming India: The Nation Today
Penguin Viking, 2019

Bhatt titled his travelogue Kashmir Ke Do Roop: Ek Ashant aur Ek Shant (The Two Faces of Kashmir – One Troubled, the Other Peaceful). For there was indeed another side to the Valley, this manifest in the industry and enterprise of peasants and craftspeople. Travelling through the countryside, Bhatt met kesar (saffron) farmers who made a good living from the cultivation and export of the spice. Other landholders profitably grew fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, his fellow Gandhians were actively promoting silk cultivation and sheep rearing. One outfit of the Khadi and Gramodyog Commission claimed an annual turn-over of Rs 20 lakhs (a considerable sum back in 1973, and not a trifling amount now either). Then there were the cottage industries – carpentry, the making of cricket bats, shawl weaving, etc – all of which seemed to be in fine shape.

‘Where the scene in Srinagar was characterised by daily fights and processions’, remarked Bhatt, ‘on the other hand the atmosphere in these villages was marked by peace and tranquility’. Where ‘in one Kashmir stones were being thrown and bullets being fired’, he continued, ‘in the other Kashmir exquisite pashmina and jamawar shawls were being made and sold’.

What has changed in Kashmir since this essay was published forty-five years ago? Urban discontent remains, expressed as before by young men as well as middle-aged women. But the villages are not as placid and peaceful as they might once have been. Peasants and artisans seem to be as disenchanted as the townsfolk. Among a wide swathe of the population, there exists a deep yearning for greater political freedom. These sentiments are assiduously stoked by Pakistan; still, one would be foolish to ascribe them wholly or even principally to the designs of our neighbour. Increasingly, the pro-Pakistani slogans that Chandi Prasad Bhatt heard in 1973 have been replaced by pro-azadi ones…

A market in Kashmir. Credit: Fulvio Spada/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May 2014, when Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister of India, Kashmir had, as ever, those two faces, one troubled, the other peaceful. In September of that year, the Valley of Kashmir witnessed its worst floods in many years. Thousands of homes were washed away, and many bridges too. As many as 2000 villages were badly affected, as were several major towns, including Srinagar.

Modi first visited Kashmir in October 2014, during Diwali, when he saw at first hand the damage from the floods. He was back in December 2014, this time to campaign for his party in the forthcoming assembly elections in the state. Although one would expect Kashmiri Muslims to be distrustful of the leader of a party professing Hindutva, in fact, many of them were inclined to view Modi positively. They had fond memories of the first BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who in 2003 had become the first PM to hold a public meeting in the Valley for almost two decades, where he spoke movingly about the sufferings of the people, and promised to search for a peaceful solution ‘within the bounds of humanity’ (rather than merely within the parameters of the Indian constitution).

The Kashmiris were also impressed by the fact that despite his past record in Gujarat, Modi had run a non-sectarian campaign in the general elections of 2014. So when he came to Srinagar, they were inclined to give him the benefit of doubt. His speech in December seemed to reinforce their hopes that this could be a prime minister in the Vajpayee mould, who would empathise with the Kashmiris. ‘I have come here to share your sorrows’, said the prime minister at his rally. ‘As the pradhan sewak (prime servant), your sorrows are mine, your pain is mine and your problems are mine’, he added. Then, invoking the name of his much-admired predecessor, he emphatically said: ‘Atal Behari Vajpayee saw a dream and it is my responsibility to complete it. He talked about insaniyat (humanity), Kashmiriyat (spirit of Kashmir) and jamooriyat (democracy) and on these three pillars, Kashmir will move ahead on the path of development in the 21st century’.

Narendra Modi in Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

In his speech, the prime minister also spoke of the fact that flood relief had been so tardy, blaming it on the ruling National Conference government in the state. ‘When the state was hit with floods, the state government here was sleeping’, he remarked, adding: ‘People here told me not to send money to the state government but to their (people’s) bank accounts directly. They do not believe their state government, but they believe Modi’.

When the assembly elections were held later that month, Modi’s party, the BJP, won 25 seats, most of these in the Jammu region. In the Valley, however, the largest party was the PDP, which won 28 seats. A coalition government of these two parties was formed, leading to great expectations. It was hoped that the traditional suspicion and rivalry between the two regions, Jammu and Kashmir, would, at last, be contained and managed. Within Kashmir, it was hoped that given the prime minister’s stated promises, the region and the state would ‘move ahead on the path of development in the 21st century’.

Also read: In Jammu, BJP Banks on ‘Modi Image’; PDP and NC Form ‘Secular’ Front With Congress

In August 2015, barely six months after the PDP-BJP coalition was formed, this writer visited the Valley. I spoke to a cross-section of people, scholars, journalists, students and civil society activists among them. I found a widespread distrust of the government of India and its intentions. This was in part a product of long-standing attacks on democratic rights – as in the rigging of elections, the dismissal (and even arrest) of democratically elected leaders, the killing of unarmed civilians, and so on. At the time of my visit, though, what hurt Kashmiris most was the niggardly amount of relief provided after the devastating floods of 2014. People whose houses had to be rebuilt were offered the grand sum of three thousand eight hundred rupees each.

Kashmiri people use a makeshift raft to move to a safer place after flooding in Srinagar September 20, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail/Files

As I have noted, on his visits to the Valley in October and December 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised a substantial package to allow homes, offices and roads to be rebuilt. But there had been little follow-up to the announcement. Had the floods been in Gujarat or UP, some Kashmiris told me bitterly, the relief offered would have been far more substantial as well as more prompt (this writer’s conversations with residents in Kashmir, August 2015).

The sense that New Delhi cared more for other states than this one was ubiquitous. Just before I arrived in the Valley, the Modi government had signed a peace agreement with the major Naga insurgent group, the NSCN (I-M). Although the details of the agreement were yet to be announced, an official press release said it would recognise ‘the unique history and culture of the Naga people’. A respected Kashmiri academic told me that while he welcomed this gesture to the Nagas, it was ironic that the Central government had for so long refused to recognise the unique history and culture of the Kashmiri people. This was a reference to the long-standing demand of the BJP and the RSS for the repeal of Article 370, which recognised the special circumstances of Kashmir’s accession to India, and thus safeguarded its autonomy.

On my visit, I spoke at the University of Kashmir. Visiting the library before my talk, I saw that on the notice board someone had posted a piece of paper with these words, set in bold and large type: WHY NOT AN IIT, IIM, OR AIIMS FOR KASHMIR TOO? Above this query was a line, written in hand, saying: ‘All we want is Azadi’. Below it was another handwritten comment, which read: ‘Because we are not part of India’.

Let me gloss these three comments. Among young Kashmiris especially, the sentiment of azadi, or independence, is strong, although there is no consensus on what the contours of an independent Kashmir would look like, or whether it would be politically, economically, or militarily viable. There is another group, usually (but not always) composed of middle-aged Kashmiris, who do not mind being part of India, but only on terms that respect the cultural distinctiveness of the Valley and which safeguard and even enhance its political autonomy.

The printed notice was evidently put up by a member of the second kind of Kashmiri. Across India, the IITs and IIMs are recognised as being institutions of quality, entry into which guarantees one a well-paying job. The Central government had promised to open a slew of IITs and IIMs, and have already announced several locations for them. They did, however, include the Kashmir Valley. Hence the demand for one.

The third comment was the most intriguing. One way to read it would be as a statement of intent, namely, that Kashmiris do not want to be part of India. This would mostly mean the creation of a free and independent nation, although there is still a small (and perhaps shrinking) minority of Kashmiris for whom not being part of India means being part of Pakistan. However, the statement was amenable to another reading, namely, that successive governments in New Delhi had denied Kashmiris their rights, as mandated under Article 370 of the constitution, while suppressing dissent by force. So that handwritten line on the notice could as well mean: ‘We are not part of India because the government of India often behaves as if we are not Indians’.

On my visit to Srinagar, I spent an evening with the staff of the Rising Kashmir newspaper, at the invitation of its remarkable editor, Shujaat Bukhari (who was tragically killed by unknown assassins in June 2018). Here, a young journalist passionately insisted that, regardless of the party in power, political establishment in New Delhi tended to see Kashmiris as somehow less Indian than citizens of other states. Those advocating armed struggle in central India, he remarked, were called ‘Maoists’, whereas those advocating the same in Kashmir were demonised as ‘terrorists’. The first kind of rebel was accorded the quasi-respectable cloak of a political ideology, whereas the second kind was even denied that. Was it, he asked, because one was Hindu, and the other Muslim?

Protests against the killing of Rising Kashmir editor-in-chief Shujaat Bukhari. Credit: Reuters

This remark smacked slightly of paranoia. Yet it showed how deep was the distrust of Indians among Kashmiris. A distinguished civil servant, now retired, and who was himself convinced that his state must remain part of India, spoke with scorn of the hysteria of the Indian media. Shortly after I arrived in the state, an armed insurgent sent from Pakistan had been captured in Udhampur, sending the so-called ‘national’ TV channels into a frenzy. ‘One captured insurgent plus Arnab Goswami makes a national crisis’, said the civil servant, sardonically. …

At the time of my visit in August 2015, militancy was visibly down in Kashmir. The army’s presence, at least in Srinagar and its surroundings, was far less obtrusive than it had been some years ago. Parts of the town that were ‘no-go’ areas for outsiders saw men and women, Kashmiris and tourists, Indian and foreign (some even Israeli) visitors, walking about freely. There was then, a window slightly ajar in Kashmir; and I left hoping that a wise and far-seeing government in New Delhi would prise it open further, and let the winds of peace and reconciliation blow freely over the Valley.

Alas, it turned out otherwise. In January 2016, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir died. His daughter Mehbooba was sworn in as his successor. Then, in July, the always uneasy (and perhaps unnatural) peace was broken by the killing by the security forces of a young militant named Burhan Wani. It was said that Wani had gone underground after witnessing his brother thrashed by army men. From his hideouts he posted videos of his speeches on social media, acquiring a cult-like status in the process.

The killing of Wani led to an outpouring of grief, followed by anger. There was a massive attendance at his funeral (estimates of the crowd range from 30,000 to over 100,000), following which young Kashmiris clashed with the police in many towns and villages. The police responded with pellet guns, these blinding many protesters, further intensifying the anger. For more than a month the Valley lay under curfew, with shops, schools, colleges, and offices, all shut. More than seventy people died in the violence.

Also read: In Photos | Kashmir Is Scarred by Another Year of Rage and Grief

The troubles in Kashmir led to a fresh tide of jingoism in the Indian media. Television channels competed with one another to term the protesters agents of Pakistan. Indians who deplored the excessive use of force and the blinding of youngsters were called Pakistani agents too. These media hounds juxtaposed, to the Bad Kashmiris on the streets of Srinagar, a Good Kashmiri named Shah Faesal, who had topped the prestigious Indian Administrative Service examination some years previously.

A man injured by a pellet gun lies in a Kashmir hospital. Credit: Reuters

This crude stereotyping prompted a public response by Shah Faesal, where he worried that the government he served ‘had outsourced, or rather abdicated, communications to TV channels, which are only interested in provoking and alienating.’ The Indian state, he continued, ‘can’t afford to leave the Kashmir project to intellectual renegades, political turncoats, opportunists, intelligence agencies, and most importantly, to self-appointed vigilantes of the national interest.’ He warned that ‘every hour of prime time TV news aggression pushes Kashmir a mile westward from India.’

Speaking to friends in Kashmir, I got the sense that apart from the media, there were other trends at work in ‘mainland’ India that were hastening their alienation. Since the Modi government came to power, there had been massive protests by Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra and Patidars in Gujarat. These protests had in fact been far more violent than those in Kashmir, witnessing the burning of buses, cars, shops, offices and even railway stations. Yet in all these cases the police had refrained from using pellet guns. Why tear gas for the Jats and the Patidars, the Kashmiris bitterly asked, but live bullets for us?

A second element in the deepening discontent in Kashmir in 2015-16 was the rash of mob-lynchings in BJP-ruled states such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Since the Modi government came to power, cow vigilantism had been on the rise. Innocent Muslims herding cows, or alleged to have eaten or planning to eat beef, were murdered by Hindu mobs. Videos of these killings circulated on social media, and were watched with horror in the Valley, providing a handle to extremists to argue that since Muslims were manifestly not safe in India, how could Kashmiris believe assurances from New Delhi that they were equal citizens of the republic?

Also read: Legitimising Mob Lynching the Right (Wing) Way

A third element contributing to the alienation was the conduct of the prime minister. In the eyes of several Kashmiris I met, he had done absolutely nothing to honour the promises so fulsomely made on his visits to the Valley soon after taking office. Educated older Kashmiris, themselves keen to reconcile with the Union, were also disappointed by the prime minister’s condescension towards their chief minister. When Mehbooba Mufti went to Delhi seeking help and counsel after the uprising of 2016, Narendra Modi refused to meet her. Nor did he meet senior leaders of his own party (such as Yashwant Sinha) who had successfully reached out to the disaffected leadership within Kashmir.

While Modi stayed absolutely silent during these fresh troubles in Kashmir in 2016, some of his senior party leaders made statements betraying their own contempt for the Kashmiris. Thus, in an interview to the Indian Express, the senior BJP leader Vinay Sahasrabuddhe had this to say about the tragic, ongoing, conflict in Kashmir: ‘Healing touch, dialogue and engagement are all nice terms but how can any government heal wounds, mostly self-inflicted, repeatedly by a section of the people?’

The illegal arrest and detention of Sheikh Abdullah, his replacement by the corrupt and cronyist Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the rigging of successive elections, the whittling down of Article 370, the periodic threats that this Article of the constitution will be removed altogether and the Valley invaded with settlers a la Palestine and Tibet, the overbearing presence of the army over the past two-and-a-half decades, the deaths of innocents in police and army firing, the incidents of rape and torture committed by the Indian paramilitary and army that have gone unpunished –which of these wounds did Mr Sahasrabuddhe think was ‘self-inflicted’?

Only slightly less insensitive than Vinay Sahasrabuddhe’s statement was that made by the BJP-aligned writer and Rajya Sabha MP, Swapan Dasgupta, who said of the repression then underway in Kashmir that ‘harshness is only to facilitate a process of greater love’.

How much more harshness did the Kashmiris have to know and experience before they saw love? The tragic truth was that Kashmiris have only known lesser and greater degrees of harshness from Indian politicians and Indian governments. (The two occasions when they may have – fleetingly – experienced love were when Mahatma Gandhi visited the Valley in 1947, and when Atal Behari Vajpayee visited it in 2003.) In any case, to talk of harshness having to necessarily precede love befit an old-style schoolmaster or colonial official scolding his wards, not a Member of Parliament in the ‘world’s largest democracy’.

Writing in April 2017, the political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta claimed that ‘Kashmir has been lost on Modi’s watch’. This is an exaggeration; as many historians and political scientists have shown the roots of the Kashmir crisis lie deep in the past, and many governments have contributed to its making. The conventional wisdom is that the current crisis has its origins in the insurgency that began in 1989; but, as my quotes from Chandi Prasad Bhatt shows, there was deep discontent in the early 1970s itself. The Modi government is not responsible for losing Kashmir; and indeed all democratically minded Indians must hope that Kashmir is not lost yet. However, my own impression is that the Modi government has done little to stem disaffection in Kashmir, but a fair amount to intensify it.

A protest in Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

Successive Central governments must bear the largest share of the blame for the continuing tragedy in Kashmir. However, the Kashmiris have also contributed to their own problems, in particular by refusing to recognise the sufferings of the Pandits. When I raised the question during my 2015 visit, the people I talked to in Srinagar used the euphemism ‘migration’ to describe the exit from the Valley of the Kashmiri Hindus who had long lived there. The truth, of course, is that they were made to flee, forced into exile. It is now more than twenty-five years since the majority of the Pandits left. Younger Kashmiris have no knowledge of what a truly multi-religious Valley was like. Some older Kashmiris do, and deeply regret the absence of their fellows. But of plans to bring them back or to effect an emotional reconciliation, there were few signs.

Yet the absence of that reconciliation must not stall efforts to more fully reach out to, and respect, the Kashmiris who remain in the Valley. In January 2015, I met a senior Kashmiri editor in a bookshop in New Delhi and promised him I would visit Srinagar before the year was out. When I had dinner with him that August, I said I had redeemed my promise. He wistfully remarked that while this particular Indian had kept his word, the government of India had far too often reneged on promises made to the Kashmiri people. This is sadly true. In doing so little to make Kashmiris feel full and equal citizens of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has followed the lead set by, among others, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

This essay has been extracted from Re-forming India: The Nation Today (edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal, Penguin Viking, 2019)

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World.