You Can Threaten Kashmiris, But You Don't Have the Courage to Look Them in the Eye

While taking a decision, if you keep in the dark those very people whom it is going to impact the most, it cannot by any logic be described as a step aimed at their welfare.

August 5, 2019 was Kashmir’s Rowlatt Act moment. What that date signifies for India one can’t exactly say at this juncture. But if the reactions of politicians and the public at large are any indication, it has divided India into two parts once again.

It may appear somewhat inappropriate to ask this question but ask one must about those rejoicing over the Indian parliament’s move to read down Kashmir’s special status and partition it – is it mere coincidence that those who claim to be celebrating as Indians happen to be Hindus?

At the same time, a considerable section of Indians in this country is unable to muster any enthusiasm to be part of this jingoistic euphoria – a section comprising not just Muslims but Christians, Sikhs, Parsis…  If the people of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram were to hear the approaching steps of the state’s jackboot in this decision, would it be so surprising?

Kashmir’s demand was for greater autonomy. Instead of deliberating over it, the move to straightaway change its status from that of a state to a union territory, under Delhi’s direct control, has inflicted terrible psychological trauma on the people of Kashmir. Apprehension about their reaction to this step is what spurred the Indian government to impose a lockdown in Kashmir and arrest its political leaders. Clearly, a regime takes a step of this kind only when it is not equal to the task of facing the people.

While taking a decision, if you keep in the dark those very people whom it is going to impact the most, it cannot by any logic be described as a step aimed at their welfare. To assume the status of guardianship on the strength of your military might cannot lend your claim any legitimacy whatsoever. This was not the reasoning of Gandhi alone; every votary of freedom thinks thus:

‘You cannot bring me to my knees and profess to be my friend and well-wisher. No one has given you the right to be my occupier; I simply cannot accept such a state of affairs.’

Among those who are against terrorist violence in Kashmir are some who do not subscribe to Gandhi’s ahimsa either. If they think that Khudiram Bose and Chandrashekhar Azad’s method of violent struggle were valid, then they need to pay attention to the fact that every one of those freedom fighters was well aware that they might not win against the British rulers. But the thought that they might not emerge victorious did not prevent them from waging their struggle.

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It is not the assurance of success or even the thought that freedom will open the door to worldly happiness that bequeaths validity to the idea of freedom. The source of the validity of the idea of freedom lies within itself, not outside.

Is the fact that the Kashmiris want to remain free so nonsensical or strange that it is beyond our comprehension? The question is this – why did their aspiration for autonomy seem so natural to those who played a leading role in shaping the contours of our nation? How is it that Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and others considered their demand for self-determination to be valid? Why does their desire seem unjust to us?

To even talk about the idea in India today is a dangerous proposition. The argument goes, ‘How can Kashmiris talk about azadi even as they reside, study and work in India?’ Those who think so conveniently forget that people like Savarkar and Shyamji Krishna Varma were staying in London when they were making plans for armed revolt against British rule in India. Those who angrily ask why Kashmiris take up jobs in the Indian police force or government service forget the number of Indians who worked for British India’s colonial police, army and government establishment. What percentage of the Indian population was actively involved in the freedom struggle, after all? For that reason, was the idea of fighting for India’s freedom wrong?

Moreover, there were many among Britain’s own who were staunch advocates of India’s freedom. It took some courage to be in Britain and protest British rule in India, for it was an unpopular view. But it cannot be denied that it was the only moral and appropriate stand to take. It was difficult for the people of Britain to understand why India should be independent, but did their view make the desire for India’s independence a wrong aspiration?

To the people of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the idea of the Indian nation seems eternal and utterly natural. It did not seem so to the people of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya, and even Punjab and Tamil Nadu at different points of time. Even for the Adivasis spread across the country, the nation seemed an alien notion. And, if one were to recall the Ambedkar-Gandhi debate, it would become clear that it was never an easy task for the Dalits to feel a sense of belonging to the nation. The task was to make the idea of the Indian nation attractive for these different populations, make it seem like home.

Indian security forces personnel patrol a deserted street during restrictions after the government scrapped special status for Kashmir, in Srinagar on August 7, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The history of India in the last 70 years, however, is witness to the fact that the meaning of the Indian nation was never the same for all these different populations, due to which India has been engaged in violent conflict with several of them. If India proved to be stronger, it was less on account of the lofty idea of the Indian nation and more due to the fact that it was backed by the state’s power of violence.

The state’s use of violence is considered legitimate. Those states which act thus more often than not receive the support of the international community, which dissociates itself from the issue on the grounds that the state’s use of violence against its own people is an internal matter. However, the fact that no ‘civilised’ country questions China about its brutal campaign of the Chinafication of the Uighur Muslims does not prove that China is right.

Once the idea of India had a moral force to it, because it held out the promise that every community/group would be able to live in the country with its own chosen identity; no matter how insignificant their numbers, every group’s voice would be heard. That idea was what made India seem more trustworthy than its neighbour, Pakistan. What gave that idea its moral force was not just the aspect of belief in diversity but also the principle of non-discrimination.

That is why many groups who feared that their identity would be destroyed the instant they joined the all-encompassing nation at the time of India’s independence were given assurances that it would not be so. Before them were examples from other parts of the world – it was a time when Stalin was engaged in the Russiafication of Ukraine, and the Palestinians were being driven away, their land taken by Israel.

So what guarantee did those groups have that in the name of having a uniform set of rules, the Indian nation would not impose north-Indian, Hindi-based, ‘upper’-caste Hindu symbols on them? What assurance did they have that the distinct identity of the Adivasi areas of Nagaland, Manipur and the region that is Himachal would not be erased?

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The ambition of Indian nationalism at that time was to be superior to the Western conception of the nation. The question before it was this – would it be able to avoid the pitfalls of being reduced to an entity furthering the self-interests of just one community? It was in response to this question posed by Tagore that the Indian constitution put forth the idea of friendly cooperation between diverse communities and groups, which would start their journey of realising freedom, equality and justice, keeping in step with each other.

Implicit in this resolve was an acknowledgement that there was discrimination, inequality and injustice in Indian society and that friendship was the stated goal. In fact, it would be in the journey undertaken together that this friendship would be forged.

However, as witnessed, the journey has not turned out to be as romantic or uplifting. The story of the Indian nation in many places is stained with blood. How much blood must have been spilt to ensure such a ruddy glow to the idea of this nation!

India’s relationship with Kashmir has to be understood in this context. It was the sole state in India in which the Muslim’s political voice could not be ignored; besides, Kashmir had its distinct cultural identity. Such a situation was not to be found anywhere else in India. There is one sole objective behind the move to partition Kashmir and that is to make its voice ineffective and irrelevant.

The nature of BJP’s politics is such that it cannot tolerate Muslim influence in any part of the country. Witness the way it sought to instil fear in the hearts of Assam’s Hindus by saying that if they did not vote for the BJP (in the 2016 state election) they would have Badruddin Ajmal as their chief minister. During the 2017 Gujarat state election the party communicated to Hindu voters that voting for the Congress meant having Ahmad Patel as the chief minister. Nobody bothered to ask why the prospect of these two becoming chief ministers was a fate devoutly to be missed. Instead of confronting the BJP on this issue, the other parties started saying that all that was part of the BJP’s disinformation campaign.

Home minister Amit Shah in the Lok Sabha during the debate on Article 370 and the reorganisation of J&K. Photo: PTI

Kashmir was the last stumbling block in the BJP’s political agenda – obliterating it was an ideological imperative. The move had nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of making an ‘incomplete’ India whole again. Across the country, the kind of reactions that followed the decision to divide Jammu and Kashmir, have finally succeeded in ensuring the Kashmiri people’s permanent estrangement from India.

The hatred for Kashmir’s Muslims that has marked India’s Hindutva proponents has now bubbled up to the surface of Indian society, visible in all its crudity, toxicity and violence. From all corners of the country, they have made triumphal pronouncements about going to Kashmir and buying a house there, finding new avenues to end their unemployment, and marrying Kashmiri girls. This is what the Kashmiris are enduring. Simultaneously, the old anti-Muslim hatred has found a new opportunity to fan out in all its virulence.

The deputy chief minister of Bihar, no less (he happens to be from the BJP), has unequivocally stated that the parliament’s decision has opened the way for the people of Bihar to look for employment opportunities in Kashmir.  Clearly, this decision was not aimed at helping the people of Kashmir; it was to provide avenues for people from the rest of India to plunder any and every opportunity for their advancement, without the fig leaf of any pretence to the contrary.

The decision to change Kashmir’s special status and divide it is not aimed at giving Kashmiris the same rights as those enjoyed by Indians, but to exert complete control over them as occupiers. Kashmir’s cry for azadi has been legitimised by the Indian parliament’s move and the reactions of the BJP’s followers. There is no space left for those who until yesterday may have supported India. This is precisely what the BJP has accomplished. If the party’s supporters cannot comprehend this, it is not their fault. But what about the other political parties which lent their support to the decision on Article 370 in parliament? That decision has made it clear to the Kashmiris that the bulk of the Indian political class has no sympathy for them. Henceforth, they will not be able to repose any faith in them.

Kashmir’s separation from India is complete, for Kashmir signifies the people of Kashmir. You may have occupied their land, but their hearts and minds are forever alienated from you. Right now you’re the victor, you can threaten them. But you no longer have the courage to look them straight in the eye and talk to them.

Apoorvanand teaches in Delhi University.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.